It’s 11pm. After several drinks and a very deep, life-changing conversation with Caleb Steph – a 17-year-old rapper from Virginia – I am crying uncontrollably. Christmas lights hang above our heads and the mood is a thick, murky green, like the bottom of the ocean. It feels as if the weight of the world lifts from my body as Caleb speaks. His round face and peach fuzz could fool anyone into assuming his intellect matched his boyish looks, yet Caleb and his musical counterpart Marco McKinnis have wisdom beyond their years. The backyard party we occupy is swarming with sweaty youthful bodies. Some are friends. We – all drunk – are just happy to be alive and scream it at the top of our lungs in the form of Lil Wayne lyrics.
Caleb has dreams bigger than himself and protects them at all costs: “I kept my family out of the loop with the music I made, I would trap myself in the room. They weren’t familiar with the people I knew or how big I was getting. Since I was young I always knew I would get to this point, but not so soon.”
When you get big, fame can spell trouble. But a higher power watches over both Caleb and Marco. They’ve gained success outside of their Virginia home and caught the attention of major labels, Grammy Award-winning producers and major magazines. They attract good energy like a magnet and unlike most teens who live to play, Marco and Caleb live to work on their musical craft. During Marco’s music video shoot at YouTube’s New York City HQ a few days earlier, a joyful spirit flowed through Marco under blue and red light, and he transformed from a hyper teen into a suave, focused young man. After a few takes, I noticed the apparent differences between the two boys.
Caleb wears a very laid back and reserved outer cloak in front of most people, but his inner shell is that of a mischievous, kind-hearted teenager – though you wouldn’t find a young man so humble and thirsty for knowledge. Marco, on the other hand, is like a male peacock – his majestically coloured feathers constantly sway back and forth, even when he’s unaware of their movement. He later explains that he’s very in tune with something he calls ‘the spirit’, in reference to otherworldly things, although I begin to think ‘the spirit’ is actually more in tune with him. Both young men are beyond gifted in more ways than one. Caleb has been cultivating his lyrical talents since his debut as the rapper Kid C, while Marco was previously signed to a dance management company in Los Angeles.
As I was speaking to Caleb, Marco interrupts our conversation to ask Caleb to come back to the party outside. Caleb postpones the offer and replies: “I gotta be the big brother of the group.” Marco echoes: “You don’t gotta be the big brother, you just gotta be the leader.” Caleb replies: “Same shit,” to which Marco follows: “Naw. Little brother can be the leader. It don’t matter…”
This simple exchange of words defines their relationship. Marco is his brother’s keeper. The same goes for Caleb. Earlier that day I asked Marco what it’s like to be Caleb’s friend. He instantly corrected me, almost offended: “That’s not my friend. That’s my brother. What is it like being his brother? Being his brother… that man is annoying sometimes. He think he know everything. We’re a couple months apart. I learn stuff from him. I feel like I was born with him. We almost went to jail together.”
“We went to this house party,” Marco begins to explain. “Ain’t no music playing. Ain’t nobody dancing. I’m real outspoken, I’m like, “ain’t this supposed to be a party?” We go in the kitchen – mind you, we’ve been in the party for like fifteen minutes – and there was this girl. She was like “party over, everybody get out.” I was eating the chips. I’m not about to leave while everybody else leaving, it’s too chaotic. Next thing I know I hear this crazy rumble – [people] started coming my way, they squished us into the door. I see people tryna jump out windows. They shooting! I hear the dude who threw the party like, “everybody get out my house”. I hear glass breaking. We been in this party for twenty minutes and it’s getting shot up. I go back in the house, I’m in my alert mode. “Yo where my brother at? Caleb, where you at?’ I don’t give a fuck who shooting.”