‘No, I Can’t Lose’: Mississippi Rappers Pass Mic, Change Narrative at Jackson Indie Music Week

At 2022 Jackson Indie Music Week’s rap concert, Akeem Ali and choreographer Javadric Kelly dressed in 1970s style to perform songs as Ali’s rap persona, Keemy Casanova. Photo by William Lindsey / Courtesy of Jackson Indie Music Week

At 2022 Jackson Indie Music Week’s rap concert, Akeem Ali and choreographer Javadric Kelly dressed in 1970s style to perform songs as Ali’s rap persona, Keemy Casanova. Photo by William Lindsey / Courtesy of Jackson Indie Music Week

Vehicles filled every space at Hal and Mal’s parking lot, forcing the surplus of enthused patrons into the Martin’s Downtown lot next door. It was almost 9 p.m. on January 14, and the doors to Jackson Indie Music Week’s “The Culture Rap Concert” had opened an hour earlier. Upon entrance, Black women of a variety of skin complexions and styles of apparel greeted me in the front lobby with warmth and compliments on my big, blue afro.

Bass reverberated through the music venue. After moving past the bar, we made it to the main stage. It was dark, and a good number of people were already seated. Some sat on the rafters against the wall, while others chose tables near the back of the venue. Rapper Navihon was on stage, transitioning from one song to the next.

“I wake up; I’m winning. Get that check I’m spending. Paper like I print it. Rock expensive linen. No, I can’t lose; I’m winning,“ Navihon rapped.

‘How Can You Tour?’

Jackson native Navihon (the h is silent) comes from a musical family. His mother was a pianist and his father was a drummer and guitarist. The opening artist for the Jan. 14 concert began writing music in 1999, and after various features and mixtapes, he scored a big win in 2018 with his single “All the Way,” which gained national recognition.

That same year, the rapper started his own imprint company, Golden Mile Music Group Inc. In October 2021, he released his debut, 13-track album, “Golden,” some of which he performed in his set for Jackson Indie Music Week.

“Winning,” the 10th track off Navihon’s debut album, infectiously got the crowd dancing, offering support of the motivational song and hyping up the rapper.

While other performers brought energy to the stage by dancing or walking back and forth through the space, Navihon maintained a more reserved, laid-back yet still engaging stage presence—standing still with the mic in hand. His conviction and confidence carried through his hand gestures, which emphasized the stories he told through his music. He taps into the emotions woven into his rapping, and that’s what matters most.

Jackson Indie Music Week Founder Brad Franklin spoke highly of Navihon, noting how appreciative the artist was to take the stage at his first Indie Week show. The rapper attended every event to support other artists and be part of the scene, Franklin said.

“It’s difficult to get people to put you on stage around here, if you don’t have the knowledge (on how to do so),” Franklin told the Mississippi Free Press. “One of the things that we try to teach is, how can you put those together for yourself? How can you tour? How do you start getting yourself on stages? What’s the process of talking to promote?”

The local music scene in Jackson has grown exponentially in the seven years since Franklin first presented the idea for the event to a group of people at OffBeat in November 2015, the founder said.

“I like to think selfishly that we have had a hand in helping what I like to call the creative ecosystem to grow in the city,” he said. “It’s gone from artists, producers and creatives kind of just gathering to show their talents … to actually being a viable means for people to support themselves and a viable means for people to monetize what it is that they do.”

Franklin, who was one-half of the rap duo Crooked Lettaz alongside David Banner, has traveled the world and gone to festivals like South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, and A3C Festival in Atlanta, Ga. What he discovered was that the people who created these festivals, the talent and the resources were no different than what already existed in Mississippi.

“Mississippi is the birthplace of America’s music. So why in the hell would we not have a festival that highlights music in the birthplace of America’s music?” Franklin expressed. “It’s this time that we kind of seize that moniker, and we seize that narrative, and we run with it. We should be almost cocky to that effect.”

