A mecca for rap has emerged in the birthplace of jazz and blues

The edgy rhymes emanating from cities like Baton Rouge spill from a crucible of economic struggle and disenfranchisement.

By Tucker C. Toole
photographs by Graham Dickie
Published 23 Jun 2022, 12:08 BST
Rapper La'Jerrian Triplett (left), known as "Nook Dinero", freestyles in a parking lot in the Scotlandville ...
Rapper La'Jerrian Triplett (left), known as "Nook Dinero", freestyles in a parking lot in the Scotlandville neighborhood of Baton Rouge with Calvin Bell, known as Speedy. "Triplett" grew up in the small town of Clinton, about 35 miles north of Baton Rouge. Despite a population of less than 1,700, Clinton is home to many aspiring rappers who write bluesy, diaristic hooks primarily about daily life.
Photograph by Graham Dickie, National Geographic

There’s a soundtrack of sorts that can emanate from just about any speaker in a Scotlandville apartment complex. As people move from building to building, while children play on stoops, or as men peer under the car hoods, the bouncing bass flows freely.

In this Baton Rouge, Louisiana neighbourhood—not far from where the state’s first land grant college for African Americans was established—that flow makes heads nod, and teases spontaneous vocals from aspiring rapper La'Jerrian Triplett, aka “Nook Dinero.”

As neighbourhood buddies cheer, Nook’s freestyling amps him up. The 21-year-old morphs into a headliner emcee, his arms flailing as he stabs the air with a forefinger. Even a verbal stumble or two in his NSFW (Not Suitable For Work) lyricism didn’t stop him from filling every note as his friends clapped him on.

Friends and family celebrate at a Fourth of July 2020 block party in Zion City, a neighborhood in North Baton Rouge. Gatherings like this one often feature music almost entirely from the area, a mix of current street-level hits and perennial favorites from Baton Rouge artists such as NBA Youngboy, Lil Phat, Boosie Badazz, and Kevin Gates.

Local rappers Emanuel Thornsberry, known as "OG Shaggy," and Yasin Rahman, known as "Li Marley," participate in a late-night recording session in the Scotlandville neighbourhood of North Baton Rouge. The space belongs to Chaddley Johnson who converted the front room of his house into a studio and describes it as a safe haven for young men in the neighbourhood to express themselves.

For young Black men like Triplett, the camaraderie and recognition that come from creating rap music gives it a status equal to Louisiana’s other signature musical legacies. For decades, the state’s proud claim to the kinetic riffs of jazz, the swirling rhythm of zydeco, or the frenetic melodies of Mardi Gras Krewes, sealed its reputation as an American musical mecca. But as the influences of rap and hip hop spilled outside their 1970’s New York City birthplace, the versions that emerged from cities like Atlanta, Chicago, New Orleans and Los Angeles forged their own distinctive personas.

Rap is a prominent staple in many Black neighbourhoods in Louisiana, as integral as Cajun/Creole cuisine and football dynasties. Possibly the most famous rapper to emerge from the state, New Orleans native Percy Robert Miller Sr., aka “Master P,” conferred the legacy to his son whose first stage name was “Lil’ Romeo.” The family empire has expanded far beyond rapping to include acting, music management and entrepreneurship. Following closely behind Miller is Dwayne Michael Carter, Jr. known worldwide as “Lil Wayne.” The New Orleans native has sold more than 120 million records worldwide and achieved a legendary status of sorts in rap circles.

But like in other regions of the country, the rhymes emanating from cities like New Orleans and Baton Rouge spill from a crucible of economic struggle, incarceration, and disenfranchisement. For example, Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the nation, and two thirds of inmates in the state are Black. Many aspiring rappers have been first-hand witnesses to the violence, drugs and criminal activity that result in jail time.

For many youths, rap is a beacon of sorts, wielding the promise for a better life to those whose rhymes are straight fire. For some, it is the only way of life. And you don’t need to play an instrument or take voice lessons to enter the rap game.

