Local rapper Keese envisions unity through compassion

Keese will perform with Gritty City Records on Tuesday at The Ante Room. Photo by Amy Jackson Keese will perform with Gritty City Records on Tuesday at The Ante Room. Photo by Amy Jackson

Keese is a quiet guy. While growing up in Charlottesville’s 10th and Page neighborhood, he didn’t say much. But he paid close attention to everyone around him—his friends and family, his neighbors, what was going on in his city schools. English was his favorite subject—he liked to read and he loved to write stories.

When Keese started rapping at age 20, the words came naturally, but he says people were shocked. “Ask anybody—I was so quiet. I was in my shell, but hip-hop really gave me a voice to say what I want to say,” he says.

Keese, now 26, works at the downtown Key Recreation Center, but he raps in nearly all of his spare time. He’s built a following through energetic performances at Rugged Arts Hip-Hop Showcases at the Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar and sets at Magnolia House. His EP, False Hope, dropped in December, and he opens for Milwaukee rapper Milo at the UVA Chapel on Friday.

When Keese hears a beat, he starts to envision a story—a friend’s struggle or something that’s bugging him, then pages through his lyrics for the verse. “I’m inspired all the time,” he says. “I want to take people into my world, let them know what I’ve seen: poverty, bullying, racism—how the world is. The world is a pretty bad place. It could be better, but people don’t want to come together,” he says. Conscious hip-hop, though, can unite people through compassion, sympathy and mutual understanding. This is Keese’s angle.

“Purpose,” on False Hope, takes on what Keese calls “another black hood story” of a kid who’s picked on at school for not having the “freshest shoes.” “His moms can’t afford, she already got two jobs, older brother too concerned with the block, he ain’t even got a pops.” Then his crush asks him to back off and he’s devastated. “He ain’t even really had nobody by his side, no one to call for help. / Fed up with himself, he went home, older brother had a gun on his shelf,” Keese spits. Then the teen, who believes he has no purpose in life, points the gun to his head, closes his eyes and pulls the trigger, only to find the gun unloaded and himself not entirely alone.

“You got a whole lotta living left to do,” goes the hook.

Keese wrote “Purpose” for victims of bullying, as a reflection on a friend’s suicide. As a stellar lyricist, he knows the power of words and how deep they can burrow in the heart.

He doesn’t condone violence, drugs or hateful behavior. He’s “not into that stuff,” but his most popular song is called “Crack.”

“Crack, crack, I got that crack motherfucker,” he starts. “Listen to my flows, put it in your veins. / I’m gonna take you high…give it one try, you’ll never be the same,” he quips, lyrics tumbling out easily over the beat. “One time for the young Trayvons, Mike Browns, pipe down ’cause you ain’t saying nothing. / All these lame-ass rappers scared to tell the truth. / But quick to hit the booth and sell these lies to the youth. / I don’t get it, they spit it but never live it. / My lyrics speak from the soul, paint a picture with my vision.” Then, he declares belief that “we’re gonna be all right” because he’s been playing with you all along—you’ve been caught up in the sick beat, not paying close attention to the words. “I got ’em mad ’cause they thought a nigga start selling crack. / What they didn’t know is that was the plan to reel ’em in. / Now I got your attention, don’t be so offensive. / I still got the highs for your lows, come and hit this.”

“This” is his music, not rocks of cocaine. With its timely references, vivid images, killer rhymes and playful ruse, the song is clever and establishes Keese as a lyrical mastermind.

“Sometimes you have to disguise messages in certain songs to get people to listen,” Keese says, noting that the song warns of the dangers of selling and doing drugs. Opt for music instead, because it’s just as addictive and good for the soul. “Give you one track, you’ll never be the same.”

If a message isn’t something he believes in, he’s not going to put it out there. “I live what I write. I could easily say that ‘Crack’ is about drugs” to maintain a certain image, Keese says. “But I don’t want to be something I’m not. I’m sensitive. Everyone is sensitive; the world is sensitive. If that wasn’t the case, then we wouldn’t react to certain things,” he says.

People are getting his message. At Rugged Arts at the Tea Bazaar back in September, an eager crowd sang the lyrics to “Crack” at the top of their lungs—for Keese, who loves to perform live and feel that energy, the fact that people connect with his music gives him momentum.

“It feels like people are counting on me,” he says. “I want people who come to my shows to be inspired, to feel good about themselves, to want to do something better. I want to put this town in a position where everybody can do what they love.”

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