Words, Photos and Mix by Antonio Hernandez. (IG photos courtesy of FRNVR)
In the basement of a split-level house, tucked away in a nondescript neighborhood just outside of College Park, some of Maryland’s most promising young artists gave one of the best shows I had seen last year. Four-piece jam bank Box Era hosted and headlined “Boxapalooza” last June, attracting an audience that packed each room in the house and eventually spilled out into the back patio. Riverdale’s 20NVR crew gave a performance that proved that they were more than ready for the big stage.
I first got word of the show via an Instagram post by 20NVR co-founder Kassim Okusaga, whom I had met many years ago through a mutual friend. At the time, he was just 16, and recorded music as KO, with his friend Peter. Together, they formed the pseudo-label “DaDaDamn Records,” and started recording and sharing their music amongst friends, mostly for fun about “a lot of cheesy shit,” as he put it. Eventually, Kassim realized that he wanted to take rap more serious, and with Peter’s encouragement, decided to move on. His first mixtape “A Consumer’s Mind” was his first mixtape and only release with producer LaBrew Solomon of Solo Recordings.
Frustrated by creative partnerships and results that weren’t what he had envisioned, Kassim decided to once again go on his own and re-strategize. But what had been missing was already around him: best friend and lyricist D-Keyz, producer and crooner Baptizeee, vocalist Fayson and singer Hasani. Together, they formed 20NVR, a crew founded on shared experiences of setbacks. Most recently, the crew performed at University of Maryland’s Art Attack with the Hip Hop Orchestra, with much acclaim.
^ Mercury Rising Mix: 20 NVR
Q: Who came up with the name 20NVR?
KASSIM: Fayson did by accident. Someone asked him when his album is coming out, and he say in the year two-thousand never, and it was just so clever.
How did you all meet?
KASSIM: “Keyz is actually my best friend, I met him freshman year. I met Hasani with Keyz, who was trying to join the dance team. I met Baptizeee through poetry. He did this dope poem, and I went up to him and we just got cool. I met Fayson, when we had psychology together.”
BAPTIZEEE: “Kassim was like the cool kid on campus, and I don’t know why (laughs). So I thought this nigga was lame as hell. We rode the bus together one time, and I talked to him and he broke down music and showed me some. I didn’t think any of it was tight, but he was a nice guy to talk to. I told him I was doing some poetry and y’all should come out and see me. They came out and saw me and since then it’s been happiness. “
HASANI: “I met Oceans (Baptizeee) at Lyrical Storm, he did this tight poem about the Wizard of Oz. “
D-KEYZ: “He was kind of a catalyst, because Kassim, he’s such a nice guy! I love that. He’s one of the most genuine people you will ever know. At that age, and as a blooming artist, that’s awesome. Whenever I hear somebody, I try to do the same, because you never know what you can spark; you could spark a career.”
“I was looking for facial expressions and see if I’m fucking up or if I’m doing it. People were amazed because I was real reserved in high school” – D-KEYZ
What were your first experiences in music?
D-KEYZ: “I probably didn’t rap out loud before my first time, since my junior year [of high school]. We used to have these cyphers, and I wrote this verse to Chris Brown “Look At Me Now,” because I just liked the beat and Lil Wayne is my favorite artist of all time. I wrote a verse, and we were doing the cypher, and I didn’t know the instrumental would come up, and Kassim already had heard the verse I had written to it, and he was like “spit it! spit it!” and this was the first time I rapped in front of more than one person. This was fight or flight syndrome. I rapped it, and in the middle of me rapping it, I was looking for facial expressions and see if I’m fucking up or if I’m doing it. People were amazed because I was real reserved in high school.”
“I always knew I could sing, but the people around made me feel like it’s something I could actually do” – HASANI
HASANI: “When I was in the 11th grade, I participated in this talent show with this girl. I was known for dancing, so when I went on stage, it was like why is the mic up there? So I sang, but she pretty much fucked that shit up for me because she forgot the words. I looked at the dude who was doing the music and I did the “turn that shit off face” and I walked off stage. It was a cover, John Legend “Used to Love You” You know that song? How do you forget that song?