Mookey Montana’: Lively and Bright

Mookey Montana, who hit the stage right after Navihon, traveled from Dallas, Texas, to perform in his home city following the birth of his child the day before. His energy is just as lively and bright as his ensemble––a multicolored jacket with various patterns, symbols and letters, and joggers. His shades and long locs hide his face, but he commanded the stage, dancing and moving across it to the beat of his songs.

The artist mostly performed unreleased tracks, giving Jackson a nice preview of what he has on the horizon. The songs were catchy, groovy, varying between upbeat and slow-tempo, showcasing his range as he switched flows. Despite the fact that the audience could not sing along to these new tunes, Mookey Montana’s performance nonetheless galvanized the crowd.

“I saw them snakes in the grass had to cut it; I saw them snakes in the grass had to cut it,” Montana rapped to the crowd.

“Snakes,” from his 2019 album “Battlefield,” is a catchy, up-tempo tune where Montana addresses cutting people off who don’t mean him any good. The song’s production and lyrics are relatable, and his liveliness on stage enhances the experience, resonating with the crowd.

“Mookey is really dope. He’s got a really dope style. He moved to Dallas, started doing shows in Dallas, and started putting shows together in Dallas and inviting Jackson artists over,” Franklin said.

Growing up near downtown Jackson, Mookey Montana moved to Atlanta for a time, as the area is a hotbed for many up-and-coming rappers in the South. The oversaturation of artists pushed him to move to Dallas, where he found both love and success, which has in turn garnered a greater level of support from Mississippians entrenched in the indie-music scene.

Mookey’s goals are simple: He wants to be versatile—not just in rap, but in other areas of the industry, like music licensing.

Bigg Josh: ‘He’s Just Really Hungry’

Bigg Josh, one of the few performing artists with whom I was familiar, followed Mookey Montana. Possessing an impressive stature for which he chose his moniker, Bigg Josh caught my attention at rapper Dolla Black’s “4th Quarter Exchange” back in 2019, before masks became required facewear and more than 30 people could occupy a venue at a time without trepidation.

A little over two years later, his aesthetic, musicality and lyricism hit just as well as they did the first time I saw him. Dressed in a hoodie, overalls and cap, Bigg Josh painted a lyrical picture one minute of riding around Jackson, listing off landmarks and popular places around the city that only locals would recognize. In the next moment, he’s hyping the crowd with his bass-hugging song “Mississippi River,” which features a nice build of catchy bars from the emcee before the beat drops, bombarding listeners’ ears with bass, a love language of southern music.

”The river, the river, the river. Since birth, I been a lyrical killer. Got flow like the Mississippi, the Mississippi River,” Josh rapped.

The song, which released as part of his 2021 album “Southern Soul,” immediately yielded head nods and scrunched-up faces due to the combination of the hard-heating production, his flow and his lyrics. Bigg Josh was the first artist of the night to bring other Jackson artists on stage with him, sparking a chain reaction from later talent. Rapper Dono Vegas joined him to perform their song “To Be Honest.”

“I’ve been kind of watching him from afar,” Franklin said. “He’s just really hungry, and he’s attentive. He asks questions, and he wants to learn how to get better. He’s just a really mannerable, polite guy with good manners, and that’s going to take you far, especially dealing with me.”

Best In Going Great—that’s what the acronym “Bigg” in Bigg Josh signifies. The emcee started rapping in middle school at lunch tables and classrooms. Texas rappers like UGK, Big Hawk and Big Mo captured his attention, not only for their flow, but for their size.

“Beginning his journey as an overweight child, he set out to overcome his personal challenges through his music,” his Spotify biography reads. Bigg Josh released his first mixtape, “iGoLive,” in 2013, and he followed that project with “If Only They Knew” in 2019. Two years later, he released his debut, full-length album “Southern Soul” across streaming platforms.

Allie Baby: ‘The Only One’

New Orleans rapper Allie Baby held it down for the female emcees, representing them well with her lyricism and freestyle abilities. Dressed as casually as her male peers, she rocked jeans, a long-sleeve T-shirt and a letterman jacket that she removed later on.

