Hip-Hop Artists In Rural Virginia Help Each Other Make Music And Spread The Word About It
When he was starting college several years ago, Geonoah Davis was a poet. His cousins were rappers. Some of his cousins started making music together as Valley Boy Music Group. They knew he wrote poetry, so one day they asked him to write and record a verse on one of their songs.
“I felt like from the get-go, I've always had something to say,” Davis said. “So it was rewarding because I was like, ‘Wow, I want to keep doing this.’”
He raps under the name geonovah, and he writes a lot about his own life—heavy stuff like relationship struggles, depression, and racism he has experienced. He writes about joyful, playful stuff, too, like being in love and having a good time with friends. For geonovah, music is also a way to talk about the changes he wants to see in the world, like an end to mass incarceration and police brutality.
“I talk about a lot of the things going on in society, and being a Black person in society, in America, has never been easy,” geonovah said.
We’re Gonna Make It Work Somehow
In 2017, Valley Boy Music Group put on a field party in southwest Virginia. Picture a large tent in the middle of a dark field, surrounded by mountains. Hundreds of people are packed under, dancing and cheering. There’s neon lights, smoke machines, and glow paint flying all around. geonovah, was one of the performers at the field party that night.
“I don’t even know how we got there,” geonovah said. “And there was like 400 people. It was crazy.”
geonovah is 25 and grew up in Big Stone Gap, a town of around 5,000 in Wise County, Virginia.
“My family's all from Big Stone,” geonovah said. “Actually, the house I live in was my great grandmother's and her mom's before that.”
The Wise County hip-hop tradition goes back farther than geonovah and the Valley Boyz. One of geonovah’s cousins and fellow Valley Boy is Raekwon Mitchell a.k.a. RKMITCH. His dad’s friends were big into freestyling. And when he was a budding rapper, RKMITCH remembers listening in as they improvised lyrics over beats.
“They were like, ‘Okay, let me see what you got,’” RKMITCH said. “So I went to pull out my little notepad. And they're like, ‘No, no, no. I want to hear what you can just come off the top with.’ I just looked at them. I was like, ‘Oh, no, I can't do that. I'm not a freestyler. I don’t do that, I write.’”
RKMITCH prefers to write out lyrics rather than freestyle. He never saw the older generation record anything—it was more about bragging rights among friends.
“With them it was always just the energy of it, the love of the music, and seeing their abilities to freestyle,” RKMITCH said.
As RKMITCH remembers it, the older generation rappers were making music for each other. They were showing off how quickly and how persuasively they could articulate a point of view. And there was less of an emphasis on sharing it with a larger audience.
“I don’t think many of them actually performed, in this area especially,” RKMITCH said. “There’s not really a whole lot of places to perform.”
The Valley Boyz have created their own performance spaces, like those field parties. They’ve improvised studios, too, out of dorm rooms, hotel rooms, and bedrooms.
“We've been in situations where it's like, ‘Wow, you're really recording right here?’” RKMITCH said. “And it's like, ‘Well, yeah, I mean, we're gonna make it work somehow.’”
In Appalachian Virginia, a lot of institutional support for music is targeted towards old-time, country and bluegrass. So hip-hop communities have had to find ways to support themselves.
Jared Soares is a photographer who’s been documenting the hip-hop scene in another southwest Virginia town—Roanoke—since 2007. He says artists there had a similar way of making do, or making it up.
“It was very much a DIY culture, a Do-It-Yourself mentality,” Soares said. “‘If it doesn't exist in Roanoke, we're just gonna build it. And we're gonna make do with what we have, and we're gonna make it the best possible.’”
Community Care Is Part Of The Hip-Hop Tradition
geonovah sees his music as a way to bring more material support to other hip-hop artists.
“I’m doing it so I can get the resources I need for the people I care about and for the community that I care about in this area,” he said.
Last year, geonovah won a grant to help him produce new music. The organization that gave the grant often supports bluegrass and old-time musicians, but this was the first grant they’ve given to a local hip-hop artist. The first thing geonovah did when he got the funds was buy new equipment for several other hip-hop artists in the area. One of those was Kelly Thompson, a.k.a. Pookie.
“He's helped others get microphones and interfaces and other gear that's necessary for recording,” Pookie said.
A.D. Carson is a hip-hop artist and an assistant professor of hip-hop at the University of Virginia. He explains that helping out the folks back home isn’t just a subject of certain rappers’ music, but it’s also part of their practice. Part of the hip-hop tradition.
“Thinking about not just shouting out home...But also how do we bring the people from where we’re from into the space where they might also have access to those resources,” Dr. Carson said.
They Just Don’t Have The Resources To Produce Their Art
In Pookie’s third floor apartment in downtown Wise, Virginia, geonovah has helped Pookie turn his spare bedroom into a makeshift studio. A mattress is propped up against a wall to muffle the street sounds below. Pookie sits at a computer that geonovah bought with the grant money, and starts making a beat.
He and geonovah have been friends since middle school, and they’ve been making music together for a couple years now.
“Whenever he makes a beat, and if he’s had me in mind, he’ll put these little sounds here and there and I’m like, ‘Ooh, he put that in there just for me,’” geonovah said.
Pookie was inspired to learn to make beats by watching geonovah and some local producers at work.
“I was just totally impressed,” Pookie said. “I was like, ‘Wow, this is how music is made?’”
Long-term, geonovah hopes to help establish cultural arts centers in the area to better support artists of all kinds.
“I feel like there's way more artistic individuals in this area than we know, they just don't have the resources to produce their art,” geonovah said.
This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, a partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia and the Folklife Program of the West Virginia Humanities Council. The Folkways Reporting Project is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts, and culture.