There’s a part of freestyle battle rapping that makes it a little difficult to watch.
The competition works in a series of rounds, and if it’s not your turn, your role is to be a target for stylized trash talking.
That’s how Aaron Ward, a Kansas City rapper who performs as A.Ward, was put in the position of having one of the most important things about him boxed into a cutting one-liner — his faith reduced to mere schtick in a September rap battle.
“I think your whole religious scheme is just a scene to seem hot,” Cameron Myers rapped, performing as Charlie Atlas, palms forward in rebuff. It prompted “ohhhhh”s from the audience at Westport clothing retailer the Loop.
“What I’m cooking can kill ’em, this a meth lab, a left jab will have him sleepin, no jet lag,” Myers rapped while liberally invading Ward’s personal space, a modest gold chain swinging lightly over his chest, giving Ward the full effect of the bruising.
Myers’ voice filled the room. Ward, one of the only white people there, maintained eye contact, nodding vigorously but looking mostly blank until the race thing came up.
“And y’all let this white bitch say ‘n***a’ on cam?” Myers said, looking out to a mostly silent audience. Ward was wide-eyed, incredulous.
“He must be Paula Deen,” Myers said, referring to racist comments attributed to the celebrity chef.
“They wanna see me kill a Christian on cam like a terror threat,” Myers said.
Myers’ half of the first round, one of three, took about two minutes. It was A.Ward’s battle debut. To the untrained eye, he looked pretty far out of his lane.
But you have to see things through Ward’s eyes. To him, the audience wasn’t there. It was just the three of them. Ward. His opponent. And the third that goes by a few names: the spirit, his excellence, God.
“I’m turning 30 today,” Ward says in an interview months later, alluding to the fact that his 20ish years honing his craft ought to have, by now, revealed one of two things: He can or he can’t.
The September battle against Myers was his first encounter as a battle rapper but far from his first appearance on a stage.
Ward grew up in government-subsidized housing in Knoxville, Tenn., in an ethnically diverse neighborhood. Later, he spent eight years as a youth minister serving a predominantly Hispanic and African-American parish in Kansas City, Kan.
He’s used to getting eye rolls when he tells people he’s a Christian rapper. But much of his thing as a rapper — his artistic being — is built around pushing into spaces where he’s not supposed to be. Being a white rapper for faith, Ward says, is a lot of being told “no” and continuing regardless.
So how does he deal with a comparison to Paula Deen in a room full of black people? “It definitely helps when you’re good,” Ward says with a laugh.
Back to Ward’s debut at the Loop.
His first 30 seconds or so was an unbroken paragraph of heat aimed at KC Tagged Up, a rapper who canceled at the last minute.
His pacing was quick, streaming like HD Netflix at 2 a.m. He looked half crazy, and his fair, freckled skin turned red because he needed to breathe more.
Ward’s lyrics are their own metronome, casually cutting up the beats. There’s no track to accompany him. He sets the pace with his syllables.
Then, “Wait a sec,” Ward said, introducing a dramatic pause. “You ain’t KC. Oh, that’s right. He backed out.
“But instead, I got this fill in, one that I ain’t feeling, but I get it. Y’all made your rounds. Hey, Charlie,” Ward said getting low to connect with Myers’ downcast eyes.
“No matter how many times you put that metal in my mouth,” he rapped, alluding to the gunplay in Myers’ verses, “you ain’t going to take the crown. Face it, pal. You basic.”
A few seconds later: “I told my brother I was battling you, guess what we did? We both started to laugh,” Ward said. The line rhymed with nothing before — Ward made us wait for that pleasure — but that didn’t stop the crowd from cooing admiringly.
Let’s be clear: Battle rap and rapping aren’t the same thing.
Any rapper with even a modest amount of status is a vessel for meticulously engineered lines written — or ghostwritten — in advance, cut in a studio, mastered to perfection, released and performed at a concert with the sound file playing in the background so your favorite rapper can give it to you just like he did on CD.
Contrast that with the rapping one hears at battling events. The words, rhymed and metered in the hip-hop tradition, are largely improvised, spot jobs of metaphor and figurative speech.
Where battle rap and studio rapping overlap is in content — frequently themes of brutality and violence.
