'I Still Feel Him:' Clyde Guevara's Debut Memorializes His Brother's Death

Jul 23, 2018
Originally published on July 23, 2018 11:47 am

Clyde Ellison grew up in a part of Brooklyn called Red Hook, and even though it was a rough, economically disadvantaged neighborhood, he says the people he knew there had a wealth of talent and ingenuity. Ellison himself is proof of that. He's in his early 30s now and lives in Los Angeles as a rapper, performing under the stage name Clyde Guevara. And although he's moved across the country, his lyrics often grapple with the issues in his home community "like being a gangster," he says. "Being tough. It's really like the wilderness."

Ellison's debut album freeJAH was released on July 20, the second anniversary of his younger brother Jah's death. Jah (short for Jahiem) was killed just seven months after serving five years in prison.

Jah was 18 when he went to prison. In the months that followed his brother's release, Ellison did his best to counsel Jah to find his own path in life and focus on providing for his son. "He had his son right before he went to jail and before he went in, he didn't really have a lot of time to be a father," he says. "But when he came home, he was a great father."

Things were starting to turn around for Jah, then 23. Around the time he was killed, he had told Ellison he had a job interview lined up.

"I went upstairs for a few seconds and I heard the shots," Ellison remembers. "It happened in front of his son."

During the time Jah was behind bars, Ellison released only a few songs. But after Jah died, Ellison says he started working harder to turn their shared dream of hip-hop stardom into a reality.

"I kept thinking about the five years that I felt like I wasted the time I had," he says. "I wish I had been taking my music career more serious than I did at that time because he told me that if I didn't make it then he wouldn't be s****."

Now, he's finally finished his freeJAH.

"I don't like to say, 'RIP Jah' because I don't believe he's dead," Ellison says. "I mean, in this life cycle, yeah, but the energy is still here, and I still feel him. I like to say 'Free Jah'."

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NOEL KING, HOST:

OK, now we have a story of brotherly love and loss set to a hip-hop beat. Here's NPR's Lindsay Totty.

LINDSAY TOTTY, BYLINE: Clyde Ellison grew up in a part of Brooklyn called Red Hook. And even though it was a rough, economically disadvantaged neighborhood, he says the people he knew there had a wealth of talent and ingenuity.

CLYDE ELLISON: Creativity's your best friend when you don't have [expletive]. When you're growing up, and you don't have an antenna for your TV and then you learn how to make aluminum foil antennas - real innovative people, man, without opportunity.

TOTTY: And there's no better proof of that than Clyde Ellison himself.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STILL ILLIN")

ELLISON: (Rapping) Mink dragon on the floor. Roman couture. Haters galore. My chariot's on fire. The new Messiah on the cover of the hood Esquire. Been trying to tell Omar I was living "The Wire."

TOTTY: Clyde Ellison is a rapper who performs under the stage name Clyde Guevara. And his lyrics often grapple with the issues in his community.

ELLISON: Things that people glorify in those type of areas - man, you know, it's not like credit. It's not college degrees. You know, it's chains. It's cars. It's money. It's like being a gangster - you know what I mean? - being tough. It's really like the wilderness, bro.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STILL ILLIN")

ELLISON: (Rapping) Had the whole hood locked down. Trying to build an empire, these niggas was lying. Like Hakeem, I'm Olajuwon chasing my dream. Champion rings for me and my team. My chain gleam different.

TOTTY: Clyde Ellison says the values of the projects, where he grew up, can be hard to shake. They made a mark on Clyde's younger brother, Jahiem, who also answered to Jah. Clyde always did his best to teach Jah values that would help him beyond the hood. But still, Jah wound up becoming a victim of violence and a participant.

ELLISON: He got shot in his leg. And he called me and told me what happened. The guy who shot him came back to the neighborhood. And he called me. He's like, man, this dude is out here. And I remember telling him, like, bro, chill, man. It's our neighborhood. Like, just be smart. And then he hung up the phone. And I just heard shots ringing.

TOTTY: Jah's retaliation resulted in an assault charge. He was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison at the age of 18. During the time Jah was behind bars, Clyde released only a few songs - a disappointing lack of progress.

ELLISON: I kept thinking about the five years that I felt like I wasted the time I had. I wish I had been taking my music career more serious than I did at that time because he told me that, you know, if I don't make it - if I didn't make it, he wouldn't be [expletive]. He felt like he was boxed in already at 20-something years old, bro.

TOTTY: In the months that followed Jah's release from prison, Clyde did his best to counsel his brother to find his own path in life and focus on providing for his son.

ELLISON: He had a son right before he went to jail. And before he went in, he didn't really have a lot of time to be a father. But when he came home, he was a great father.

TOTTY: But just as things were starting to turn around for Jah, his young life was cut short.

ELLISON: He told me that he had a job interview and all this good stuff. And I went upstairs for a few seconds. And I heard the shots. I came downstairs. And people were telling me, you know, it's your brother, laying down on the floor over there. So I ran over to him. And, you know, my family was out there. Like, it happened in front of his son.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DISTORTED SKYLINES")

ELLISON: (Rapping) Since then, I've been praying again. If there's a heaven, please let him in. I know the [expletive] sound foul. But I'd rather him be back in jail than not here now to see his child.

TOTTY: After losing his brother, Clyde started working harder to make their shared dream of hip-hop stardom a reality. Now he's finally finished his debut album. It's called "freeJAH."

ELLISON: I don't like to say, RIP, Jah, because I don't believe he's dead. I mean, in this life cycle, yeah. But the energy is still here. And I still feel him. So I like to say, free, Jah, like I said when he was locked up.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DISTORTED SKYLINES")

ELLISON: (Rapping) Jah, bless. We celebrate your life, not your death. I remember when you took your first steps. And I was there when you took your last breath and still feel your heart beating in my chest, for real.

TOTTY: Clyde Guevara's album "freeJAH" was released on July 20, the second anniversary of his brother's death. Lindsay Totty, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DISTORTED SKYLINES")

ELLISON: (Rapping) Roll up. More henny, [expletive] pour it up. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.