Because of the lifestyle many of its artists promote, hip-hop is a highly stereotyped music genre.
First cousins DerMario Harris, 17, and Isaiah Brown, 15, have taken it upon themselves to change that negative image by using their music to spread positive social messages.
As middle-schoolers, DerMario, aka Mr. ENT, and Isaiah, aka Mr. Comic, founded the hip-hop duo SwaggBotz. The name is an acronym for Strong, Wise, Accomplished, Genuine Gentlemen, an allusion to the duo's songs, which promote things such as respectful treatment of women and the importance of having a father in a child's life.
SwaggBotz has performed many places in Chattanooga, including the Bessie Smith Strut, private parties and opening for Travis Porter at a concert at Memorial Auditorium in May 2010.
* Age: 17.
* School: Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences.
* Family: Mother, Remeca, 39; father, Preston, 40; sisters, Lakethia, 21, JaiDa, 11; brothers, Preston, 20, Abion, 5, Keleb, 1.
* Age: 15.
* School: Ivy Academy, Soddy-Daisy.
* Family: Mother, Stephanie, 42; father, Dennis, 43; stepfather, Quinton Perry, 46; brother, Dennis, 25; stepsister, Scaqarra, 17.
* People they would like to meet: Tyler Perry (DerMario); Will Smith (Isaiah).
* Favorite artists: Biggie Smalls (DerMario); Eminem (Isaiah).
* Stage names: Mr. ENT (DerMario); Mr. Comic (Isaiah).
* Favorite video games: "Halo 3" (DerMario); "Spider-Man: Web of Shadows" (Isaiah).
* Favorite movies: "Notorious" (DerMario); "8 Mile" (Isaiah).
* Place they'd like to visit: Arizona (DerMario); China (Isaiah).
Hear more of SwaggBotz's music through the duo's YouTube account, www.youtube.com/dermarioharris123. Listen to their community radio show, "Good Neighbors," at 11 a.m. Dec. 24 on WNOO-AM 1260.
After a performance at the East Chattanooga Recreation Center on Dodson Avenue last year, Isaiah and DerMario came to the attention of Kemet Productions International, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit artist development, training and talent consultant.
As participants in Kemet Productions' Road to Stardom program, they have learned more about the entertainment industry through numerous events, including a performance during Amateur Night at New York's Apollo Theater in September.
On Oct. 16, the cousins performed in Washington, D.C., during a fundraiser for Kemet Productions attended by R&B legend Stevie Wonder.
In March, they traveled to the NAACP Image Awards in Los Angeles. There, they met with entertainment industry executives to learn more about what it takes to make a career as a musician.
On Nov. 22, Isaiah and DerMario flew to London for three days to serve as hip-hop ambassadors and to perform in front of Baroness Rosalind Howells of St. David, a Labour Party member of Britain's House of Lords.
This fall, they began co-hosting a monthly youth outreach radio program, "Good Neighbors," on WNOO-AM 1260.
Q: When did you start performing hip-hop music?
- DerMario: I started writing poems when I was in eighth grade. Isaiah would come over to my house, and we would play around with beats on the computer. I felt it was a way to show my expression by tying in my poems to music.
Q: What makes your music different from other hip-hop artists'?
- DerMario: We don't cuss at all in our music. We try and uplift. In rap and hip-hop, they downgrade women a lot, but that's something we don't do.
- Isaiah: On the radio, you hear stuff degrading women, but what we're saying is uplifting to women, like, "You don't have to go this direction. Go this other direction."
Q: Do you find that hip-hop fans still respond to those messages?
- DerMario: A lot of people on Facebook and Twitter tell us they like it. They like that there are some young adults uplifting women, not degrading them. They like that we're actually rapping and are able to pull that into our music instead of doing like everyone else is doing.
Q: Do you feel like you're pioneering that kind of music?
- DerMario: In Chattanooga, yeah. [Laughs.] A lot of artists in Chattanooga want to be like artists in Atlanta or up North, that trend of artists. We've found our own way of doing things and a style we can bring to the game.
- Isaiah: You're not going to make it trying to copy someone else.
Q: Who are some hip-hop artists who have influenced you?
- DerMario: I still listen to old-school music, like The O'Jays, Boyz II Men and Biggie Smalls, even though he does have some songs that aren't positive. I'd say [Smalls'] energy and power to grab people and push them toward being something better than what they are was a great legacy.
- Isaiah: When I watched the [Eminem biopic] "8 Mile," I always used to think, "This is like what I'm going through now." That's why I was really inspired by Eminem, because he was the underdog coming up.
Q: What do you want people to take away from your performances?
- Isaiah: Mainly, what I want people to relate to is that you don't have to listen to negativity in rap all the time. You can listen to a party song without having to hear seven cuss words in the course of a line.
- DerMario: What I want them to take with them when they go home is that, "I had fun, and they didn't have to say anything negative or cuss and no one got in a fight." I want them to have fun and know they're part of something that's good and for the people and is positive.
Q: What was it like performing at The Apollo?
- Isaiah: Scary. It was the scariest thing I've ever been involved in.
- DerMario: I was super nervous, but all that was left behind when you go out onstage and see all the people cheering for you.
- Isaiah: When we were standing backstage right behind the curtain, it was the most nervous I've ever felt. You could literally see me shaking. When it was our time to go onstage, we had to rub this tree they called The Tree of Hope. We did that, and all the nervousness went away. It felt like I'd been doing this for years.
- DerMario: When you get that response ... that energy you felt from the crowd was like the momentum shifting. It made me get even more hyped. It was surprising.
Q: What was it like getting to perform in front of Stevie Wonder?
- DerMario: He was real down-to-earth and talked to people like he was a regular person. He sung a song himself in front of everybody ... [and] everything just got super quiet. It was like, "This is actually Stevie Wonder singing in front of me." I still don't believe that experience was real.
Q: How do you pay for these trips?
- DerMario: We had sponsors, and we had to do fish fries, car washes, selling Icees and standing on corners with buckets asking for donations.
Q: What do you expect to come out of the trip to London?
- DerMario: I hope someone realizes that our talent can be displayed globally and really reach out. I hope someone can help take us to the next step in the industry.
- Isaiah: We've put in a lot of hard work. It's really been a long ride. Kemet Productions truly believes that we have what it takes to get in the industry, so we're hoping that when we get to London, somebody will recognize our talent.
Q: What's the next step for SwaggBotz?
- DerMario: We'll probably drop a CD called "By Pol3r." That's our mixtape.
- Isaiah: Our fans have been waiting for a mixed tape since last year.
- DerMario: We were going to drop this past New Year's, but it wasn't ready yet. We had to figure out the right way to promote. This will be our first mixtape to put together.
Q: What are your hopes for the "Good Neighbors" program?
- DerMario: I hope it reaches the youth and that more people will come in ... so we can make a difference in the community and in other communities as well.
- Isaiah: That's what we're looking for right now: a change. It would help out if we do the radio broadcast and bring in more youth so we can start a positive movement.
Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, young adults, technology and people of interest. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German. He previously worked as the features editor for Sidelines at Middle Tennessee State University. Casey received the East Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists Award of Excellence for Reviewing/Criticism in ...