If it seems like an easy dig at hip-hop to say that it’s all about money, violence, drugs and sex, it’s because the assessment is partly true. Today’s radio hip-hop (when not name-dropping luxury brands) seems almost monomaniacally concerned with the acquisition of women.
Ward has replaced the profanity and allusions to bodily harm with wit — “Charlie couldn’t get signed if he was a permission slip for a field trip” — and professions of faith.
“And understand I didn’t come to get personal with you. Just know I’ve got enough bars to body you — ” Ward moved around Myers, pointing to the entourage he brought with him “ — and every person that’s with you. So tell the next person it ain’t a personal issue, but he can fall in line, and I’m gon’ tell him God is good. All the time,” Ward rapped, finishing the first round of his debut battle.
The last few words of that string were finished by the audience that knew where Ward was going with that line.
In place of an arms or drug reference, Ward was unafraid to be brashly goofy when expected to be strong.
“So, if you squeezing at my top, I got Christ with me. Think Rice Krispies: If my neck snap or crack, I’ll just be meeting my pop,” Ward rapped at Myers, raising his hand skyward.
The line simmered for five seconds at the Loop. In contrast to Ward’s rapid-fire delivery, the silence killed.
The YouTube video of A.Ward’s debut battle met 50,000 views within the first four days after it was posted Nov. 4.
“Nobody’s debut raps do that,” says Ward’s older brother Shawn Cannon.
Ward and Cannon’s upbringing was complicated by parents who had an ongoing relationship with substance abuse and mental illness.
Speaking by phone from Knoxville, Cannon (“the original family rapper,” Ward says) recalls his days as the older brother tasked with responsibility for his siblings, standing on phone books to make meals for them.
Cannon says his little brother began writing verses as a 10-year-old in their grandmother’s den.
This was before Cannon’s life intersected with criminal activity dealing drugs. Some of the topics that his little brother consciously avoids.
Ward’s first artistic expressions were an attempt to capture some of his older brother’s cool.
Cannon used to write lyrics in a notebook. One evening, he noticed his little brother mimicking him. His little brother’s apparent admiration scared him.
He became aggressively protective with Ward. As Cannon bumped up against life’s rough edges, he repeatedly implored his younger brother to find something different to do with his life, to reach higher.
But “this rapping game, I knew he was going to do it regardless. Didn’t matter what I said,” Cannon says.
Unlike A.Ward’s three-round bout in September, his upcoming match against St. Louis rapper F-Mag on Dec. 19 at the Loop will be a single-round affair.
“To me, giving someone like A.Ward just one round is a mistake,” says Arick Ridgell, who raps as TA Rell.
Ward met Ridgell at Victorious Life Church in 2010. Ward was performing as a spoken word artist there and elsewhere.
“I always used to ask him, ‘When you gonna get in the ring?’ ” Ridgell says.
Christian rap has nurtured a small batch of music stars, including Bizzle, an L.A. rapper whose rise to prominence included a much-lauded Jay Z diss, and Lecrae, whose 2014 album “Anomaly” moved 88,000 copies in its debut week, landing a No. 1 spot on the Billboard 200.
While the genre enjoys increased attention, it’s suffering the same declining sales as the industry as a whole. The Christian/Gospel genre represents about 17.3 million in album sales, according to 2014 data, down over 2 million from from 2013.
“Obviously, these guys are opening the door for the Christian rapper lane in battle rap, so I immediately told him, ‘You gotta get in and do a battle,’ ” Ridgell says.
Ridgell and Ward started practicing. Ward has a tactician’s approach to battling, Ridgell says.
Ward’s debut was a bet-free and judge-free event. No official determination was made about who won. That question is usually settled in the court of opinion to end all courts of opinion: the comments section of YouTube, Ward says.
A viewer judging just the September footage could easily mistake Ward for a seasoned battle rapper with years of experience behind him, Ridgell says.
Ridgell says Ward’s performance showed a critical understanding of Myers’ preferred strategies and weaknesses, information garnered from footage of his opponent’s previous battles. Ward had the advantage here. Since the September match was his first outing and he had no record behind him, none of the same homework could be done on his style and preferences.
He loses that in the match against F-Mag, but Ridgell doesn’t think this is too meaningful.
“I don’t think we even saw half of what he’s capable of in that first battle,” Ridgell says.
Ward’s abiding interest in faith-centered expression would just be good marketing if it weren’t backed by something real.
