Charlottesville’s Sons Of Ichibei, a duo made up of Fellowman and Remy St. Clair, has been working hard to boost Charlottesville hip hop for years, from founding the annual 9 Pillars Hip Hop Culture Fest to booking diverse, equitable shows in a variety of venues. Now, in the aftermath of a difficult year, they’re working to make things better than ever.
To me, Charlottesville is like being in a conversation that I hate about yoga with someone’s mom — because it’s easier than listening to her well-meant but annoying commentary on my very slightly alternative lifestyle. And, at the same time, I’m inside of a J. Crew catalog. It’s inoffensive in this way that is suffocating, but also makes me feel guilty for disliking it solely on the grounds that it is ignorant to its own innocently dorky, cargo shorts-wearing identity. So having said that, it probably seems unlikely that I’m about to tell you that this little town has somehow created a compelling rap group — one that is asserting itself as one of the most powerful hip-hop forces in the region — and that they’re scheming on claiming themselves a chunk of our own city of Richmond. And yet, that’s exactly what I’m about to tell you.
Charlottesville’s own Sons of Ichibei is a group comprised of Fellowman and Remy St. Clair. Remy St. Clair was the face of Pride in the duo’s hometown for three years, and tells me he has rapped in gay bars his whole life. Fellowman is an equally interesting MC who dropped a classic rock-influenced album in late 2020. If you’re trying to look them up, you should know that they’ve released most of their music separately, each putting things out under their own moniker, but perform together live doing songs they both appear on from their respective projects. They’re next performing in Richmond at The Camel on Tuesday, July 20 [that’s tomorrow! -ed], and are planning on plenty of other shows up here soon. But how, simply by rolling around their own unlikely little home of Charlottesville, have they snowballed up the power to become an entity that should command respect throughout Virginia?
It’s actually not the weirdest idea that these two Charlottesville guys are starting to gain hold over our ecosystem. For one thing, their music is solid. No one can say they don’t know how to rap. But there is also a certain kinship that exists between our two very different cities that likely informs how easily they fit in here. Understanding how a rap thing could coagulate in our indie rock-obsessed, art-walking, beard-wearing, IPA-drinking, GWAR-barring, not-quite-metropolitan city does inform how another hip-hop force could also come to be in the aforementioned goofy little town just a few miles down the highway. It seems a little laughable at first to hear Charlottesville rappers talking about “the Charlottesville hip-hop sound” or saying “that’s how we do it in Cville!” as if they didn’t know they live in Pleasantville. But consider all the equally laughable things we do. As far as the attempts at grandeur, it’s pretty much one to one. For example, having the name of our mid-sized city in front of literally every institution in town probably looks just as goofy from the outside, right? And local songwriters put Richmond landmarks in their lyrics so much that I’m confident there’s even a song about that exit where 64 merges with 95 [Here’s one for you -ed]. We’ve definitely got the same comically self-important attitude.
There are other ways our two cities are alike too. Charlottesville currently faces a potential rap drought not unlike those that plague our own city every few years.
“A lot of our venues have closed during COVID. We only have one venue left that will book rap,” Fellowman told me. “Even as far as DIY venues. Magnolia House is boarded up. The person who was booking it moved away.”
But unlike our city, which has a kind of an ebb and flow when it comes to the health of the rap scene, the situation feels a lot more urgent in Charlottesville. Because there is just a lot less city. And there are few I’ve spoken to who can even say much about the presence of any kind of rap scene there before 2015. It seems alarmingly plausible that it could fizzle out in Charlottesville.
Luckily for Remy and Fellowman, they have pull across the entire state, thanks in no small part to 9 Pillars, the weeklong hip-hop festival they throw once a year in Charlottesville. I know, it sounds wildly unlikely. But this thing is actually very, very lit. Yes, in Charlottesville, the aforementioned painfully vanilla town of Stepford (minus the secret scary part), there has been an annual weeklong series of rap events for years now that we should’ve been taking our Richmond hip-hop heads to by the busload. They’ve even had performances by artists of national renown, such as Wordsworth and Cesar Comanche. There’s really no reason anyone who loves rap in our city shouldn’t be taking the short drive to this every year.
