By Samantha Brandbergh
When Sharif Lacey was 20 years old, he had just lost his scholarship to University of the Arts in Philadelphia where he was studying film.
He sat on the couch in his mother’s house, high and eating Cocoa Puffs. “You’re a lost cause,” his mother told him.
It was in that moment that Lacey took an insult and made something positive out of it, creating his stage name Reef the Lost Cauze.
Lacey is an independent hip-hop recording artist who recently wrapped up his European tour. Working alongside the American Studies program at Rider, he spoke to a group of students and music lovers on Oct. 11.
Professor of English Mickey Hess is a longtime fan of Lacey and considers him one of his favorite rappers. “At [his] shows, I’m standing about a foot away from him,” he said. “I want to get the full experience.”
Whether it’s mainstream or underground, the message of hip-hop music extends across cultures.
“Reef brings this power and positivity to his music, and it really speaks to people across the globe,” Hess said.
During his talk, Lacey touched on topics such as the cultural roots of hip-hop, the difference between classic and modern hip-hop music and why the genre matters now more than ever.
“If you wake up like me, you wake up every day kind of terrified of what’s gonna happen next,” he said.
While Lacey said that hip-hop music has been politically charged and socially conscious for decades — rap group Public Enemy spoke out “in rage” during the crack epidemic in the early 1980s — modern artists such as Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole and Joey Bada$$ are shedding light on current political issues.
“I think that’s the most important thing that hip-hop can offer to our kids and for our future,” Lacey said.
Although Lacey believes he had things better than his parents, he can’t say that is true for everyone.
He has a 7-year-old son who is autistic and speaks with his hands or through hugs, as opposed to words.
“What if he’s walking home one night and he gets stopped and he doesn’t know how to explain where he’s going or who he is?” he said. “He could die. I could die, and I can talk.”
Born and raised in West Philadelphia, Lacey said he had a “stereotypical” upbringing: drugs, poverty, crime and an absent father. To combat this, he decided to “educate and empower” himself by listening to rappers such as Public Enemy, Big Daddy Kane, Rakim and Poor Righteous Teachers.
“All these guys told me something that I wasn’t being told by anybody else,” he said. “It kicked down that door, that we understood what was going on in the world.”
While Lacey had other inspirations in his life — movies, books and his uncles, who served as his mentors — nothing resonated with him like hip-hop music.
The genre, Lacey said, continues to inspire today’s generation. “[Lyrics]often inspire; they help people want to create and be a part of that movement,” he added.
Although a lot of hip-hop music at the forefront today can be categorized as “gangster rap” or “mumble rap,” Lacey said that is just as important as the socially conscious rap.
While the party songs are getting more attention and radio air time, this generation has the power to change that.
“Just like the artists taking risks, these athletes and people in power that are opening their mouth and [speaking] out, ya’ll gotta join that fight,” Lacey said.
Similarly, young people have the ability to change the mindset on topics of misogyny and homophobia, which are both prevalent in hip-hop culture.
Lacey recalled the reaction of those his age toward Young Thug’s album cover for “JEFFEREY,” which shows the rapper in a lavender ruffled dress.
“When that album cover came out, I thought I was in a movie,” he said. “The reaction to a guy wearing a dress, you would have thought that he shot a baby or something.”
The acceptance of female rappers is on the rise in modern culture as well, Lacey said. With rappers like Nicki Minaj and Cardi B, Lacey said that gender shouldn’t determine a rapper’s talent.
“Women have always been the backbone of every society. It starts and ends with them,” he said. “And yet we still treat them like they’re beneath us.”
Whether it’s word-of-mouth, social media or through student’s physical presence at Rider, Lacey encouraged the audience to speak out on issues that matter to them.
“It’s going to be vital for you to use your voice in this time,” he said. “We’re in a world of trouble, and it’s not gonna change unless we band together.”
Printed in the 10/18/17 edition.