In October 2000, Ward and his father were in Atlanta at a religious convention.
At the end of the service inside of a stadium, there was a call for those who had not yet accepted Jesus Christ.
“They said, ‘If you’re afraid to come down … look out at someone who might be weighing this and bring them down,’ and my pastor looked at me and said, ‘Do you want to go?’ And I said, ‘Yeah,’ ” Ward remembers.
He didn’t notice until after, but his dad had come down to be saved, too.
“I’ll never forget that night in my entire life, just that bond and that change that I could see instantaneously in my father’s eyes. It was incredible,” he says.
“He became such a great father to me in those critical years of 15 to 18 … when you start making those decisions like sex before marriage, like drugs and alcohol, like running with the wrong people.”
It was in this period that Ward began to write more. “Just a little bit in high school, but I never thought it would be anything serious,” he says, drawing a distinction between himself and his brother, who recorded music on cassette tapes under the name Cannon.
Around the time Cannon started rapping, he moved out of the house and supported himself hustling drugs.
Cannon says he visited county jail a few times for minor offenses but never spent any time in prison. He says he has been free from involvement in criminal activity for the past two years.
Ward skipped the trouble all together. He finished high school, enrolled in college and works as a senior relationship banker at Bank of Kansas City. He lives in an apartment in Kansas City, Kan., and has a steady girlfriend of six years. He recently had a wrestling-themed 30th birthday party.
Rick Ross says “Every day, I’m hustlin’ ” on “Port of Miami,” an album that ends with the song “Prayer” and Psalm 27:1: “The Lord is my light and salvation.”
On Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly,” the song “How Much a Dollar Cost?” features a narrator talking to a homeless man who turns out to be Christ.
“Master P, he had (the album) ‘Only God Can Judge Me,’ ” says Royce Handy, a University of Missouri-Kansas City cultural studies student and Ward collaborator. “You know, Tupac saying, ‘Is there a ghetto in heaven?’ ”
Handy is a sophomore majoring in urban studies with a minor in black studies. He’s an anti-violence and social justice activist and a rapper who records under the name Sauce Remix. Handy is primarily a recording artist rather than a battle rapper. His creative output includes seven albums and songs with a presence on Hot 103 Jamz.
Handy and Ward met in 2009 and have a creative partnership and friendship.
Handy explains that Ward and the Christian rap genre are following a natural progression of hip-hop’s interest in God.
“Now with hip-hop, a lot of artists are just being bolder about what they believe in, talking about moral issues, social issues as well,” he says.
Handy is preparing a research paper on Ward that presents him as the “other,” critical theory’s term for the outsider.
“He’s an other by being a Christian — a white, Christian battle rapper in a culture that talks and usually promotes everything opposite of what he stands for,” Handy says. “At the same time, he’s just as good as anyone who stands inside the ring.”
Producer Mike DeLeon — whose work is all over A.Ward’s last release, “Constructive Criticism” — says there are certain peculiar obstacles to turning what Ward does into a viable product in the studio. Ward’s strengths on the field — his ability to carry a silence if he needs to, his ability to set rhymes that may last for only three verses before moving on, all done without a beat — turn into liabilities in a tightly structured record.
But remove the restrictions of the studio environment and Ward fills the space nicely, Handy says. It requires a particular talent to stand as the other.
“I think he’s successful because the style of battle rap and the a cappella. … There’s no rules, there’s no beat no rhythm that you have to follow, and he’s amazing with that. With the way that he writes … it shines.”
In battle rap, you won’t hear about Ward’s support of Black Lives Matter, his thoughts on systemic and institutional racism. That’s not what he’s there for.
“When Steph Curry walks to the free throw line,” Ward says, clapping the back of one hand to the front of another, “he knows he’s going to get the free throw. He’s not thinking, ‘Wow, what if I hit the back of the rim or the front of the rim?’
“A lot of time people don’t put themselves in a position to fail because they fear rejection … and I feared rejection for the first couple years. I was a lot more nervous then,” Ward says.
Now, his concern for the spectators has disappeared. It has to so Ward can get around the problematic role of just being a white guy haranguing a black person.
“I’ve been there. I’ve done that, and I’m very confident in the material. And I’m very confident in the position that God has put me in.”
In other words, he counts the third. And it helps that he’s good.