"If you have a voice as an artist, I kind of feel like it's your duty to say something to people," believes the Baltimore MC known as Wordsmith.
Making his area debut at this year's Savannah Urban Arts Festival, Word — his real name is Anthony Parker — is what the cognoscenti call a "conscious" rapper, which means violence, misogyny and the glorification of substances have no place in his rhymes.
He's not self-consciously "clean," just very aware that hip hop lyrics are more than entertainment, they can be poetry.
"I like to call it conscious commercial hip hop," he says. "You can play it on the radio. And all my commercial music has a message. That's important to me. I don't curse in my music at all — you'd be surprised how many people don't realize I don't curse — but it's so prevalent in hip hop."
It wasn't always that way. Going back to his early mixtapes and even to Bridging the Gap, the album he made with Chubb Rock, "I used to curse like a sailor. I'm not gonna lie, when I hear my old stuff I cringe sometimes. I'm in no way a Christian rapper, but everything I do, I put God first, and my faith is high. I believe things happen for a reason."
Raves hiphopauthority.com: "Wordsmith's songs are much more polished than most indie-level artists. Honestly, any number of them could be on radio today, although their lyrical content and messages may be a little too positive for the dreck that passes as radio rap these days. His production is tight, his music varied, and his delivery solid throughout. Vocally, Wordsmith resembles Talib Kweli, but with much stronger vocal projection."
His most recent album, King Noah (dedicated to his newborn son), is a direct reflection of the "positive change" he's made in his life, a change he hopes others can draw inspiration from.
"When I made the changeover, I feel like I became a much better songwriter, and my music became so much better," he says. "Because to me, it's easy to throw a curse in a line, to finish up a sentence or a couple bars. And when you've got to be clean all the way through, you really got to dig a lot deeper."
Word, who records pianos, real drums and guitars along with his beats, likes to think of himself as having the "classical flow" of vintage hip hop. "You expect music to evolve," he explains. "You expect fashion to evolve. You expect life in general to evolve.
"But I feel like those basic requirements that made hip hop what it is, you gotta keep 'em intact and let the music evolve at the same time. And that's what I feel like I do a good job of: Give you today's music. But still people say 'Man, he reminds me of blah-blah from the '90s, but I can still rock to his music 'cause it's updated."
He writes everything himself, lyrics and music, and works with several producers and engineers, one in Poland, one in Canada, another right around the corner in Baltimore. He's often booked into rock clubs in big cities.
What he does, Word says, "just kinda works in my favor. I'm able to do more things because of the style of my hip hop, and I get looked at more as a musician who does hip hop than just a regular rapper."
His latest, The Blue Collar Project, drops soon; in the meantime, he's playing a festival in Philadelphia before he drops in for SUAF.
It is a homecoming, sort of. As Anthony Parker, Word spent four years as a young man in Richmond Hill. "I was out there when it was more of a truck stop area," he laughs.