Isaiah Ahmir Ford has just two classes to finish before he can graduate high school. The 18-year-old Rocky River High School student is still unclear on whether he will attend college once he's done, but it looks like that all depends on how things go for his alter ego, Ahmir the King, who just dropped his debut album, Black Tape.
Speaking with Ahmir at SouthPark Mall just two days after the Feb. 1 release date, it's clear the momentum of Black Tape has him looking past school for the time being.
"If I got to be 100-percent honest with you, this is what I love to do. I've never been the school type of person," says Ahmir, who grew up in northeast Charlotte. "I'm real big on self-education; finding out stuff for yourself. Especially with the knowledge that school doesn't really teach you everything about any subject, I feel like if you go out and reach for knowledge yourself you'll probably accomplish more than paying $30,000 in tuition. That's kind of where I'm at. But we'll just see however it goes."
Creative Loafing can't speak for how things will or won't turn out for Ahmir in his newly budding rap career, but we can say that Black Tape was a surprise; a high-quality, full-length album that seemingly came out of nowhere from a rapper we had never heard of. We were even more surprised to learn upon meeting Ahmir only after hearing the album that he was but a teenager still yet to graduate high school.
The album is intense; ranging from lyrical bravado, to aggressive diss tracks aimed at unnamed Charlotte rappers, to poignant diatribes on police brutality in the Queen City and beyond. From front to end, the album is a great start to the year for the Charlotte rap scene, and a great start to a career for Ahmir, who released the album for free on Soundcloud.
He says he simply wants to use Black Tape as a demo of sorts; a platform to prove his mettle while looking to book shows and open up the opportunity for new collaborations in 2017. That may be his goal, but the album itself rises above demo status and proves a promising start for the emerging artist, who says he's just one of a large group of teen rappers quietly working together behind the scenes and ready to take the Charlotte scene by storm.
Ahmir the King's career started two years ago with the recording of the aptly named single, "Genesis."
He had been writing poetry and spitting short raps with friends at school since he was a child, but had never taken it seriously. In sixth grade, as a student at Randolph Middle School, he decided to quit rapping to focus on becoming a better student and making his way to a good college. By eighth grade, things looked a little different.
"That's when I kind of started looking at it like, they're not teaching us everything about anything," Ahmir says. "They don't teach us anything we actually need to know. That's what has always been important to me and that's why I've been feeling like the school system is failing us."
It was around this time that Ahmir began getting back into the cypher circles with his friends, freestyling every day after school. He found that he was still good at it, and soon felt a passion for rapping that he hadn't had before.
"When I came back to it I noticed I couldn't leave it again. It seemed like stuff kind of fell into place," he says.
Ahmir began taking rap more seriously than his friends, and eventually began writing songs. He never had plans to record, until he learned about an opening at Studio 345 in Spirit Square in Uptown Charlotte and went for it with "Genesis."
The track, a menacing song over a "Deep Cover"-esque beat that includes a hook about the importance of getting money over sleeping that sounds like it's shouted through a loudspeaker, was the perfect introduction. It got attention quick, and today it has over 51,000 listens on Soundcloud.
"After that, I still wasn't sold on it being that serious, but it's just like the more you get into it the more you love it," Ahmir says. "Even then I didn't know I was going to drop a tape or anything, I was just writing. And it grew from there."
Ahmir continued dropping singles here and there throughout high school, but nothing consistent. It wasn't until May of last year that he finally decided he wanted to drop an album.
"I kind of started off with just ambition, just being like, if he can do it, I can do it," Ahmir says. "This is when I was younger and I was probably overconfident then. But I had to take a step back and say, 'You're not putting in no work right now. You can't be the only one believing in yourself.' That's why I sat on this project for a decent amount of time and just made sure everything was perfect. So I could come out and actually prove myself."
About a month after Ahmir decided to pursue a true album, he witnessed the video of police officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, shooting and killing Alton Sterling while they held him to the ground.
The incident inspired him to write one of his most heartfelt tracks, "Riot," in which he encourages folks to take to the streets to fight police brutality. "How come we don't ride like we used to? Set the city on fire like we used to? Tell us put our hands up and they still shoot. No peace in the streets 'til we equal," he raps.
Ahmir wrote the song in response to the violence he was seeing all too often on television, and had no idea that two months later violence would spill into the streets of his hometown after another police shooting here.
The Keith Scott shooting inspired him to write the minute-and-a-half interlude "Skyfall," in which his response is notably more measured. He begins the short verse with, "I see the sky fallin' and I don't pay it no mind, I hear the riots callin' I can see us losing our time, I see that they was lyin' when they told us justice was blind, 'cause its vision clear and crisp when it's blue-on-black crime."
Ahmir's writing style often involves drawing inspiration from a certain event in his life, whether it be how he views art in a Charlotte boutique — one of his favorite hobbies — or drama he's been through with a former friend, then thinking on it for weeks before expressing his feelings in song.
He describes Skyfall as just such a song, while "Riot" was more of a knee-jerk reaction.
"Basically, I would say ['Riot'] is the impulse that people feel when police brutality happens. I wasn't really encouraging anybody to go riot or anything, but I'm saying, that's how we feel," Ahmir says. "It's an accurate depiction of the feelings and emotions that go through our head when those things happen.
"'Skyfall,' that was closer to home and I was sitting back and I was thinking, now that it's on your home turf, it's hard to say go blow up the streets that you grew up on. I took a step back and thought about everything, and that's where 'Skyfall' came from. It was like the more peaceful way to think about it and encouraging people to go seek knowledge. It was more empowering in a positive way."
Now that Ahmir is officially on the way to making his name with a full-length release, he says he wants to continue working with a group of other young rappers who are coming up alongside him. He drops names like Fresco (his brother), Mavi, Reuben Vincent, Orpheus Letrista and Buddha Bless as being among a group of teen up-and-comers looking to change the way Charlotte looks at rap music.
"These are young guys. They're hungry. They're really out here, and it's not like everybody's on the trap wave," he says. "Nobody I just named is doing trap music, and nobody I just named is doing music like me. Everybody is in their own lane but they're still making that connection and making those waves, because they're curving their own style and their own sound out. That's the best thing about it. We're getting past where everybody was on trap, and that's kind of dying down now. It's corny."
It was Ahmir's eagerness to see Charlotte rappers move on from the same old trap music that inspired him to write "NEVADA," an intense track in which he aims rapid fire rhymes at folks he didn't think were living up to their hype in the Queen City.
"Why these rappers think they made it, 'cause they Instagram famous, with their fake designer belts and their jewelry gold-plated," he raps.
"At that point I was like pretty pissed off about something. I don't even remember what it was," Ahmir says. "It was something a Charlotte artist had done and then how people were hyping him up, and I was like, 'This isn't even music.' I was pissed."
Now, for Ahmir, 2017 is about helping his city grow as opposed to slamming the ones he disagrees with.
And with Black Tape in the bag, and more music on the way, it's a step in the right direction.