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"Welcome to the Nappy Jungle." Black Moon Graffiti vocalist Napoleon "Leo" Powell divides the air with his hand, magician style, and whisks open the door to his Tucson home. From the emerald abundance of plant life inside, it's clear where the "jungle" comes from, but what's up with "nappy"? Powell won't say if that's a reference to his given first name, or the Predator-head of dreads that caps off his stocky, five-foot-five, get-down-with-his-bad self.
"Little black motherfucker with dreadlocks named Napoleon--that's kinda humorous to you, isn't it?" Well, Leo, now that you mention it. "Yeah, there was a time I took offense. Then I just said, 'Fuck it.' Got the whole costume together one Halloween in high school. Had the sideways hat and everything. Walked around all day with a hand stuck inside my uniform like Bonaparte himself. That was the shit."
In Tucson, Black Moon Graffiti is the shit. The five-piece (two vocalists, keyboards/guitar, drums and bass) is packing every venue it plays down there, including a recent show at Club Congress that drew 576 paid. Typically, most Valley promoters are behind the curve on the Black Moon tip. The band's shows here have been limited to a recent series of gigs at relatively small venues like Nita's Hideaway (which broke the band in the Valley), Balboa Cafe, Big Fish Pub and Long Wong's. Cracking the Valley scene is rapidly becoming a moot effort for Black Moon Graffiti, however. Record labels are swarming the band with deal memos that, within the next few months, should raise the band to a national level.
Soundwise, Black Moon takes a nickel bag of funk and rolls it up inside a hip-hop blunt with R&B, some deep, ambient house, a few choice loops and samples, modern rock guitar licks and a sprinkle of jazz. Don't mind the metaphor--it's just that Black Moon's co-lead vocalist, a fine, 24-year-old, young Aretha Franklin look-alike named Amy Stuenkel, is supposedly on her way to Powell's pad--sorry, the "Nappy Jungle"-- with a Buddha sack. Powell, meanwhile, is cooking up eggs and chorizo, periodically bopping from his kitchen to the living room, where the air is rich with incense and where Nebraska is losing to Texas on a TV opposite a painting of Miles Davis.
"According to the original game plan, I'm supposed to be in the NFL right now," says Powell, 25. "I was bred for football since I was 6 years old. I was roboback, man." Leo's got the press clips to back up his big talk. A high school star, he was recruited by the University of Michigan, where he played running back for a couple of years before realizing that he just wasn't big enough for the pros. "Then I burned out fast," he says. "No one had ever told me about a plan B, and I had to find one for myself."
Powell grew up in Pontiac, Michigan, the youngest of nine kids. "There was always somebody ready to pop me in the back of the head," he says. "So I was never caught slippin'." He remembers his childhood like this: "Get up, eat some Froot Loops, watch cartoons, go to church for the free lunch." When Napoleon was a freshman in high school, the Powell clan relocated to Canton, Ohio, where he played ball and started freestylin'--rapping spontaneous poetry--at house parties. He also got to be friends with a little white dude named Shawn Crawford, who played bass and shared Powell's taste for hip-hop in the form's golden age.
"I remember one time in 1988, Shawn saw LL Cool J play on MTV Unplugged, and he called me up right after the show going nuts," Powell says. "He was yelling about how somebody needs to put together a hip-hop group with live instruments. I was like, 'Man, you crazy.'" Powell stops scrambling for a second and waves his spatula for emphasis. "That idea came back and bit me in the ass, though, didn't it?"
You could say that.
Crawford moved to Tucson after he graduated high school, and when Powell started casting about for a new direction, the bassist talked his homeboy into joining him. This was mid-1993. Powell moved in with Crawford when he first got to town, and worked as a bouncer at Club Congress (despite his small, stout frame, Powell is chiseled and quick like a cat). Then he trained as an EMT and took a job in Tucson Medical Center's trauma unit. He and Crawford would jam together at night, Shawn laying down bass lines and Leo freestyling over the top. Then, like now, Powell says, he rapped about what he knows--everyday life, just trying to maintain. "None of that gangsta shit."
"Man, there are rappers out there talkin' about being players who don't even have a girlfriend. Talkin' about being drinkers, can't even handle eggnog. And the worst are the ones talkin' all about their hard, criminal lifestyle, and the colors [bandannas/gang insignias] come off soon as they're not on stage. I call them paper gangsters, they're so thin."
As the band's name implies, though, Black Moon Graffiti walks the street level. At the recent Congress show, the group debuted a new track called "Soldier's Story," a gritty lament of street violence Leo dedicated "to all the soldiers in all the cities who died for no damn reason. Tupac Shakur, R.I.P." After the show, a bartender came up to Leo and said a friend of hers had been gunned down in Louisiana just a few days before over some bullshit. "See, that song reached her," Leo says. "People can relate to guns and violence, because it's creeping into all of our everyday lives. It's a valid topic, approached from the correct perspective."