Perhaps the most influential jazz musician ever, Louis Armstrong was born to a mother who often turned to prostitution and was son to a father who abandoned him soon after he was born. Johnny Cash, the “Man in Black,” was born into a family of sharecroppers and by the age of 12 was spending his days hauling heavy loads of cotton. If one inspects the formative years of artists and musicians often a common thread he would find is that early on, music appeared as the last thing on the list as an ultimate destination.
Kevin Burgess, now better known by his stage name KB, is a rapper. His latest EP 100 debuted at #1 on Billboard’s Christian Album Chart, #4 on Billboard’s Rap Chart and respectfully at #22 on Billboard’s coveted Top 200 Album Chart. He’s won a Dove Award (Nominated twice), been a Recording Academy featured artist on Grammy.com and has received critical acclaim from his peers and media such as Billboard Magazine and The Blaze. He’s toured nationally with Tenth Avenue North and is scheduled to join Trip Lee for the upcoming “Rise Tour.” But like so many musicians that came before him, KB, the rapper, almost never happened.
At birth, the doctor didn’t think he’d ever be able to talk or even speak clearly. Fortunately, KB was able to overcome this ailment, but hip-hop was frowned upon in his household, forcing the youngster to seek a safer instrument for musical expression. “I grew up in a structured military family. In my house, you couldn’t listen to hip-hop,” KB explains. “I used to hide in a closet and listen to it on my Walkman.” KB hails from Tampa, FL by way of an Air Force base close to East St. Louis. Along the way, KB, thirsting for an outlet for his love of music with a desperate need for expression, picked up the trumpet. Fast forward to the present and KB has already released a mixtape, a widely successful debut album and is working on his second hip-hop studio album. And in what was once considered the disfavored music of his childhood, KB has discovered redemption.
KB was barely a teenager when his parents divorced and seemingly overnight he was ripped from a structured safe family-first environment to a single parent household in a rundown community in Southside St. Petersburg, FL. “All of a sudden it was just me and mom smack dab in the middle of the hood,” KB recalls. It was an overwhelming stressful situation for everyone but especially for a teenager. KB struggled to find his place. A naturally skilled learner, he was at the top of his class. But for all his effort, both positive and negative, there came opposition for a young man trying to tackle his own demons – The biggest obstacle being the loss of a father to a nasty divorce. KB tried to fill the void with anything from sports and gambling to dabbling with drugs and everything in-between. Struggling with anger, he’d often get into street fights. It wasn’t until he found faith and rediscovered hip-hop, the contraband music from his childhood, that KB would find his place. Ironically, at first, it came in the form of dreadlocks.
Despite his personal struggles, and with the love of a strong mother, KB was a gifted student and through an accelerated program, he entered college early while still technically only in his junior year of high school. “My mother is and was an incredible women, who I respect deeply and her faith has had a profound impact on me,” KB explains.
Quite literally being the youngest man on a college campus made it difficult for KB to find friends with similar interests so when he heard about another student that was really into hip-hop, KB promptly sought him out and challenged him to a battle. KB says, “I remember him saying, ‘I don’t do that. I do Christian rap.’ And I was struck by that and blown away that he didn’t qualify it. I never in my life met someone our age that would lead with their Christianity.” Two weeks later, KB approached the kid again in the lunchroom. He noticed a CD on the table. On the cover of the album was a rapper with tattoos everywhere, your standard hip-hop gold chain and dreadlocks. KB challenged his new young friend. “Dude, I thought you were a Christian, why you listening to Lil’ Wayne?” He was shocked with the response. “No. This is Christian. This dude’s a believer. Listen to this,” his friend replied. KB took the album home and was surprised to experience his first Christian rap album. And it was good. In fact, it was great! The music was a bridge for KB. Through the music, KB discovered the message. And in that moment, KB realized that he wanted to know God for himself and soon after he enrolled in Bible College. “We find ourselves looking in dumpsters for food, but really the true bread is God. Nothing could make me feel safe, not even weapons. The very thing it’s supposed to be providing which is safety makes you feel more in danger. When I discovered God, I felt safe for the first time in my life,” explains KB.
KB spent four years at Trinity College studying theology with plans on missionary work in Brazil. But in the latter part of his time at Trinity, KB would be pulled in another direction, back to the music that was the bridge to his salvation. With a close friend, KB formed an alliance of young rappers, poets, missionaries and students entitled His Glory Alone (hga).
HGA would create quite the following. Among the growing flock of fans were Reach Records’ founders Ben Washer and Lecrae. KB was invited to join Lecrae on tour and within a year had inked his first recording contract with Reach Records. In 2011, KB released his debut mixtape Who is KB? He followed that debut with his first studio album titled, Weight & Glory in 2012. He’s been featured on his label mates’ projects including Lecrae’s album Rehab (“I Used to Do it Too”), Trip Lee’s The Good Life (“One Sixteen”) and on Andy Mineo’s Heroes for Sale (“The Saints”). And he’s since toured the world over. His last EP, titled 100, a message focused collection, had fans celebrating the belief that what you do isn’t nearly as important as who you do it for.
And as they say, the rest is history except in the case of Reach Records, KB and his label mates, it isn’t. It’s history-making. Reach Records sales are approaching two million records and the label has acquired a distribution deal with Sony Music Entertainment’s RED. Its success rivals any contemporary hip-hop label. Reach Records dominated 2014 with three Grammy nominations, chart topping releases, high profile television appearances and performances and worldwide touring success.
KB is set to release his next highly anticipated album titled Tomorrow We Live this spring. He calls its theme a “mantra of the struggle.” And since no one is exempt from the struggles of life, he hopes it’s a soundtrack of inspiration. It’s this idea that one day the struggle will end and Tomorrow We Live. “On a grand scale that’s along the belief that God is going to wrap up history with a grand finale that will make sense of all the suffering throughout human history and it will show that good overcomes evil where we’ll be in perfection throughout eternity. But also the title works thematically in a practical sense. Nothing is devastating. Hope is bigger,” KB excitedly shares.
He’s traveled as far as South Africa to get perspective for this album. Together with his production team “Cobra” and the incredibly talented songwriter Natalie Lauren, KB escaped to Capetown and began working on Tomorrow We Live. “We went up into the mountains overlooking the ocean and just started writing. We’ve been working with local musicians too. We created this beautiful sound that I’m calling World Trap. It’s a combination of a big world global sound combined with a South Florida trap element.”
Through music, KB has found direction, a mission and a calling. Tomorrow We Live just may be someone else’s bridge to salvation.