Alright, let me set the scene:
The poorest congressional district in the country. Cornered off from the rest of the city, there are six ways in, and six ways out. One exit faces the 41st precinct police department, and there’s a mobile police unit every 4 blocks. For any reason, police can easily lock down the whole neighborhood. It’s an open air prison. It’s home.
The symptoms of poverty aren’t new here: multiple liquor stores, drug front bodegas, doors with more locks than keys to open them, but if you don’t know, Hunts Point is where most of the produce for the whole city is stored. The trucks pass our supermarkets and bodegas and go straight to midtown Manhattan. In other words, I got to watch trucks full of fresh fruit and vegetables on my way to Kennedy Fried Chicken. Story of my life.
I grew up with a single mother and two brothers, one older and one younger. My father decided to be with his other family. At least he left early enough for me to not feel a loss. My mother worked as many jobs as she could and finished college, all in the hopes that her hard work could influence three boys more than Hunts Point did. I tried my best to notice.
At birth, my mother awarded me the gift that keeps on giving, and giving: severe eczema.
At birth, my mother awarded me (out of all three of her children) the gift that keeps on giving, and giving, and giving: severe eczema. I had no idea how to ease it, at all. My childhood memories are covered with scabs and palm-fulls of cocoa butter and Nature’s Blessings. I remember all the trial and error I went through: my brothers didn’t have it- my mother didn’t have it as bad. Genetic Anticipation. I remember vividly times I’ve gotten out of the shower and didn’t put the petroleum on fast enough. I had to carefully get back into the shower before my skin cracked and I started to bleed. My mother had to tape socks around my hands before bed to stop me from ripping myself apart in the middle of the night. From first grade to my junior year in high school, I was the kid with the reptile skin. The one redeeming quality I had was that I could rap.
Hip-Hop has been around ever since I can remember. I saw Missy Elliott’s plastic bag jacket from Supa Dupa Fly at my cousin’s house, I saw Biggie and Puff speeding in reverse at my aunt’s house, and for some reason I really really liked Magoo. But Hip-Hop wasn’t in my apartment. My mother listened to Gerald Levert, Whitney Houston, Joe…that type of music. She loved her some Luther Vandross. When he died, you could hear Dance With My Father on repeat from 3 blocks away. I remember one day, my brother brought home the Marshall Mathers LP cassette. That night, I snuck into the living room to listen, and it was a wrap. I was hooked.
I wrote my first rhyme when I was 9 years old. “I’ll take your hat and won’t give it back, cause it’s the Matty Matt.” Gangsta shit. One day, my older brother brought home a cd. I snuck and listened to it. It was him, rapping, and he was good. Really good. I wanted to do that. I started listening to songs and just changing the words to them. For years I rapped about drugs I never sold, guns I never shot, and girls I never even talked to. I rapped about what I heard, not what I knew. I didn’t know anything.
When I was 17, the doctors at Lincoln Hospital found a tumor in my jaw. Non-cancerous, thank God. I missed my High School graduation for the surgery. That began the constant deconstruction and reconstruction of the part of us most synonymous with our identity, my face. Our career is also a big part of our identity, and you can imagine what a bunch of jaw surgeries can do to a someone that raps. If i wrote a Through The Wire for every time my mouth was wired shut, I’d have a concept EP.
I remember the third time I was wired, I was used to it, so I kept working. I booked a Q&A and performance at the University of Michigan on November 11th. I was scheduled to get my wires removed on November 12th. So, of course I asked the doctor to move it up a few days so I could make my performance. And of course he asked what kind of performance. When I said Rap, I can remember the change in his demeanor. He gave me the look of someone who actually cared enough to forbid me. He said, “If you do this, you can forget about rapping, you’ll be lucky if you can even talk again.” The wires stayed on for 2 more weeks.
There was a point in time, after the killings of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland (and many, many more) when I felt alone. Helpless. The police didn’t want me to survive. My friends and family couldn’t help me evolve. Even my own body was betraying me.
The only thing that kept me going was this far-fetched, seemingly unattainable dream.
I wrote this to feel a little more free. To be freed of shame and insecurities. To not have to hide anything or hope some information doesn’t get out (double negatives, I know). I wrote this in the hopes that it makes someone feel like they’re not alone. But also, I wrote this in the hope that I could make my intentions clear.
As an artist, I just want to make the best art I can make possibly make. But what I want to do as an artist pales in comparison to what I’d like to do as a person, a personality, with resources and a voice. I want to shine light on the people out there doing the work. I want to be invited to a Don Lemon or Sean Hannity interview and bring Rebel Diaz. And say, “I don’t know the answer to that one but Rodstarz does. “Or ask Claudia De La Cruz or Rosa Clemente to help explain to Geraldo Rivera that Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic were also part of the African Diaspora (which would make him Black, too). I want these opportunities to make a point and a poignant case, to not be limited to my views or knowledge of a topic. I want my success to be our success.
I grew to be more resilient. Thick-skinned. Reptile skin.
If you can learn anything from my story, it’s this: Eczema doesn’t go away. I still have grueling bouts with it. I’m still awaiting more surgeries. I went to SXSW two days after a facial reconstruction surgery and performed for a packed crowd with a swollen face and a mouth full of blood. Believe me, I didn’t have this magical 180 degree change. But I did, however, realize that trying to hide who I was and what I’ve been through didn’t do me any favors. It’s actually harmful. It significantly slows your growth. I wish I knew this when I was a kid. Most of us are taught at a young age by the images we see in the media, that anything that makes us different is a flaw. It’s amplified a million times in school, and often stays with us through adulthood. I’m simultaneously relieved to be writing this, and scared as fuck. But the benefits significantly outweigh the risk. It’s true that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
I grew to be more resilient. Thick-skinned. Reptile skin.
P.S. I delivered rich people’s food to help pay for this album. OK, that’s the last thing I was ashamed of.
Listen to Kemba’s new album “Negus” here.
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