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Behind The Fence

Ogun extends a helping hand, and keeps his other hand on the mic

Rarah

Big Music Issue 2009

Behind The Fence Ogun extends a helping hand, and keeps his other hand on the mic | By Al Shipley

Style and Error Karl Ekdahl finds new sounds by misusing electronic systems | By Michael Byrne

Bigger Than Baltimore The same but different: Baltimore club, Philly party music, and New Jersey's Brick City club | By Brandon Soderberg

Why Knot Wye Oak's Andy Stack and Jenn Wasner talk about the songwriting focus on their new album | By Geoffrey Himes

By Al Shipley | Posted 7/15/2009

Kevin Beasley has been rapping under the name Ogun for nearly a decade, gradually building up his rep as one of the cornerstones of Baltimore hip-hop, one rhyme at a time. Given that over the past year and a half he's released the popular mixtape Checkmate and flooded the market with guest verses, you'd think music would be his sole focus. But four days a week he goes to one of three Maryland correctional facilities as a representative of Goodwill Job Readiness, teaching classes for prisoners who are preparing to return to the outside world.

"I don't use 'Ogun' to do what I do [in the prisons], let me make that clear," he says. "When I approach that, I'm Kevin Beasley, call me Kevin. I'm not here tryin' to promote nothing."

And yet it's always been difficult to separate Kevin, the man, from Ogun, the artist. The tall, 30-ish Baltimore native's gravelly voice booms with conviction as much in a relaxed conversation at Architects Recording Studio, where he works and records, as when he's rapping. With his deft ability to get his point across and communicate his ideas, it's easy to imagine that even if he'd never caught the music bug, he'd probably still be some kind of orator today. "Nothing feels better than when I'm onstage," he says. "So when I'm teachin' I'm almost onstage, but it's like in that same vein."

Community activism has long been a part of both Beasley's personal life and his music career; one of his first high-profile projects was "Dedication," a tribute song for his friend Andrea Dawson and her family, who were killed in an arson attack in 2002. And when he was young, he was mentored in the Rites of Passage program which helped inspire the name of his record label, ROP which, stands for Real On Purpose in his version.

"I was in this manhood program, for inner-city troubled youth," he explains. "That's what got me on doing mentorships, I used to mentor at all types of high schools, middle schools, things of that nature."

From there, it was only a natural progression to meeting the right people to get his contract with Goodwill Job Readiness and go behind the prison fences. Instead of just teaching young people about their potential, now he's going to one of the most neglected corners of society and telling people who've been written off by the straight world that they can still go back and live an honest life.

Andrew Stritch, a transition coordinator at Metropolitan Transition Center and a 40-year veteran of Maryland correctional facilities, works with dozens of others who conduct classes and programs for inmates, and has been impressed by Beasley's dedication. "I find him to be good-hearted and empathetic to inmates," Stritch says. "His efforts go beyond the requirements of the job, because he shows genuine concern."

One of Beasley's favorite teaching devices is a theme he calls "French Fries Ain't Vegetables," a metaphor he uses to explain to prisoners how short-sightedness, or a lack of imagination, can lead them down the wrong path when there are other alternatives. "It sounds funny, but you're gonna remember it, right?" he says. "The basic concept is [that] a lot of people's mindsets are so limited that we get caught up in the misconceptions of things. Scratchin' the surface level of that would be somebody from the hood really thinks french fries are vegetables. So you take 'em to the best restaurant ever, I'ma buy you a steak, what's the side order? 'Lemme get fries with that,' because that's their mindset.

"Say if somebody comes in and they're just so against [my ideas], they're not backin' down, they know that's how they feel," he continues. "And I say, 'All I'm sayin' is, french fries ain't vegetables.' And that's been my punchline since I started, where now I can just say it, now it's funny to them."

Beasley's happy with the success rate of his program so far, and the fact that it's high in demand enough that he can pick good candidates for the class, allowing him to focus on people who are not only ready for positive change in their life, but actively want it. "We average maybe 160 people who wanna get in my class at one particular jail, and we only can choose 25 people [per month]," he says. Still there are times when he can't quite get through. "Certain people, you can see when they get it--certain people, you can see when they scared. One guy actually was truthful enough to say, 'I hear what you're sayin', man, but when I get home I'm gettin' high.'"

