Ki’Shon Furlow: The ‘Hood Scholar’ who dreams to change one of the US’s most dangerous cities
Almost every day, Ki’Shon Furlow thinks about moving back to his hometown, where just last month thieves broke into his family’s house and gang members shot someone down the street.
Moving out of the hood is often the number one priority for rappers who sign record deals, and Collision Records announced last week that Furlow had signed with them. However, he doesn’t plan to put his first paycheck toward moving his family out of Little Rock, Arkansas, the 18th most dangerous city in America, according to Neighborhood Scout.
“I’m a bigger fan of going back and being an agent of change,” Furlow, 23, said. “I want to gain a certain influence, a certain level of respect, and come back and say, ‘I want to remain here with you. I want to offer my resources. I want to offer my life,’ so hopefully, it would encourage [young people] to feel like they could pursue passions they might have, and not settle for sitting on the porch smoking weed all day.”
Straight outta Little Rock
In 1994, HBO released a film titled Gang War: Bangin’ in Little Rock, which documented the violent culture birthed there. After three people got shot in one week on Furlow’s street about a decade ago, his family fled to the suburbs. A year later, though, they could no longer afford to live there, so poverty led them to an even more dangerous neighborhood.
From a young age, Furlow’s environment clashed with morals that his mother and stepfather had taught him.
“There were always these two parts of me,” Furlow said. “I think naturally I’m a very, very calm person. … But Little Rock makes you have to be tough.”
Students jumping students (and bus drivers) occurred frequently enough for police to regularly tail Furlow’s bus in middle school. But this early-and-often exposure to violence, complemented by the commonness of gang ties in his family, failed to send Furlow down a path that would’ve had him featured in a Bangin’ in Little Rock sequel. Success in academics, sports and music kept him out of trouble — at least more than many teens his age.
But out of character his senior year, Furlow tried to sell drugs to help support his family financially. His supplier talked him out of it.
“What are you doing?” he told Furlow. “You’re graduating high school. You’re an idiot. You have all of these things going for you. You have a good family. Go to school, and be a good kid.”
Furlow graduated valedictorian from Academics Plus Charter School with a 4.0 GPA. The star student and captain of the basketball team was eager to leave Little Rock, as well as his faith, behind. He grew up around church as much as gangs, but the prosperity gospel preached to him failed to hold his interest.
“Everyone I knew was really into Christianity for what it had to offer,” Furlow said. “They were like, ‘Believe God and you’ll get out of debt. Believe God and you’ll get a good car. Believe God for all of these things.’ … I was like, ‘You guys need God for blessings, but I’m leaving here. I’m going to school, and I’m just going to graduate from college, then get a great job and do this on my own.”
Furlow attended Abilene Christian University, where he initially laughed at his mother’s suggestion to go, but its physics department impressed him enough to change his mind. He only majored in physics because of its earning potential, but his major and view of faith would soon shift almost simultaneously.
To rap, or not to rap
Furlow’s freshman year, he was introduced to perhaps the only thing capable of convincing him to attend church, a girl he was attracted to. By the end of his sophomore year, Furlow had married this girl and changed his major to English so he could teach the language overseas as a Christian missionary.
This desire to make an international impact soon shifted to a local level.
“I really fell in love with the literature, the narrative and what it meant for me to have a perspective in the class, specifically as a black man in a majority white school,” Furlow said. “I think somewhere along the way, I was like, ‘I could be a professor and have my unique perspective installed in academia, but also encourage other people to pick up the field, especially other young black kids who may not connect with literature through the lens of another person of another ethnicity.’”
Furlow graduated in 2014 and entered Abilene Christian’s grad school to pursue a master’s in English.
He also kept making music, which he had done since high school but became difficult to find the time for with marriage, the birth of his first son, school and a full-time residence life job. In college, he had formed a rap group called “No Face,” but the venture had never given him a reason to prioritize music over school — nor did a few mixtapes which Furlow doesn’t want fans to find.
However, events in 2015 did give him a reason.
After several successful battle rap performances, Furlow was selected in May as a finalist for Legacy Conference’s 2015 showcase contest, in which six artists received mentorship from four industry veterans in an “A&R Boot Camp” prior to the conference. One of the industry veterans was Collision Records CEO Adam Thomason, who had already begun to build a relationship with Furlow after discovering his music under unique circumstances.
“I initially heard him first from his grandmother, while in Flint [Michigan], who passed the songs on to my wife when she met her at karate practice — how’s that for sovereignty,” Thomason said. “Though the demo was horrid in mix and mastering, he had skills.”
That summer, Furlow won Legacy’s showcase contest and paused his pursuit of a master’s degree. He could not thoroughly explore the possibility of a rap career while he juggled school with work and family. If his exploration that autumn went nowhere, though, he planned to quit rapping.
In late August, Furlow performed as a special guest at a series of Texas stops on John Givez’s Soul Rebel tour. During downtime, he showed Givez’s Kings Dream Entertainment label mate, Beleaf, some of his music. Beleaf, impressed by Furlow’s variety after hearing him perform only high-energy songs, told him he may wrestle with running in multiple lanes — pushing himself as a lyricist but having that overlooked because of his “bangers.”
“That’s part of who I am, though,” Furlow said. “I come from a very ratchet place, and I am very ratchet, but I graduated, and I got my degree … I’m from the hood, but I’m a scholar as well.”
Beleaf told him to make that a song.
Thomason soon reached out to Furlow to offer next-step career advice. He connected Furlow with someone to mix and master his mixtape, Keep an Open Mind, at a discount price, Alex Faith.
“The stereotype is battle rappers can’t make good music,” Faith said, “but I really enjoyed his music, and I was surprised that it was coming from a battle rapper, the way that he was writing hooks and stuff.”
Keep an Open Mind also impressed Thomason, who expressed interest to Furlow about signing him to Collision.
“Seeing him battle, work hard in music and, most of all, his character — that’s what sealed it,” Thomason said. “Alex co-signed his character, too.”
Furlow’s performance on Keep an Open Mind also earned him a spot among Rapzilla’s 15 Freshmen of 2016 in December.
On Feb. 22, Collision announced that they had agreed to a contract, adding him to its roster already formed by Faith, Dre Murray and Corey Paul.
“I really almost quit several times,” Furlow said, “so for me, it was almost like, ‘Yo, this is God speaking.’ How do you say, ‘I’m going to take off a semester and if anything doesn’t happen, I’ma quit,’ and you get signed to Collision Records?”
Today, Furlow released his label debut project, an EP titled Voices, which Faith said will exceed expectations.
“I don’t think anybody is really going to expect how great he is,” Faith said. “I just expect for him to be as good as it gets. … Good rappers are a dime a dozen, but Ki’Shon went from being, ‘Oh, okay, cool, he’s a good rapper,’ to, ‘Oh shoot, this guy is incredible, and I really feel like he can do a lot of great things within the genre and with Collision.’”
Furlow’s budding platform would have the most growth potential if, next, he moved his family from Abilene, Texas — where he still works — to a hip-hop hub like Atlanta, which is home to Collision’s recording studio.
However, his motivation to move is not platform growth, but rather platform use in a place where voices of hope are not a dime a dozen.
“That’s what he has a heart for,” former No Face member, KnuOrigen, said. “He’s not trying to be rich. He’s not trying to go and move into the suburb environment and safely live. He wants to be among people who are struggling, that he can share in their struggles and hopefully bring a light to them.”
Buy Ki’Shon Furlow’s new EP Voices on iTunes.