"What I do is essentially poetry with rhythm. There's no difference. With poetry, there's just a more-spaced-out cadence than with rap or rhyme," says Jedi Nemesis, AKA James Kelly, the Liberty City-raised hip-hop artist set to play Brown Bag Wednesdays at Green Room tonight.
When asked how he got started in music, he told us impishly, "I always thought it'd be funny if someone asked me that question; I'd say, 'I just started rapping last month!'" The truth is, he got into rhyming when he was 12 and even more into it in high school, where he found a culture of freestyling.
At first, we thought his name referenced the dark side of the Force, but apparently it's quite the opposite. A Jedi isn't just someone set to protect the Galactic Republic; Kelly explained that it's also the name of a river in Africa, and that's where he got the title.
His music is informed by all types of hip-hop, even gangster rap. But Mos Def, Nas, and -- he emphasized -- a '90s Jay-Z are the artists who most influence his work. He agreed that there's been a revival of late '90s socially conscious hip-hop, but, "I think it could also be a gimmick." He believes, "Some budding rappers now, they do this since this is popping. If gangster rap was big, they'd be doing that."
He derives most of his melodies from soul music. His lyrics also seem to come from a deep place. "What inspires my content is a desire to sort of wake people up, so to speak," he says. "Because when I look at our society, I just see people, no critical thinking, they don't question why this, why that. They just go about their daily lives and not even knowing that there's something bigger at stake than just your life. That's where my rhymes come from. Think more."
Kelly isn't limited to making music alone. He's shooting a film to which he wrote the dialogue and is also directing. "In one of my songs, I mention this Mexican woman called Guadalupe," he says. The lyric describes the life of a maid who jumped the border. "From that roughly eight to ten bars, I wrote a script." Filming starts next month, and he's also working on an album called Light Speed.
Kelly doesn't see much of a hip-hop scene in Miami and has experienced it as "every man for himself." He wants to appeal to audiences down here, though. "I would like for South Florida to embrace their local artists," he says. "There's so much raw talent here in South Florida -- actors, rappers, instrumentalists, painters. There's all kinds of artists here in Miami and Broward just languishing. They're making their art, but there's no direct place to put it, because there's no one paying attention. There's all of this outsourcing." Many people come here, he believes, to perform, but not enough local talent is being showcased.
Tonight, though, he'll make his Broward debut alongside Fusik and Anjuli Stars at Brown Bag Wednesdays, a night that showcases local hip-hop talent. Maybe there, a supportive scene will emerge.
Doors open at 10 p.m. at Green Room, 109 SW Second Ave., Fort Lauderdale. It's 21 and over, and entrance is free.
Liz has her master’s degree in religion from Florida State University. She has since written for publications and outlets such as Miami New Times, Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, Ocean Drive, the Huffington Post, NBC Miami, Time Out Miami, Insomniac, the Daily Dot, and the Atlantic. Liz spent three years as New Times Broward-Palm Beach’s music editor, was the weekend news editor at Inverse, and is currently the managing editor at Tom Tom Magazine.