Childhood Troubles, Childhood Awakening
Tey’Ray Hale is the phenomenal emcee commonly known as Phenom. Raised in Chicago, he came from a troubled background. The emcee grew up in Cabrini Green, a former housing project on Chicago’s near north side. Throughout his early childhood, Phenom felt he had no purpose. It wasn’t until the fourth grade when he discovered his true talent. A teacher at his elementary school opened his eyes and mind to the power of words and the possible effects it can have on people.
“Her name was Ms. Trinidad,” Phenom joked making reference to the popular urban 90s sitcom, “Martin.”
He quickly confessed that he was joking. “In all seriousness,” he said, “Her name was Ms. Hodges and she was super fine and super strong. I wasn’t originally in her class but I was totally disinterested in what was happening and they labeled me with a behavioral disorder.”
Discovering the Power of Words and His Purpose
The system branded Phenom as a trouble maker early in his childhood. He said that doctors and teachers were consistently trying to make him take behavior modification drugs to improve his conduct. However, one day after getting in trouble, his whole world changed. While sitting in the disciplinary office after another bout of trouble, Ms.Hodges saw the future emcee and decided to take him under her wing. At first, his behavior issues continued, but Ms.Hodges decided to try something different.
No one else ever attempted to use the power of words on paper to help Phenom before that day.
“She had me read a poem. It was Clarence Darrow, ‘Reach for Your Dreams,’” he said. “I read it and I was like ‘I can do this’ and I was actually good from the reaction of my classmates.”
Ms.Hodges instructed Phenom to memorize the poem because he would be performing the stanzas in front of the entire school at the assembly the following week.
It was then that Phenom felt he had purpose.
“I dressed up to go to school to deliver something,” he said. “I did great at the assembly. They put me in the oratory contest for the district and I won that.”
To a City Stage and Getting Props
Due to his newly found talent, Phenom was put in the citywide competition where he took the fourth place prize. For him, this was not good enough.
“I was absolutely pissed, because I knew I was better because the content of what the people were talking about was just the poem,” he said. “What I did was about life… It was more real than the contest.”
From this experience his fire was ignited. He started writing rhymes and used his fellow classmates as a means to practice his material throughout his elementary school education.
“I got what they call props,” he said. “Like in the locker room, they were like ‘Yooo Teh’Ray, spit that rhyme, spit it.”’
The Battles Begin
By the time Phenom graduated elementary school, he started doing talent shows where he began battling. The emcee at this time began to recognize the culture behind rap and all it represented.
He knew there was a bigger picture. Soon the guys he battled with in high school developed into a short lived crew called Peepin Tomz. Phenom’s new crew began venturing out into the community and entering different rap battles.
Appreciating Diversity and Different Kinds of Smart
Shortly after graduating high school, Phenom obtained a job through the Public Allies program. Michelle Obama actually interviewed him for this position. He started working as a part of Public Allies at Mount Sinai Hospital in the community outreach division. He created his own program at the Chicago West Side hospital, making him the youngest person to have his own program there. The youth orientated program recruited teens off the streets by getting them work inside the hospital. According to Phenom, this job taught him how to respect diversity and he learned that everyone can be smart in their own way.
“It was about how you’re smart,versus how much you’re smart,” he said.
Persisting in Perfecting His Artistry
Between working at Mount Sinai and running his own program, he still had time to practice his artistry. The emcee consistently rhymed and listened to the radio making new lyrics from old beats. And to further expand his talent, Phenom continued entering battles.
The all time battle for Phenom as a young emcee began after he graduated high school while he was still working for Mount Sinai. His crew, Peepin Tomz, had just broken up and he was looking to showcase his talent on a broader level. Although the crew was no longer together, Phenom was adamant about honing his craft.
“I had a thirst to grow and they didn’t,” he said. “They just wanted to be guys. And that was ok too,” he said respectfully.
The First Lyrical Big League Battle
Ready to lyrically fight, he entered the Source Unsigned Hype Battle at George’s Music Room, then an iconic record store on Chicago’s West Side. Taking out rappers back to back, Phenom made it into the finals. This achievement qualified him to move forward to the next round which took place in New York. Attracting 1001 nationwide contestants, Phenom secured one out of 10 finalists slots of rappers who won a ticket to the big apple.
“I went home. I didn’t believe they were gonna send the stuff but they sent the ticket and it was real,” he said.
Phenom ended up in the final round with Proof, being judged by Vinny from Naughty by Nature and Maurice Malone. With the promise of a record deal, Phenom gave it his all but lost, coming in second place to Proof, the late rapper of Emenim’s group D-12 who came out of Detroit.
However, Phenom soon discovered that the record deal was a lie. According to the emcee, no one was awarded a contract from any recording label; instead, everyone was sent packing with only a t-shirt to show for their efforts.
“They used us, they did. And we didn’t know as much and we were able to be used,” Phenom said, as he discussed what he considered his first real rub with what he calls “politricks.”’
Coming Back From Defeat
After his loss, he felt defeated and was unable to get his flare back. Yet, his defeat didn’t last long. Two things changed for the emcee.
He watched the tap show “Bring in the Noise, Bring in the Funk” and the popular urban movie “Love Jones.”
The tap shows brought Phenom a perspective on how one can collaborate and still tell one story.