At one point in her set, she really showcased her lyrical talent by rapping over several iconic hip-hop beats. From Mobb Deep’s “Shook Ones Pt. II” to Lil Kim’s “Queen B*tch” to Big Sean’s “Blessed,” Allie Baby didn’t miss a beat, neither staggering nor pausing her flow as the songs continued to switch. The feat may not be new in the rap industry, but the accomplishment is no less amazing, especially in an area of music that casts so much doubt on female emcees regarding whether they write their own music.

She performed her newest single, “Throw It Back,” which is reminiscent of New Orleans bounce music, just slower. Her accent is prevalent when she rhymes, and there’s a raspiness to her voice that’s inviting and sexy, keeping in theme with the song.

“Cause I’m at peace while you wanna parlay. Body oils rub you down, Marven Gaye or Sade. I’m gifted n*gga,” she rapped.

Allie Baby got her start in music with hip-hop groups Black Lyce and G’s Up, which DJ Wild Wayne and rapper Lil Scrappy founded, respectively. Producer and DJ Mannie Fresh recognized her talents and signed her to his record label Chubby Boy Records from 2006 to 2008.

A studio session with producer Drumma Boy in Memphis led to Allie Baby’s breakout single “Yay,” and afterward she signed to her label Drum Squad Records from 2009 to 2014. She appeared in the 2013 film, “Must Be the Music” and she dropped her mixtape “Wifey” in 2015, which charted on the U.K. Hip Hop charts.

She has performed at festivals like SXSW and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Allie Baby’s music has been featured on Tyler Perry’s TV drama “The Have and the Have Nots,” and she has been featured in publications such as Sonic, The New Orleans Advocate and Complex.

“Allie is really dope,” Franklin said. “She’s an experienced artist. She was one of the first females to ever have her own Gangsta Grillz mixtape with DJ Drama, so she’s kind of like a New Orleans legend.”

Franklin works with Allie under his company Hourglass Media Group. She has performed at Jackson Indie Music Week several times and has opened on tour for Dear Silas. One of the things Franklin seems to admire about her most is that she’s a female emcee who doesn’t use sex to sell her talent. He believes the paradigm in the industry shifts every three to five years and that with legends like rapper Mia X in Allie Baby’s corner, Allie Baby will be at the forefront of this new movement.

“I think that there is going to be a time very soon where the tide is going to turn, where people are going to start wanting to hear females who can actually spit and not necessarily have to sell their bodies or do provocative things to get people to listen,” he said.

Mississippi’s ‘Inferiority Complex’

Brad “Kamikaze” Franklin and David Banner were the second hip-hop group from Mississippi to get a major record deal as the rap group, Crooked Lettaz. They signed to Warner Brothers in 1999 and began traveling and performing around the world, the festival founder recounted.

Through their travels, the duo ran into different artists who were independent and making money—great money—without a record label. He and Banner learned the ropes, and the process inspired Franklin to start his own independent media company, Hourglass Media Group, in 2005.

“When I released my records independently from 2003 (to) 2007, I made more money on those albums than any time that I was on a major label at any point,” he said. “It was the thing that helped me to develop a vision.”

When he managed Jackson rapper Dear Silas, Franklin used his teachings to help him get a record deal with Sony, one that would keep him content and comfortable. Franklin said his passion is geared toward proving to people that Mississippi has talent that won’t be denied any longer.

“I think it’s just that inferiority complex that we are saddled with in Mississippi that tells us that we’re not good enough,” he said.

“If you’re not bold enough and proud enough to stick your chest out and talk about what you do, talk about where you’re from and talk about your scene in a positive fashion, … then you really shouldn’t be doing (it). And we talk confidently about this music scene here,” he added.

Jackson Indie Music Week shows people that they can be successful by mining the resources that are already available in Mississippi. The problem has never been a lack of talent, but rather access to information and knowledge in the music business, the founder said.

It’s for this reason that the annual seven-day event not only includes performances from independent artists but also features panels from professionals in the field. “We want to make sure that our artists, who are talented, are equipped with the information to be able to navigate the music industry,” Franklin said.

