Rhyme Revolution: Unleashing the Power of Positive Rap in Jacksonville

Words by Jack Popovics 

Music takes all forms and styles from soul-stirring harmonies of a cappella to the raw energy and urban narratives of drill rap.

Drill rap is a subgenre of hip-hop that originated in Chicago in the 2010s. What distinguishes drill from other rap styles is its gritty and raw nature with aggressive lyrics and trap-influenced beats. The lyrics often revolve around the harsh realities of street life, reflecting the experiences and struggles of the artists themselves. Drill rap is notorious for its explicit depiction of violence, rivalries and confrontations. A majority of the songs are dedicated to dissing other artists and detailing the singer’s actions or intentions toward rival gangs. The intense and menacing energy of drill rap has attracted a dedicated fan base, drawn to its authenticity and unfiltered lyrics.

Jacksonville has become an epicenter of drill rap with local rappers preaching violence as much as Martin Luther King Jr. preached peace. Numerous songs have emerged from artists across Jacksonville, proudly showcasing acts of violence against rival gang members and fellow rappers. One instance involves local artist Foolio, who openly confronted multiple rappers and gang affiliates, including teenage rapper Corbin Johnson. In Foolio’s track titled “Beatbox Remix/Bibby Flow,” he explicitly mentions Johnson with the lyrics, “Corbin got kidnapped, they found his bones, he was rotten (where’s Corbin?),” alluding to Johnson’s mysterious disappearance that occurred several years prior. 

Drill rap has tragically claimed the lives of numerous emerging artists in Jacksonville and across the country. Even friends and family members have found themselves caught in the crossfire of these rivalries. Because of this, one local artist has taken it upon himself to make a change in the local hip-hop scene. 

Born in the Bronx, Mal (pronounced “mall”) Jones has been exposed to the urban lifestyle from a young age. He and his family moved around during his childhood until they eventually settled in Jacksonville. Jones has had a passion for hip-hop and poetry for as long as he can remember. When he was younger, he would meet up with other artists to host freestyle events, which is what prompted him to start Lyricist Live. 

“I’ve always been the rapper who was communicating with other rappers, whether we were collaborating, doing songs or doing cypher just rapping together,” Jones said. “Cypher is just a circle of emcees trading perspectives through hip-hop lanes. I would get us all together and host those things.”

Originally, Lyricist Live was a positive, podcast-style cypher, but Jones believed he would be more effective spreading his message on the streets of Jacksonville with an open mic where anyone could join. Jones sets up in downtown Jacksonville once a month as part of Art Walk to play beats and welcome other artists to join. He creates a safe, non-judgmental outlet for the community to come together in a positive environment. The only rule to participate in Lyricist Live is no cursing. Jones knows that life can be very difficult, and he gives people a platform to speak their minds about the current state of the world. 

“I’ve had 70-year-old men out there rapping on the microphone with a 10-year-old,” Jones shared. “I’ve had teenagers rapping with their little sister. It touches all demographics and all kinds of people, all cultures.”

Jones was named the first hip-hop artist in Florida to be labeled a folk artist by The Florida Folklife Program and Division of Historical Resources. Folk artist means that the art is passed down from one generation to the next, as his father taught him. Jones shared that freestyle rap turned into a family tradition while traveling in the car together. This is why, he believes, he was recognized as a folk artist — approaching hip-hop from an educational perspective, highlighting its heritage and the tradition of passing it down through generations.

As evidence of the impact he’s making in Jacksonville and beyond, Jones was recently featured on the ABC News docuseries “IMPACT” in an episode called “United States of Drill: Rap, Beef, and Bullets” (S1, E26) now streaming on Hulu. The show also profiled a talented young rapper from Jacksonville named Amari Murrell, who was among the first performers to make use of Jones’ platform. “Tough guys don’t last long,” Murrell said, which is also a lesson conveyed by Jones to the youths he mentors. When asked about how he instills this value in aspiring young rappers, Jones simply referred to local media’s frequent coverage highlighting the unfortunate consequences of gangs and the association between drill rap and violence.

“You can show any of those stories and show that is a path you do not want to be on,” Jones explained. “If you need to express yourself or get your word out, you have the responsibility to stay safe and not promote violence.”

Jones explained that the best thing to do to keep young artists from going down a dark path is to support productions like Lyricist Live. He has visited nearly every school in Duval County using educational rap to teach children how to stay safe. He even partnered with JEA addressing water conservation and electrical safety. 

“Support Lyricist Live and things like it,” Jones added. “Don’t let the trash have all the cash flow.” 

Lyricist Live is a project with a history of fostering positivity, and Jones empowers young artists to explore the expressive and creative power of music and lyrics. By providing a platform for this self-expression, as well as encouragement, and personal growth, Lyricist Live has touched countless lives, instilling a sense of confidence, inspiration and hope in the hearts and minds of the youth of Jacksonville and beyond.

Check out the “Folio” exclusive interview with Mal Jones, by clicking here.