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A blazing midsummer sun shines overhead as 35-year-old Ietef Vita rattles off the fruits growing in his backyard—apricots, plums, peaches, apples. On one tree hangs wine-colored globes, tapered like teardrops. “The red pears are just coming in,” he says. This urban orchard is only half of Vita’s idyllic Westminster home garden. In the front yard, a veggie lover’s paradise, bees dart between onion and echinacea flowers.
It’s not easy tending to such diverse flora, but Vita has years of experience coaxing plants to edible maturity: From 2008 to 2016, he was a gardener for Elyria-Swansea-based GrowHaus, a nonprofit education center and farm co-founded by his mother, artist and cultural activist Ashara Ekundayo, to improve the neighborhood’s access to nutritious fare. Even before gardening became his profession, Vita’s family taught him how to adjust for Denver’s intense sun, low rainfall, and relatively poor soil with tricks like dropping banana peels into the dirt to increase potassium content.
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Vita, who grew up in Five Points, credits gardening for helping him keep his life straight—“pushing seeds, not drugs,” he says. And while he’s aware of the intergenerational trauma many Black people experience toward agriculture because of slavery, Vita believes urban gardening can mend the rift while bringing better eating habits to communities plagued by poor health. “The most important part is people having access [to good food] and, at the same time, really healing that post-traumatic stress that is deep in the cellular memory,” Vita says.
Since 2007, Vita has been spreading that word through his other passion—rap music—under the moniker DJ Cavem. He’s considered the father of eco hip-hop, a small but enthusiastic genre that layers hard-hitting beats with lyrics about food justice. His tunes and mission caught the attention of former First Lady Michelle Obama, who invited Vita to perform at the White House in 2015 to help publicize her Let’s Move initiative.
Other high-profile gigs have included a stint as a personal vegan chef for ex-Denver Nugget Wilson Chandler from 2017 to 2018 and making food for a private party hosted by Will and Jada Smith (their son, Jaden Smith, is a friend of Vita’s). Despite living a life increasingly filled with high-profile names, however, Vita’s greatest influence might be through his more intimate, grassroots work with the next generation.
Inside a kitchen in a Curtis Park community center, Vita fills a food processor with cashews, maple syrup, coconut oil, and whole vanilla pods. He’s leading a youth workshop through Denver Urban Gardens, which oversees 190 community gardens, the largest such network in the nation. The 20-some teenagers in attendance watch attentively as he demonstrates how to make a vegan cheesecake, lining two pans with a walnut-date crust, pouring in the cashew filling, and sticking them in the freezer. “When I was a kid, french fries were my vegetable,” he says.
Today, many neighborhoods in northeast Denver—such as Five Points, Globeville, and Elyria-Swansea—remain food deserts with few full-service grocers and a glut of fast-food options. This leads to an increased risk for food insecurity (the sustained inability to access healthy food), a blight that disproportionately impacts low-income communities and people of color: 22.5 percent of urban Black Coloradans and 13.6 percent of urban Hispanic Coloradans suffer from food insecurity, compared to a statewide average of 9.6 percent, according to a 2020 Colorado Health Institute report. Lacking nutritious food is associated with a slew of physical and mental health problems, including high blood pressure, poor oral health, and maternal depression. These effects trickle down to food-insecure children, too, who are at least twice as likely to report “fair or poor” health and a third more likely to have been hospitalized than their peers with plenty of healthy food to eat.
“Who here knows someone with diabetes?” Vita asks. Most of the kids’ hands shoot up. African Americans are 60 percent more likely than non-Hispanic white adults to have the disease, which is also linked to food insecurity, and twice as likely to die from the chronic illness. Vita’s grandmother was one of its victims.
A vegan since the age of 14, Vita remembers having to walk 2.3 miles to LoDo’s Sakura Square to find tofu. In an attempt to ensure future generations wouldn’t have to follow his footsteps, Vita co-founded a GrowHaus initiative called Seed2Seed in 2010. The eight-week summer leadership program teaches high schoolers from north Denver about urban agriculture, healthy eating, and community-based social justice. More than half of the students at the Denver Urban Gardens workshop are in its 2021 cohort.
Vita pulls the cheesecake out of the freezer and starts doling out portions in paper bowls. The teens are quiet at first, seemingly unsure about how the motley combination of fruits and nuts will taste. As they sample the dessert, though, chatter slowly bubbles up. Hesitance turns into interest, then outright excitement. One student calls out to another across the room: “You want to make cheesecake?”
These moments motivate Vita to keep preaching the benefits of plant-based eating—which studies show helps decrease cardiovascular morbidity and manage insulin resistance—particularly to youth. He also wants to impart that food and agriculture can be viable careers. “It takes someone relatable,” says Rob Payo, Denver Urban Gardens’ director of K–12 education and the organizer of Vita’s workshop, “to make more of an impact.”
Illuminated by the pink glow of a salt lamp, Vita’s home studio resounds with beats from his upcoming album, Koncrete Garden, set to be released this spring. One of its singles, “Pull up on the Gate,” came out this past April and highlights his experiences with racism when tending gardens in affluent Denver neighborhoods. References to people calling the police on his landscaping crew flow alongside messages about composting, permaculture, and forgoing pesticides.
The music glamorizes a life of growing and eating plants (“I like my food vegan, avocado toast”), but Vita doesn’t want to stop at giving his listeners a gardening soundtrack; he aims to give them the tools they need to dig in. While preparing to go on tour to promote his 2019 album, Biomimicz, he partnered with Broomfield-based seed company Botanical Interests to produce packets of kale, arugula, and beet seeds. Although the COVID-19 pandemic foiled his plan to distribute them at shows, he still mailed out more than 20,000 of the packets to urban gardening organizations around the country. For Koncrete Garden, he intends to give away even more elaborate promotional materials at his concerts: full kits with sprouting trays, seeding instructions, and recipes for the final products.
Still, Vita’s dreams keep growing. He opened for Wu-Tang Clan this past fall and is already working on his next album. Walking through his front yard garden, however, he takes the time to pause and pluck basil and mint leaves. During the workshop, he talked about how gardening showed him a new side to the foods he ate growing up. “I didn’t know potatoes make the most beautiful white flowers,” Vita said. Those particular plants are not in bloom right now, but they will be soon enough.