“Chief Rocka,” the signature hit for Newark-born rapper Dupré Kelly and his group Lords of the Underground, has been downloaded more than 40 million times on Spotify. If downloads were votes, that would be more than John F. Kennedy or any other U.S. president before him received.
But downloading a hip-hop record is not the same thing as casting a ballot for a candidate you trust to spend your tax money and approve local laws you have to live under. And Kelly, 51, acknowledges that his popularity as a recording artist does not automatically translate into support from voters in Newark’s West Ward, where he is one of six candidates for a city council seat in the city’s May 10 non-partisan municipal election.
If he wins, it would be his first successful run for office after a failed bid in 2018 and the first election in the U.S. of a well-known hip-hop artist, though the genre has been political from its origins more than four decades ago.
Hip Hop Grown Up
“I am what hip hop looks like grown up,” said Kelly, known as “DoItAll,” who campaigns in suits, silk ties and pocket squares. “It’s always been political. It’s always talked about being oppressed, being held back, about being excluded from the mainstream.”
Kelly, who is backed this time around by Mayor Ras Baraka, cited several failed electoral bids by other well-known artists: a 2011 run by Luther Campbell, also known as Luke Skywalker of 2 Live Crew, for mayor of Miami-Dade County; a bid by “Killer Mike” Render of Outkast for the Georgia state legislature in 2015; and a 2019 run for the Houston City Council by Bradley Jordan, a.k.a., Scarface, of the Geto Boys.
“I’d be the first platinum-selling artist,” said Kelly, an Essex County Newark Tech graduate who dropped out of Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, after his career took off in the early 1990s.
Others vying for the West Ward seat include Chigozie Onyema, a lawyer and former deputy commissioner in the state Department of Community Affairs; and Oscar S. James II — no relation to Newark’s Sharpe James dynasty — a South Ward councilman from 2006 until 2010 when Baraka unseated him.
Onyema, 35, was a member of Baraka’s mayoral transition team in 2014 and on then-Gov. Elect Phil Murphy’s team in 2017.
Asked whether Kelly’s celebrity status gave him an advantage, Onyema said it only mattered to the press, not to voters.
“Residents are concerned about housing affordability, the seemingly intractable violence in our city, raising living standards, and improving our quality of life,” said .
James, 40, a real estate developer who is running for the West Ward seat after moving five years ago, noted that Baraka backed McCallum over Kelly in 2018, and then only embraced the rapper after McCallum’s troubles began to mount.
“If you want the same thing, you vote for them,” James said of Kelly and his supporters. “But if you want change, I’m your choice.”
Brown, Johnson and Middletown did not respond to requests for comment.
Kelly’s high school classmates and Lords of the Underground fans know him by the nickname “DoItAll.” A friend of his from Newark Tech, Kenya Reed, gave him the name as a commentary on his involvement with the computer club, basketball and baseball teams, student council and other extracurricular activities — not to mention hip hop, a genre that wasn’t immediately embraced by the music industry’s powers that be.
“When it first came out, we couldn’t get it on the radio,” Kelly said. “The people who DJ’d, they didn’t have instruments, so they weren’t included in ‘music.’ So we fought to be included. And that’s what we’re doing. We’re fighting for the people of the West Ward to be included in all the greatness that’s happening in our city.”
Kelly, who still writes, records and performs as a solo artist and with the Lords, said some older voters with an impression of hip hop as violent and misogynistic told him he would not get their vote because of his musical background.
The Campaign Bus
NJ Advance Media shadowed Kelly during a recent afternoon of campaigning, which included riding NJ Transit’s No. 31 Bus through the West Ward, a regular part of his routine. Kelly sat near the door, said hello to kids and adults, introduced himself if they showed any interest, and handed out literature.
That morning he drove the campaign minibus to a 98th birthday party for a fixture of the West Ward, the Rev. Mamie Lee, where a resident who recognized him and asked about guidance for first-time home buyers.
“He gave me some good information,” said Shawn White, a 47-year-old hairdresser.
Along with Newark’s East Ward council race, the West Ward contest is one of the most competitive in Tuesday’s election. There is no incumbent running after former Councilman Joe McCallum resigned last month when he pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges.
The Mayor’s Backing
Kelly is running on a Moving Newark Forward slate led by Baraka, who is seeking a third 4-year term and hopes to preserve a council majority in support of his progressive agenda. Baraka, who did not back Kelly in 2018, is a spoken-word artist in his own right and identifies with his running mate’s mix of art and activism.
