Doing his best to channel Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous, rapper J. Law stood before a crowd of Baltimore residents Sunday afternoon and tossed barbs at his opponent, fellow battle rapper Ray Cobaine — aka incumbent Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.
“So back me up, ’cause I ain’t backing down. The Democrat’s back in town, to fight against your policy that’s obviously discriminatory to people that’s black and brown,” J. Law rhymed — zeroing in on a searing critique, prevalent in some parts of the city, that Hogan has left Baltimore’s minority residents out of his equation for prosperity in Maryland. “See I came to fight, and if y’all don’t want that Reagan Lite era to come back around, then hope I win and vote for Ben when them polls come back around.”
The crowd cackled and clapped. Shaka Pitts, who organized the “Gubernatorial Rap Battle” at the Downtown Cultural Arts Center, grinned on stage.
And then Cobaine started, as Hogan — quickly landing on a key criticism of Jealous: that his inexperienced campaign has tried to attract votes by over-promising with plans that are economically unfeasible.
“Ben, you trying to rebel. You reaching, reaching for them votes like they high on the shelf. Don’t lie to yourself,” Cobaine rhymed. “Be honest about how you should have asked somebody for help. But it’s over Ben. Your focus is to overspend.”
People in the crowd laughed and nodded some more, clearly appreciating Cobaine’s delivery, if not his message.
In a cultural moment in the U.S. when politics and urban music are colliding, when Kanye West is jawing with President Donald Trump and the hip-hop historical musical “Hamilton” is breaking records and attracting a new, more diverse crowd to musical theater, this could be Baltimore’s offering.
Pitts, who has organized rap battles in the city for years with his group Pit Fights Battle League, said it seemed only natural to dive into politics this election cycle, ahead of voting Nov. 6.
“We have the gubernatorial race going on in Maryland. We have politics in general as a very central point in a lot of people’s lives right now nationally with what’s going on with Trump and everything. That whole energy,” Pitts said. “So I just figured this was the perfect time to do something with that and try to get people more involved.”
Pitts said he picked J. Law, aka Jermaine Williams, 29, and Cobaine, aka Rashaun Jackson, 25, both of East Baltimore, for their intelligence and knowledge of current political events. It didn’t hurt that J. Law really is a Jealous supporter, and Cobaine really is a Hogan supporter, he said.
Cobaine, who works as a security guard, said he, J. Law and Pitts worked closely together preparing for the battle, watching debates and taking notes. He said playing Hogan came naturally to him because he was already familiar with many of Hogan’s positions and agrees with them.
He said he supports the Second Amendment “but with safeguards,” doesn’t personally support abortion but wouldn’t mess with policies that allow for such procedures, and is an economic conservative — all positions Hogan shares.
“I just don’t want to spend tax money willy-nilly,” Cobaine said.
J. Law, a father of two and a state corrections officer, said he was already pretty familiar with Jealous’ platform, but studying it more closely got him excited to vote — especially given Jealous’ focus on teachers. (Jealous, who was endorsed by the state’s largest teachers union, has called for a new state fund to reimburse teachers for buying classroom supplies.)
J. Law said he thinks Hogan is “motivated by big business,” while Jealous is more interested in helping children.
On stage, both men cut into policy while also keeping it lively. As Pitts put it, this was meant to be “lyrical pugilism.”
Cobaine hammered on Jealous’ policies — Medicare for all, free college tuition, universal prekindergarten — as unaffordable. J. Law cast Hogan as a politician in bed with a corrupt national Republican Party, who straddles the fence on abortion, has left Baltimore schoolchildren without heat in their classrooms and done little to stop gun violence.
“Before I get to schooling you and your failing school system, that’s the next round,” he rapped. “We’re gonna address now your dumb, flawed gun laws, ’cause my prayers go out to the victim who may get hit with the next round.”
Cobaine at times deftly pivoted to popular actions Hogan has taken in Baltimore, like his swift closure of the Baltimore City Detention Center after years of corruption and inmates having access to contraband.
“Speaking of Baltimore, the city jail was so corrupt, we know it was. Dudes in the cell with phones and stuff, smokin’ blunts, rollin’ up. So why did no Democratic leader close it up? But we iced it overnight like a frozen cup,” Cobaine rhymed.
Those in the crowd seemed to have a good time — and some said they came away a little more informed.
“It was nice. We got some good viewpoints,” said Sandy Moore, 65, who brought her three grandchildren to the debate to gain a better understanding of state politics.
“I didn’t know anything about the governor,” said her grandson Jasone, 15. “But now I do.”