As an elementary school student in Cleveland in the early 1980’s, Kevin Moore never cared much for kids’ books. “I wanted to read grown folks’ novels—stuff with cursing and sex and violence and that kind of stuff,” says Moore. He recalls spotting a copy of Stephen King’s Night Shift during a weekend garage sale outing in the third or fourth grade and asking his mother to buy it for him. A horror buff, Moore jokes that his mother “thought that she was raising a serial killer.” But Night Shift, King’s 1978 collection of short stories, stands out as the book that not only introduced Moore to King’s work and world, but also inspired him to put pen to paper, as he began to write short stories.
Moore, now 37, wears many hats in the Minneapolis community. As the rapper Kaoz, Moore has released multiple EPs and two full-length albums, and has performed throughout the U.S. and Canada. In addition to performing as a rapper, actor, and spoken word artist, Moore is also a sexual health educator. He is currently the coordinator of the HIV prevention and sexual health outreach program at the Pillsbury House in South Minneapolis, where he spoke with The Column about his experience finding his place as a gay hip hop artist, what he hopes listeners will get out of his next album, The End Is Beginning, and his story of personal evolution, starting from when he was a kid.
Moore’s parents and teachers first noticed his knack for acting when he delivered Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have A Dream” speech during an elementary school MLK Day program, leading to his involvement in community theatre. Around middle school, Moore took an interest in music, and began to see his place in it. He recalls MC Lyte standing out as one of the artists who helped shape his confidence as an aspiring artist.
“She was actually one of the first rap voices that I really dug,” he says. “I just really thought it was cool the way she was a female and she was going just as hard as the guys were.”
Moore also related to Lyte as a fellow “underdog.” “I was kind of an overweight kid. I wasn’t necessarily a cool kid,” says Moore. “I identified with that whole mentality of being an underdog and showing people that you’re better than what they could have ever imagined.” He began writing poetry and spoken word, and started performing at open mics after graduating high school in 1996.
Moore spent time away from Cleveland in Columbus, Ohio and California post-graduation—“just kind of seeing what I could see,” he says. He also spent time working at the AIDS Task Force of Greater Cleveland and for the Cleveland Municipal school district as assistant to the CEO and as event coordinator for the arts education department.
An experience on September 11, 2001—Moore’s 24th birthday—helped make clear to him the path forward with regard to his sexual health education work. He had been in New York City to see a Michael Jackson concert in Madison Square Garden on September 10th. The next morning, his plane back to Cleveland was in the midst of taxiing for takeoff when cell phones began buzzing with news of a plane hitting the World Trade Center. When the second plane hit, his plane turned back to the airport. “To make a long story short,” says Moore, “it took me like eight to ten hours or something to get back to where my friends were staying on the Upper West. It was crazy.”
A couple days later, Moore was finally able to find a car that would take him out of the city. On the way, says Moore, “we went past the American Red Cross and there was just a line down the street for people to donate blood and stuff.”
“A few days after that, I ended up hearing a report about all these people that had donated blood getting notified that they were HIV positive, or had different blood-borne pathogens, and they couldn’t use their blood and what not,” he continues. “Not only did that happen, but I think a month to the day after that, I ended up finding out that my partner at the time, my partner of four years, he had been cheating.”
For Moore, this series of events seemed to be leading him on a very specific path. “On top of that, to make it so weird,” he continues, “right before I left to go on that vacation to New York actually, a friend of mine who was a DJ at one of the local clubs [and who] worked at the AIDS task force of greater Cleveland was telling me about a position that was going to be opening, because they received this multimillion dollar grant from the CDC to start the first young men who have sex with men-focused peer education program in Ohio.”
“He was already kind of familiar with my work in the community and my work as an artist and everything, and he kind of thought that I would be a very very good fit for it—even though I had no knowledge of HIV stuff [and] no desire to go into that field,” says Moore, who ended up applying for the job and getting it, beginning a renewed commitment to the HIV prevention work he has continued to this day.
After a personal rough patch in Cleveland, Moore began looking for places to relocate—to “have a fresh start and just, you know, see something different,” he says. While he was initially denied a job at the Minneapolis Urban League, the fates aligned when, six months later, while Moore was temping at PricewaterhouseCoopers, the Urban League contacted him and offered him a position. Moore has been in the Minneapolis community ever since, continuing to educate others on sexual health and creating art.
Moore wasn’t always known as a gay hip hop artist. Moore says that, early on, “the broader hip hop community kind of made me feel as if I wouldn’t have a place in it. For every progressive person in hip hop there’s, like, five others who are still in the dark ages.”
“I really wanted to be really forward with my sexuality,” he says, “but one thing that always kind of ate at me was the fact that I couldn’t. You know, if I was talking about love or anything like that in a song, I’d have to couch it in this way that I’m not appearing to be gay or something like that—and I just kind of got tired of it.”
Moore recalls that, in the late 90s, the rapper Caushun, who briefly drew media attention for being an out gay hip hop artist who had been taken under the wing of Kimora Lee (the then-wife of Russel Simmons, co-founder of hip hop label Def Jam Records) became “the only point of reference that I had for a gay man in hip hop.”
“Even with that,” Moore says, “I didn’t see myself really in any of those artists, and so I figured if I can’t see myself in any of these artists, there’s got to be other people like me who want to see themselves in an artist. There’s this empty space—let me try to fill it.”
Moore says he felt “released” when he began to bring his whole self to his music. He describes his attitude as one of “‘this is who I am, and screw what you think about’ it kind of thing—but not necessarily like trying to wear it on my sleeve either.”
