Luke Taleno's eyes, streaked with sapphire and magenta, were something out of a nightmare. The 14-year-old looked possessed, felt worse, and couldn't escape the barrage of chemotherapy. He was dying, and he knew it.
On May 29, 2011, Taleno was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a fast-developing disease in which the white blood cells are cancerous. The Hialeah youth spent months in and out of hospitals, enduring some of the most radical and destructive cancer treatments.
But our lowest points have a strange way of launching sudden success. In early 2012, Taleno, who's always been enamored of music, met his idol, Pitbull, when the musician was visiting some of Miami-Dade's sickest youngsters. The brief handshake filled Taleno, whose real name is Luis Rojas, with ideas. "When I saw him, I knew I wanted to be like that too," says Taleno, now age 15. "I wanted to express myself through music."
Around that time, the Make-A-Wish Foundation -- which recently persuaded the entire city of San Francisco to reenact an elaborate Batman scenario starring a sick 5-year-old cancer patient called "Bat Kid" -- came into the picture. The foundation presented Taleno with several options: meet someone famous, go to Hawaii, or make music. He chose the last.
Ten thousand dollars later, a studio rose inside Taleno's cluttered two-bedroom apartment in East Hialeah. Immediately, he began mixing, and something remarkable happened. He had genuine talent. With Eminem's intensity and Nas's flow, Taleno began releasing mixtapes infused with haunting lyrics about what it means to have leukemia.
"Chemo got me ugly, you'd think I was a monster," he raps in his song "Day of the Dead." "I'm sure there is a cure, but no really cares of it/These doctors try to find me just to give me poison."
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Now he's releasing highly produced rap videos that show him either draped in a hospital gown or running through the woods as a zombie, which he says symbolizes how chemotherapy has made him feel. His first major release was "Am I a Psycho," followed by "Day of the Dead."
Slowly, Taleno has beaten down the disease. He has returned to school. "It took a while," the blond boy says after a day at Hialeah High last week. "But in a way, this whole cancer thing has helped me. I can express myself through music more than I can through talking. A lot of my songs aren't so nice. But in reality, neither is cancer."