“I want them to be able to learn about how to navigate the music industry because that’s the only thing that has separated Mississippi from being able to take its rightful place at the top of the entertainment world,” he added. “Every music form outside of classical music or choral music has its beginnings somewhere in the state of Mississippi.”

Coke Bumaye: ‘The People’s Champ’

Performers for Jackson Indie Music Week must submit applications to be chosen, but Brad Franklin and his team book the headliners for different events. This year’s headliners for the hip-hop concert were Jackson rappers Coke Bumaye and Akeem Ali.

Wearing his Orlando Magic Shaquille O’Neal jersey and matching fitted cap, Coke Bumaye might as well have created magic with the control he carried over the crowd that night. He held the microphone close to his mouth, and grasped it tightly so that you could hear every word clearly and concisely. He’s very up close and personal with the receptive crowd, right near the edge. The energy exchanged between him and the audience fueled and hyped both.

“We taking it way, way, way, way, way, way up,” he recited as the crowd sang along with him.

“Waaay Up” comes from his 2020 album “Nobody Owes Me Nothing,” one of many projects under Bumaye’s belt. Coke was a nickname his mother would call him as a child, but one day, while watching an ESPN special with friends, he saw Muhammad Ali running through the streets as the crowd chanted “Bumaye.” He soon adopted the name, recognizing that despite the odds, the people were behind Ali.

Ordinary people inspire Bumaye’s music. He began writing music in 2008, and since then he has released a number of projects, including “If You Love Me Let Me Know” in 2015, “The Red Balloon Project” in 2016 and “Rise Above” in 2018. Bumaye uses music as a vehicle to express himself and reflect what he sees in his environment.

“You can’t say enough about Coke. I mean, you saw the connection that he has with the crowd. There are some people who are stars, but Coke is a superstar,” Franklin said. “And he’s a superstar because not only is the music dope, but his personality is infectious, and people are not just buying into his music. They are buying into him.”

Bumaye used the stage well, moving between both ends of the platform, and his passion was felt through the wild hand gestures he used to emphasize every lyric that entered the mic and broadcast over the crowd. At one point, Bumaye brought a fan onstage who says they got through a breakup by listening to his music.

Even as the DJ hiccupped and prematurely transitioned into the next song, Bumaye kept pace, preventing the vibe from becoming disrupted. When the audience’s cheers began to ebb, the artist called out to the crowd, “Y’all ain’t missed me?”—triggering an energetic response as he restarted the song.

Indeed, the audience must have missed him plenty, going on to ask for an encore after he finished his set.

“When he puts out music, he has a core fan base that is going to get that music,” Franklin remarked. “They’re going to know the words, and they’re going to recite the words to those songs, and they’re going to feel it. … He’s going to be great for years to come, and he’s going to always be a part of Jackson Indie Music Week in some form or fashion.”

‘Keemy Casanova’: Pushing Mississippi Narrative

Last, but definitely not least, was the smooth-talking, pimp-walking, keeps-a-razor-blade-just-in-case Keemy Casanova, better known to most as Mr. Akeem Ali. He’s made some alterations to his look, going from a short afro to waves.

He was almost unrecognizable until he stepped onto the stage and into the spotlight, rocking a tan-colored pantsuit with a white-collared shirt. His hype man and choreographer Javadric Kelly was wearing matching attire. The scene almost felt as if they’d stepped out of the 1970s and into 2022.

It was Akeem’s first live show in Jackson since he moved to Atlanta, Ga. Since going viral with his song and video “Keemy Casanova” in 2020, his newfound stardom has provided a wealth of opportunities for him.

He has performed on “The 85 South Comedy Show” with comedians Karlous Miller, Chico Bean and DC Youngfly. He performed for the 2021 NBA All-Star Weekend. HBO comedy series “Insecure” used his song “50 Lem Hunnits” featuring Jorge Amadeus, and he dropped his second project “D.E.A.D” in 2021.

