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Rapper Jon Braman admits that he’s lacking in the street-cred department. His hippie-dippy lyrics don’t help. Nor does his hometown of Port Washington, N.Y. But perhaps his biggest liability is his ukulele.
“It’s a bizarre combination to some people,” he says. “But to me it works naturally because you can have some good rhythm with it.”
The 25-year-old Mount Pleasant resident’s blend of folk/hip-hop started when he found a ukulele in a garbage can when he was in high school. (He’s careful to note that he waited around for a while to make sure someone didn’t leave it there by mistake.) He taught himself to play his new four-stringed miniguitar and carried it around like his “security blanket,” he says.
“My friends would know I was coming because they would hear me before they saw me,” he says.
Before long, he was known as Ukulele Boy.
Braman started rapping after he graduated from Yale, while he was working for the Connecticut Public Interest Research Group to improve clean-air laws. The genre’s powerful beat and ability to bring people together enticed him as a good match for his songs about global warming, politics, and inequality.
Unsurprisingly, a Braman hip-hop concert feels more Joni Mitchell than Juvenile. About 50 people have come to an April show at the Potter’s House, a Christian coffeehouse in Adams Morgan. They eat berry pie and pass around a book called If the World Were a Village.
“Just out of curiosity,” Braman asks between songs, “can you raise your hands if you listen to hip-hop regularly?”
People giggle and three hands go up in the back of the room. He breaks into the song “Don’t Look Back,” which he plans to include on his second album, a follow-up to 2004’s Sprouting Daisies Out of My Hair:
“I sing with a few voices, they all like to sing about being/Free of the man, free without a master plan/Free to be just you and me, living off the land.”
Braman’s lyrics lean to the left, but he’s careful not to write one-dimensional protest songs. Many of his tunes, such as “Guru,” are about his relationship with his wife, Lisette Braman, who often sings harmony during his shows: “I met you at the moment rain turned into snow/Said, ‘You wanna go back to my place and drink a bowl of cocoa?’/Oh no, am I going loco for this lady so so fast?”
Lisette, 24, says she’s never had to nix any of her husband’s verses about her.
“Sometimes with a new song, I have to get used to it,” she says. “But I enjoy sharing it. Even though it’s personal, other people can identify with it.”
In September, the couple moved to D.C. from Hawaii, where they’d worked on a sustainable goat farm for a year. (Braman has started sprinkling goat references into his songs as a nod to the experience. ) He was nervous at first to play his ukulele in Hawaii, where the instrument is popular, because he was doing “weird hip-hop stuff with it.” But he developed a small following on the Big Island, where several fans formed a backing band to give him a bigger sound. Braman still brings his inaugural ukulele to shows, blinged out with a Hawaiian “hang loose” sticker, even when he plays his new one.
He’s made friends in the D.C. hip-hop community but acknowledges that he faces some barriers.
“When I’m calling somewhere to book a show, people think it’s a joke,” he says. “I’m like, ‘No, it’s not a comedy act!’”