He has been spitting rhymes for more than a decade now, but MC Jumanji (AKA Calvin Cyrus) says there's one thing he had yet to do: look inward for inspiration for his music.
"Every project before this was about me as a performer. But after being a performer I have human problems. This was me after the show, after the curtains closed, letting you get a peek of the real me," Jumanji tells New Times by phone on the way home from his day job at a Coral Springs glass manufacturer. "This is about flipping back and forth between Bruce Wayne and Batman. Going from the braggart on stage as Jumanji to the insecurities you have when the club closes and I'm just Calvin."
The rapper's new EP, Close Curtains, is his Marshall Mathers LP, a record that's more confessional and revealing than any of his previous work. But the timing of its release can't help but invite listeners to filter the EP's lyrical context through the turbulent current political climate.
"I've been at the protests downtown and at Wynwood," Jumanji says. "My mom didn't want me to go. She was worried that not only am I black, but I'm six-foot-six. If things go awry, I'd be dead-center. But I have to go. People of all races are facing tear gas marching for people like me. Who am I not to answer the call?"
Jumanji says the recent protests have already inspired new work, including a song that uses the familiar phrase "I can't breathe" as a hook.
"When I first watched the George Floyd video I cried," he says. "You can hear other people begging, 'He can't breathe.' These people were forced to watch that man die in front of them and were powerless to do anything. For a long time it's felt if you're black you can be treated like shit and that's it."
For the most part, Close Curtains, released on Jumanji's own American Grime label, doesn't make overt statements about racism. But it does touch on his feelings of being an outsider. Some of the alienation comes from being an American partaking in grime. An unequivocally British hip-hop genre that arose from the UK garage scene in the early 2000s, grime has emcees rapping over fast breakbeats that stand in contrast to the hip-hop most American listeners are used to.
Jumanji worked with a wide range of guest rappers in putting together the EP, writing all the lyrics to beats contributed by a variety of producers, including Abstrakt Sonance, Poklypz, and SpaceJail.
Jumanji says the standout track "Legacy," produced by 3rdi and featuring Logan, came together quickly as an ode to a fallen friend who was killed over $300 worth of weed. The mood is dark and industrial as Jumanji spits, "No need to bother with destiny/They cut my bro Omar over kush/So don't tell me about turning the cheek/There's always war in these streets."
Other tracks, though, took longer to find their voice.
"One song, 'Can I Live,' sat in my inbox for the longest time," he concedes. "Abstrakt Sonance sent it to me two years ago. He was incredibly patient. He could have sent it to ten other artists. One day it hit me, and I started writing: I'm just trying to live. Why can't I be at peace?"
Amid the current turmoil, Jumanji feels emboldened by the calls for equality and civil rights.
"I'm not sure protest or marching will change a bigot's mind — it might even embolden them. But for people protesting, seeing solidarity is kind of the point," he says. "By yourself, handcuffed by a cop, you're all alone. Marching with 5,000 people you're not alone. We've got people in South Korea, London, Paris having solidarity for us."
In spite of the nihilism at the core of Close Curtains, Jumanji remains hopeful.
"I have to be optimistic," the rapper says. "I'm a black man in America."
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