Behind the Coliseum, a crowd gathered around a food truck and a booth that sold vintage audio gear. A line of hapless emcees stretched around thirty-five or forty bodies from Michael to a vault-like metal door. He wanted to battle, but the threshold filled his belly with sour notes and fear.
The rappers rocked and whispered, hummed like busy insects. He craned his neck, trying to see above their spiked shoulder pads and fitted caps. At the door, security gods brandished assault rifles. Michael recognized the logos and muscles from the street teams that sold mixtapes in his hood, South Memphis.
Between the security gods, a short man with saggy cheeks wore dungarees that shredded around his calf muscles and a brown vest over nappy chest hair. The vest examined a rapper’s eyes and mouth, while the security gods searched the rapper at gunpoint.
More emcees gathered behind Michael, forced him into the line. Michael tapped the drum pads, sixteen buttons arrayed on his gold arm. The beat calmed his nerves, eased his march. As the line inched, the vest dismissed half the rappers. Security gods fired warning shots, laughed at the rejects.
The rapper in front of Michael refused dismissal. “Feed me or kill me.” He drew microphones from his sleeves. He cried through clenched teeth.
The funk of forty thousand men surged like a forcefield. Security gods shot the emcee while the mics screeched like Furies. The rapper fell, the smoking devices crossed his midsection. Blood washed under Michael’s boots. He stepped back, horrified. When the vest called for another rapper, someone pushed Michael to his hands and knees. His gold arm buzzed, shined over blood pooling between his fingers.
“Where’d you get this gear, boy?” The vest pulled Michael to his feet, poked one of the drum pads.
Michael backed away from the vest, swept his cloak over his gold arm. Blood wet his fingers. Hip Hop Lives. The words, graffiti in his mind, lit the tunnels under his dreams. In the depths, he watched his friend O Baby spray her own masterpiece, But All I See is Death in the City.
“Got any cameras? Tell me now.” The vest spoke like someone living his best life gargling glass.
“I’m not a reporter.” Fear needled Michael’s skin to gooseflesh. He swallowed his nerves, balled his fists. “I wanna battle.” He remembered Kase’s body lying in the tunnel, the shiny news van menacing the underpass. “Fire burn,” he said, cursed World Media Broadcasting.
“Fuck the all-seen eye.” The vest chuckled. Brown decay covered his teeth. “The crowd might like that arm, but you act corny as hell. We gotta hear something before we decide. If you bumping, you pass. If you fail, that’s your ass, Mr. Postman.” He laughed, fell against a security god’s stone shoulder.
Michael finished the verse that he started by the railyards next to the Coliseum. He recounted his search for O Baby, his only friend, the news van that crept like an urchin, the murdered graffiti writer’s last mural. Hip Hop Lives. Flames consumed Michael’s arm.
The dead emcee opened his eyes and howled like the greatest hype man since Flavor Flav. “Let the boy with the golden arm show y’all how to flow!”
The corpse cackled and fell, returned to the silence of the dead. The shocked security gods aimed their rifles. The vest lit a blunt, blew glittering smoke between Michael and the gun barrels.
“That’s a cool trick, little boy. You might last a round or two if you cut that corny shit. This ain’t no Beale Street amateur night.” The vest pointed the blunt at the steel door. “Go inside and wait with the others.”
Security gods opened the steel door, flanked the threshold. They watched Michael like gargoyles gripping rifles by the stocks and handguards. With wide eyes and sliding feet, Michael crept toward the entrance where haze stirred and music grumbled like a volcano. By reflex, he reached for his drum pads.
Security gods grabbed Michael, searched his cloak, and snatched the microphone holstered under his armpit. A security god tossed the microphone to the vest. Michael struggled as the device sailed over his head. The vest caught the mic, stroked the ornate engraved housing, and tucked the device in his pants pocket. Michael reached, but security gods threw him to the ground, pointed their rifles.
He landed on his gold arm. Pain coursed through the metal like lightning. He clenched his teeth, stared at the vest. Uncle Zebb’s gonna lock me in the studio forever, Michael cried in his mind. He considered his gold arm, closed his eyes, but his dead father’s image forced them open. In his mind, he saw his friend O Baby holding her brother’s corpse. A crown of gunmetal pressed his forehead and temples.
“For safekeeping.” The vest patted the bulge in his pocket and grinned, smoke easing between his teeth. “We use house mics in the Coliseum. If you come back, I’ll be the first to shake that gold hand of yours and return your pretty microphone.”
The vest resumed his work with a bounce and a step. Cheer colored his voice when he called for the next emcee. Michael held his forehead and stared at the ground, fear rising to his armpits like muddy water. The rifles ushered him into the haze and bass thundering behind the doorway. He bit his lip, wishing he could run back to O Baby. Hip Hop Lives, but All I See is….
Inside the Coliseum, stone walls, a dirty marble floor, and a barrel-vault ceiling composed a living canvas, a dark stomach lining surrounding a network of elaborate graffiti. Dazzling colors, cryptic messages spun like a carousel or a wormhole acting like a tornado.
Someone screamed. Michael jumped, flailed in his cloak. On the wall behind him, the graffiti made a laughing face before melting into a chorus of screaming sycophants. They pointed in unison, ordered Michael to join the battle rappers grouped at the bend of the winding hallway.
