Charlie Curtis-Beard and the Childhood Blues
Written by Jacob Dagit
Rap music often gets a bad rap. Back in the 90s the Rodney King race riots destroyed Los Angeles, the black “Super-Predator” myths were floating around, and the cop-shooting, drug-pushing gangsta rap subgenre was introduced into the music world. What was meant to be a glimpse into the consequences of systematic racism and violence being inflicted in poor black communities was quickly perverted a very profitable product as the genre became a persona that could be bought, sold, and appropriated, until it eventually vilified rap music for a large chunk of the white public opinion.
Black people were angry (rightly so) and white people didn’t understand why, so they became scared of this music that had manifested their fears of people that had different colored skin. Although the fight against systemic racism is far from over, we are now slowly but surely transitioning to a society that is accepting rap as a form of artistic expression that is capable of sensitive emotional outpourings and not just the perpetuation of violence and misogyny.
At the forefront of this effort to change public opinion is Charlie Curtis-Beard, a personable and charismatic rapper who is moving through the Chicago music scene, spreading good vibes and breaking stereotypes in his wake. One thing you notice quickly about Charlie Curtis-Beard is that he doesn’t swear. He hits the stage and at the top of his lungs, yells, “Get your freakin’ hands up for this beat drop! In 1, 2, 3, 4!” Beard was born into a close family and was raised with a wholesome Christian upbringing that shaped him into the fount of positive energy that is spilling over through the Chicago music scene.
Beard grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska a place he describes as “boring,” where there’s nothing to do and far too many cornfields. As Beard began pursuing his music career, many people from Lincoln weren’t supportive of his ambitions as an artist and would’ve preferred for him to settle for a generic degree at UNL and transition neatly into a regular career that was “safe” and predictable. However, this wasn’t something that Charlie would be happy doing, so he decided that going to Columbia College Chicago in pursuit of a career as a rapper was what he needed to do.
Beard couldn’t see himself winding up like all the people that had spent generations in the same town, having just “settled” for the life that they had been born into. While at Columbia College Chicago, Beard met his backing band “Human Bloom” comprised of lead guitarist Jackson Shepard, bassist Des Martin, violinist Van Isaacson, and drummer Andrew Gercak, a hip-hop/jazz/experimental group, which frequently plays with local artists. The combination of Charlie’s raps over Sheppard’s jazzy guitar licks, a slippery bass and minimal drums is a tasty mix that adds depth to the production of their music.
Self admittedly, Beard works well when he’s locked “in a room full of creative and innovative people” who “inspire” him to improve himself. The mix of creativity and passion launched the group far enough to be not only selected to play Biggest Mouth 2015, a competition held at the Metro by the Columbia College Student Programming Board, but also take second place as a Freshman, against a stacked group of upperclassmen who were already well into their musical careers. A year after his Biggest Mouth accomplishment, Beard is playing venues such as the House of Blues and preparing to release his first LP “Childish.”
After spending the majority of his time writing and developing his personal style over the past year, Beard has only had a few select performances. Last August, he played a Sofar Sounds concert in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village. Sofar Sounds is an invite only secret concert series that is held in people’s living rooms all across the world in hopes of escaping the obnoxious and disrespectful bar crowd for a peaceful and thoughtful listening experience with local artists rather than straining to hear lyrics over the cheers of Bulls fans watching the game on the other side of the venue. The apartment was an incredibly beautiful two-story loft space with a private rooftop deck and garden space that was covered in twinkle lights on what must have been the most clear and comfortable evening of the entire summer. As the sun set over the city, delectable vegan appetizers floated around on trays as Charlie, Jackson, and backup singer Grace lounged on the deck couch discussing life as an artist with the other musicians who had been booked to play, most of which were close to ten years their senior. Eventually the crowd took their seats cross-legged on the living room floor and staircase as the show began and two folk/singer songwriter artists performed.
Charlie stood at the mic with only a guitar and singer behind him and by the end of his 30-minute set, the entire room of mild-mannered, middle aged, pronominally white, hipsters were electrified by the energy radiating from Charlie as his lyrics sunk deeper into their hearts. Smiles were stretching across the faces of those who were taking the time to listen to what Beard had to say.
Months later, Beard would take the stage at Wicker Park’s Subterranean for a crowd of Columbia students and friends. The plaster statues that characterize the venue’s upper-level stage were perched on the Balcony and loomed over the crowd as the bass shook the walls and audience casually shook to the beat. The vibe was intimate and friendly as a house show with all your peers but much more comfortable and well lit than any house basement DIY space. Human Bloom played a set prior, but its music is centered on showcasing their technical talent as musicians while their music with Charlie is focused on having an absolute blast with every second of stage time and that energy is an incredibly infectious sensation, especially in a space as personal as the Subterranean.
Creating that sensation exactly what Charlie wants to accomplish, he wants nothing more than for his music to make people happy and to bring them together. The stereotype that rap has grown into through the turn of the millennia is a perversion of the expressive art form that hip-hop descended from through blues, jazz, and poetry.
Today, many of the rap and hip-hop artists blasted through the radio feel much more like consumerist propaganda that demonizes the genre by giving the impression that all it promotes is drugs, sex, and violence then amplified by racial tensions, fear, and ignorance. Mind you that some of these fears aren’t without reason. Gangsta rap became a popular product that people could by after the popularity of N.W.A. in the 80s and 90s so the genre had become an exciting fantasy that people wanted to live out, which didn’t sit well with quite a few people that at the end of the day weren’t comfortable with this new race music since rock ‘n’ roll had been promoting sex, drugs, and violence for years already and was getting along just fine with society.
