Rehema McNeil displays amazing potential
By Ron Wynn
Indianapolis native Rehema McNeil has a composure and maturity that makes her seem like a polished veteran performer rather than a 22-year-old who's only been operating in the musical arena a little more than a year. But that's because she's a poised, articulate and striking spoken word performer, as well as someone with a strong sense of pride in their heritage and a desire to use her talents on behalf of others and to help change things for the better through art.
When asked about other noted spoken word performers from the past like The Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron, both of whom used music to buttress and fortify powerful compositions, she not only recognizes but cites them as influences.
McNeil's skills will be on extensive display this weekend. She's the opening act Friday night at the Love, Funk & Flow concert at the Murat, then on Saturday is part of a "Meet The Artists" event at the Indianapolis Central Library.
At both events she'll be performing selections from her debut release "Davu." She also sees these performances as the latest opportunity to polish and hone a style that blends spoken word's lyrical flair and topical penchant with hip-hop's percussive energy and cultural relevance.
"I don't really consider myself a rapper," McNeil said during an interview this week. "I'm a hip-hop artist. Hip-hop embraces all elements of the culture, and that's what I'm trying to do in my music. Rap is just one portion, and a lot of time it's only the more commercial elements that tend to be embraced by the mainstream."
"I see music and art as something that can be a force for good, or just be something that entertains, but really doesn't have a message. I want people to enjoy my music, but also get inspiration from what I do."
The foundation for her striking, often exciting original material featured on the eight-song EP ("Davu" is a Somalian word for "the beginning") comes from the years McNeil has been performing as a poet, appearing in various venues throughout the Midwest.
She's parlayed a zest for language, a natural charisma and a desire to perform into a multimedia presentation that's also reflective of a versatility that's seen McNeil display her artistic energy as a dancer, occasional model, and owner of Vibress Custom Jewelry.
But right now, her focus is on music and performing."Davu" reveals a wordsmith able to incorporate colorful references, vary her approach and sound, and skillfully move from a relaxed to an intense delivery. McNeil brings to her songs the techniques developed during poetry readings, only now they are interspersed within a musical setting. The powerhouse tunes "Bittersweet" and "Terrorist," showcase both sides of her personality. One is extremely personal, the other resolutely political.
Still, what's most impressive are the lyrical references, which are layered within a fabric of arresting beats and textures. McNeil's savvy enough to make this introductory work more of a lure than full package. By giving audiences tantalizing bits and pieces of her music, she's establishing a demand for more. Fans who hear, for instance, the dynamic stanza delivered on "Ambush," are sure to request more.
Others who contribute to "Davu" include Lexycontra, Mr. Tee & Csysive, Telia and Nue Breed. Half the eight tracks are either intros, outros or interludes, but McNeil demonstrates enough verbal facility and spark to indicate she's got the tools to be a real star.
Along with her music, dance and poetry, McNeil is also an entrepreneur, and her Vibress Custom Jewelry line offers another opportunity to demonstrate her creative excellence. McNeil got the idea for this after going to a department store and being disappointed at what she saw available in terms of options.
"Everything looked the same," McNeil recalled. "I decided I wanted some jewelry that would be a reflection of who I am and how I feel. I wanted it to be vibrant, Afrocentric, cultural and contemporary. When I bring in models to show off the designs, I make sure we have a variety of women. Black, Latino, Asian. I want to make a point, really celebrate the culture and show people through my jewelry, as well as my music. I want to make present what's been absent up to now."
The same can be said about the dynamic qualities Rehema McNeil exhibits on "Davu." There's definitely something special in her music, a quality that's absent in the tunes of too many contemporary performers.