When his father introduced him to 2Pac, Khari Burton was immediately drawn to the ability to tell stories through music. He remembers “Ambitionz az a Ridah” being the first song to awaken the writer in him. “I used to write stories as a kid, but I wrote my first rap at six and I just always loved to do it,” he says.
His voice perks up while he recalls the first time he went to the studio with his father and uncle at age nine and heard his voice played back on a recording. “That’s when I think I really fell in love,” he says.
Today, being an emcee and a Cincinnati Public Schools teacher work in tandem for the 27-year-old wordsmith, who has released music digitally as Khari since 2018. The Rockdale Academy fifth-grade English Language Arts and Social Studies teacher—who appears on CPS recruitment billboards around town and on the district’s YouTube channel—says he teaches reading and writing through the lens of hip-hop as a tool to develop students’ reading comprehension and writing skills.
“In my classroom, that’s how I do it,” Khari says. “Everything that we do—we read a book, we make a song to go along with some of the things in the book; or writing an essay, we might do it in rap form, the hip hop form.”
High school was where the Walnut Hills graduate found his first fan base. He says he made about $500 from selling his first mixtape to classmates for $5 each. “I guess that was my first introduction to the business,” he recalls.
Within a four-year span, Khari became methodical about building a following and honing his craft, often recording himself while practicing at home and playing back the footage “like basketball film tape,” jotting down ways to improve his inflections and rhyme cadence. He’s also performed anywhere in the tri-state that would have him, including a George Floyd protest.
“I did every open mic in the city that you can imagine,” he says. “I’m talking from Monday through Thursday on weeknights, I’m at these open mics and just perfecting my craft and seeing how different crowds react to my music.”
Khari says this is what prepared him to deliver engaging, high-energy sets like the one at Music Resource Center opening for Flipmode Squad emcee Rah Digga. Before beginning her set, she gave Khari kudos for delivering quality rhymes and an interactive crowd experience.
“For her to even say that she respected my pen and respected my lyrical ability—after hearing her say she wants real rap and she appreciates the realness of hip-hop—I was glad I can impress her in that sense,” he says.
Khari’s manager and producer, Jesse Toy, shares Rah Digga’s sentiments. Formerly an emcee under the name Aviator Hughes, Toy says that after hearing Khari‘s debut single “All That” on social media, he went on a search to find him. The two have worked together since 2019.
“He just blew me away with his lyricism, his creativity, and what he brings sonically to a track, because a lot of people tend to be monotone,” Toy explains. “He gives inflection, he gives feeling to what he’s saying.”
A crowd pleaser is his breakout single, 2019’s “Trapped Musik.” Produced by Sal Dali and Hi-Tek, its piano driven melody line is layered in thick 808 kick drums underneath bustling hi-hats and snares. In February, Khari released “Don’t Fight the Feeling,” the first single from The World is A Stage due later this spring. The album is a project that he says centers around the grind culture indie artists experience, youth and issues affecting the black community.
“One thing of late that’s been important to me is like mental health,” Khari says. “We’re not even truly addressing the mental side of trauma, especially as black people, we go through on a daily basis.”
As heard on earlier works such as “Psuedobulbar” from 2020’s This is How We Feel – Act 1: Trapped, Khari often shares vignettes that touch on how mental health issues affect the Black experience and go undiscussed. From the same album, “Can’t Explain” emotes his feelings watching someone dealing with trauma.
“I went to school with a girl; we had a solid friendship/all of a sudden she was diagnosed with a mental illness
They say they see her downtown/walking without a mission
They it’s drugs/I think she cannot convey her feelings
She became distant and everyone was confused/Should we reach out before we see her on the news?
Along with teaching and making music, Khari says he plans to launch a non-profit youth tutoring program.
“A lot of our kids are struggling with reading, especially after the pandemic,” Khari explains. “They’re struggling with reading and writing. And if you can’t do that well, then that leads to other negative factors being able to influence them.”
To stream his music, watch videos, and learn more about Khari, visit https://linktr.ee/khari_btb.