And the variety of events featured as part of 9 Pillars takes it far beyond the realm of just a music festival to being a whole experience. As Fellowman told me, “It’s not just music. We had a b-boy battle one year, we always have a graffiti gallery show and live demonstration. Food and fashion has been a part of it. We had the Heart Soul runway fashion show. The DJ battles as well. The merchants and food trucks as well.”
“Don’t forget the award ceremony,” Remy St Clair added. “We honor all those persons that came before us, that mentored us, that taught us, that tutored us, brought us up in this culture and this art form and genre. We take time out to give them their flowers and show those people in our community that we appreciate them. That’s been a major thing that everyone has been looking forward to every year.”
“Because if you’re a kid coming out of Charlottesville, wanting to be a rapper, obviously you’re going to look up to rappers who you see doing it in your community,” Fellowman continued, picking up the thread. “And these may not be names that will ever make it into the various hall of fames or whatever, but they’re just as important to the people growing up in this area.”
While 9 Pillars Hip-Hop Fest and its parent organization, Rugged Arts, are solely the baby of Remy and Fellowman, there are ties to Richmond even in the origins on these projects.
“Facemelt actually was the inspiration for Rugged Arts, which was the showcase that we brought forth here in Charlottesvile” Remy says, referring to the Facemelt Friday series of rap shows thrown by Richmond’s own promoter and organizer BlackLiq. “We call BlackLiq the godfather, or the grandfather, or Rugged Arts.”
BlackLiq also told me about meeting with Sons of Ichibei when they were just getting started with setting up shows, thinking they might need advice on logistics. “They’ve never asked me to help them, they had already realized that by inspiring them, I already did,” he said. “That also meant that they did the hard part, which is seeing that they are capable of the things that they have done.” He praised their seemingly inherent savvy for throwing music events and remarked, “They succeed because they actually care about people, the multiple facets of this culture, and that’s the message and integrity within everything they do.”
9 Pillars not only draws in bigger acts, like the aforementioned Wordsworth, but also a wide variety of independent artists from across the state. And this is one of the keys to the power of Sons of Ichibei in Richmond. For one thing, they’re owed a lot of favors from numerous rappers they’ve put on from our city. But they’ve also won over a lot of our city’s important figures with their abilities on the mic.
Millz and Chuck Nasty of the Richmond rap group GRYSCL shared a few bills with Sons of Ichibei. Before his passing last year, Millz chatted with me about Sons of Ichibei, praising the prowess of Fellowman in particular. “Whenever I see a white dude rap, it’s kinda like ‘Come on, man,’” Millz said. “But Fellowman, he can rap. I mean, he can really rap.”
Chuck Nasty also spoke to me about the opportunities Remy and Fellowman gave to GRYSCL by including them in several events, starting with a tag team battle rap competition that was part the 9 Pillars festival. “They’ve always looked out for us. They were the first people to pay us for performing. They supported us very well, from the beginning. They saw us, from Richmond, and put us on, gave us the Immortal Tag Team belts forever.”
Sneeze, another Richmond rapper with an impressive resume, credits his development as a performer in part to the title competitions and the slots he was given as part of events like the 9 Pillars Festival. “Shouts out to Remy and all them,” he told me earlier this year. Talking about the title belts he won, he said, “That really helped me get my legs, man. I learned how to perform.”
Their strong relationships with Richmond rap are also thanks in part to the model they use to run their shows, which is the most ethical model I’ve ever heard of in rap. Our city is littered with event promoters who exploit rappers using versions of a pay-to-play system, where stage time costs money for aspiring artists. Since these promoters are almost always getting paid by venues for the audience that comes out to see this live music, it makes sense that they should be paying rappers to perform, not the other way around.