Cases like that seem to be exceptions, however. Kevin Watson, 41, was released from MTC in February, after taking the class late last year, where Beasley held mock interviews to help prisoners prepare to re-enter the job market. "Kevin could point out my weaknesses," says Watson, who currently works at a Goodwill warehouse. "He basically told me I need to be more aggressive and show more desire for the job."

Sedrena Finley is a graduate of Beasley's class from the Maryland Correctional Institute for Women. She was released just last month and credits Beasley with his follow through once the course ended. "It's not that he just comes into prison and acts like he wants to help," says Finley, 37. "Once you're out, he's still there checking on you. He's consistent. He doesn't let up."

Beasley has designs on bigger and better things, both inside and outside the job-readiness program. He hopes that prisoners who take his class will be able to shave days off their sentences, and he's hoping for approval at some point to bring other Baltimore hip-hop artists into the prison for special performances. In the course of his community work over the years, he's done speaking engagements at schools, churches, and mosques, and he hopes to forge a side career as a public speaker.

For the time being, however, music is still Beasley's focus. And already, his experiences with prisoners have begun to inform that music. His latest mixtape, Checkmate, features songs such as "Night of Living Dead," where he mourns the "zombies walkin' round, spirits low, movin' in slow motion" he sees in prison that are beyond his help. And even as he works with the Department of Corrections, he can't help but vent about his less-than-stellar history with the Baltimore police on "Flashy Lights."

Ogun's second official album, Real on Purpose, was released four years ago, but since then he's released two solo mixtapes, several collaborative projects, and has guested on dozens of records by other rappers. Checkmate is only six months old, but he's already several songs into recording his next solo project, with beats from producers including DJ Excel and Skarr Akbar. "I know I got eight joints, and I would say four of 'em ain't on no 'typical Ogun,'" sound, he says, hinting at new musical directions in a career that's already covered an exhaustive number of lyrical topics.

Right now, though, he's spreading his energy around to a variety of projects with Architects Recording Studio aimed at uniting Baltimore hip-hop artists. One of them is the Gritty Gang, a loose affiliation of MCs that he assembled, which will release its second album this summer. Gritty Gang includes both established acts, such as Skarr Akbar and the Get 'Em Mamis, and lesser known rappers, such as Kuan and Talal. "The Gritty Gang was me sayin', 'You know what? I'm gonna chill one second, I'ma see what y'all can do. I'ma open my doors, my sessions, my resources, lemme see what you got,'" Beasley says. "And it ain't on no mainstream appeal, but as far as raw hip-hop, it's [about] the epiphany of throwin' on a beat, writin' verses."

The two other big projects getting started at Architects are a new run of Street Radio compilation mixtapes of the latest local singles and leaks, which will now be monthly, and a web site, allbmorehiphop.com, which recently launched and includes free downloads of dozens of local rap mixtapes and singles. Mainstream success has always been scarce enough in Baltimore hip-hop that those who get a taste of it frequently end up the object of back-biting and jealousy. But Ogun leads by example, supporting others and sharing every opportunity he gets. "That's been my thing, as far as tryin' to be involved with more stuff that's bigger than me," he says. "I try to look at the bigger picture out of my circumference and try to solidify that.

"Think about DJ Class, Blaqstarr, Rye Rye, Bossman, think about Smash," he says, proudly listing off just a few of the local hip-hop and club-music artists that have racked up radio spins and buzz outside Baltimore in the past year. "The noise our city is makin' right now is at an all-time high.

"A lot of rappers aren't comfortable in their skin because all they do is rap, and they're not seein' no effects, like no one from our city has seen any major money from rappin'," he says. "I don't care about gettin' signed. People from our city have gotten signed and can't get the feedback I get. My main thing is that there's somebody 19 [years old] here right now that's probably gonna be a real star. So what I realize is, I am who I am, I'm here now. Whatever I did, I'm comfortable with that."

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