I've decided to write about the artists that I know. When I say I know, I mean we're friends and have worked closely together. I am not commenting on their place in the hip hop canon nor their music itself, I'll leave that that to the musicologists and journalists. I want to talk about the person.
I met Joey Bada$$ in 2013. We were introduced by my dear friend CJ Fly, 2nd eldest of the Pro Era collective. Joey and I stood face to face, uninterrupted, in the crowded basement of SOBs. I shared some of my managerial experience with him and he drank it all up. He was only 18 but I could tell immediately that he was an old soul who had a probing and analytical mind. After I'd finished talking to him CJ looked at him and said "See? I told you: she's like Yoda!" I'm hoping that was a reference to my wisdom and not my wrinkles.
Joey and I became fast friends and I had the privilege of working with him recently. In that time I learned more about him and only grew to love and respect him more deeply. He is many things in addition to a skilled MC. This young multi-hyphenate counts among his occupations:
- CO-FOUNDER of Pro Era crew
- PRESIDENT of Pro Era Records
- FOUNDER and CREATIVE DIRECTOR of Pro Era merchandise
- ACTOR (watch his stellar turn in "Mr. Robot")
- PUBLIC SPEAKER (lectured at 21 at Harvard and NYU)
- PHILANTHROPIST (he threw a holiday party at the Flatbush Y for his community and in addition to providing food, games, music, and wrapped gifts, also brought in a bunch of unworn gear that he'd been given, many of the pieces collector's items)
- MODEL (featured in the star studded Calvin Klein campaign)
Joey was discovered on YouTube. He had submitted his freestyle video countless times to Hot New Hip Hop only to be declined every time. He then had the brilliant idea to change the title of the video from "15 year old freestyles" to "15 year old freestyles for World Star Hip Hop." And that tipped the scales. He even had people telling him they'd seen his video on HNHH. That was a genius marketing move. He was 15.
When I suggested to Joey that he start lecturing he didn't hesitate to accept the challenge. He was nervous but delivered and wowed the crowd. He didn't take the easy Q&A route. He thought about what he wanted to say and actually wrote the lecture, working on it until the moment he stepped up to the podium. He didn't do it for the money or the glory, rather for the experience of educating and uplifting people his own age.
So that's Joey from the outside. Now let me tell you about what I know of the internal engine that drives him. Joey is a second generation immigrant, his parents hailing from St. Lucia and Jamaica. He was raised in the West Indian part of East Flatbush and rocks his heritage like his locks: with pride. He has a song entitled "Curry Chicken" and wanted to shoot a video of his mother cooking the signature dish for him. When he's with his largely Caribbean crew they will break into patois with ease. For his 21st birthday party it was critical that the DJ knew how to spin the reggae classics that had animated his childhood.
Joey studied acting at Edward R. Murrow High School in Brooklyn but fell into rapping. I am convinced that in the next couple years he will be faced with scheduling conflicts split between his music and acting careers. I worked with and accompanied him on his auditions for "Mr. Robot" and the Netflix film "Barry." He landed both roles but had to decline the latter due to prior commitments. He is a natural. He is as telegenic as anyone I've ever met and his charisma and confidence leap through the screen. He has the requisite humility that an actor needs to subjugate his own identity in order to assume that of another. And trust me, that's not easy for an artist, especially a rapper.
Then there's the brain that is constantly whirring. He is intellectually curious and is always looking to expand his understanding of civics and culture. When I first bought Ta-Nehisi Coates' "Between the World and Me" I would take pictures of certain passages and send them to Joey. He would devour them so I bought him his own copy.
As a thinker and a poet, he is very dedicated to bolstering his vocabulary. When we worked together he engaged me in a challenge. He would periodically send me a list of words that we would study then have to use in conversation. One of the words was "stelliferous." I laughed to myself thinking no one would ever have occasion to speak the word. Then, one day, we were in a meeting and Joey said casually and in flawless context: "Yeah, it was a stelliferous night," slyly leaning back his chair towards me to punctuate the point.
And finally, there's the heart. It's big and embracing and loyal. His profound love of family, friends, and community impassions him and informs his art. In addition to rejoicing in the success of his people, he suffers their losses alongside them. On his latest album he has a song entitled "For My People" in which he says "Who will take a stand and be our hero?"
Simple, Joey: you.