The rap verses of Saint Francis of Greensboro
Saint Francis, aka Francis Koenig, sits at a table tucked around the end of the counter at Tate Street Coffee House sipping a cappuccino topped with whipped cream on his day off from the United Airlines check-in counter at Piedmont Triad International Airport.
He’s waiting for his moment, this 27-year old Irish-German Catholic rapper who watched an earlier opportunity to break into the music business evaporate. He’s working two jobs right now, as he prepares for his second try.
‘“I do customer service at United Airlines,’” he says. ‘“I’m a ticket agent and a ramp worker: marshal in planes, unload ’em, clean ’em’… I’m trained for outdoor and indoor work. Then I go load mail onto planes for Worldwide Flight Services. I get off at five in the morning. I work about seventy hours a week. It’s making me tired just talking about this.’”
Saint Francis’ aspirations to break into the rap scene and the stumbling of his former band are clearly documented on his demo CD, The Awakening, not to mention other tough life experiences such as cocaine use and a brother’s struggle with Lou Gehrig’s disease.
In the intro to his song ‘“I Don’t Like You,’” he intones in a cartoon voice: ‘“Hello, little boys and girls. Once upon a time in the dark depths of the hard rock world there was band that went by the name of Sex Crimes Against Nature. They were headed to the top, but future plans were foiled by’… SUPER D*CKFACE.’”
The band opened for national acts such as 2 Skinny Js, Nothing Face and Dog Fashion Disco. A secretary at the Winston-Salem live music venue Ziggy’s was managing the band and had set up a national tour. The guitarist, who will remain unnamed because he is the subject of a merciless scorn in ‘“I Don’t Like You,’” threw the plans into disarray, Francis says.
‘“That guy was probably the best guitarist I ever heard in my life,’” he says. ‘“He was only eighteen and very immature. In two months we were going to leave and he told us he couldn’t do it. He knew all along but he was stringing us along. We couldn’t replace him, so we just basically broke up after that.’”
The lyrics to ‘“Burning’” express the insecurity of trying to be taken seriously as a white guy in the rap world, uncertainty about whether he’ll succeed, and the realities of scraping by at a blue collar job to nourish the dream: ‘“Working 70 hours a week, everything I have I earned it/ Show me one thing I don’t deserve and I’ll burn it’… I’m just a middle-class, working-class piece of white trash/ I want to stay underground and not worry about the cash’… If my prayers don’t get answered I’ll try to understand/ If it never, ever happens, it’ll still help me be a man’… Dropped out of school and got a job in the airline industry/ Now I’m trying to save money and record my CD.’”
Francis lives with his friend Ray Kopp, a spot technician who repairs hot tubs, in a house in southeast Greensboro. Kopp is also a former member of Sex Crimes Against Nature.
‘“My friend Ray believes in me a lot,’” Francis says. ‘“He’s my manager.’”
He recorded the seven tracks on his CD with Derrick Bartell, another friend who works at Thomas Built Buses in High Point.
‘“He’s a hustler,’” Francis says. ‘“He gets off at two p.m. and starts working in his studio. Rap’s not his forte, but he makes the beats for me. He grew playing piano in a church. He’s into gospel music mainly.’”
The rap artist plans to press 750 to 1,000 copies of a CD containing about 16 tracks this summer. He’ll sell them for five bucks, put up a website and start looking for opportunities to perform. Then he’ll see what happens next.
Much of Francis’ work ‘— the artist’s namesake is St. Francis of Assisi ‘— is serious, and he says if he ever finds success he’ll give away most of his earnings.
‘“My biggest goal is to send messages with my music,’” he says.
Such is the case with ‘“Crashing Around You.’” Over a terse Fugees-like synthesizer track mimicking tight acoustic guitar figures and orchestral flourishes, he laments: ‘“You don’t want to die, and you don’t want to leave this place, and you don’t want to see that sad look on your mother’s face.’”
‘“I saw some friends going down that road, and I started partaking,’” he says. ‘“[The song]’s kind of letting you know that if you keep doing this your ass is going to die.’”
One track chokes him up. It was hard to write, and he had to stop in the middle of recording because of the emotions it brought to the surface. Of all the tracks he’s played for friends this is the one that gets their attention. It’s called ‘“Hero,’” and it’s about his brother and godfather, Donald, who is dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease.
He raps: ‘“Jesus, please give me a sign, that’s all I need/ He can’t speak or move, he does nothing but see/ I can’t believe, I just can’t believe it/ I wish it would have happened to me/ But it just happened to be a stroke of misfortune in the family.’”
Francis donated the song to the Jim ‘Catfish’ Hunter Chapter of the ALS Foundation in Raleigh to use as an awareness-raising tool. The organization is named after Hunter, a North Carolina-born pitcher for the New York Yankees who died from complications of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in his hometown of Hertford in 1999 at the age of 53.
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, is a degenerative disease that attacks the central nervous system, leaving patients unable to speak or move. There is no known cure for the disease, but the Food and Drug Administration has approved one drug that slows its progress. ALS is more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, after the legendary Yankee first baseman who was diagnosed with it in 1938.
Speeches by both Gehrig and Hunter are sampled on ‘“Hero.’”
‘Catfish’ Hunter’s words seem to encompass both what it takes to pursue a musical dream and to confront a chronic illness.
‘“Winning isn’t everything, but wanting to is,’” he said. ‘“If you want something bad enough you’re going to work for it. And that’s what I’m going to do.’”
To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at firstname.lastname@example.org.