An entire genre and culture has been turned into a lifestyle that people could purchase. This is the kind of misconception about rap music that Charlie wants to change. After having an idea about rap for so long they get “really shut off and closed minded” even though there’s “a really beautiful side of hip-hop that people don’t know when people talk about real stuff.” Recognizing that people are often sad and depressed, and want to feel less alone is Beard’s strength and sending out good vibes is his battle plan. “People talk about being sad and depressed, things that people can relate to, so if there’s a rapper that can express that, then people don’t have to feel so alone, and if you tell them that they can get through it, if you put something positive in the song then that’s a beautiful thing to me.”
Not only does Beard have goals of making music that spreads happiness, his lyrics back up his aspirations. People tend to like underdogs; we like to root for someone that the odds are against, it gives us something substantial to hope for. Just look at the Cubs, they haven’t won the world series in over a century but they’re still plenty popular. Charlie is just some kid from Nebraska who has a whole lot of competition and not too many resources. Most of Beard’s lyrics deal with growing up and transitioning into adulthood and dealing with grown up problems for the first time.
In his single “Saturday Cartoons,” Beard raps, “I know it’s hard to grow up sometimes.” The second verse laments, “Put the liquor down and ease your mind/ deciphering all of my feelings I’m feeling so vulnerable/ Why is the world freakin’ cold? cold and uncomfortable/ forget all the grades and the 401k I just throw it away and take the pain away/ forget all the bills and the pills and they all are too real” as it transitions to the hook that catches hard, “I just want my cartoons/ I just want my cartoons/ Tooooooooons.” The bottles that make up the framework for the theme of the song is perfect and gives the entire track a childlike mood that is distorted like a memory from your childhood that you keep playing over and over in your mind but it’s fuzzy. Then the synth and bass slide around and cut in and out to the beat that still bring the childlike feelings to a modern mood.
"Moonwalk Legion" begins with “I was 13 years old when Michael Jackson passed,” using slam poetry to instantly give frame of reference on what a crucial influence the King of Pop was to a young black boy that had big dreams but goes on to differentiate himself with “I always like the idea of moonwalking/ because it looked like you were moving forward/ but you were really moving backwards/ and I couldn’t ever really get this down because my dance moves/ my dance moves can never move backwards/ my dance moves would always progress.”
When performed live, the jarring reminder of Jackson’s death resets the mood to that of reflective swaying. This age group is barely old enough to remember where they were on 9/11, but most remember what they were doing when Michael Jackson died. The familiar mention of the pop star sucks in the audience as it progresses through the rest of the poem that nearly screams “Well I’m break dancing/ break dancing because/ sticks and stones may break my bones/ but pops and locks won’t break me/ fade me dissipate me/ I’m a rebel in the making/ no, I’m a runaway slave/ on a prom night that you can’t forget,” then brings in his family history where “I always missed it when my momma rocked me to sleep/ no, when my grandma way back in Alabama when she was shaken by an explosion/ that killed four young black girls in 1963/ something in her veins that was passed down to me/ dance chose me dance chose me.” Suddenly 50 years of racial history is brought into perspective as he wrestles with embracing his identity as someone of color while figuring out right and wrong in the present and expressing that struggle through dance.
In his most recent single “Tuesday Afternoon,” Beard struggles with love and relationships in a swipe right generation that places superficial and fleeting expectations on romance, which focuses on the sexualization of women. The song intro is comprised of Charlie talking about a girl with some guys, “Man she was the finest girl I’ve ever seen in my life” and we get the typical Alpha enthusiastic responses, “Alright but she got them thighs that hypnotize right? And I know she got a fat ass…” but what Charlie wants to get across is that, “That’s not the point, the point is I met this girl, right? And something just drew me into her…” The short attention span isn’t what he craves, but rather being happy just, “As long as you are in my room/ on a Tuesday afternoon.”
The song is about being just as excited to be in love with someone on a typical day as you would be the first time you meet him or her. Beard typically wears his influences on his sleeve and they’re particularly visible in this song. “I ain't got much to do, but fall in love with you” is a straight shout out to Childish Gambino’s “Shadows.”
The flow and cadence of Beard’s rapping is strikingly similar to Gambino’s but in a much more playful and innocent way. Childish Gambino gets pretty heavy and upset in his lyrics while Charlie stays positive, talking about marriage and commitment. Charlie’s influences don’t stop at Childish Gambino; he admires a collection of artists that are trying to accomplish similar goals for the genre such as Chance the Rapper (another self-made Chicago artist), and Kendrick Lamar. The pre-chorus of “‘Saturday Cartoons’ sounds just like something that you’d hear on To Pimp a Butterfly with a more melodic hook that what would be expected by Lamar.”
Good feelings and authentic character are what makes Charlie so relatable and likable, he’s not trying to be anyone besides himself, giving his vulnerability an extra edge of attractiveness that induces empathy. The pressure of being a struggling artist doesn’t phase him and it’s giving him a chance to wait to put out the best material that he can as he prepares to release his next LP.
“It’s not about the destination at all, it’s about the journey, it’s about how you grow as a person.” Rap is returning to its roots and expressing real world problems for real people and Charlie is here for all of us that are still just trying to grow up and not be so childish.
Check out Charlie Curtis-Beard at the Bandcamp link below.
Contact Jacob by email at Jacob.firstname.lastname@example.org
All photos courtesy of Lauren Kostiuk