Credit: Sidney Thomas

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AJ Francis has his game face on as he enters the dark nightclub filled with hookah smoke and booming hip-hop beats.Francis is a talented rapper but he’s probably better known as a defensive tackle for the Washington football team. He was at the Pure Lounge—a popular venue on U Street where D.C. hip-hop stars frequently hang out and network—to perform at a charity open-mic showcase organized by Mike D’Angelo, a local MC affiliated with Cash Money Records. When it’s his turn to rap, Francis confidently grabs the microphone and strides toward the center of the floor—his 6’5” frame towering over the audience.The DJ plays his music and Francis verbally attacks the track with the same intensity and aggression that he uses to manhandle opposing NFL offensive linemen. “I’m Balling, I’m Balling,” the words reverberate violently throughout the club as the football player recites bars from his song “Olympic Gold.” 

Professional athletes are rarely victorious in the rap game.Most ballers with hip-hop dreams (see: Kobe Bryant, Deion Sanders, Floyd Mayweather) end up in the 99 cent CD bin at Walmart.But a select few have succeeded: Shaquille O’Neal went platinum with his album Shaq Diesel, and Damian “Dame Dolla” Lillard, an NBA player who currently plays for the Portland Trail Blazers, has earned the respect from his peers on the basketball court and in the music industry for his lyrical proficiency.Francis—aka Fran¢—has the potential be the next one. 

Francis went undrafted after a stellar college career at the University of Maryland. He bounced around the NFL for a few years but has recently found a home with the hometown Washington football team.Francis signed a two-year contract with the team in 2017 and had his most productive season as a player.His music career also flourished last year: He released an album entitled O.T.A., and appeared as a guest on the Tony Redz radio show (on WPGC) where he unleashed an impressive freestyle over a classic Biggie track—proving that Fran¢ isn’t just a novelty act, he‘s the real deal.

Washington City Paper: What part of the city did you grow up in?Your song “202-410-703” obviously pays homage to the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area with the UCB “Sexy Lady” sample. 

AJ Francis: I was born at the old Walter Reed [hospital] in Northeast. I grew up in Severn, Md. and I went to Gonzaga High School in Northwest. That’s where I heard “Sexy Lady” for the first time and it’s been my favorite go-go song ever since.  

WCP: You’re a pretty big guy so I assume you were always good in sports, but when did you realize you had a special talent as a rapper? 

AF:I’ve loved music since I was a kid.I figured out my musical ability in high school when I made my first mixtape—it was sounded like trash because I recorded it on a $25 microphone in my bedroom, but the bars were tough, lol.

WCP: What rappers influenced you when you were growing up and who are your favorite rappers right now? 

AF: I grew up on Jay-Z and Biggie, those are my GOATs. My favorite current rappers are Kendrick, J. Cole, and Future.I was and still am a Wale head. His wordplay is one of the best in rap history.I used to perform after Logic at “Juke Joints” at the University of Maryland [an open mic night]—that’s where we met and we’re still cool to this day.My favorite local artists are DK, Noochie, Rico Nasty, Shy Glizzy, Fat Trel, Mike D’Angelo, OG Bobby Mac, Global Dough, Dtrick Tha Bandit, Layla Khepri, D. Bell, and Y3WRU 

WCP:“HTTR” is a dope track. In the video you’re holding a Sean Taylor towel. How did he inspire you as player?                        

AF:I just came up with the concept of the hook “Hail to the Realest,” and because I’m on the Redskins I thought that was kind of cool.I made it a point to talk about my life in the NFL but I purposely didn’t mention the Redskins. Sean Taylor was the realest when I was in high school so that’s why I wanted to show him love in the video. 

WCP:  How do you define yourself as an artist?                                

AF: I’m just a rapper, man. I don’t fit in a box.My album has trap rap, lyrical rap, storytelling, punchlines, whatever you like, I got it.  My bars speak for themselves. Any doubts anyone has about me as a rapper get squashed once they hear the music. 

WCP:I’ve seen you at several charity events.The WPGC Holiday Party and gift giveaway, the Mike D’Angelo showcase to raise money for the family of the young man who was killed for his Air Jordans, etc. What does it mean to you to give back to the community?

AF:When a tragedy strikes our community it’s on us to handle it. A leader is a man that can stand up in tough times and tell you everything is going to be okay no matter how bad it looks now.I want people to know when they see me at a charity event, I’m there because I care.And I show love because it bothers me to see the plight in their lives. 

WCP:Thank you for your time with this interview. I have one more question for you: if [Washington Head Coach] Jay Gruden were a rapper what name would you give him? 

AF: I’d call him MC Dad Bod.