“As time went on, I got more and more comfortable with it, and a lot in me changed,” says Moore of his sexuality. “Even just as far as my old prejudices and the way that I assumed things about identity or the perceptions that I had about gender roles and all that kind of stuff—that all that kind of changed over time, and through music and through meeting different people and becoming involved in artists who were basically fearless, that gave me a lot of backbone.”
For Moore, his identities as an artist and an activist “go hand-in-hand.” Moore explains, “I feel like I’m always kind of fighting for a bigger cause or championing for some people who don’t have a voice.” Moore says that his most recent album, The End Is Beginning, was very much influenced by the Black Lives Matter movement.
While Moore began working on some parts of what would become The End Is Beginning in 2012, the album was heavily shaped by a turn of events that began in August of 2014, around two days before Mike Brown’s murder in Ferguson. “I ended up having an experience with some police right down on Chicago and Lake, right outside of Los Ocampo,” says Moore. For Moore, the interaction ended up being the catalyst for a battle with Bell’s Palsy, a form of partial facial paralysis, which also influenced The End Is Beginning. The Bell’s Palsy “affected everything, like my speech, it affected my vision—it effected a lot of stuff,” says Moore.
The condition resulted in Moore having to stop working on his album temporarily and cancel all the gigs he had lined up for the rest of the summer. However, Moore says that the experience, which lasted around a month and a half compared to the average three to six months, helped to put things into perspective for him. “I don’t know if you can imagine just how that would affect someone—mentally spiritually and all that,” says Moore. “I felt like an outcast and I felt like ‘the other’ in a whole lot of other instances. I really really felt what it felt like to be kind of considered outlandish or queer, really.” With Bell’s Palsy, “people look at you just like you’re crazy.”
Moore says that initially, the album “was going to be, like, me showing off, bragging, kind of flexing my rap chops, but I couldn’t keep it at that because there was so much going on in our nation.” As the increasingly long list of people of color killed by police grew on the nation’s conscience, “it really seemed like The Creator was putting things in my path and kind of pushing me to change this and use this album as a vehicle to really try and enact some change or inspire others to something—to action,” says Moore.
Moore explains that the concept behind the title “The End Is Beginning” is that “every day is like a chance to start a new. As one day ends, another one begins.”
“I kind of try to use that concept to relate it back to this whole resistance movement and just the fact that we as human beings have to do better,” says Moore. “We’ve got to start loving each other and, not only that, just listening. . . That’s, like, the only thing that sometimes people ask for out of others is just for them to just listen.”
“I think that in the nation, people are just tired of being considered less than, just because their circumstances are a little different than others,” says Moore. “A lot of times we separate ourselves based upon some shit that we’ve been taught to do by either someone in our family or the media or this broader, like, unseen force that seems to kind of have everybody on a string. We’re so hypnotized by that we don’t see the humanity in each other and so therefore we keep missing the mark.”
Moore continues, “On top of that, a lot of us don’t want to claim responsibility over the conditions in which we’re in right now. . . We’ve just got to be adults for a change and actually claim our responsibility—claim the responsibility of our ancestors.”
Moore hopes that The End Is Beginning will motivate others to “get their hands dirty” and “do some self reflection” on what they are or are not doing for others, and on the kind of energy they are or are not putting out into the world. Further, he hopes to see others “not ignoring the ugliness of the past, but using that as this even playing ground to start having conversations, to start having understandings about one another that we didn’t have before, hopefully making the future different or better so that our kids don’t have to keep having these same conversations; where they don’t have to feel threatened by a system that’s supposed to protect them.”
“I just hope that people get a sense of America in its true sense,” says Moore. “Actually being an American. Appreciating everything and everyone that we have around us and getting those gifts that we have to offer. ‘Cause I think we all have plenty to offer each other’s communities—it’s just we’ve been conditioned into thinking that we don’t.”
Moore says that his passion for what he does is what keeps him grounded, and he advises other aspiring artists to maintain a similar sense of purpose and self. In Moore’s words, “the main thing is keeping the passion.”
“There’s so many things that are in our lives currently that threaten to take that away or can take it away,” says Moore. “Just day to day living, just the fact that you have to pay bills or be a part of systems that you don’t necessarily have control over—that can be enough to make anybody not want to get up in the morning. But just keeping that [passion], because that, at the end of the day, will be the thing that really kind of guides you or makes you feel that life is worth living.”
Moore draws inspiration from his larger perspective on his purpose in the universe “knowing that The Creator put me here to do this,” he says. “That’s what kind of keeps me grounded. It keeps me from snapping off. It kept me from mouthing off at the cops. It kept me from wanting to bust shit up when we were out here demonstrating and people were trying to run through the crowds and shit with their cars because they don’t agree with this. That type of hate, you know, my ancestors had to face that kind of shit every single day. So it’s kind of like, if they could do it, and, you know, not kill anybody, or if they could do it and still live to whenever they lived to, raise kids, and still move in this world with that love that they have, then I know that I can do that too.”
Kevin Moore’s The End Is Beginning release party, show and celebration will be held at 10pm on May 28th at the Bedlam Theater (213 4th St E, St. Paul, 55101). Tickets are available online for $10 online (Eventbrite.com Search: Kaoz The End Is Beginning) or for $12 at the door. Admission includes a copy of The End is Beginning. For more information on Kevin Moore, check out http://www.kaozonline.com/.