Taking charleston h1gher
When we think of an ultra light beam, the first thing that comes to us is KJ Kearney, not only because you can catch him on social media referencing that track multiple times a day, but literally because that's just who he is. He’s a ray of light, beaming over us like a constant reminder that our dreams are never too big. This is a man who talks his talk and walks his walk, who put his money where his mouth is and is dedicated to pushing and preserving the culture of hip hop in Charleston, SC. Ask anybody around town, KJ is the man, but what is it that makes him that way? What drives the mind of an Ultra Light Beam? We needed to know. We sat down with KJ to discuss his plans for H1gher Learning(his non-profit), why we should love his little lady protagonist Rosie, and his undying love for hip hop culture.
Who is KJ, and what is his contribution to the scene? What's the difference between KJ and H1gher?
“Geez, three part question. Ok, who is KJ? KJ is an educator, a proud HBCU graduate, KJ loves the kids, KJ loves hip hop, and KJ is obsessed with finding a way to create a living involving all of those things.”
What's the difference between KJ and H1gher?
“There is no difference, they're one and the same. The mission and methods that I use to do H1gher are the same ones that I live my life by.”
We often see you refer to yourself as a late bloomer, so what was it that allowed you to keep the faith that you would find your way eventually?
“Extreme arrogance, and a very strong, structured support system from my parents. I feel like my parents allowed me to be who I am, and didn't pressure me into trying to become something I'm not. They allowed me to discover who I am, and they've helped me along the way in that regard so without my parents, I would have settled a very long time ago into finding what others would have thought meaningful work is, and I would have missed out on the opportunity to do all the things that I'm about to do or the stuff that I have done recently.”
Give us your overall vision for H1gher Learning?
“I want H1gher Learning to be in the same category as other non-profits in Charleston. You talk about Charleston Wine and Food, you talk about Cooper River Bridge Run, you don't even really think about them as nonprofits. You just think of them as these big entities, and I see H1gher Learning being on the same level as them. Then with the notoriety and the revenue that comes with that we’ll be able to execute our mission of using hip hop to teach life skills to at risk students.”
“Hip hop needs to be looked at as a real life culture in this city, and right now it's looked at as just a genre of music, which allows people to be dismissive of the people that make up that culture, and that hip hop is even a culture to be respected in the first place. But if we can become as big as those other events that I just noted, then they'll have to take hip hop seriously. And then when they take hip hop seriously it'll open up doors for other people like myself who have cool ideas but just didn't have a footing or direction.”
What is it that you want to accomplish with the City of Charleston?
“I want hip hop to be respected as a culture, but more importantly I want to provide access for people who don't have access, and resources for people who don't have resources. With the kind of kids I work with on a daily basis, their ideas of what success means are very limited to selling drugs or playing ball or something respectable but mundane. So they have really big dreams, or really regular dreams, and you can't believe that's something is possible until you see it. I want kids in Charleston, not just in Charleston but specifically here, to see a black man, making money, helping his community, living and dying by hip hop. The same music y'all listening to, I make my living off of and you don't have to rap, you don't have to sing you don't have to make beats. You can make a living off of hip hop and be in this city. That's the most important thing. I want kids to be able to see that.”
What do you want to accomplish with your column for the Charleston City Paper?
“I'm already accomplishing it. I don't make a lot of money writing for the paper, btw, but what I need is exposure. I need people to see that there is a young man, who lives and dies by this hip hop culture, but also has things to say about race and racism and economics and education and all these other things. Hip hop doesn't mean that I don't have opinions on other things, or that those opinions are not intelligently thought of, or well thought out or well written. I can do that column and still sing Waka Flocka at the top of my lungs, there’s duality, there’s balance there that people don't recognize. So my column is opening doors. People have told me, ya know I never thought about hip hop like that. Or I never thought about a black man’s perspective on this, because that readership is mostly all white people. So I'm getting what I want. I want exposure, and that's going to lead to more exposure to the point where that's not beneath me but it's not going to be worth my time to continue to contribute. It's serving its purpose.”
Ok, last one. Who is Rosie and why should we help her win?
“Rosie represents, in literary form, the sentiment that Viola Davis said when she won her Emmy recently. When she said the only difference separating women of color from getting awards like what she got, was opportunity. That's it. Representation is key. We talked about it in restaurants and art galleries, its key everywhere. There are kids who now believe that being the President of the United States is a real thing, like I can actually do that, because it's someone who looks like them. Its the same thing with reading. There are studies that show that literacy rates and jail records are parallel, they're synonymous. The lower your reading level, the more likely you are to go to jail. If that's the case, and more black and brown people are being incarcerated than others, then wouldn't it behoove us to at least try to see that if we can get more black and brown kids to read then MAYBE they’ll have more opportunities? You know, they'll think differently. So how am I going to get kids to read books when every book they read, no one looks like them? That's what Rosie is here for. She's a black girl, she's from Charleston, and she likes sneakers. That's 3 different demographics that a lot of these kids ain't never seen in one book, so that's why Rosie is important. If you want to raise literacy rates and then help curb all the ills that come with not being able to read, then we need to give the people something they want to read. Wesley Snipes said in ‘Mo’ Betta Blues’ if you play the music they want to hear them they’ll come. You playing this old funk shit and then you're mad because people don't want to come and listen to your music. Play something they may like. This is my attempt at doing that, but in a literary sense.”
Be sure to catch us and H1gher at Fake Race Charleston this Saturday, March 19, 2016. Gold Medal tickets not only get you Open Bar access and an entry to win a free pair of sneers from Sneaker, but your ticket is a donation to #HelpRosieWin.