At a Christmas celebration in Jackson, Louisiana, a young girl croons into her toy microphone and a young boy grips his older cousin's hand. Christmas at the Hunt family home often features homemade gumbo, lots of NBA Youngboy playing in the background, and the board game Trouble.
Producer Lawrence Johnson, known as HV3Visuals or simply HV3, works with rapper Sean Barner, known as Wildside SB, and his friends from South Baton Rouge to film the video for Barner's song "Big Boy Flow." Filming occurred inside a warehouse-like space in North Baton Rouge with minimal staged scenes and equipment in typical Louisiana street rap video style. "Everybody feels as if the only way to make it out of poverty is to rap and express themselves, to really tell the story about their life," Johnson says. "That's why you see so many Baton Rouge artists that take off. They're hungry."
North Baton Rouge rapper Deshay Carter, known as "Female Rapper," has built a sizable social media following through an Instagram account filled with clips of her freestyling, advertisements for upcoming parties, and snippets of her music videos. Her music platform helps Carter raise her two daughters.

“I've been in the trenches too long,” Triplett says. “I ain't going to lie. Like a real-life trench baby. I ain't really never had nothing.”

He’s counting on rap for his come up.

“See, somebody gotta make it and I gotta get it,” he says.

‘The Bottom’ to the top in rap

In Baton Rouge, it’s not completely delusional to visualise rap stardom.

BBG Baby Joe, BoosieBoyBee, and Clavin Willis, left to right, pose for portraits in rural Louisiana.
Chelsea Grace Taylor holds a photo of her father, Baton Rouge rapper Tyrone Taylor, known as “Tuddy.”
Mike Gotti strums a borrowed guitar on Convention Street in South Baton Rouge, a part of town known as "The Top." Gotti films most of his videos on the block and frequently namechecks it in his music, underscoring the importance of place and local texture for Baton Rouge artists.

Across the train tracks from Louisiana State University, the largest in the state, is a neighbourhood called “The Bottom.” While not the safest area in town, it has produced some of Louisiana’s most successful rap artists, like Torrance Ivy Hatch, better known as “Boosie” or “Boosie BadAzz.” Along with performers like Webster Gradney, Jr, or “Webbie,” rappers with a Baton Rouge imprint have inspired young men and women across the state for the past few decades.

The sound that aspiring artists from Baton Rouge claim as their own is known as “bounce” or “dirty south flow.” There’s a distinctive vibe to each rapper's voice, which they believe gives them authenticity. Though bounce music is mostly upbeat and aimed at getting people on the dance floor, other forms are more mellow and tell more intimate stories through the music.  

The sound that aspiring artists from Baton Rouge claim as their own is known as “bounce” or “dirty south flow.” There’s a distinctive vibe to each rapper's voice, which they believe gives them authenticity. Though bounce music is mostly upbeat and aimed at getting people on the dance floor, other forms are more mellow and tell more intimate stories through the music.  

“Young Boy Never Broke Again” (aka “NBA Youngboy”), or Kentrell Gaulden is also from Baton Rouge. He’s one of the most popular rappers in the U.S. at the moment, having charted 20 albums on the Billboard 200 since 2017. Though Gaulden’s career is interspersed with numerous criminal charges, his fan base in Baton Rouge continues to support him.

Chaddley Johnson poses with his two children, Chad Love and Chasity. Johnson operates a studio out of his North Baton Rouge home.

But the aura of possibility around rap music isn’t just for Generation Z.

Wildside Yella is 49 years old and once was an aspiring rapper himself. He was born and raised in “The Bottom” and used to work with the older generation of Baton Rouge rappers like Glenn Clifton, Jr. aka “Young Bleed” and Boosie. Now he manages an emerging crew, which is part of his Wildside Entertainment label. His main act is called BBG, aka Bottom Boy Gorillas, some of whom have collaborated with NBA Youngboy and other popular artists.  

Keith Cage and Roxann Thomas-Jones stand in The South, a historic neighbourhood in Baton Rouge. Thomas-Jones was a dancer and rapper during Louisiana hip-hop's adolescence, performing onstage with other artists. "I liked to dance, it kept me in shape, it kept my mind occupied, it had me thinking about other things other than what kept me depressed," Thomas-Jones says, adding that rap music in Louisiana “comes from our lifestyles, what we've been through, how we grew up, our goals in life.”

In this image, birds pass over Port Allen, Louisiana, home to many emerging rap artists. Many rappers photographed for this project spent significant time in jail or prison. "Seen in this light, the music is a kind of profound release within a profoundly flawed system, and Louisianans have very sensitive ears to honesty in music," says photographer Graham Dickie.