I always knew I could sing, but the people around made me feel like it’s something I could actually do. Not to try and stunt or anything, but I have a nice voice – nice enough to do music on my own, anyway. These are friends, they take it serious, and I’m going to take it just serious as they are, and now we have 20NVR.”
BAPTIZEEE: “I started poetry in 11th or 12th grade, but I went to performing arts schools in Missouri, until 9th grade. I’ve always known music, I’ve always been involved in music, but I didn’t start doing my own music until 12th grade. [In Missouri], it’s not like how it is now, because I was secluded. I went to charter schools and gifted schools, so I didn’t get to see the reality, and I wasn’t necessarily paying attention at a young age. I know it’s hectic there now. There was segregation and all that. I went to a school, and there was only eight black kids, so it was mostly white kids.”
FAYSON: “I’m a church kid. I started off singing in church choirs. I used to write raps on MySpace to other people’s songs; parody songs, like Weird Al. My mom was a Preacher and my dad… came to church (laughs). Riding with my mom to church, we listened to gospel: Kirk Franklin, Donny McGurklin. When I rode with my dad to church it was like, Ludacris, Ja Rule and Jay-Z. He played a lot of old music like Isley Brothers; smooth stuff like Sade and Smokey Robinson.[My mom] wanted us to understand that you have a choice on who you’re going to serve. You can like this music, you don’t have to live by it. All music is good music. Some songs she couldn’t help but like because it was good music. We would be listening to the Clarks Sisters one minute, and then she’ll turned to 93.9 (WKYS) and listen to “Gold Digger, or “Shake It Fast” by Mystikal.
“Me and Baptizeee have great chemistry, so when me and him are on the same wavelength it’s ridiculous.” – FAYSON
FAYSON: “Me and Baptizeee have great chemistry, so when me and him are on the same wavelength it’s ridiculous. Anything that me and him come up with together is probably going to be one of my standouts. “Dumb” is a close second, another unreleased track. When it drops, it’s going to be a problem.”
Do you feel that there are enough opportunities to showcase your music and perform?
FAYSON: “To an extent. I tend to play the background a lot, and I’m not really social. I need to get out of that. Seeing Kassim do his stuff, it’s a lot of politics. A lot of people in this area, they already know what’s going to happen. No matter how good your music is, the higher ups are going to make sure you don’t get seen, because you didn’t buy 2,000 plays on Soundcloud. They already know, and everybody’s funding each other. But it’s cool because you’re going to give us respect or we’re going to take the respect.”
D-KEYZ: “You definitely need to know where to look. It’s kind of one of those things of knowing the right people. Luckily, 20NVR, we’ve been blessed enough where we ran into some amazing people who can get us into some great places. There’s a definitely a lot of talent, and a lot of people who have this dream. It’s just a bunch of perspectives clashing in a small area, it’s really cool to see.”
“My solution is to make fans everywhere else first” – KASSIM
BAPTIZEEE: “Yes and no. There’s enough outlets, but it’s always overpopulated, and because of that, the quality of people – the turnout – is starting to become diminished because people are like we’ve seen this already. “
KASSIM: “The area wants to say they show love, but they don’t show that much love. And it’s cool because this is how you know if you want it bad enough. You can make excuses, but once you find the excuse, you have to find solutions. My solution is to make fans everywhere else first, and then just keep generating here as well.”
2016 is shaping up to be 20NVR’s breakout year. Just a couple days ago, The Hip Hop Orchestra – a group of over 20 musicians and artists including members of 20NVR – reached the second round of Afropunk’s Battle of the Bands and will take their talents to Brooklyn. The guys are also working on a group album to be released this summer, while Fayson and Kassim are working on their own projects. Kassim’s mantra “so youthful,” reflects the energy, camaraderie and dedication that binds the crew.