Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Rapper Pinky Killacorn has performed with top go-go group Backyard Band dozens of times, so when someone started echoing her lines during the band’s recent show at Geno’s Ball Park, she assumed it was one of the band members, most likely BYB rapper Carlos “Los” Chavels.

Then she looked down.

Holding down the mic was 5-year-old Mikael “Lil Kelz” Murray, and as she rapped over a go-go version of Megan Thee Stallion and Beyoncé’s “Savage Remix,” he was right there with her, line by line. “I couldn’t believe it was him. Everything I said, he repeated. He was sicing my part up—he siced me up, that’s what he did,” she says, using local slang for acting as a hype man. “His ad-libs were so on point, you would have thought we had rehearsed. He was just cranking—C. R. A. N. K. I. N. G.”

Backyard bandleader Anwan “Big G” Glover was also impressed by the pint-sized freestyler. “I have never seen a kid take over and do that,” he says. “He reminded me of me back when I was a kid and wanted to be in Junkyard. I just saw it all over again: His body movements, the way he grabbed the mic, his call and response. He was attentive, like, I’m not gonna step on your words, but I’m gonna get my words in, too.”

“He’s super ready,” Big G continues. “He’s gonna be somebody’s superstar.”

Even before that outdoor, mask-required July 18 show, which was part of the annual DMV & Beyond event, Mikael had won fans around town and on social media; earlier that week, he was featured on Reese Waters’ “Most D.C. Thing” segment on WUSA Channel 9. He has rapped around town with various ensembles cobbled together by his grandfather, Alphonso “Petey” Murray, a veteran go-go conga player, and others. He is stealing hearts partly because he is absolutely adorable and as talented a rapper and dancer as a child his age can be. But there’s more: At a time when bad news seems relentless on all fronts, Mikael personifies a promise for the future of go-go.

“His mannerisms, the way he dances, the way he played the tambourine, the cowbell, it was amazing,” Pinky Killacorn says. “And his voice? That wasn’t rap. That was pure go-go, the fact that he handled himself like that at a go-go onstage, that proves that there is a future for go-go.”

Mikael’s parents, Patricia Coleman and Marquese Murray, like to say that go-go is in his blood. They are not go-go artists—she works at the Harriet Tubman Women’s Shelter and he is a violence interrupter for Cure the Streets—but they are both longtime fans. His grandfather Petey has played with Rare Essence, Pure Elegance, and Junkyard Band at various times. According to Coleman, the boy’s father and grandfather have been showing him go-go videos on YouTube since he was a toddler, when Mikael would enjoy drumming go-go beats on anything—the noisier, the better. 

Mikael lives with his mother and two older brothers, aged 12 and 13, in Southwest D.C. In the fall, he begins first grade at Leckie Elementary School. He has always been the life of the party, eager to flex his dance moves for any audience. “Everybody wants Mikael to come to their cookouts and kid’s birthday parties,” Coleman says. “Ever since he was 2, he always wins the party dance contests.”

He spends many hours watching YouTube child sensation Super Siah, but he invariably returns to go-go. His top bands are Rare Essence, WHAT?! Band, and Backyard, and he is particularly fond of Backyard’s Big G and vocalist Leroy “Weensey” Brandon Jr.  “Sometimes, I wake up, and he’s already figured out how to work the remote, turn on the TV, and watch Backyard,” Murray says. “I’m just like him. I love Backyard, that’s my number one band.”

Typically, Mikael’s days are filled with football, basketball, or baseball, but since the coronavirus pandemic began, he has sharpened his focus on music. “With the pandemic, there’s not much going on with the sports, so he is on pause with all that and putting 100 percent more into his music,” Coleman says. 

He has watched Backyard’s March livestream performance of its Street Antidote album at least 300 times, she reports, all the while an active participant: “He makes drums out of everything, just banging on everything,” Coleman says, “and uses air freshener spray [cans] and my deodorant as his microphone.”