Though his own shot at superstardom has passed, Yella believes using his experience to nurture rap skill is his way of keeping youth off the streets and out of prison.

“In every ghetto, everybody got a story to tell. Down here, we’re just telling our side of the story and that's where the passion comes from.” Yella says. “Cause that's what I was trying to do. If I can help one of them out and put a mic in their hand and take the guns off, I’ll do that.”

One person who understands the consequences of incarceration is 42-year-old Keon Wilson, aka “One Feezy.” He was released from prison in July of 2020 and has already begun to work on some new musical projects. Before his 2008 arrest on charges he preferred not to discuss, Wilson was a rapper, engineer, and producer. His love for music has spanned his whole life, including a stint in his high school band. He believes that too often, the musical passion artists like him feel is discounted and dismissed.

“I'm not gonna rap for you to bob your head to my music for you just to feel my melody. Yeah, I ain't finna rap like that.” Wilson says. “I’m going to rap where your soul is going to be bobbing its head. Your soul bobbing it from the inside and before you know it you’ll say, ‘Hold on, play that back man.’ ”

Rapper Keon Wilson, known as "One Feezy," studies his lyric book inside his home studio, in "The Bottom," a South Baton Rouge neighbourhood. Wilson has been making music for decades but his career was paused after he was arrested in 2008 on charges he preferred not to discuss. Following his release from prison in 2020, he took on some new musical projects.

Photograph by Graham Dickie
A young girl walks out of a room at home in South Baton Rouge.
Photograph by Graham Dickie
Antwon Washington, known as "Tweezy Bandoe," records a song in the bedroom of a friend’s Baton Rouge apartment. The recording engineer had driven up from New Orleans earlier in the day, toting all his equipment in the trunk of his sedan: a pair of speakers, a laptop, a microphone, and headphones. In recent years, the availability of smaller and cheaper audio and video gear, plus easy access to distribution platforms such as YouTube, has made the rap music business more accessible for young artists, contributing to a grassroots creative boom in Louisiana that allows for spontaneous, improvised sessions like this one.
Photograph by Graham Dickie

Wilson has passed down that same love for music to his son who is also a member of Bottom Boy Gorillas. But Wilson knows he can’t push him to stardom.

Emerging Women Rap Artists

The lavish lifestyle of bling and fancy cars that many artists boast about in their music is far from the norm in Louisiana. But even the outrageous odds against success don’t dampen the appeal for many young artists. And though rap music can’t shake complaints that its violence and misogyny have degraded the Black community, it’s equally popular with women and girls.

Baton Rouge barber and occasional rapper Devin Williams, known as "Cutz by Devin," trims hair in a spare room at his family's house, with the latest in Louisiana rap as a soundtrack. In Baton Rouge, local music pervades casual scenes like this one, often fuelling word-of-mouth discovery of the newest talents from the city.

While the majority of aspiring Louisiana rappers are male, women like 25-year-old Deshay Carter, aka “Female Rapper” are emerging on the scene. She has gained a substantial social media following and recognition for her music, with nearly 20,000 followers on Instagram. Carter wants to be the first woman rap superstar from Baton Rouge, and she’s already on track to do so. But she’s determined to be authentic, unlike some of her peers whom she says are merely copy-catting others.

“They are trying to be like Miami and Atlanta, and they are trying to be like other females and don't want to rap about what we go through down here,” Carter says.  “Like they're ashamed of this life, coming up like this, I guess. And they want to rap about Popping P and getting people out of money and stuff like that.”

Three young boys stand on a street in Jeanerette, Louisiana.

Carter had her first child at 13 and now has two daughters, age 12 and 11. She’s counting on her rap skills to create a secure future, which means controlling the rights to her work.  And like every other rapper just about everywhere else in the world, Carter uses the creative process as fuel.

“The motivation to keep going with it is my kids and my mom, and I know where I'm trying to get us,” Carter says. “And not only that, it's just the motivation, just to know somebody out there looking up to you rapping your music."

 Photographer Graham Dickie is currently based between Austin and rural Southeast Louisiana where he is pursuing independent documentary projects while working closely with the local hip-hop community. 

Chicago native Tucker C. Toole, a National Geographic contributor, lives in Houston, Texas. His articles have focused predominantly on topics of race and culture in America. He currently serves as a social media coordinator for Disney’s Freeform TV Network.

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