Tabi Bonney looked out at the class he taught at Roosevelt High in Northwest four years ago and decided he couldn't take it anymore -- kids slacking off, fighting, cursing, showing not one iota of interest.
So he became a rapper.
"Retirement?!" asked his stupefied mother, who herself retired as an assistant principal in the District.
His parents didn't talk to him for months. Then one night they were driving to the movies, and a rap song called "The Pocket" came on the radio, a catchy tune featuring a voice sounding very much like . . .
"Hey! That's Tabi!" mom exclaimed.
They stopped badgering him.
Unlike most home-grown hip-hop wannabes, Bonney's dreams are coming true.
Washington has launched its share of musical royalty, from the Duke (as in Ellington) to the Godfather of Go Go (as in Chuck Brown). But no local rap artist has found chart-busting fame beyond the Beltway.
Bonney is not a marquee name, far from it. But he has begun to impress local deejays and producers, a crusty, heard-it-all crowd that has endured a litany of D.C.-born rappers flailing at creating an original sound.
"They sound like everybody else -- they sound like a New York rapper or a Memphis rapper," sniffed DJ Tru, a WPFW (89.3 FM) host. "It's too simple, too elementary."
Bonney has a "viable style that will work beyond our borders," DJ Tru said. He's all about positive rap -- happy, funky, bling-less, 'ho-less and gun-less. "He's very relatable to a commercial crowd. He's not going to have entire songs about 'the chain around my neck and if you look at it too long I'm going to shoot you.' "
Bonney released his first album last fall ("A Fly Guy's Theme"), followed by two music videos, one on MTV, the other on VH1. Radio deejays spin his tunes and show up at his promo parties, along with producers, music store owners, publicists and the requisite coterie of young women. A short set can earn him $750 these days, he says, and he got $1,500 for performing one tune at a Sweet 16 party.
There are even glimpses of celebrity moments that befit an up-and-comer. At a club off U Street, a guy from an outfit called HipHopGame.com, chewing gum beneath a cockeyed baseball cap, asked with all the gravity of Ted Koppel: "What's next for Tabi Bonney?"
"Just taking it nationwide," Bonney replied, eyeing the videocam recording his every word, his "What-me-worry?" purr in full-cool.
He corrected himself: "Actually, worldwide."
The traffic on his MySpace Web site suggests a considerable following. "I am feeling your style so heavy!" wrote one of many admirers last week. She threw in a photo.
His fans include at least one of his former Roosevelt students, who finds inspiration in the man he once knew as Mr. Bonney. "It was great to see someone do what they wanted to, and not let life push them around," said Reggie Guinyard, now a bank customer service rep.
Small-framed and soft-spoken, Bonney, 29, has tufts of longish hair, a trim beard and an easy smile. His lyrics are steeped in the language of the District -- "I'm from D.C., I'm from D.C.," he chants. He refers to " 'bamas," a locally born term used to trash the uncool; "Langdon Park, the Northeast D.C. part," where he grew up; and the people he knew who "dropped out of school, drowned in a pool" while he's "floatin' even if I'm in an ocean."
"See me at the top," he sings, "walking with a bop . . . "
Bonney described his upbringing as "sheltered," though he knew his share of troublemakers, including his best friend, who he said was locked up for murder at 16. Bonney focused on his studies at Banneker High School, as ordered by his mother, a District native who retired from Kramer Middle School in Southeast, and his father, a musician who has an insulation business.
"They instilled in me that you need to be successful," Bonney said. "They didn't steer me, but in my mind, it was 'become a doctor or a lawyer.' "
While most of his pals stayed in the neighborhood after high school, Bonney went to Florida A&M University and decided that his ticket to the good life was becoming a . . . dentist.
At the same time, Bonney also found that he had an artistic twitch. In his free time, he designed T-shirts with funky logos. And, with a friend, he wrote rap songs they performed at open-mic nights and parties. Soon Bonney was opening for well-known performers, including the 6,000 fans waiting one night in Tallahassee to see LL Cool J.
Somehow, a life of filling cavities no longer held much appeal.
But Bonney wasn't ready to commit to showbiz. After college, he returned to Washington and worked as a guidance counselor at Ballou High School. He entered a master's program in education and taught science for two years at Roosevelt.
If the conditions at the school weren't sufficiently challenging -- Bunsen burners and test tubes often were in short supply -- his students' lack of interest wore him down. "At a point, I almost felt helpless," Bonney said. "I wanted to teach them that they could be successful in life." But "it felt like they had no hope, and I couldn't change that."
He quit and produced a line of silk-screened T-shirts that he still sells to boutiques. He also turned back to his music, writing songs and performing at clubs.
His parents were appalled. His father, Itadi Bonney, knew firsthand how hard it was to survive as a musician. A well-known guitarist in his homeland, Togo, he wrote songs protesting the despotic rule of former President Gnassingbe Eyadema. After moving here, he learned that the president's allies had vowed to kill him if he returned.
For all that, Itadi Bonney's objections were rooted more in his concern that his son choose a stable career. "We sat him down, we said, 'Tabi, get a job,' " Itadi Bonney said. "He said, 'Daddy, I'm happy.' "
Aren't those the words every parent dreads?
Unlike his father's music, Bonney's is devoid of politics, though in one video a friend flashes a T-shirt that reads: "Keep DC Black." It's a sentiment expressed in gentrifying neighborhoods.
Bonney's parents blanched and told him that he'd offend his audience. He ignored them. It was his manager's idea, he explained with a shrug, lounging as he waited to perform on a Saturday night at the Takoma Theater.
Moments later, Bonney was transformed. He bounded on stage in jeans and a hooded yellow sweatshirt, skipping and shuffling while his band pounded.
Only a few dozen people dotted the sea of empty red seats, but that did not dampen his exuberance.
"Live your dreams," Bonney exhorted his audience, lost in his own.