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Rep. Rapper: From Rap Battles in High School Halls to Congress

From Rap Battles in High School Halls to Congress

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Rep. André Carson (left) grew up as a “battle” emcee, dropping rhymes in the hallways of his Indiana school. He says his early days as “Juggernaut” helped him hone his communications skills.

As a “battle” MC, the hallways and lunch lines of Rep. André Carson’s junior high school became the frontline where he experienced the lyrical limelight, going up against fellow MCs in freestyle rap confrontations.

Those contests, and that lyricism, helped shape the Indiana Democrat’s future in music as well as in politics.

“[Rapping] honed my instincts in terms of being in tune to what people want,” he said in an interview with Roll Call.

The Congressman said that before he could sit down, eat or walk through the hallways, a “band of poets” would confront him — and for Carson, an MC battle was no joking matter.

“I incorporated [my] wit into my lyrics in case an opponent who had a similar wit would try to embarrass me in front of people,” he said. “So to get past the band of other MCs and poets, I had to verbally slaughter a few folks.” 

Carson could be found around the schoolyard, thesaurus and dictionary in hand, delving into his own lyrical laboratory, honing allegorical punch lines and comebacks to polish his craft.  

Carson said the hours spent finding just the right words allowed him to develop skills in forming and communicating his ideas, skills he uses today as a Member of Congress.

“It forced me, in a way, to do research before I wrote something down because I didn’t want to be incorrect,” he said. “Like in politics, you’re addressing a group who hasn’t heard you before and you have to present yourself in a certain way and really make the sale, and to make the sale you have to know what you’re talking about.” 

Carson remembers regularly rummaging through his mother’s albums. Records from rap artists such as the Sugar Hill Gang, Grandmaster Flash and Kurtis Blow became fixtures in Carson’s vinyl collection. He wanted to be a part of it.

“With hip-hop you’re dealing with the elements of break dancing, beatboxing, mixing and lyricism,” he said. “At the time, I was a young kid at a Catholic school. An altar boy slash MC and break-dancer.”

While attending St. Rita Catholic School, Carson’s fascination with words grew while writing poems for his class assignments. With influence from Maya Angelou, Rumi and MC Melle Mel, Carson wrote his first rap in 1984, when he was 10.

“I would write on the kitchen table, dining room table and in my bedroom,” he said.

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