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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.
That same year his grandmother, late Rep. Julia Carson, took him to the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco, where he recalls delegates urging him to break-dance on the convention floor.
As Carson evolved as an MC in high school, he went through several stage names. At an imposing 6 feet 5 inches, he settled on one that he felt was fitting: Juggernaut.
Carson also embraced the style and swag of well-known artists from hip-hop’s golden age, including Run-DMC and Rakim Allah.
Juggernaut would sometimes perform in a white-and-blue Adidas jumpsuit, dominant colors that also adorn the floor and walls of his Cannon office in Washington, D.C.
“I tried to stay in the latest fashion. [My hair] had waves or a part, with my name on the back of my head. Sometimes a Nike swoosh,” he recalled.
With a local and regional following in Indiana, Carson performed with several groups and was a featured recording artist with Catch-22.
As time passed, Carson’s interest in politics grew and was reflected in his song lyrics. He rapped about economic issues, government corruption and the perils of drugs.
“I wanted to make sure that it was a message that was never preachy,” he said. “You had to listen to my lyrics over and over to get the deeper meaning of what I was saying.”
At 22, Carson closed the book on his rap career to focus on school, a law enforcement career and community activism.
While Juggernaut is no more, constituents can still catch a reflection of Carson the MC at rallies and stump speeches.
“Having had that experimental stage, it was about the power of words,” he said. “So I think that whole communication process as an MC, has really evolved into what I’m doing now.”
For some, his word pictures cross the line, such as when he told a Miami audience that “some of them in Congress right now with this tea party movement would love to see you and me ... hanging on a tree.”
Others, including Indianapolis Public Schools Multicultural Education Director Patricia Payne, describe Carson as an electric speaker.
“He makes you feel like he is speaking directly to you [and] directly to your concerns,” Payne said. “He just gives you this feeling wherever he speaks.”
Though he now reserves his salad bowl of similes for the Congressional podium, Carson still takes pride in his lyrical ventures as a rapper.
“Once an MC always an MC,” he said with conviction. “It will always be a part of me.”