Where Hope Meets Hip-Hop
D.C. Artists Will Use Reality-Based Rhymes To Reinforce Martin Luther King Jr.’s Message
By Darragh Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 15, 2007; B01
Chris Bacon is at a table in one of the few sit-down restaurants east of the Anacostia River, the Chesapeake Bagel Bakery, where he once worked and where every payday he would buy a bean pie.
He is telling a story about something that happened a few weeks back to a middle-school student in Southeast Washington.
The boy had been held up at gunpoint for the Christmas money his uncle had given him. The robber wore a mask, and as he took off, he spit on the boy. The kid spit back.
The kid spit back, Bacon repeats, a fact that seems only fair until Bacon points out: The robber wore a mask. The robber knows exactly who this kid is. The kid has no idea who the gunman is. The kid can’t watch his back.
“He just,” Bacon continues, turning his right hand into a gun, “could just get killed.”
Those kids, Bacon says, his Afro erupting from his black visor, “they are dealing with some grown issues.”
There are lots of grown issues where Bacon comes from.
He has turned many into hip-hop lyrics, and this afternoon he brings his music to Washington National Cathedral in a Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration of youth nonviolence.
It is a show of hip-hop as “a tool for positive change,” a message that squares neatly with King’s teachings of fighting for good with uplift and peace.
Bacon, 20, grew up in a violent neighborhood in Southeast. His family was evicted and spent time in shelters. But his mom got him a computer at a thrift shop and paid him $5 for every A he earned in school — and when he graduated from D.C.’s Duke Ellington School of the Arts in 2005, he made the honor roll and, his mom says proudly, got $30. Today the hip-hop artist writes lyrics taking on Section 8 low-income housing and people trudging “to North Capitol Street for their food stamp claim.”
He will share the cathedral stage today with his mentor, fellow District artist Bomani Armah, and the Urban Nation H.I.P.-H.O.P. Choir.
The choir was created by Black Entertainment Television co-founder Sheila Johnson “to counterbalance what we were doing with the TV station,” which became known for featuring sex and gang activity. Johnson, who no longer owns the station, says the music is “not positive” and “just not healthy.”
Which is what Armah hopes to counterbalance, too. He is 28, grew up in Mitchellville and has spent the years since graduating from the University of Maryland working on “positive rap” — a goopy-sounding term that nonetheless is fiercely based in reality.
When he does music programs with students, he mentions that, in the hip-hop world, seven of the top 10 artists will be gangbangers or drug dealers. He’ll ask the kids, “Are seven out of every 10 of the people you know gangbangers or drug dealers?”
No, he says they answer. But when those same kids start making music for him — though they may have just been talking about going to medical school — when they start rapping, it’s: “I’m gonna get a gun, and I’m gonna shoot you.”
As he leans over the mixing board in his recording studio off Georgia Avenue, Armah narrows his eyes. “Why does it have to be that way?”
Bacon has written about D.C. public schools:
We’re turning young minds into fools
In DCPS schools,
By not giving them the funding
They need to improve.
And he has marveled at the luxury of a Chinese restaurant in Silver Spring compared with the bare-bones hostility of a Southeast carry-out. In Silver Spring, “Y’all got carpet on the floor,” he raps. “Our carry-outs don’t have tables and chairs.” Most surprising, though, is when he notices that between him and the people taking his money and making his food, there is no bullet-proof window.
My order came up.
I told ’em, ‘Put it in the bag.’
And I realized I wasn’t talkin’
through the plexiglass.
Bacon grew up in the violent and long-neglected Condon Terrace neighborhood, where he made butterfly nets out of a pillowcase and wire and collected bottle caps, bamboo and snakes. He talks buoyantly of waking up to his neighborhood’s go-go music and springing from bed, hustling to claim an open bucket, trash can or paint can. Usually, though, he would find himself pounding on the fence, clanging it, he says, “like it’s a cowbell.”
He started studying graphic design at Montgomery College, but the financial aid fell through, he says. “I didn’t fill out the paperwork right, or some kind of craziness.” He owes $3,000, he says.
So he’s cobbling together money by teaching kids through the National Organization of Concerned Black Men and the American Poetry Museum. He keeps writing songs and sketching in a book he carries everywhere, and he calls himself a “musician, composer, emcee, spoken-word artist.” He hosts regular open mike shows in the District.
He is, in essence, coloring himself into the D.C. Underground, as this wide stripe of D.C. artistry calls itself — this swath of creativity and composition, this subculture that harks back to the glory days of D.C.’s Harlem and continues to thrive on U Street.
Armah has high hopes for his protege: “I’m an artist,” Armah says. “I’m excited about my stuff. But Chris is the future. He’s a very talented dude.”
Bacon’s mother remembers the first rap song her son ever did, at Hart Middle School, she says. The song mortifies him now, but she keeps the lyrics in the back room of her Southeast home with all of her son’s other awards and mementos.
The song is called “Anything.”
And the hook — the chorus — has something to say about a boy who grew up east of the river, a place that can be, he says, “a sea of despair.” It’s got something to say about a kid whose mother always told him, “Flip the negative into something positive, and make it work for you.”
The hook goes like this:
“I’m Chris Bacon. I can do anything.”