A clever marketing ploy by a local entertainment company has brought Internet fame to a group of Prince George’s and Montgomery County high school rappers who are showcased in an online music video that has reached tens of thousands of people.
Brothers Andrew and Ramone Messam came up with the “high school cypher” series of videos as a way to promote their video production business, Kno-Effort. They took the best young artists they could find and pitted them against one another in a friendly display of verse and rhyme.
There were two rules. One, the aspiring rap artists could not use profanity. And, their lines must send a positive message about their school or their community.
“Every five years, a new generation comes up and the sound changes,” said Andrew Messam. “I am trying to make it change so that positive messages become the trend… the thing to do in order to be cool. ”
The result was a video that has been watched more than 170,000 times on YouTube and the video-aggregating site World Star Hip Hop and was recently featured on local radio station WPGC (95.5 FM). The unexpected exposure has given the Messams a much higher profile for their family-owned music production business, while also making mini-celebrities out of about a dozen amateur rappers in their respective communities.
Added his brother Ramone: “If you want anything to spread quickly, start in the high schools.”
Ryan Wise, a 17-year-old senior at Surrattsville High School in Clinton, is the first artist in the Prince George’s rap — known as a cypher because it unfolds serially, with each artist following the other. His stage name is Deloran (a creatively spelled reference to the time-traveling auto featured in the movie “Back to the Future II”).
“People talk about it a lot. The bus drivers, teachers and people coming up to me on the street to give me some love,” Wise said. “Every time he sees me, my principal calls me ‘rapper boy.’ ”
He and the other young rappers each perform eight verses on the video. The cadences can be quick, the wordplay clever, and the metaphors amusing. For these boys, appearing in a studio production is a major improvement from improvising rap music in the school cafeteria or mixing tracks on Garage Band.
“The purpose is to help them with their careers and exposure,” said Andrew Messam.
Kelle Mendoza of Oxon Hill High School said he has been writing rap songs since middle school, practicing the lines with a friend in secret because he knew his mother disapproved. Scribbling verses onto any piece of paper he could find became a release for his frustration over an absent father, broken promises and struggles in school.
“It’s an urge. When I need to write, I need to write,” the 16-year-old said. “Usually, it is because I am going through something.”
Like most of the young artists, Mendoza said he usually produces his music himself and posts the songs online through SoundCloud or some other digital audio platform for others to hear. Few ever did, however. Until he became involved in the high school cypher project.
“I’ve come to understand that he likes this a lot and he is planning on this being a big thing in his life,” said Kelle’s mother Carla Mendoza. “If he is passionate about it, I would like to see him develop everything more.”
Eleanor Roosevelt High senior Reginald Cudjoe said he never imagined the video of him rapping about Advanced Placement courses would generate attention. He came to live in Maryland as a child, immigrating from Trinidad & Tobago and navigating a system that eventually awarded him a green card. Writing poetry became the logical means for recounting the trials of living in strange new country, in a household headed by a single mother.
William Kent, an 18-year-old junior at Suitland High, was bored and distracted in school as a younger teen. His truancy worsened after his sister was killed in 2012.
“After a while, I realized I wasn’t going to get anywhere if I don’t go to school,” said Kent, better known as “Will Tha Rapper” to his peers. Eventually, “I committed myself to finishing.” And he said as much in his bars of music on the cypher.
“Now I’m back at the class at the hallways. Graduate, can’t wait to see my mom’s face. Front row, all bright with a smile on it — with that diploma with the name of her child on it.”
Kent’s refrain, “I go to Suitland High, I go to Suitland High” resonated as a note of pride among current students and alums, who retweeted the line on social media dozens of times.
The night it published, Kent sent the video link to his mother: “I opened it and I was like, when did this happen?” said Allison Canada. She had always supported her son’s musical ambition but challenged him to compose without using obscene language as he had done in the past. “When I heard the lyrics, I was like wow!,” she said. “He is a very smart boy but sometimes they have to learn the hard way.”
The Messam brothers said they are receiving inquiries every day about producing more “high school cypher” videos and replicating the genre across the country. For now, they have plans to produce a second round of serial raps in Prince George’s and possibly, a film that will look for talent in high school drama clubs.