Rapper turns brokenness into strength

When rapper Kashis Keyz was 4 years old, he suddenly found himself in a car with his mother heading from Columbus to his grandma's house in Connecticut. His parents were splitting up.

Just before the separation, young Kashis had been spending a lot of time with his father while his mother worked on her master's degree (both parents studied African-American history at Ohio State). But now his father, whom he called “Baba,” wasn't around anymore.

“I remember asking my mother, ‘Where's Baba? … Why isn't he here? Why doesn't he call?'” Keyz said in a recent interview. “And she'd say, ‘He'll call if he wants to talk to you.' So I took that as: He doesn't call, so he doesn't want to talk to me; he doesn't want to talk to me, he doesn't like me; he doesn't like me, he doesn't love me; he doesn't love me, he hates me; if he hates me, I hate him.”

That wounded anger was in the background of everything Keyz did, especially during the rebellious teen years he spent back in Columbus with his father. Keyz was emotionally broken. But music was a constant positive presence in his life. His father, who moved to the U.S. from Jamaica at age 20, introduced him to reggae artists like Capleton and Bob Marley. His mother loved R&B, and his grandmother played jazz greats like Miles Davis and John Coltrane.

But music seemed like a love, not a career. “From a young age I was told that business would be my calling,” Keyz said. “I was in DECA in high school. I went to school for marketing and business administration. But it just didn't feel right.”

It all came to a head two years ago, when Keyz was fired from the best job he ever had. “I'm meeting with the woman from HR … and I'm just sitting there thinking, ‘Music,'” he said.

It was the kick start he needed to finish his long-in-the-works project, Key of Soul, featuring the track “Broke Crayons.” “One thing remain true: Broke crayons still color,” Keyz raps in the track's hook.

“I definitely feel like a broke crayon, but I'm still out here coloring, man,” said Keyz, who'll perform at the fourth annual 2X2 Hip-Hop Festival on Saturday, July 28.

Over time, Keyz made amends with his father, whose activism has inspired the rapper to be similarly outspoken (“My father was a heavy revolutionary,” he said). On “Broke Crayons,” Kashis Keyz rhymes about a “young black boy in white chalk” shot 16 times by a police officer — “most after he hit the ground.”

“I'm able to reach people and teach people [through music],” Keyz said. “If I would just get on a soapbox and start [talking like] Malcom X, there's not a lot of people who would respond to that, especially in my generation. Now, if I can relay that message over a trap beat? That's something entirely different.”

It's a tactic he intends to use on the upcoming Young and Restless, a six-track release due out in September. But here in Columbus, it's possible you'll see Kashis Keyz before you hear him. His visage is one of the featured paintings in a mural series presented by the Harlem Renaissance campaign “I, Too, Sing America.”

The mural provides a welcome sense of validation for the 26-year-old rapper. “Things of this nature make it feel like this is all for a reason, and that this was the right path to take,” he said. “It's just amazing. My face is on a building.”