Kelow / Photos by Keem Griffey
Kelow welcomes me at the door of her friend’s house with a smile, her long, blonde-tipped dreads flowing down over a pinstriped baseball jersey. The house is in northwest DC’s lively, beautiful, expensive-as-fuck Adams Morgan neighborhood, where you can find organic late-night markets and crosswalks that drivers actually honor, and it’s the kind of artistic haven that makes such neighborhoods so appealing in the first place. The people living here were among the activists who helped design campaign materials for the District’s successful marijuana legalization initiative. Kelow herself is a rapper whose infectious track “Finna” has become such a fixture in my daily listening rotation that it inspired me to make the drive down from Baltimore to meet her. We head inside to Kelow’s friend’s room, where she sits and begins to finish an impressive sketch of her newborn baby nephew. I can tell she’s excited to finish it and show it off to everyone in the room. Her friend rolls up a few Raw paper joints and we pass them around, looking over the fliers and brochures from the legalization campaign. At one point, Kelow backs out of the conversation with a smirk on her face, reaches in a plastic bag, and whips out three packs of Mamba candies, passing them around after noticing how dry everyone’s mouth is from smoke. Then we talk about music.
Growing up in the Forestville section of Prince George’s County, Maryland, a.k.a P.G County, a.k.a Pretty Girl County (a suburb of DC), 22-year-old Kiara Brown had her rap dreams partially sparked by watching hometown rappers on a local TV station. “We had this channel here on basic cable. Channel 60 or 80 or something when I was little,” she says. “Nobody was that good. It was some ghetto shit, but it definitely had an impression on me.” The joy she felt watching rappers and trying out the craft for herself wasn’t always met with the acceptance that she receives now, though. Being a girl who was into rap and sports led to feeling alone throughout her childhood: “I was never a girly girl,” she says. “I was a tomboy, so I was isolated from a lot of people because I didn’t really fit in with anybody. Other children didn’t accept me, and adults would act the same too.”
Trying to fit in, Brown tried dressing in a more feminine manner once she got to middle school, hoping that it would finally land her the acceptance she desired. It didn’t. Instead, it taught her a lesson of self-acceptance and helped her begin developing into the artist she is now early in high school. She became a regular at two places in particular: Everlasting Life Restaurant & Lounge in the Capitol Heights section of P.G and Spit Dat, a decade-plus running weekly open mic in The District.
“I was about 15 or 16 when my first performances started coming in at Everlasting Life and Spit Dat,” she remembers, her eyes lighting up as she shares the story. “One time we had 9th Wonder come through at Spit Dat because we tweeted him like a million times when we found out he was in town. He vibed with it so much that he came the next week, too.” Yet even with the exposure she started to gain through her music on the local scene, it wasn’t until Kelow graduated high school that she actually started taking rap seriously, as a craft; her music reflected most of what she listened to at the time: fucking around, getting high and pulling up, taking other people’s “bitches” at the function.
In the summer of 2012, a few of Kelow’s loose tracks found their way to Swedish blogs, making it possible for her management team at the time to set up a trip to perform in Sweden that summer. The trip was immediately following the death of a close friend, having her car broken into, and being arrested for marijuana possession. It contributed to an awakening.
“After I performed out there I thought to myself ‘I got all this other dumb ass shit going on back home. I must be doing something right,’” she says. “All I ever dreamed of was going anywhere and being accepted. They were reciting my lyrics and couldn’t even speak my language or in my accent. It was powerful.” That trip and a few words from her father were the final spark she needed. “You got all these kids telling you they fuck with your shit, but what the fuck you saying?” he asked her. She took it to heart, looking to absorb rap with more in-depth perspectives and concepts. That transformation is touched on in her winding, hard-hitting single “Finna,” where she says, “Cut all these bitches off, then I got in touch with God / Cooling with nothing but them goddesses and gods.”
“I used to move ignorantly with my words, thinking, and actions, and I still have a lack of knowledge with all three, but I’m confronting it instead of consuming and protecting it,” she says now. “Ain’t no one calling me, my family, or friends a bitch, so I shouldn’t claim any of my company to be one, either. Neither should I claim myself or anyone near me as a nigga.” That ongoing encouragement of mental growth is the overarching theme of Kelow’s Amethyst Stoner, a seven-song project named after her birthstone that she dropped late last month. In preparation for Amethyst, Kelow listened to a host of club music mixes, jazz, and go-go in hopes of capturing how flawlessly each genre transitions from one mood to the next in one song.
The project is bookmarked with her reading off some of the amethyst stone’s benefits (has the power to cleanse from drugs, enhances memory, encourages selflessness, etc) and the opener, “Oh My My” is Kelow’s motivational incantation to self, ensuring “looking inside, I know that I hold the power of the most high baby. You should know that there is something G in me baby.” In “Pain Stains/Highlights” she raps, “I’m thinking ‘bout investing in myself / ‘cause looking at the war outside, I done seen that my people needing help.” On “Baddabing” she asks, “What the fuck is you choosing?” and answers herself, “Nothing but the truth.”
With rap, as listeners, we tend to only accept music that confronts police brutality, poverty, and white supremacy as truly conscious and change-provoking, but providing knowledge of these societal ills isn’t the only form of activism. In ways, Amethyst Stoner is equally radical: a black woman advocating self-healing, truth-seeking, and a shift in mentality is vital and arguably one of the more practical places to begin being a leader of others. It certainly has already shown that it has appeal, both to me and the tens of thousands of other listeners who have stumbled across her Soundcloud. Kelow’s main goal is reaching as many as possible with her message. As we sit and finish those three packs of Mambas, she says “I wanna be to the point that old folks can listen to this shit. Well, anybody. That’s the goal.”
Lawrence Burney is a writer living in Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.
Keem Griffey is a photographer living in Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.