“All of our 9 Pillars events are free admission,” Fellowman told me, in sharp contrast. “And all of the artists are paid to perform.” The last part, fairly compensating artists, is something many Richmond acts have never experienced. Rappers from Richmond who’ve performed on Sons of Ichibei’s Rugged Arts events are often surprised by the way these guys are even willing to speak on the problem. “Whether it’s straight up just pay-to-play, whether they disguise it as investing in yourself, whether it’s the ticket-selling scheme where they give you a certain number of tickets to sell and how many you sell determines where you are in the lineup, or if you don’t sell enough then you can’t play. There is the head counting where they ask everyone at the door who they came to see and if enough people don’t say your name then you don’t get paid. Facility rental fees, paying more off of your cut after the bar takes the cut and the door takes the cut, being shook down the day of the show by the sound guy. Everybody gets paid except for the performers.”
Fellowman knows from performing in rock bands that there’s really no reason it has to work this way. He encouraged rappers to gain some perspective on their exploitation. “Ask your friends who play other genres of music, especially if they are white, or white-coded, genres of music. Compare notes with them about the hoops you have to jump through to get booked and get paid for a live performance. It’s shameful. And these club owners and promoters have convinced a whole generation of hip-hop artists that it’s normal.”
Taking care of not only artists but also the community around the art is also something I heard a lot about when talking to people about Sons of Ichibei. Their guiding hand has helped keep the rap community in Charlottesville together through a tumultuous time. The new resurgence of a more dangerous brand of racism has acutely affected both our city and Charlottesville. The products of this radicalized racism are varied; one is that it continues to be more difficult to book rap shows. This only adds to the previously mentioned challenge of venues closing.
Mike Bizarro, a rapper from the area, shared with me, “Charlottesville has been a difficult environment to keep the hip-hop scene alive in. Elitism, racism, and the rapid gentrification make it a constant battleground. Remy and Fellowman have been at the forefront of that battleground. The scene will always be in good hands as long as they are around.” Like everyone else I spoke to about the group, he also praised their music. “Plus, they can really rap their asses off.”
Remy St. Clair has been using hip-hop as a medium to build community for a long time. He also created and hosted radio programming for years with this goal. “It was a show called The Throne Room. It was an opportunity for local/independent artists to have their music played on the radio in a prime time hour,” he explains. “It was giving them exposure and the opportunity to come in and voice their opinion on the musical, various topics in the world in a nonjudgmental environment.”
Sons of Ichibei further demonstrate their commitment to community and their wildly progressive attitude through their intentionally inclusive practices. They’ve held all-female rap shows, all-LGBTQ rap shows (a first for the state of Virginia, I believe), and even shows in gay bars that saw rappers performing alongside drag queens. I should note that I have personally tried to make all three of these things happen in Richmond. I have only achieved two out of those three, and Fellowman and Remy St. Clair beat me to each one. The fact that a smaller town beat us to the punch on this stuff can be credited solely to Sons of Ichibei.
“I think the people getting left out of the conversation often have the most interesting things to say,” Fellowman says about these events.
“I feel I have made a safe space for myself and others.” Remy adds, speaking specifically to building a better community for himself and other queer artists. “Reason being: I’ve been one of the front runners to try to bridge the gap. I’ve hosted several Prides and I’ve included straight artists, allies, in those Prides, when Pride didn’t even want them there, because they didn’t understand. One thing that we all tend to forget is that hip-hop is not dominated by straight or gay. It’s dominated by life experiences and being able to put that into words in a way that persons can understand you and relate. I love the position that I’m in to give persons like me an opportunity, trans persons, all queer persons an opportunity to shine and showcase their talent. So, I’m trying to be a good leader and a good example of that. I have done serious work and I plan on doing a lot more.”
A lot of this forward-thinking attitude and community-oriented approach is just what our city needs. Richmond’s rap scene should be on high alert, because these guys are bringing us a lot more than some very good music. Sons of Ichibei’s July 20 performance at The Camel marks the beginning of their grip around our city tightening, and their inevitable influence taking hold. It spells bad news for anyone running an unethical model of booking music, or trying to stand in the way of progress. And if their work in Charlottesville is any indication, it bodes very well for things to come in our own city’s rap scene and the culture around it.
Rap Is Back: A Secret Bonus Level Show, featuring Sons Of Ichibei, will take place at The Camel on Tuesday, July 20. Doors open at 7 PM; tickets are $8 and can be purchased at The Camel’s website.