A few dollars goes a long way at the parade in Liberty City on Martin Luther King Day. At the intersection of NW 62nd Street and 32nd Avenue, torn-off cardboard signs direct traffic to crisp thirsty lawns where you can park for three to seven dollars. For another couple of bones, you can get a brown paper lunch bag seeping with oil and filled with homemade conch fritters and some tart lemonade to wash it down. Families on lawn chairs offer chewing gum, mini sweet-potato pies, and ice-cold beer out of yellowing Styrofoam coolers. Even if you don't have a dollar in your pocket, you still can get an earful of local talent at the 99 Jamz (WEDR-FM 99.1) stage.
Before the showcase begins, a young mother with fluorescent yellow hair and a floral spandex minidress bobs her baby up and down to the raspy howlings of Ja Rule. A young woman torturing herself with tight orange pants in a fat-ass version of Chinese foot binding passes a young man who shouts, "Show me what you working with!" Patches of preteens roller-skate, wearing "Keep the Dream Alive" T-shirts, while a proud black woman eating an ear of roasted corn mocks the recent voting debacle with a shirt that reads, "I think I voted." Near the ice cream truck parked next to the stage, a group of men and women sing "Get Fucked Up" to one another between popsicle licks.
The crowd gathers to share the musical dream of making it big. Their energy invokes the spirit of Harlem's Apollo Theater: When they boo the opening act off the stage, they send a wake-up call to homegrown R&B singer Grizz. The sultry voiced Supa Cindy from the 99 Jamz evening show gives the crestfallen singer some words of encouragement and scolds the audience: "Y'all ain't right." But even she works hard to hold back a chuckle.
3re tha Hardaway did not even have the chance to get booed. As the first dirty words came out of their mouths, the plug on their amplifier was pulled, and they were kicked off the stage. Radio personality Big Lip Bandit, host of the evening show, jumped in front of the retreating group yelling, "No niggaz on the stage." Then he apologized to the audience. During a break offstage, Big Lip later explained, "All the acts were advised beforehand that this was a kids' show, and no profanity was allowed, so the sound guy pulled them right away."
Watching the banishment of these earlier acts, a burly thick-voiced Jamaican named Rawlo gathered his group, the Rawlo Boys, in a huddle to remind them to keep it clean. This could be a big break for the year-old crew from a neighborhood in unincorporated Miami-Dade known as the Darkside. As CEO of House of Fire, the record label that released their debut CD, Rawlo does not want the boys to blow it.
Rawlo has reason for concern. Brought together by his little brother, rapper Lieutenant Lucky, the posse of four men in their late teens sport a style that might not fit everyone's idea of what it means to be "positive." Flashing a smile full of gold teeth with unusual cutouts that look almost like pavé diamonds, the Lieutenant smirks. "Those are my bar codes," he says. "No mark of the beast on my neck." Less apocalyptic but no less profane, the group's main writer and beat maker, Young Pimp (YP), breaks down his name with a smile that shows off twelve gold teeth of his own. "I just be after them," he says of the ladies. Seemingly more sacrilegious, a pendant hanging from the neck of eighteen-year-old rapper Tiny Head appears to be a gold Saint Lazarus religious scene but closer observation reveals a kneeling woman performing oral sex on a man while an amused Jesus figure watches overhead. "It just resembles what I do," says Tiny Head of the racy iconography. "What the ladies do," he continues, "I never thought about giving it back."
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Even Chopper 1, a preacher's son, sees himself as a role model not in the mold of a slain civil-rights leader but of a slain gangsta rapper. "Everything I say really has a message behind it," Chop insists. "It could be bad; it could be good. I would like to get to a level in my life where I can be a role model like Tupac."
For young men brought up in the Southern rap tradition of explicit lyrics and boomin' booty bass, sex, Jesus, rap, and civil rights go together as naturally as conch fritters and lemonade on a sunny day. "He set a path for the rest of the black people of the world," says Tiny Head of the man commemorated by the parade. "Everyone, all races, respect Martin Luther King. So it's best to perform here and show Miami what we can really do. Everyone out here for a good cause."
With each member rhyming in a distinctive style, the Rawlo Boys offer the textural variation of ensemble powerhouses like Wu-Tang Clan. At the same time, they break out of the booty mold by telling stories from a local point of view. The group's CD Slaves to the Game has its share of hardcore edge and rogue nation thuggishness, but it also brings humor and urban romance to the landscape with interludes such as "Ghetto Love." On a conscious track called "Wade in the Water," Chop drops a Negro spiritual behind a recitation of violence against African Americans from Rodney King to Amadou Diallo to James Byrd, the man who was dragged behind a car in Texas. Chopper closes with the reflective line: "That what this about: improvement."
On the 99 Jamz stage, the four rappers fire up "I Got a Dollar," the catchy single written by Young Pimp. Rather than fill the stage with scantily clad hoochie-mamas, the Rawlo Boys bring up dozens of children wearing House of Fire T-shirts who throw matching water bottles and headbands featuring the label's logo into a frenzied audience. A fresh approach to the played-out topic of rappers' deep pockets, "I Got a Dollar" isn't about showing off your bank account but doing something with the opportunity and responsibility money brings. As the contagious chorus sung by the army of children has it: "I got a dollar, now I gotta do do/I got a dollar, now I gotta do do."