This post was also published in The Water Tower.
“How hip hop am I? I am so hip hop,” he told me. “I come from flushing the toilet with a bucket of water hip hop. I come from the hood where the window was broken and I had like nine cats crawling out my window in my room.” He laughed, throwing his bald head back and shaking his impressive black beard. “I love cats. I’m a Bengal, baby, that’s a big cat! And I’m hood, man, I’m hood like fish and grits!”
This is Kingbread. Let’s set the records straight: he’s not dangerous, he’s not homeless, he does not own a gun. And his name is not Cornbread. If you find him swaggering down some Burlington path and he starts spitting lines at you, don’t run away; stop and listen, you’ll probably learn something. The police may be his “main enemies,” but he loves UVM students, and he hopes we hove him just as much.
“I can’t keep saying how much I love the support UVM’s showing me,” he said when I interviewed him on Friday at Manhattan Pizza & Pub (footage of which will be available online). In the years since he moved from Cincinnati to Burlington, he’s become a hero among many students and a permanent fixture at their parties. And now, thanks to his publicist Jordan Hurley (known on the street as J. Realzy), you can find him on YouTube, Twitter, Soundcloud, and Facebook, where he has over 3,000 followers. But his various arrests, allegations of drug dealing, and recent year-long ban from UVM campus keep him a controversial figure. “I got some haters up there, I know everybody can’t love everybody, but that’s what keeps me goin’…I’m motivated by the hate. If everybody loved me I wouldn’t have no reason to go hard…I go hard for those who love me and go hard on those who hate me.”
Don’t reduce his whole identity to lyrics like “Damn you brought strawberries boo/and I get to pop your cherry too/and I got that big banana/let’s put fruit salad on camera”; there’s a man behind the music. Born to a Jehovah’s Witness family in the Cincinnati ghetto, Kevin Martin started writing raps when he was fifteen. He left town after the brutal Cincinnati Riots of 2001, and his father found work as head chef at what is now Burlington’s Hilton Hotel, bringing him and his son to the Green Mountain State. “I’m a Vermonter,” he declares. “I gotta represent for the home team, a lot of my success came from Vermont. I wouldn’t be who I am without VT.”
Vermont was where he converted to Sunni Islam and got married. “I’m married Islamicly, which means we all know about them four wives [flashes peace sign]…I still can be me, my wife trusts me, I still can do what I do. I’m a lot of things to a lot of people.” Like most things he told me, the exact details didn’t need to be discussed.
Burlington was also the site of his arrest in 2007 for crack distribution sent him upstate to Ray Brook Federal Prison until 2011. Although he had already become popular among the UVM hip hop and party crowd (with hits like “Yay at the Bar”), it was in the pen that Kingbread evolved. Whether he’s repented for his crime is unclear, but there’s no doubt that his talent reached a new level.
“Most of your successful people—your rappers especially—were drug dealers,” he declares. “Am I a drug dealer? That’s still to be known, still to be found out, it’s probably not true. But I used to be, that’s why I did Fed time, and let me tell you what: my time is where I wrote my rhymes. If I never did that time I wouldn’t be hot as I am right now.”
Prison was also where he dreamed up his record label, Royal Cash Records, of which he is the self-promoted Chief Executive Officer. “I thought of that idea when I was incarcerated, I thought, ‘Kingbread is Royal Cash, Royal Cash is Kingbread.’” Armed with this flawless tautology, Kingbread proved himself a champion rapper to his fellow inmates. “I was goin’ hard up against dudes from Philadelphia, New York, n****s from all over the world was feeling my rhymes, from Dallas, LA, like ‘Yo, this n***a flew in from Vermont. He got it, man, he got it!’ We gotta go harder cuz where I’m from geographically, me being from Vermont, I was kind of like an outcast in there.”
Since he’s been free, he’s been meeting new people, making new connections, and getting the word about that Kingbread is on the rise. Back on his home turf, he no longer feels like an outcast. “I’ve never felt persecuted [in Burlington]. I felt like I’ve been a target sometimes. But I’ve got a lot of support on campus, and if a group attacked me, there’s gonna be another group to back me up.”
He’s a man of strong and sometimes controversial politics. “We’ve got a sequester goin’ on, we cuttin’ budgets, I saw a bunch of news last night, he and John Boehner havin’ beef. Obama’s got a lot of shit on his hands right now and he’s gotta fix it.” But many of his beliefs are influenced by his faith in Islam, which is why he opposes the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and believes that “anyone with common sense knows that [Obama] was born a Muslim, that man is a Muslim, unless he denounced Islam (which he probably did).”
On gun control, he says: “I do not own a gun, will not own a gun, do not need a gun, I’ll just box it out.”
His thoughts on the politics of hip hop were even stronger. “In hip hop, we practice our first amendment all the way man, I practice my first amendment all day,” he says. “Here’s an interesting fact though: white people support hip hop more than black people do. Why’s that? Cuz every n***a thinks he can rap.” It can be a dirty game, but when it comes down to it, Kingbread says, “I think hip hop saved a lot of lives, I really do.”
Kingbread is already on top and rising. He’s rapping real, cracking jokes, and going hard all over town, and he’s not stopping. He was barely deterred by his recent ban from UVM campus until March 2014: “I don’t need to be on campus to interact with my fans, the kids, my supporters. I can catch ‘em on Isham, you know, Loomis, Hickok, downtown, where we do stuff that we can’t do on the campus [wink and double thumbs up].” His goals for the future? “I wanna blow up!”
With funny, clever, and sometimes exaggerated lyrics, Kingbread talks about life. But from a man as positive and energetic as Kevin Martin, the result is party music, tunes to get crunk to. “I wanna make people happy man, I wanna make people laugh. I wanna make people think like ‘Damn, he just said some real slick shit.’ Cuz that’s what it’s all about now, it’s all about talking that shit in the rap now…this is not a humble business.”
So here’s to you, Kingbread. If you keep spittin’ that shit, you’ll make UVM students as happy as we make you. Even if some of our freshman are scared of you. And to those freshmen, here’s one last word of advice that Kingbread learned in the pen: “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”