I have always believed that hip hop saves lives. As Kendrick Lamar once stated in an interview, “People live their lives to this music.” Hip hop is a form that allows marginalized members of society to express themselves and let other marginalized people know they are heard. This, I have always known. But not until I heard the name Travis Karter did I come to understand that hip hop music has the ability to quite literally physically prevent people from dying. After hearing his newest album Phase III, there was only one way to understand this rising star’s intentions, to have a conversation with him.
Kristofer Madu was born in Nashville and spent his childhood and early adolescence traveling back and forth from Kingston, Jamaica (where he attended middle school) to Nashville (where he attended high school). He had grown up listening to hip hop and, inspired by rappers like Kanye West and Jay Z, began writing rhymes of his own at an early age. Madu’s hip hop career started at age 12 with the release of a song and video called “Till’ the Day I Die.” To his luck, Kymani Marley, son of Bob Marley, happened to be in the vicinity of Madu’s shoot, and made a cameo on his video. As a result, Madu’s video caught about 50,000 views, and landed him a brief interview on national live television in Jamaica.
Madu took a brief hiatus in his Hip Hop career while transitioning to a majority-white Parochial School in Nashville. He told me that being such an outcast in this new setting, his “creative passion was a tad bit discouraged”. However, after being convinced to re-enter the game by a close friend, he refueled his passion, and used it as an outlet to express his individuality within this greater context of conformity. He rebranded himself as “Travis Karter,” a “cool name” for his “new enigmatic persona that would transcend the idea of being an outsider.” At this point, two major, seemingly separate, landmarks were taken in the life of Kristofer Madu. First, he released his debut mixtape in 2015 as a junior in High School titled 2K. This album consists of a collection of hype bangers purposed to entice listeners to perk up their ears. Second, Kristofer Madu, inspired by a class discussion about the global lack of accessible clean water and his own experiences in Jamaica, decided to found a charity organization called Water is the Answer. The goal: to fundraise for the building of wells in developing nations across the world. Through door-to-door canvassing, within 7 months, Madu was able to raise 10,000 dollars. This money was used to build a well in a small village in Nigeria which is currently providing around 20,000 people with clean drinking water.
Karter released his first full-length album Pink in 2016. But upon entering Johns Hopkins University, Kristofer Madu took a groundbreaking step for the global community. Karter, as an artist, was completely rebranded and repurposed as a fundraiser for Water is the Answer. What does this mean? It means that possibly for the first time in history, all of the proceeds raised by a hip hop artist will be donated directly toward a charitable cause. This new campaign began with the release of Phase III.
Phase III begins with “Kids”, a deep, dramatic and sharp meditation on the fat confidence and die-hard attitude needed to succeed in rap and the world as a young person. High-pitched resonant synthesizers buzz over the sharpness of Karter’s fuzzy, deep voice. The song is a classic cruising-in-the-old-wrangler banger. But at the close of his final verse, Karter begins speaking over the instrumental. He says “Play this album as much as you can…2 years ago I founded a non-profit organization called Water is the Answer…100 percent of the proceeds of the album go straight to that so everytime you listen, you’re donating to Charity.” Unlike many other hip hop artists, who position their entire artist branding campaign around gold chains and “money stacks,” Karter appeals to the listener through his philanthropic campaign. He draws in the listener in a very unique way.
Karter’s music, like his artistic and philanthropic model, is quite unique. His vocals are low pitched, bubbly, packed with reverberation and ride effortlessly on the beat. This results directly from his creative strategy, which usually begins with freestyling, allowing him to rap from his “subconscious.” Karter uses a diverse range of instrumentals, but most share a common trappy theme packed with high pitched resonant synthesizers. “Zelda’s Legend,” the third track on the album, showcases Karter’s artistic individuality very well. It opens with a quick and mind-boggling rhythm of unique fizzy synth sounds. Karter’s voice enters at the same time as the massive percussive drop, working with the drums to organize the complicated synth rhythm. Halfway through the song, his voice rises to a higher pitch and he emphasizes that he “turned his whole career and dropped his album all for charity.” The constant reminder to listeners that the album is a source of fundraising for global access to water continues to put faith in Karter’s confident words. We respect his brags partly because of his unique sound and partly because of his unique philanthropic endeavour.
Another landmark track within the album is “My Girl.” In this track, Karter demonstrates his artistic flexibility by adopting a sound reminiscent of Ty Dolla $ign. In this track, Karter shows his vulnerability and describes the conflicting emotions of safety with his girl, and hesitancy to trust a girl that he loves. His autotuned slurs echo with the spirit of love, lost and found.
Phase III represents a revolutionary direction for Hip Hop. Madu essentially let go of the egotistical grasp on his artistic identity as Travis Karter and devoted the identity to human need. He explained to me “$ two million can be generated off of one hit song. It costs $4,000 to build a well. I’d like to come to the point where with one song, I can build 10 wells. I’d like to be seen as someone who can change the perception of the industry to something that can be turned positive.”
Adam Kanwal is a freshman in the College of Human Ecology. He can be reached at [email protected]