“I got a soft heart for that,” Baraka said. “People like to separate that: ‘Oh, you’re an artist, you shouldn’t be doing that, you shouldn’t be doing that.’ But my mother raised me on Paul Robeson. He was an athlete, an artist, intellectual, all of that. So, you don’t have to pigeonhole people.”
‘My Mother Hated Hip-Hop Music’
Kelly attributes much of his success to his mother’s selflessness, resourcefulness, and unconditional love. Brenda Kelly, 70, a retired administrative assistant for the U.S. Postal Service, was a single mom until she married Robert John James Kelly when Dupré was 8. He has a brother and a sister.
“My mother hated hip-hop music,” said Kelly, whose last name was Williams before his “second father” legally adopted him. “And then when I was younger, my best friend at the time was 13 years old, we were 13, he asked me to take a walk with him, and I chose not to. I said, ‘I’m going in my house to write raps in my notebook.’ “
“Long story short, my mother’s coming home on the bus. She sees a big crowd. She sees police. She sees ambulances. She sees familiar faces. And then she says, ‘Wait a minute. Let me get off the bus because I see people that are around my son every day.’ And she goes over, finds out that my best friend…he was laying there on the sidewalk. He died later in the hospital. He was laying there with a gunshot wound to the head. His name was Ricky.” Kelly said his mom broke the news and then told him, “‘Whatever you were doing in that notebook saved your life.’”
In 2020, Kelly produced a video juxtaposing a dramatized version of the episode against scenes of himself as an aspiring elected official meeting with Baraka at City Hall. It was for a song called “Keep the Faith” from his latest album, Brenda’s Son.
Kelly said when he told his mother he had been composing rhymes when Ricky was shot, she asked, “So, what do we have to do to take it to the next level?” He replied that he needed to make a studio recording.
“So, she went to her side drawer, where she kept the rent money, and got $450, and gave it to me to go to the studio,” he said. “It showed me unconditional love. And it showed me how to deal with residents in our community because you don’t have to like something. You don’t even almost have to understand it. But if you understand the person’s pain, if you can understand the people’s feelings, then you can at least meet them where they are at that point and start a conversation where you can figure it out.”
Years later, Kelly joined the New Jersey board of After School All Stars, where he introduced a creative writing program.
“People say ‘hip hop,’ people say ‘rap music.’ Well, we’re going to call it what it is: It’s creative writing. Whether you use it for poetry, whether you use it for hip-hop music, whatever you use it for, it can be a catalyst to keep you involved, to keep you uninvolved with the negativity, but most importantly, to keep you occupied.”
In 2013 Kelly founded 211 Community Impact, a non-profit that provides students with school supplies.
Kelly, who lives in an apartment in the Fairmount neighborhood where he grew up, has an adult “daughter” he helped raise though he never officially adopted her after her biological father, a close friend of Kelly’s, died years ago.
A sore spot for Kelly is his lack of a relationship with his biological father, who died several years ago.
“My biological father wasn’t really in my life,” said Kelly.
“One of the things I remember of him is standing in the West Ward, on 13th Avenue and 19th Street. And he came up to me to try to buy weed from me. He did not even recognize me,” Kelly recalled, adding he wasn’t selling weed but his father made the same wrong assumption that so many other people do.
“These are some of the things that young Black males have to deal with in communities like Newark, New Jersey.”
In April, Kelly announced a West Ward revitalization plan with sections on economic empowerment, accessibility, planning and development, and public safety.
The plan characterizes the West Ward as “a food desert,” and proposes zoning changes to encourage development of supermarkets.
Kelly’s plan defies the stereotype of rap artists as anti-law enforcement.
“Rather than defund Newark police, let’s continue to invest in innovative public safety,” the plan states, listing anti-violence and trauma support programs.
His rival Onyema offers his own multi-part plan, “A Better West Ward for Every Family,” with strategies for improving quality of life, “re-imaging public safety” by treating violence as public health issue, and advancing economic justice.
“That means developing a community land trust strategy, in concert with our neighborhood and block associations, to create permanently, truly affordable housing in the West Ward,” Onyema said in an email.
James, a founder of the We Don’t Need Permission social justice organization, lays out a platform to “Bring the West Ward Back,” that includes cutting taxes, providing low-interest loans to small businesses, and working with the ward’s police commander to focus on problem blocks.
Referring to Kelly and other opponents who lack experience in elected office, the former councilman added, “We cannot have somebody who will have to learn on the job.”
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Steve Strunsky may be reached at [email protected]