Greensboro-based rapper takes hip-hop across borders and into classrooms
Greensboro-based rapper Joshua “Rowdy” Rowsey is pretty confident that hip-hop can change the world. Rowsey, who records and performs under the name Rowdy, has been using hip-hop as a community-organizing tool, an instrument of individual empowerment and education for years.
Rowdy just released his latest EP, Black Royalty, which is the second part of a projected four-part series. The first installment, The Return of Black Royalty, came out in 2017. That album touched on the history of thriving black middle classes, entrepreneurs, real estate disenfranchisement, the sometimes underhanded forces of urban development, gentrification, and the ways that black power can be undermined and eroded in a society dominated by racism.
When we spoke by phone last week, Rowsey said he was moved to make that first album in part because of his experiences in his hometown of Durham, where a healthy black business district got displaced by development.
“You’ll see areas in which people of color thrived in — they’re getting pushed back,” he said.
If the subtexts seem a little academic, it might have something to do with the fact that Rowsey just completed a master’s program in teaching at UNCG, and he’s deep into the world of hip-hop pedagogy, exploring ways that music and culture can be used to educate young people.
“For me, I definitely see the academic part and the artistry — they’ve been feeding off of each other,” he said. “Teachers make the best MCs. The way you control a 24-person classroom is very similar to how you control a 1000-person crowd on a hip-hop stage.”
Rowsey, 28, has also been working with students in Cherokee, North Carolina, members of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians, in a program that uses hip-hop as a means of preserving and invigorating the Cherokee language.
“What I have seen is the students being able to identify with telling their truth and telling it in the most raw form,” Rowsey said. “If you have a story and if you have a truth, then you are hip-hop.”
Some of the core values of hip-hop are confidence, poise and self-possession. Those same assets may come across simply as braggadocio to those who fail to perceive hip-hop as a system and aesthetic for individuals and groups who don’t necessarily have access to the traditional levers of power, giving them the means to defiantly assert their place in the world.
As Rowdy raps on the title track off the new EP: “I teach the next generation the complications of the patriarchy.”
If the last record was about the mundane affairs of business and commerce, Black Royalty is about the concept of the kingdom, of divine rights, of benevolent leadership, of civic duty, virtue and honor. The cover features a black-and-white picture of Rowdy with a bullhorn. It evokes classic images of the Civil Rights era of the rich African-American legacy of struggle, activism, and advocacy for justice and for the push to get America to live up to its professed foundational ideals of liberty, equality and opportunity.
Rowdy doesn’t locate these challenges as things that exist in the past. Instead, his lyrics suggest that people need to continue to push and agitate to make changes in the world now. In the language of 21st-century tech optimists, he’s encouraging a kind of individual creative disruption.
“Gotta make my own waves in my own way,” he raps on “Wave(s).”
The future installments of the planned four-part series will delve into wizardry and divinity.
Rowdy’s music is totally 21st century — there are bits of AutoTune’s pitch-warping effects on “Execution,” the first track off of Black Royalty, and the minor-key piano and string figures of the backing music demonstrate a familiarity with the standard sounds of hip-hop from the last 10 years or so. But the beats sometimes kick into heavy retro boom-bap mode, and Rowdy’s flow has an assertive rhythmic phrasing and density to it, pointing to a connection to the genre’s high-syllable-count golden era of the 1990s.
No matter how it’s delivered, Rowsey/Rowdy has faith in hip-hop’s ability to travel across borders and to allow those who are often ignored to be heard. He’s served as a hip-hop ambassador for the U.S. State Department, traveling to Mexico City to work with Mexican rappers and youth.
“[We were] focused on diplomacy, entrepreneurship, history and education through hip-hop,” said Rowsey of his State Department work. Closer to home, he’s helped coordinate programming at Blackspace, Durham’s Afrofuturist teen center/digital maker space. And he’s led or helped organize cyphers, open-mic performance nights, and spoken word events throughout the Triangle and the Triad.
His travels have given him a chance to take the pulse of hip-hop from outside the U.S., as well as the energy of the music across the state, and Rowsey thinks that North Carolina might be in line for overdue attention from listeners and taste-makers outside of the region. The vastness of the state and the fact that there are multiple cities that each have their own character and scenes make it more difficult for a uniform North Carolina sound to be distilled and mass-produced for outside listeners. But that doesn’t change the fact the Rowsey notices people viewing the state as a place to come to make music.
“One thing I’m seeing for sure,” Rowsey said, “is that North Carolina is becoming an area that people are gravitating to.”
Rowdy’s Black Royalty was just released last month and is available on streaming platforms. Look for Black Alchemy, the third installment of his project, in the coming weeks.
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.