“It was my first time seeing a group individually, do something together,” he said. “And then I watched “Love Jones.”’
“The part in “Love Jones” that stuck to me the most was the scene where the brothers and sisters are chilling in the crib and they talking about things, they’re fellowshipping, basically,” he said. “I wanted that.”
WuTang of P.O.E.T.R.E.E.
From there Phenom started P.O.E.T.R.E.E. (Peoples Organized Entertainment Teaching Righteous Education Everywhere) with Chicago organizer and Poet Brother Mike Hawkins. The group originally had four members, but it quickly grew to eleven.
“We were the WuTang of poetry,” he said.
The new group began performing at Some Like It Black Creative Café and Bar. On stage with a crowd of 260 people, they collectively demonstrated their pieces together, yet they only told one story, a concept similar to “Bringing the Noise, Bringing the Funk.”
“We told a story about being black,” he said passionately. “Super ethereal rhyming dude is gonna speak from his level…I’m speaking from the block and the way we interlocked it was beautiful, it shocked us.”
However the group did not last. They shed their leaves leaving P.O.E.T.R.E.E. with the original four. The members decided to further their education by taking political education classes from Chairman Fred Hampton, Jr. and Front Line Magazine. Their newly found knowledge opened their eyes to societal issues in the Black community.
Paying Attention to Real Things
“We started paying attention to real things,” he said. “We started putting it in the music and we realized what rap was doing to the mind of the youth.”
Phenom believes that rap at that time, in the early 2000s, was “falsifying the minds of the youth and pointing their energy toward the money.”
P.O.E.T.R.E.E. had a mission to teach youth what hip-hop really meant and how black culture should be represented throughout it.
The group first got funding to form a youth program called Artistic Expression Workshop (A.E.W.). They successfully performed throughout Chicago and consistently achieved funding for their shows. However, according to Phenom, after Bush took office, funds began drying up and the rapper ventured out on his own.
Showing Youth the Power of Lyrics
He and his associate Sister K-Love The POET formulated the L.Y.R.I.C. (Let Your Rhymes Inspire Creativity) Mentoring Organization in 2008 at the KLEO Center on Chicago’s South Side. L..Y.R.I.C.’s goal was to challenge youth to take a new glance at life one lyric at a time. L.Y.R.I.C. began going into the community, turning other troubled yet talented youth into mentors and “lovers of the community.” youtube.com/lyricmentoringepk
Phenom believes that youth can be guided if they understand the importance of honesty.
“When you teach the children the truth, they are the most honest beings on the planet before they get normalized,” he said.
Using the Power of Eight Days of Truth
In addition to the L.Y.R.I.C. program, Phenom and Sister K-Love host the L.Y.R.I.C. Fest. This is an eight-day program that changes the spirit of youth. The fest draws hundreds of people.
Phenom says, “It’s an eight-day festival that we strategically plan around the time CPS releases the kids into the summer. Eight straight days of totally free events. We use all of our connections: BET Comics, American Idol Finalists…”
Outside of L.Y.R.I.C Fest, L.Y.R.I.C. Squad has a solid fifteen to twenty kids that are part of the group.
In addition to Lyric Fest, every Tuesday you can find Phenom at the KLEO center having vocalist and dance battles. This weekly event garners about 150-200 people.
“We invite everyone in the community and never had one act of violence,” he proudly said.
In addition to L.Y.R.I.C. and all its components, Phenom created an innovative youth group called Man-Up which interconnects with K-Love’s Treat Me Like A Queen curriculum for the Lyric program participants. This crew is a group of youth who work on making the community better.
Selflessness Wins Out
Phenom manages his time by taking less time for himself and more time for his family and youth. He no longer rhymes as much as he wants to but spends more time making sure his family is okay and the youth are continuing to learn.
“Instead of rhyming at this show and getting everybody to clap real good,” he said. “”Let’s take this show into the classroom.”
Although Phenom is taking less time for his music, he still remains engaged in his creative processes. Phenom says that he takes a word or person’s name and intertwines that word with the issues that take place in our everyday lives. The talented emcee describes his process through an impromptu two-sentence performance. The name he used for this performance was Ryan Seacrest.
“We getting flooded by the media and we all drowning cause we can’t see best,
but how high will the water grow, you gotta ask Ryan when the Seacrest.”
“It’s relative to what’s really going on,” he said about his impromptu rap. “It usually will start with a bar like that and develop into something. I’m looking at the issues first. I’m looking at the target and wrapping everything else around that.”
The all time defining moment for Phenom was when he received a check for a show that he did in 2016.
“It validated everything,” he said. “When you are a person of the community and you get a check to help the community you realize how deficient the community is and how lazy some of us in the the community are.”
“We funded the neighborhood with that money,” he said.
Phenom believes he can change the city with another check of $75,000 or $100,000
In addition to Lyric and Man up, Phenom visits Chicago Christian Academy (CCA) on Wednesdays to teach youth real life and the politics in the community.
The entire goal is to make the right music, affect the right youngsters, and leave a message inside of the music whereby it can still be medicine.
What’s next for Phenom, besides being booked to do his very first overseas tour in Belgium, the rest is a big secret. He says keep watching and just know that Phenom is a “hip-hop youth development navy seal community man.”