Four kids are writing intently, their heads buried in paper. If it weren't a Saturday night and a hip-hop instrumental wasn't drowning out all other sounds, you might think school is in session at the Gregg/Klice Community Center.
The youngest kid in the room is Jayvon, 7, who has just impressed everyone with his freestyling ability, rapping into a microphone several rhyming lines — off the top of his head — about Superman's powers.
This is the kind of environment local hip-hop artist Kartez Marcel had in mind when he set out with friend and fellow artist Sauce to create We Are R.A.P., with the rap part an acronym for "Real and Positive." Once a week at the rec center, kids spent time learning how to compose music: constructing lyrics, making beats, and recording.
Marcel sees music as a way to get kids talking about the issues they face, and the things that are important to them.
"There's a lot of stuff that people struggle with in our communities: depression, mental disorders, thoughts of suicide," he says. "Maybe it's because nobody has been given a chance to tell their stories. We are just trying to create a comfortable environment where youth can come in, express themselves and not be judged by it."
Marcel, who went to Ruskin High School and studied music production at Full Sail University, grew up in a family of musicians. He started pursuing music as a career while he was in his early twenties. At first, Marcel looked up to certain hip-hop artists and emulated their style. But as he grew older, those lighthearted imitations started to sound more and more like what he saw happening in real life.
“Seeing the things that were going on in my city — violence, poverty, a lot of negativity. Then also living in it," he says. "My brother was killed by violence. That inspired me to want to say something about it. Speak out about it.”
He saw others in his community struggling, too.
“Depression, thoughts of suicide, all this stuff that’s happening," he says.
He began to realize his musical skills could be a unique platform for pushing positive change.
"If you got some struggles you need to get off your chest, like my parents would say: Get it off your chest! You got something to say, get it off your chest! And hey, I think that it helps.”
Marcel is also part of a collective of musicians called Higher Art KC. They make music to raise money and awareness for causes, like the local organization Nile Valley Aquaponics, which grows food for the urban core.
While Kartez encourages discussions on real community issues, his first official album, "Over Moons," serves as another of his efforts to balance the scales. It's a stroll through airy soulful beats and danceable melodies moving from the lows to the highs of everyday life.
"When I sat down to make this project, there was a lot going on in the United States. With social issues, people getting killed and harassed, racism," he notes. "I didn't have the desire to be there. I really wanted to be more free."
That quest for freedom incorporated the writing techniques he'd learned at Ruskin High School.
“I took a creative writing class, and at the beginning of each class they made us do something that was called free writing," he remembers. "Free writing was just taking your notebook and your pencil and writing down your thoughts, whatever came out. I started to free write again.”
He also felt free with the album's title, taking liberties with the cliché "over the moon."
"I just decided to take the 'the' out because I thought that was kind of corny," he says. "But I'm over moons — that's where I want to be! I want to be excited about the future!"
Marcel hopes his listeners — and young future rappers — can feel that way too.
Kartez Marcel performs at a show headlined by Duncan Burnett x Riot on Thursday, October 12 at the RecordBar, 1520 Grand Boulevard, Kansas City, Missouri, 64108; 816-753-5207. Other performers are Khrystal, Mae C., and Sauce.
Chad Onianwa is KCUR's arts intern. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.