Last Tuesday, Bavu Blakes was just another hometown rapper trying to make it. Granted, the North Garland High School graduate wasn't doing shabbily; he'd built a sizable following in his current home of Austin, recorded with hot Houston artists like Paul Wall and supported the Dallas scene on compilations like Texas Hip-Hop Massacre, in which he traded rhymes with local rap hero Money Waters.
A decent track record for an up-and-comer, certainly, but the next day, his situation improved dramatically. On Wednesday, Blakes received an affidavit confirming his status as a finalist in the Scion Nextup Unsigned Emcee Search. Out of thousands of submissions, he was handpicked by notable national acts DJ Premier and Sean Cane to compete against nine other rappers in an online vote. The winner would receive a $50,000 marketing deal, $5,000 in cash, a professionally filmed music video and more.
Blakes' song "Black Gold" seemed perfect for the underground spirit of the contest. In it, he talks about rappers being treated the same way drillers pump oil out of the ground, but he says that his Texas tea doesn't need a Beverly Hillbilly to get his material out. Interesting metaphors, hot beats and bold, old-school delivery make the track a great introduction to Blakes' underground style.
Scion (a subsidiary of Toyota) certainly thought so. Well, for one day, at least.
On Thursday, Blakes got a phone call from Inform Ventures, LLC contest organizer Jay Cortez, explaining that the song had been disqualified from the contest for "political" content. Cortez pointed to selected snippets from the song: "Bush and Bin Laden got so much they rotten," "Texas: home of the real Death Row" and "What'd we really go to Iraq for?" After explaining that the lines were metaphors with no actual political intent, Blakes suggested that the company edit the song for the sake of the contest if necessary, but the song was ultimately dropped. The affidavit in Blakes' hands was no longer valid.
Most musicians would consider that last-minute snub a setback. Blakes saw it as an opportunity.
"The music business is 90 percent marketing," Blakes says. "That's what I entered the contest for. The only thing that was ever upsetting to me was that they said I was going to be a finalist. At the last second, they threatened to deny me that opportunity, so I took it upon myself. Which is exactly what the song is about."
Word spread rapidly on the Internet, thanks to jumbo-sized articles at hip-hop sites like SOHH.com and HoustonSoReal.blogspot.com, and the local rap community was up in arms with shouts of censorship and diatribes against Scion's attempt to co-opt the culture as a selling point for their cars.
"These companies don't respect hip-hop," local rapper Steve Austin says. "They look at it as a dollar sign. Scion would rather screw Bavu than have somebody [in their contest] that's a political figure."
In an interview with SOHH, Inform Ventures' Patrick Courrielche explained that Blakes' submission "contained disparaging remarks about other people and the song communicated a message that Toyota didn't wish to be associated with." He didn't explain why the judges' approval wasn't questioned before contacting Blakes.
"The people who picked him thought he was good enough," Austin says. "Premier, Sean Cane, these are people we looked up to! So what does it mean to have their knowledge second-guessed by people who don't really care about what they're doing? Why send him an affidavit?"
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Furthermore, songs that made the contest are unglamorous, with Hasaan Mackey's "Grace" including lines like, "[guns] usually land in the hands of the poor, ammunition at the liquor store" and "they drink until the trigger goes bang."
In effect, Scion proves the point that Blakes makes in the song that created such a stir: "I'm s'posed to be rapping about rims, teeth/Brands of liquor, fashion trends, freaks and heat/Glory to death and destruction I see in the street/If not, they gotta label me 'deep.'"
But Blakes is surprisingly upbeat about the whole stink and for good reason. He's already received interview phone calls from international music publications such as The Source. As of press time, "Black Gold" is the top Texas rap song on MySpace.com, beating both Paul Wall and Mike Jones in plays. Blakes admits that he's getting more publicity now than he would have if he'd made the finals and lost. And so are his favorite rappers in Dallas.
"It's more proof we exist," Blakes says. "They'll learn about me, D-Madness, Money Waters, Pikhasso, anyone I'm associated with. They're gonna see whatever was already there, and that's what the song was about! Rigs don't make oil. The music industry doesn't make artists. We are the commodity. We are the lifeblood."