Reference the phrase "No Child Left Behind" and you almost certainly will find yourself in a political debate. That's kind of what Devine Carama had in mind.
In using the name of a controversial and, to some, failed education reform program initiated during the administration of President George W. Bush, the Lexington hip-hop artist is hoping to fuel some conversation.
But politics isn't necessarily the catalyst for such dialogue as much as the need to show that hip-hop can address family values and concerns as easily as its more mainstream stars can cling to materialistic desires.
In short, shedding hip-hop's negative stigma by embracing life, faith, family and responsibility is what happens in Carama's world when no child is abandoned.
"When it comes to my family and our dinner-table discussions, No Child Left Behind was kind of a failure," said Carama, who celebrates the release of his album No Child Left Behind on Friday with a performance at Al's Bar. "The program was looked at as a good idea, but it wasn't funded and wasn't followed through on. So there definitely is this negative connotation to it as far as the circle I'm in. So I wanted to flip that.
"People that are used to my music, which is a little bit progressive, may go, 'Whoa. What is this, the soundtrack to the George W. Bush era? Where are you going with this?' But I wanted to get people thinking. In this day and age, there are so many artists. The scene is so oversaturated that you've got to find ways to spark people's attention. So I felt the title would make people curious, almost like, 'What does this rapper know about No Child Left Behind?' I wanted to get people to listen."
That was only part of the plan. Carama has a personal investment in redefining the concept of No Child Left Behind. He has two daughters and addresses the concerns of parental responsibility head-on in one of his new album's strongest tracks, A Deadbeat's Karma. The story line deals with an underage girl in a bar drawn into a conversation with a stranger who is later revealed to be the father she never knew.
"The whole aspect of No Child Left Behind, from where I'm coming from, is simple. You've got a lot of kids out here that don't have a father figure in their life. So that can be one aspect of how children are 'left behind.' So that song is another way of presenting my point. Sure, the story is extreme and unlikely. But the best-case scenario is one where you are part of your child's life because what they get into and turn into could be affected by you not being there. That's big to me."
Hip-hop with a conscience has always existed. But with the music's commercial rise during the past three decades, rapping and writing about social issues and personal responsibility have been at odds with more violent and money-minded suggestions expressed by hip-hop's higher-grossing acts. Carama, who will de donating a portion of the profits from No Child Left Behind to Junior Achievement, doesn't see the contrasts between the two camps as a negative as long as rap's more empathetic side gets its say.
"I've always been torn between what I felt would sell and what was in my heart," he said. "Honestly, I think the game needs that balance. When I was coming up, mainstream hip-hop had a lot of content. Sure, you had your Snoops (Snoop Dogg). But that was coupled with Common and Talib Kweli. Even Tupac's music had balance. One minute it was the gangsta rap; the next minute he might drop Dear Mama or Keep Your Head Up. Nowadays, it seems it's all one type of music with the same themes. There is no balance on the mainstream level. You have to go dig through the Internet or the underground to find music with any substance.
Carama is determined to follow through on getting the word out this summer about No Child Left Behind. There will be considerable touring, with a children's book of the same title expressing the themes of his album due for publication in late summer or fall. There also are plans for college, high school and middle school performances, giving Carama the opportunity to discuss the inspirations of his new music directly with audiences.
"I feel this is the right thing to do. Personally, it's the type of music I want to make because I know my kids are looking to me," he said. "They want to be musicians coming up. But the reason I'm pushing this beyond being a hobby is because I do actually envision this open lane. I have no manager, no label. I'm doing a lot of this 'out of the trunk.' I'm a true believer in the direction I'm going in."
IF YOU GO
Also performing: Blue Collar, Emanuel "Thorobred" Webb, J. Shell, JaLin Roze, T. Smilez, Young Lord
When: 10 p.m. June 28
Where: Al's Bar, 601 N. Limestone
Learn more: (859) 309-2901, Devinecarama.com.
Read Walter Tunis' blog, The Musical Box, at LexGo.com.