Rapper finally ready to answer the question: 'What else you got?'
Kashis Keyz is keenly perceptive of his weaknesses — an awareness he traces to the first time he rapped for someone in the music industry at age 14.
“He was like, ‘Show me what you got,’” at which point Keyz, 27, emptied himself of material, rapping all 15 songs he had written. “When I was done, he threw on a beat and was like, ‘OK, now what else you got?’”
The answer, which still mortifies Keyz, was nothing.
Keyz entered into music foremost as a writer. But over time he’s worked to sharpen his abilities as a freestyler — a skillset that proves handy particularly when he performs more-improvised live sets with his backing band, the Seedz, which will be supporting him during Bands to Watch at Ace of Cups on Saturday, Jan. 26.
Growing up, Keyz gravitated toward hip-hop largely due to the influence of his uncle, who worked as a road manager for Snoop Dogg and would regularly turn up for family gatherings toting gifts like CDs filled with unreleased Jay-Z verses, in addition to flaunting his own spoils.
“One time he pulled up in this yellow Hummer with a Bud Light wrap around it, like, ‘I’m doing this thing with Bud Light so they gave me the car,’” Keyz said. “They just gave you the car? ‘Yeah, just gave me the car and told me to drive around.’ … At that point, he was my role model because my father wasn't in my life. I wanted to be like my uncle. And music was the connection.”
Starting at age 9, Keyz regularly performed in touring programs run by his grandmother, who owns Connecticut-based Sankofa Kuumba Cultural Arts Consortium, which offers group demonstrations on African dance and drumming, among other cultural art forms. In Keyz’s time in front of audiences, he would rap a single song — first Nas’ “I Can,” and later Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks.” Both artists underscore the open-hearted, socially aware, story-based approach Keyz continues to adopt on songs like “Broke Crayons,” from Key of Soul, which includes lines about black men shot and killed by the police and centers around the idea that a difficult or damaged past doesn’t have to define a person’s future. “Broke crayons still color,” he raps on the refrain.
At age 11, Keyz finished third in his first talent show, netting $100 for his song about abstaining from sex until marriage, which he used to purchase a suit that he said still fits. “My mom was so smart, she bought it two sizes too big,” he said, and laughed. “Recently I got it let out, and I can still put it on today. … It’s a constant reminder that I can do this.”
A few years later, Keyz, who was born in Columbus and at age 4 moved with his mom to Hartford, Connecticut, following his parents’ divorce, started to experience difficulties at home, at which point his mother sent him back to Columbus to live with his father, who had existed as little more than a stranger for the better part of a decade. Though Keyz now says of the decision, “It saved me,” he was far from open to it at the time.
“It was more than bitterness; it was legit hate. I didn’t even call him my father. To me he was my sperm donor,” Keyz said. “Because he wasn’t there, I never had that whole experience of having a father in the house. My mom was so abundantly present in my life that it was like, ‘What the fuck is a father?’”
Though the relationship is better these days, the rapper said he still has difficulty discussing intensely personal issues with his father, because Keyz’s guard remains elevated due to deep-seated abandonment issues. As these feelings soften, however, Keyz has noticed his music steadily becoming more vulnerable, moving from lyrical boasts to deep, personal insights.
Most recently, Keyz wrote a handful of songs during an emotional Christmas visit to Hartford — the first time he’d seen his mother and two younger sisters in nearly four years.
“I broke down a couple times because of the conversations we were having. Me not being there, I felt like I was supposed to be the father to my younger two sisters because their father wasn’t present, either,” said Keyz, who stayed in his grandmother’s house during the visit, sleeping in his mother’s childhood bedroom — a setting that added to the sentiments surfacing in the introspective tracks he was writing. “But it was needed. … Even in just these last three months I feel like I’ve gone through a transformation.”
Now the next time someone asks, “What else you got?” Keyz knows he’ll be ready with an answer.