Family, friends, admirers of Chicago DJ P-Lee Fresh gather for first scholarship recognition

By Olivia Cohen, Managing Editor

Elias Gonzalez

One of the biggest forces in Alexis Williams’ life was her older brother.

She wanted to be just like him — replicating who he was and what he did with his life. Williams said he introduced her to everything he did.

Williams’ brother, Chicago hip-hop pioneer and Columbia alum Parker Lee Williams, died on Dec. 8, 2021, of a heart attack, leaving a hole in the city’s music and art scene, and an even bigger hole in the lives of those who loved him.

“Every step of what he did, I was a part of it,” Williams said about her brother, who went by the stage name “DJ P-Lee Fresh.”

Williams said her brother, who was 15 years older than her, inspired her to attend Columbia in pursuit of a degree in television post-production, which she earned in 2005.

One year after his death, Williams came back to Chicago from New York — where she is from and currently lives — to attend the “Fresh Connect” event, which honored Parker Williams by establishing and awarding a scholarship at the college in his memory.

The event was held on Dec. 9 at the 1104 S. Wabash Ave. building to celebrate and support the hip-hop community at Columbia, in Chicago and beyond.

Parker Williams’s mother, Flora Koppel, was also in attendance and called it “bittersweet.”

Koppel has chronicled her grief in poetry, a medium she has practiced since she was 8 years old, and even gained some of her poetic training from Columbia, where she took a handful of classes.

“I’ve always written poetry, and back some years ago I wrote some poetry about Parker’s birth and about how I picked his name and different poems about that,” Koppel said.

Koppel said she took a hiatus from writing poetry for awhile but fell back into it after the murder of George Floyd.

“With all the things about racism and everything, I think I just wanted to give the perspective of being a mother of a biracial child, which was called ‘I’ve Never Been Black,’ because it happened,” Koppel said. “But I’ve had to learn a lot of things, like bailing him out of jail … just because he was young and male and Black and dealing with racism.”

Utilizing her writing, Koppel said her son made a record with some of her poems featured on it — some tracks even feature her singing.

“He always tried to give me that chance by putting records on his label that included me, which was really sweet and wonderful,” Koppel said. “So I have always shared [my] poetry with him.”

Since his passing, Koppel has written eight to 10 poems about him — one of them about how she was scared of dying but is now scared of living.

The scholarship is not the only way Columbia remembers Parker Williams. The college honors the late DJ through its annual “ManiFresh” event, which is held at the end-of-year celebration, Manifest, as reported by the Chronicle.

Outside the walls of Columbia, Parker Williams is remembered through his work on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” where he worked after obtaining his degree from Columbia in 1990. He was also the founder of the X-Men, a graffiti crew in Chicago.

Avery Forrestall is the first-ever recipient of the scholarship honoring Parker Williams.

“It’s really just exemplifying everything that really [DJ] Fresh was, which is somebody who exemplified excellence in hip-hop,” Forrestall said. “So to be the first person to receive this right now is just super humbling. This scholarship is just super helpful to me as an artist, as a student and as somebody [who is] a part of the hip-hop community.”

Forrestall, who is a junior interdisciplinary arts major, is a two-time leukemia survivor, as he was diagnosed initially at 5 years old and then beat it at age 12. Forrestall said he spent “a lot of his childhood in the hospital,” as his diagnosis totaled about eight years.

“My physical state was very deteriorated at times; my social life was a lot different than most kids. There wasn’t a lot around me that I could control, but something that I could control was, first, my outlook, my perspective on my situation, and second, was the art that I consumed. And that’s when I found hip-hop,” Forrestall said. “I think that the hip-hop culture as a whole is — what it personifies, really — is people who make the best out of the pain in their lives.”

Forrestall said oftentimes artists in hip-hop have gone through challenging moments in life and can turn them into “beautiful expressions” that lift people up around them. So he turned to them for inspiration.

“That’s really what I took from hip-hop and coming up in the hospital environment that I was in, and in just the life period that I was kind of growing through,” Forrestall said. “These people were my superheroes; these were people who [were] making the best of their situations and who were providing me hope. So now as an artist myself, I can only hope to have that impact on other people.”