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Emcees As Entrepreneurs

Above image: Nublvckcity (L to R): VP3 Productions, Mae C., They Call Me Sauce, Kartez Marcel | Photo: Jason Gray

KC artists use hip hop for outreach & activism

With a hip-hop education program, several community initiatives, a band and burgeoning solo careers of their own, Kartez Marcel Addison and Royce Handy — who goes by They Call Me Sauce — are two of the busiest creative minds in Kansas City. During a bustling lunch hour at Gates BBQ, I sat down with them to chat about their endeavors. 

Cultivating Manhood

Marcel was born into a musical family; he grew up hearing about two of his cousins in the industry — Mike Mosley, a producer who worked with the likes of E-40 and Tupac, and Tyrone Yarbrough, who sang in ‘90s R&B group Lo-Key?. This got him interested in creating and producing.

“I remember getting a free demo from FruityLoops and it went from there,” he said. “When I was 15 years old at Ruskin High School, I put a studio in my basement and recorded a lot of the kids at school. I haven’t stopped since.”

Growing up in Kansas City, Kansas, Handy was engrossed with words and storytelling; writers like Wes Craven and Stephen King captivated him. He recounted his excitement for neighborhood visits from the Bookmobile, collecting first-edition prints of the “Goosebumps” series and being dubbed the human jukebox in elementary school.

"Getting into stories and reading about adventures really appealed to me as a pre-teen," he said. “I also knew every song on the radio, but it wasn’t until the Notorious B.I.G.’s ‘Life After Death’ that I wanted to rap. It was storytelling, it was street, it was everything.”

Though both men found their way to music through disparate paths, their ambitions began to converge after similar circumstances. 

Marcel’s older brother, Kevin Addison, was shot to death in 2007 while mediating an argument. Out of this deep loss, Marcel sought to reach others who had experienced hardships, doing so through music entrepreneurship. He established League of Lifestyles, an alliance of artists who supported one another through valuable resources like audio/video production, event planning and artist development.  

“The best way I’ve been able to communicate my story and give some encouragement was through music and using what I was already good at to voice what I believed in,” Marcel said.

In 2012, one of Handy’s childhood friends was the victim of a drive-by shooting that left him in a coma for months. This was Handy’s catalyst for using music to speak out against injustice. He released a song, “Gunshots,” and started a foundation to send money to the families of gun violence victims. This led him to Urban and Black Studies at the University of Missouri–Kansas City and becoming a go-to voice for the community.

"I wanted to find out why there was a difference between the hood and the suburbs, and dig into the history of KC and the nation,” he said. “It became more than just stopping violence, but finding the roots, whether it was through police brutality, domestic violence or racial discrimination.” 

Free To Write

By this time, Marcel and Handy were separately focused on their own efforts as community leaders and artists. But when Damon Daniels at the AdHoc Group Against Crime approached them about ways to curb violence in schools, the two decided to combine their ideas and birth something fresh. Enter We Are R.A.P.

An eight-week program that engages and educates youth through hip-hop, We Are R.A.P. (Real And Positive) was founded in 2017. It gives teens an avenue to express themselves through a medium they’re already well-versed in. The program has resulted in partnerships with initiatives like Teens in Transition, ArtsTech and Ozanam Cornerstones of Care. 

“We try to teach kids the foundations of what they’re talking about — techniques like metaphors, similes, alliteration,” Marcel said. “Sometimes they’re already using them, but we try to identify what they’re doing, and it seems to excite them more about writing.”

Beyond literary techniques, the artists also bring in their knowledge about recording, performing and music theory. But perhaps most importantly, We Are R.A.P. provides a platform for students to share their stories — from everyday struggles at school and home, to issues they see in their neighborhoods and tragedies they’ve endured. 

"We don't want to hear what some other rapper is doing. We want to hear your story and your life, but we want to give you the tools to make it as interesting as possible,” Handy said. 

You Never Seen Anything Like This

All the while, both men have continued nourishing their respective music careers. Within the last two years, Marcel has released two solo albums — his latest, “S.I.M.,” dropped just weeks ago. The title stands for “Shots I made and shots I missed,” he said. “It's about things I did well, things I could've done better and how to embrace all that and make something good out of it.”

As They Call Me Sauce, Handy now has several albums to his credit. 2018’s “#SoulFood4: A Dedication To Black Men” is his most recent, a continuation of his empowering #SoulFood series. Sauce’s carefully crafted lyrical vignettes illuminate disadvantaged voices and issues, with effortless grooves and an uplifting message.

But these two artists tend to find their most significant strides by working together, as evidenced in their hip-hop/soul ensemble Nublvckcity. The act — which has drawn comparisons to The Roots and The Internet — has Handy sharing emcee duties with Marcel, who also plays keys. The band is rounded out by the smooth neo-soul vocals of Mae C. and the jazz-tinged saxophone lines of VP3 Productions

Handy likened the collective to the Power Rangers, as a team of “creative minds with different flavors who come together to make this bigger thing.” They’ve already started gaining traction around the region, with upcoming stops in Oklahoma at the World Culture Music Festival and the 2019 Paseo Arts Festival, plus Boulevardia in Kansas City. This Friday at the Replay Lounge, Nublvckcity wraps the Always Bet On Black tour, which took them as far north as Minneapolis and south to Atlanta.

“Nublvckcity is one of the most promising things we have going on,” Marcel said, noting that the band’s collaborative spirit is one of its most appealing traits. “We don’t even have a song out yet, but people seem to be impressed by our live show and what we bring to the table individually.”

Both Marcel and Handy want to continue working as professional musicians, and Nublvckcity allows them a wider audience exposure. But for them, it’s less about gaining a fanbase and more about elevating those in their orbit, whether that’s a musical peer or a promising young storyteller. That’s a goal that touches every piece of what they put out into the arts scene and give back to the city at large.

“We’ve showed organizations that there are professional artists in the trenches that care about the community and want to pour back into it,” Handy said. “We’re ready to see what comes next.”

Kartez Marcel and Royce “They Call Me Sauce” Handy perform with Nublvckcity this Friday, April 12 at the Replay Lounge in Lawrence, Kansas, for Y God Y’s album release show. More info is available.

—Michelle Bacon is 90.9 The Bridge’s Content and Database Manager. She also plays bass and drums in bands. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter at @michelleobacon.