Before October turned cold, there was a Friday in Kensington, near G and Allegheny, when the streets were buzzing as night fell. Some neighbors on Madison Street sat on their porches and galerias, hanging out and braiding hair. Others got to see a show right-quick: North Philly rapper Fis Banga was shooting his new video.
Banga, 24, writes raps that he blocks into theatrical sketches, and in this one, he was playing a guy who shows up to stop a drug deal.
His crew consisted of five actors, mostly friends, and an iPhone cameraman. The set was illuminated by the headlights of a friend's Pontiac Grand Am.
The first take went quickly and smoothly. Banga took a break to watch the playback of his raps that were aimed toward a young hustler:
It's nothing wrong with a 9-to-5, young 'un
It's better than being on them corners trying to grind something
Or having your mom fussing
She screaming get a job, but you can't find nothing
Just take your time, young 'un.
Where can you find videos like this? Instagram. Many underground rappers in Philadelphia are luring audiences with one-minute, snackable clips made for the social medium. Quickie "freestyles" and music video snippets are common, but emcees like Banga are taking things a step further, crafting disciplined, DIY video shorts.
And within the trend, skits that communicate social justice messages have become popular. Banga, born Nafis Middleton, has rapped about domestic violence, suicide, fighting, gun violence, addiction, street harassment, and the criminal justice system, all in recent months.
"We got that good side and that bad side," Banga said of the character he takes on in the skits. "I'm kind of like that good side telling you not to do it."
The Instagram video below contains graphic language and scenes.
In the ecosystem of Philly Instagram, underground rappers aren't solely competing with other rappers for love on the timeline, but also with Instagram comedians, dancers, actors, and motivational speakers like Wallo. Independent artists might hope for hip-hop culture accounts to repost their content, but many also tag outlets like the Shade Room and World Star Hip Hop, as well as those popular sites' local imitators, which package viral content alongside celebrity gossip and memes.
John Morrison, a West Philadelphia musician and writer, said the appearance of cinematic Instagram rap has been fascinating to watch. In the trend, he sees "this collision of this legacy of Philly DVD rap, street battle rap … but then also meme culture, Instagram culture, and post-Vine culture."
The Instagram video below contains graphic scenes and language.
Though Instagram doesn't pay for successful posts, artists may seek to parlay social media fame into income from sponsored ads. Banga, who has never put out an official album, has 114,000 followers now and often markets his own clothing line.
Morrison thinks the raps are a sign of the times, of "the cultural and political atmosphere we're living in."
He said, "It's not the wave to be antiblack and antiwoman."
One progenitor of this skits-as-justice-commentary is Gunjin, a 31-year-old rapper who grew up in South Philly as Julian Williams III. Last year, he started posting clips that were more theatrical. He had seen the work of Greg Geez, another Philly rapper, who made walking while rapping his trademark. Gunjin hoped to find his own lane on Instagram.
In June, one of his videos, costarring his cousin Dash Mylo, received national attention. In it, Gunjin kneels on the pavement, holding his daughter's hands in his, while Mylo stands behind him, singing as he holds a gun to the rapper's head. Gunjin raps from the perspective of a dead man hoping to leave his young daughter with life advice.
The rap begins:
"I got a promise I made
That daddy would be always be there
But daddy been running the streets
I want you to know that I cared."
Gunjin's post has been viewed nearly 4.5 million times and won praise from Sean "Diddy" Combs. The aim, Gunjin said, was "just basically trying to give some insight on both sides of the wall — out here on the streets what could be going on and also the outcome if you do get caught."
The Instagram video below contains graphic scenes and language.
Though he aims for realism, he acknowledges that he leans toward edgy topics. Controversy leads to conversation, he said. He wants his work to provoke viewers to talk about their opinions.
"When people sincerely learn about each other, we become a little bit closer, and these prejudgments go away," he said.
At a video shoot in early October, Gunjin was a perfectionist, mindful of small details. He had linked up with singer Whyteboy Flac to perform a duet where Gunjin would play a black Ku Klux Klan member and Flac would play a white slave singing with a noose around his neck.
"Why can't we all just be equal?" Flac sings in the video. "Why you got to be so evil?"
They picked up the rope at a corner store and fashioned the hood from a sheet and a party hat. Gunjin noticed that his costar was wearing Calvin Klein boxers, which needed to be tucked out of sight, because no slave, he said, wore Calvin Klein. Part satire, part racial equity plea, the post has gotten more than 230,000 views since Oct. 14.
Gunjin, who has 384,000 followers, said Instagram fame has been profitable but keeping up with the appetite for new content has been a true test.
"The attention span is super-short now," he said. "Creativity is a mothereffer. If you're not creative, you're going to get exposed."
The Instagram video below contains graphic language.
K. Price, a 25-year-old rapper from Southwest Philly, produces videos with a more movie-like bent but wouldn't consider himself a positive rapper. His videos, which echo with battle rap style grit and lyricism, often share a character's stream of consciousness and feel similar to cinéma vérité. At a recent shoot at 47th and Chester, he did at least 10 takes, which is standard for him, aiming to get the pacing just right.
"I think about it as a viewer first," Price, who has nearly 53,000 followers, said of his process. "Then I think about it as a rapper, as an artist."
Overall, the Southwest Philly rapper, born Kyle Price, thinks the social justice trend is good for youth to learn and to emulate. But at times, he questions whether some of the more activist-leaning emcees mean what they say.
"It's a good side and a bad side to it. I think some people are doing it because it's the new thing to do," he said. "I don't think that they being genuine about it at all. I think that they just doing it because they looking at it as a way for them to get pop, or to get noticed, or to get seen, or to change whatever they circumstance may be at the time."
Banga had similar concerns: advocacy for the sake of likes. Instagram, he said, has replaced real-life battles as the launching pad for new talent. He misses being able to judge emcees' sincerity, seeing their sweat or reactions in the flesh. Now, it's harder to tell.
"It's the monkey see monkey do," Banga said of those trying to ride the wave. "It kind gave what I do a black eye."
Staff photographer Heather Khalifa contributed to this article.