“He’s a nice, humble guy who’s really talented. I think people understand how talented he is and the fact that he’s from Jackson,” Franklin said. “He’s over there (Atlanta) doing his thing, being around K.R.I.T. and helping to continue to push that Mississippi narrative. People are paying attention.”

Ali started his set off with “The Mack,” a track that feels like something out of a 1970s blaxploitation film, as he rhymes about being a mack, a player, a pimp. And he did this with choreography, shuffling from one side of the stage to the next along with Kelly. He did a few more songs, ending with “Keemy Casanova” before leaving the stage for a wardrobe change.

The artist wrote his first rap to Chris Brown’s “Poppin” at age 11, and by the time he was 15, he had committed to the craft. He put out his first mixtape in 2015, which was similar to Lil Wayne’s “No Ceilings” mixtape, but he took the project down.

He kept studying the genre and began honing his showmanship, paying special attention to notable comedians like Jamie Foxx and the Wayan Brothers. From that time came his persona, Keemy Casanova, the smooth-talking, ’70s blaxploitation-inspired personality that caused him to go viral in 2020.

He returned to stage as Akeem Ali and performed hits from his 2019 project “Rollin,” as well as his latest project “D.E.A.D.” One stand-out track was “Water” featuring T.I. and Franchise. The song has an aquatic, dreamy sound to it and is very melodic, showcasing Ali’s vocal abilities while singing the hook.

“Water … B*tches be high faded; some of them dehydrated; think they need some water,” Akeem sang on the chorus.

Much like Bigg Josh, Ali doesn’t mind sharing the stage with his friends and emcees he respects. During his costume change, rapper Ray Kincaid took the stage to freestyle and entertain the crowd in his absence.

He handed his set over two more times, first to rapper Chizzle Da Great and then to rapper Nahveyah, when he and Ali performed their song “Yellow Tape.” Ali’s set went over the time, as evidenced by the lights going up, Hal and Mal’s staff breaking things down and the dwindling crowd, but his energy never faltered.

Ali ended his set with a quick freestyle acapella, which got an enthusiastic reaction from the crowd and promised that the next time he came home, he would have an even more packed-out crowd.

Franklin’s ‘10-Year Plan’

Despite a new COVID variant, this year’s Jackson Indie Music Week went off safely with no performers or staff testing positive in the weeks thereafter, Franklin said. Planning for the 2023 Jackson Indie Music Week has already begun between him and his eight-member team.

“It’s gotten easier as we’ve gone through it because our team is experienced, and once you’ve done something for quite a while, you become like a well-oiled machine,” Franklin said. “Everybody fills their lane, and then we come together, and we put everything together, kind of like the Avengers.”

Over the years, the festival has made a positive impact on the city’s tourism, Franklin attested, leading more businesses and organizations to sponsor the event each year, including the City of Jackson, Visit Jackson, Visit Mississippi, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Greater Jackson Arts Council, M-Bar Sports Grill and Green Ghost Tacos.

“They started discovering that our creative community and entertainment community are responsible for bringing people into town that are spending money at hotels, spending money at restaurants and spending money at retail stores, and that becomes a big deal,” Franklin said.

When he first conceptualized the idea for Jackson Indie Music Week, he had a 10-year plan in place because he knew that things do not just happen overnight, Franklin said. Austin, Texas, has transformed from a sleepy, college town to the site for SXSW, one of the biggest music festivals in the country, and that’s exactly what Brad Franklin has envisioned for the capital city and Jackson Indie Music Week.

“We’re just on year seven right now, (but) I think we are on schedule, if not even ahead of schedule,” he remarked.

Mississippi is the place that birthed greats like B.B. King, Robert Johnson, Leontyne Price and Jimmie Rodgers, the man often credited with creating country music. Franklin thinks the state needs to work harder to embrace that legacy and tell the world of these feats.

“We’re going to make sure that people have access to the information here and couple that with their talent. In a couple of years, we’ll be having this conversation again,” he said. “They’re going to be talking about Mississippi in the same light that they talk about Atlanta, and they’re going to be talking about Jackson in the same light that they talk about Austin.”

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