Sheron Colbert hangs up and stretches out in the booth of a Near East Side bar, relieved.
“I just wanted him to call me as soon as he got out and let me know that he’s safe,” he smiled. “I’ve been on edge for the last 24 hours.”
It’s a situation Colbert is all too familiar with. A good friend of his spent the night at the Franklin County Correctional Facility after being served a bench warrant for prior minor violations. Colbert, better known around Columbus as emcee Nes Wordz, wears his emotions like a badge, and it’s made him one of the city’s most prolific urban voices.
Colbert grew up in Toledo but has spent most of his life in Columbus. Over the years he’s called every side of town home, but currently resides out east where he’s parlayed helping the at-risk youth in his neighborhood into a daytime teaching gig at Columbus Arts & Technology Academy, handling media arts for grades 5-11.
“The kids took one look at me and were like, ‘You’re one of us,’” the 30-year-old Olde Towne resident said with a grin on his face. “They see the tattoos on my neck, my hand, my wrist, and they immediately identify with that. I really want to promote them being themselves as well. I carry the personality that these kids is going to relate to.”
The emcee part of Nes Wordz is also critical in understanding his message. Nes’s 2015 free LP Stupid Genius represents him perfectly. It’s purposely a hodgepodge of socially conscious tales mixed with the most ignorant of club-themed trap music. The project is used both as the groundwork for a potential career in the music industry, and also perhaps as the theme music to his work on the front lines of social justice.
“I do think it is very hip-hop to take a role in [taking a stand] though, because hip-hop represents rebellion—a bold face. And sometimes it’s the ugly face that the rest of the world don’t want to look at,” he explained. “We give you the ugly truth, and yeah we may be talking about bitches and guns and stuff, but that’s also the American way.”
Nes, like many rappers whose life and lyrics have been hijacked by news of police-involved shootings in Baltimore, Baton Rouge, and Milwaukee, has more recently focused on injustice and put all other lyrical content on the back burner. He’s a local example of a national trend affecting hip-hop, with mega stars like Jay-Z and Drake speaking out against police violence. In July, T.I. told New York radio’s Hot 97 he couldn’t even make his trademark braggadocio rap because his conscious wouldn’t allow it. “I can’t really go into the studio and write records about throwing money in the club,” he told host Peter Rosenberg. “It just don’t feel responsible.”
Even prior to the police-involved shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, Nes Wordz translated his voice behind the mic to action within his neighborhood. He’s been involved in organized protests against police brutality and monthly Feed the Streets drives, which provide food to inner-city families in need. It’s a legacy he’s hoping to continue, passed on by his late friend and organization founder, MarShawn McCarrel. McCarrel committed suicide earlier this year on the steps of the Ohio Statehouse. His death shocked Nes, who to this day is torn by his absence.
“I’m never going to be the same again. That shit changed my life,” he said. “By far, one of the most powerful people in my life, especially being so young and going through all the things he went through—dealing with police brutality and getting shot at a young age. [He was a] promising student and poet.”
“He was really a man that had no fear,” he continued. “A lot of people say they ready to die for the cause. He meant it. His death taught me that you have to constantly expect the unexpected.”
From music and community organizing to teaching and beyond, Nes Wordz, it seems, has finally found himself. Musically, he’s working on his forthcoming EP AnyDayNow, which is slated for release as its title implies. This will preempt his official debut album Sheron Colbert, a project tracking the admitted, self-embraced rough journey Nes has put himself though. From Sheron to Nes Wordz to Mr. Colbert, his journey has come a long way while his influence is simultaneously just beginning.
“I’m just learning as I go. I’m still wrong about a lot of stuff, but I’m not afraid to admit it,” he says of his life. “A lot of things I was raised up on wasn’t positive. A lot of the things I’ve done weren’t positive. I’ve made mistakes. I done ran from the police, did all types of crazy shit. I’ve done things knowing it was going to make life harder, but I did ’em anyway. We all have the ability to change. We are not our mistakes, we choose to be our mistakes. And really, that’s my overall message.”
Nes Wordz, via the studio, the streets, and the classroom, is speaking to everyone who’ll listen. From the shyest fifth grader to the toughest East Side stick-up kid, his message of choosing one’s own destiny is changing the lives of those around him. It’s a lesson he primarily learns from his own children.
“If anything, my children are the ones who teach me. They remind me that if I’m going through something, I can just sit around my kids and they can teach me what life’s all about,” he remarked. “I’m socially active in my community because I choose to be, not because it makes me look better as a rapper. I do it because I came up in an impoverished neighborhood my whole life. I do it because it makes me feel good, and like I’m doing my part.”
For music by Nes Wordz, visit soundcloud.com/neswordz.