Off the Beaten Path

Off the Beaten Path

Phillip Rollins forged his own path in Jackson, Mississippi

Words by Maggie Smith

For Phillip Rollins, owner of the combination comic book shop, record store, and arts space known as Offbeat, his interests have always set him apart in a place like Jackson, Mississippi. As a child, Rollins was interested in comic books, superheroes, science fiction, drawing. But he couldn’t find anyone with whom to talk about these interests, or anyone who even shared them.

“It’s not football,” Rollins says with a laugh. “Like, let’s be straight up. We’re in the South. We’re in Mississippi. Football is like the most universal thing. Football and basketball. That’s really it.”

But Rollins has always believed in the transformative power of art when it comes to building community. Rollins has worked as a DJ for seventeen years under the name “DJ Young Venom” and has brought his love of music to whatever project he’s undertaken. Before opening Offbeat, Rollins worked for the ACLU as a Youth Justice Organizer. In this role, Rollins helped Black youth in Jackson understand and know their rights in a variety of ways, including a hip-hop summit he organized that taught students how to peacefully organize, march, and protest, by utilizing elements of hip-hop. After leaving the ACLU, Rollins took a job as social media director with the Initiative 42 campaign, a ballot initiative to fully fund public schools in Mississippi.

It was during this time that Rollins was tapped for the Mississippi Black Leadership Institute (MBLI). MBLI is an invitational institute for emerging leaders from various disciplines across the state of Mississippi. It offers a nine-month curriculum of civic engagement, public policy and governance, state history, and relationship development. Though Rollins had many community organizing credits under his belt when he was invited to the MBLI, he says that many members didn’t seem to understand his skillset. “I was in class with doctors, lawyers, councilmen, aldermen, you know, and then there’s me. And they refer to me as DJ, and I'm like, ‘I'm not DJing—just call me Phillip.’”

At the close of the MBLI, each member was asked to design a proposal for a community improvement project. Rollins’ proposal was an alternative culture store that would also serve as an art gallery where underrepresented artists could showcase and sell their work. Thus, Offbeat was born.

Rollins opened the store entirely with money out of his own pocket, with equipment and furnishings donated by friends and other businesses who wanted to see Offbeat succeed. Today, the store sells records with a focus on Black and local musicians, comic books, designer toys, and even has its own streetwear brand emblazoned with the phrase “On Gawd Ju,” a Jackson-area colloquialism Rollins defines as, “For real for real.” The walls are covered in art from local artists such as Robert Morris, and at the counter is merchandise designed by an up-and-coming graphic designer who goes by the name Grandmaster Hanzo.

In opening Offbeat in May of 2017, Rollins sought to meet a variety of needs. Jackson, which had previously had many record stores, had none at the time. There was one comic book store in the suburbs, but none within Jackson city limits. But Rollins also wanted to create a space that would allow people to pursue their interests without judgment, as he knows firsthand how stifling and intimidating comic shops and record stores can be. He describes being herded toward the hip-hop section when he enters a record store, even though his interests range widely across genres such as rock and punk and jazz. He describes his mother walking into a comic book store and immediately being handed Wonder Woman comics when she really wanted West Coast Avengers. In creating Offbeat, Rollins says he was “trying to break those stigmas and habits of those spaces and combine them all into one space.”

It’s clear that Rollins isn’t interested in trying to steer his customers toward what he thinks they should be watching or listening to, nor is he interested in preserving illusions that in order to appreciate something you have to have access to expensive equipment.

Rollins is here to meet the needs of his customers, to provide them with the comic books and records they want, whatever that may be.

He wants people to interact with art and also the people who are creating it. “I want meet and greets to happen here,” he says. “I want signings to happen here. I want local artists to be able to do listening parties or release parties here.”

Of the future of Offbeat, Rollins is interested in pressing records for local artists, but aside from this, his goals remain essentially the same as when he opened almost five years ago. “What I’m really providing is a space for people that really don’t know where to go to feel comfortable. That’s the purpose.”