If you don’t know who St. Louis rapper Tef Poe is, then there’s a good chance you haven’t been spending enough time in the digital world. Through his thoughts and lyrics he is trying to shape the way that people think about the politics and daily life of what occurs in the city from his perspective. After ten years on the music scene, his craft is now taking him into magazines, concerts, online videos, and television sets across the country – and his combined 31,000 Twitter and Facebook followers are going along for the ride.
The 24 year-old has a career that began before he learned to drive, when as a young teen he started releasing EP’s and mixtapes both as a solo artist and group member of the buzzed about ensemble Soul Tyde and duo Honors English. Besides his music, there’s a chance you may have read his Riverfront Times column “I’m Just A Rapper,” where he spills out his frustrations on the state of his chosen profession and the ills of the city he calls home.
“Everything I do is based on unity, diversity, being more so the person that’s going to say the things that everyone else is kind of nervous to say,” he reiterates. “I’m not trying to be a preacher, I’m not trying to be the savior of the city. There’s things that happen every day that we don’t think about, and I just want us to take five seconds to think about it, and maybe even have a conversation about it.”
He’s opened for Grammy-nominated lyricist Lupe Fiasco, and most recently touched down in Austin for music festival South by Southwest. Born Karim Jackson, his early childhood took place in the city of Pine Lawn, where he says he got his first taste of the “black experience” of growing up in St. Louis. Walks to schools created a real life scene of gang violence aftermath.
“Our neighborhood got terrorized constantly You would always hear shootings, some of my classmates would have lost friends – and I’m only in third grade at this point when I start realizing what this is, and it shellshocked me. I remember that feeling of just being scared,” he says.
Poe’s musical influence came from time spent with his father and brother Vito Money, better known as city rap legend Black Spade. He says the idea of being a rapper came to him when he was about 12, but he wasn’t aware of any easy way to do it. He received mentorship from his brother and his friend Kash, whom he formed the local award-winning rap dup Honors English with in 2004.
After the group disbanded, Poe bounced around Tennessee and San Diego for awhile before landing back home in 2009. He chose to live “around” the city instead of returning to his mother’s house – riding the train all night, couchsurfing, and occasionally in homeless shelters. His bounce-back phase created the perfect title for his EP, ‘The Redeemer.’
Five additional albums have followed, including his scene-stealing War Machine and its follow-up War Machine 2. He’s performed with fellow rappers Talib Kweli, Big Boi, and Rakim, and his name has been featured on the pages of urban music bibles XXL and The Source. He kicked off 2013 with four weeks as the “Freestyle Friday” reigning champion on BET show 106 and Park, and will be releasing two more albums in the coming months.
So it’s an understatement to say that he’s got a lot on his plate.
As he gets older and the promise of success climbs higher on the horizon, he is careful to not rest on his laurels – or produce music simply for the exercise of doing so.
“I’ve done a few things and I’ve got some accolades, but I haven’t done anything,” he acknowledges. “It’s hard to let the public know and let the people that really know you know that you’re still grounded – you just can’t control what people think.”
Tef Poe will be honored for his Freestyle Friday achievement April 5 at The Gramophone, where he is scheduled to perform.