Verner reflects on hip-hop stardom
Mary Verner, part-time rapper and full-time mayor, suggested this week she might start putting her policy proposals to a beat.
Anything to get the message out.
Verner, 52, has become a minor Internet sensation after her performance last weekend of a rap duet, “Coming Together,” hit YouTube.com.
The song is a collaboration between Verner and 19-year-old Eastern Washington University freshman Josh Ogle, aka Gasmasq. Part Spokane history, part biography – both performers have overcome obstacles – the rap sings the city’s praises but doesn’t hide its darker side.
“If you listen to the message, it’s a very positive message about people turning their lives around,” Verner said.
On Saturday, Verner and Ogle performed the song between acts at RAWK the Inland Northwest’s Final Four, a youth band competition.
Verner was the oldest performer Saturday, by a few decades. But she and Ogle elicited screams and cheers from the crowd.
“I’m Mary. I’m the mayor of the city, but the road that brought me here hasn’t always been pretty,” she rapped. “I’ve had money in my pockets but food stamps, too. I’ve been looked up to and down at – somehow made it through.”
Ogle’s life hasn’t always been pretty, either. After a falling-out with his mother, he spent three years homeless. He spent time in juvenile detention on charges related to vandalism and theft, he said.
“My education froze,” according to his lyrics, “cuz I was constantly in juvy for tryin’ to steal clothes.”
With the help of Volunteers of America programs, including the homeless-youth outreach center Crosswalk, which Ogle entered in 2005, he stopped drinking and smoking pot, he said. He started performing in poetry slams, earned his GED and got his own place to live.
He said the song’s title expresses its message: “Coming Together.”
“Even though we looked like we were on different planes at the moment … we had generally similar backgrounds,” Ogle said of he and Verner. “Even though people might come from different avenues and different walks of life, we are all people.
“We should all work together.”
Lucas Brown, a Lewis and Clark High School junior, said Verner’s appearance at the concert was startling, but the crowd was impressed.
“It totally surprised me,” said Brown, who performed Saturday with the funk bank Bodhi Drip. “I thought it was gutsy, but she pulled it off.”
Brown, the son of state Sen. Lisa Brown, said he could envision his mother dancing or singing at such an event, but probably not rapping.
The collaboration between Ogle and Verner was formed after the mayor was asked by Redhawk Rice-Sauer, a minister at Covenant Christian Church, to perform at HeartSongs, a benefit concert for programs for homeless people performed mostly by homeless people.
It was Verner’s idea to perform a hip-hop song with someone from Crosswalk, and staff recommended Ogle, given the progress he’d made and his success in poetry slams, Rice-Sauer said.
Rice-Sauer, Ogle and Verner met about a half-dozen times to write and practice the song before the duo made their debut at the December HeartSongs concert.
When they first tried to record it, Verner “needed more attitude,” Ogle said. So he recorded a version for her to take home to practice with. The next time they met, she was ready.
“I have kind of a negative opinion of a lot of politicians, so I was pretty uneasy about how she might be. But afterwards, she blew my mind,” Ogle said. “It didn’t ever seem like she was holding back. She was just totally straight, honest and forthcoming.”
Verner was equally impressed by the young rapper.
“One thing I appreciate about Gasmasq’s style is, if you listen to his lyrics, they’re quite intellectually stimulating,” she said. “He has lyrics that are meaningful and that I think are upbeat, positive messages for young people.”
Verner has shown interest in the local music scene, which has been promoted not only by artists, but by business leaders who want to give young people reasons to stay in town.
“Part of the message I want to send is you can have a successful music career here,” she said.
Attention generated by the song comes as Crosswalk and other Volunteers of America programs face budgets cuts resulting from the recession.
“It brings some publicity to the fact that these young people have a tremendous amount of talent and of intelligence,” said Bridget Cannon, director of youth services for Volunteers of America in Spokane.
“They’re not throwaway kids, even if they have some questionable histories and they’ve made some bad choices.”