Mikael’s career as Lil Kelz began casually last summer, when Petey assembled a few veteran go-go artists for a neighborhood back-to-school cookout. Later, Julante “G-Magic” Shoatz, keyboardist for WHAT?! Band, Reaction, and TOB, met Mikael at another community block party. G-Magic says he was setting up under the watchful eyes of several kids when Mikael approached him: “He came up and asked, ‘Can I rock the mic?’ I replied, ‘You don’t know how to rock the mic. You don’t know what you doing up there.’ He stood tall and said, ‘Yes I do! I know I can do it.’ So I was like, ‘OK, cool. Let’s see what you got.’”

Clearly, young Mikael had something. A few weeks later, G-Magic brought him to an outdoor show by an informal group of go-go musicians at Fort Greble Park and later posted a video of Lil Kelz rapping on their rendition of WHAT?! Band’s original track “Crystal Skate.” Go-go artist Michelle Blackwell loved what she saw in that clip. “He is a natural,” she says. “His timing and rhythm look very instinctual, and he has the charisma and energy that is essential in a lead mic. I can’t wait to watch him blossom. He represents the future of go-go. The leadership in go-go must get this kid a band to lead ASAP.”

Even before the 2012 death of go-go founder Chuck Brown, many of the genre’s artists have expressed concern about the music’s viability down the road. Gentrification and years of discrimination against go-go artists are long-standing problems; for decades, go-go and bounce beat bands have been unable to book as many venues as their popularity would warrant. It has been particularly difficult for younger bands to get venues, and as a result, many area youths have gravitated toward hip-hop rather than go-go.

While the tremendous popularity of bounce beat bands suggests that there’s nothing to worry about, many in go-go would like to see more young bands playing either the traditional go-go sound or bounce beat. Advocates for the genre have long argued that stronger music education programs in area schools will create more young musicians who can play for bands.

In the meantime, G-Magic is striving to establish his nonprofit, Magic’s Music, to develop young go-go artists with musical instruction. He is currently auditioning young musicians to launch an all-kids go-go band, The Young Drip, that will be produced by his Hitmakaz Production Group. “We’re going to show that D.C. has a new swag, not just old swag,” he says. The new group’s lead talker? Lil Kelz.

“He has a lot of potential,” G-Magic says. “Right now everybody has seen that video, and we call him the little Rapper, the little Rah-Rah,” he says, referring to Chris Black, the legendary rapper for the Northeast Groovers who is now the lead mic and owner of WHAT?!. “I’m 120 percent sure Lil Kelz will be a future legend if he keeps at what he’s doing.”

Petey also has plans for Mikael, hoping to play in a band featuring his grandson as lead talker. “The name of the band will be Mikael and the Boys,” Petey says. “I feel so good to know that he’s following in his grandfather’s footsteps. His ambition is serious and he loves go-go. We going all the way with him.”

This summer has been particularly difficult for many in the go-go community: Along with all the financial hardships that have accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic, the loss of young lives due to street violence has been deeply painful. “Go-go has always helped keep kids off the streets,” G-Magic says. “The times I could have been doing wrong, I was at home practicing. 

“I really feel like I’m on a mission because this will not only impact the lives of these children, it will also keep the culture alive,” G-Magic continues. “Go-go is our culture and our heritage. You won’t know where you’re going ’til you know where you been. I tell kids all the time, ‘I want to take you off the streets and onto the stage, because any person can be whatever they want to be if they put their mind to it.’”

For Big G, seeing Mikael at DMV & Beyond represents a glimmer of hope in a heart-wrenching summer. 

“This is a perfect example of the energy and love the kids have for being positive and doing something great that puts them in a vibe where they can win instead of losing,” he says. “We still got our kids that still really love go-go. Seeing that boy up onstage doing his thing made me feel so good inside. It was a feeling out of this world, just to look at what God did to continue our tradition of real go-go music in our city.”

For Mikael’s father, who is awed by his son’s ability, seeing him perform at DMV & Beyond evoked profound pride. “He’s 5 years old and he can get down like that,” Murray says. “The whole show was dope. I’m like damn, my son is gonna keep this beat alive. I’m still watching the video over and over, and I’m getting all kinds of calls.”

For Coleman, her son’s performance that night signified all that—and one other not-insignificant development for the mother of an extremely energetic young boy: “He must have worn himself out,” she says, “because when he came home, he got into the shower and went right to sleep.”