The rappers huddled like wolves under a masterpiece rendering the Nobody emblem. The shadowy mural stood about fifteen feet. The eyes glowed in the covered face. Near the bottom of the emblem, a black fist gripped a microphone that shined with the same electric blue burning the silhouette’s eyes.
Wrinkled bucket hats, rags tied around their faces, dyed locks and cornrows, crystal beads and sparkling dust, the battle rappers stared at Michael like they might pounce, rip his flesh from his bones with their hands and teeth.
Michael’s gold fingers twitched under his cloak. He wanted to play a beat, but he hated the prodding eyes. His uncle’s home studio shined in his imagination like a fetish, light years away.
As the leering battle rappers circled the boy emcee, El, his dead father, laughed in his ear, a garbled, distorted mess that incensed him. Michael remembered his promise from the railyard. I’ma show all y’all. Under his cloak, his fingers eased their way towards the drum pads.
808 bass shook the floor. Hi-hats rattled like bullets. Raving voices and shadows barreled around the bending corridor. The battle rappers pranced, snapped their fingers, and swung their fists as the ruckus approached.
Michael cringed in his cloak, let his hood hide his face, but the bass crept into his legs and his hips. By the time he felt himself dancing, heard himself howling, the circle of battle rappers had consumed the boy emcee in a storm of flesh. In his mind, he saw the news van, O Baby nuzzling her wet cheek against her brother’s. He considered his family and the suffering that drove him to the Coliseum. Under the vaulted ceiling and the glowing graffiti, Michael danced in public for the first time, wishing he could dance and scream forever.
“Get buck! Get buck!” the crowd exclaimed, one voice, one monster with scores of eyes and limbs.
The goons tramped around the bending hallway, a hard parade of break dancers spinning on their hands and shoulders, jukers balancing on bent ankles and pointed toes, pole dancers twerking on the vaulted ceiling.
A dark man with mud-pie skin, chiseled muscles, and moving tattoos strolled behind the entourage. A pair of gold canines jutted from the bottom of his mouth, stretched under his cheeks, framed a trickster’s smile. He wore camouflage pants tucked in black boots laced to his calves. The tattoos coursing his chest and arms spelled obscenities. The dark figure carried a bundle of gray chains slung over his shoulder.
A tall, slender woman with translucent skin walked beside the dark man. Blue ring curls bounced on her neck and shoulders. A blue dress fit the woman’s waist, fell in metallic layers around the tattooed microphones that glowed, one on each shin.
When the couple saw Michael, the woman laid her hand over her heart and leaned toward the boy emcee. The dark man adjusted his black sunglasses. His eyes flamed behind the lenses.
“They gave us a baby this time. Yay!” Purple mascara glittered along her eyelashes. Soft rouge sparkled in her cheeks. Blonde streaks swept over her right eye. The woman stroked Michael’s cheek, and when he cringed, she grabbed his arm. Her smile faded as she felt the metal under his cloak. She uncovered his arm and smiled when she saw the gold. She smacked her lips and brushed the drum pads with her fingers.
“Nice gear,” she said.
“What’s up, little nigga? You like my gal?” The dark man with the moving tattoos touched the woman’s back, flashed more of his gold teeth.
“No, I don’t like your gal.” Michael pulled at the woman’s grip. “This is my arm.”
He gave up struggling and stared at the woman. Her lipstick gleamed like wet paint, her bottom lip round and full. Michael turned his head, stared at the ground. His face warmed and his stomach knotted.
“Look, Fang. He’s blushing. He’s blushing.” The woman released Michael’s arm and laughed. She fell against the dark man and grabbed his shoulder. “I want to see this one in the ring.”
“Yeah, boy, why you all shy-faced?” The dark man flexed his muscles. The glowing tattoos raced his skin, taunted Michael with monstrous faces. “I’m Fang the Mane. I run this shit. Bless this pimping before I kill you.” The dark man growled, stroked the woman’s curls.
“Call me Ashlee.” She smiled, her eyes sparkling rabbit holes. Subtlety and cunning flashed in her grin.
Fang held the iron links and medallions above his head. The battle rappers kneeled, offering their necks to Fang and Ashlee. Michael reached for his drum pads, but someone punched his leg.
He fell and grabbed his thigh. Tears welling, he squeezed his eyelids and held his nerve. Some of the rappers laughed while Michael balled his fists. I’ma show y’all.
One by one, Fang passed the chains to Ashlee. Light glowed under her skin, highlighted the bones in her hands. She hung an iron chain and medallion around each rapper’s neck. When she stood before Michael, he turned his head, raised his arms. The iron chains reminded him of Uncle Zebb’s recording booth.
Fang grabbed Michael’s throat, lifted the boy to his toes. Michael tried to spit, but Fang covered his mouth. The ink in Fang’s skin wiggled against Michael’s face. He kicked and screamed, Fang’s hand an iron muzzle.
“You wanna battle. Wear the chain!” Fang brought his face close to Michael’s. His breath smelled like metasin and putrid blood.
Fang growled, threw Michael to the ground. The boy emcee landed on his golden arm, rolled on his back.
“I thought we were practicing self-control today.” Ashlee shook her head, crouched beside Michael. Blue curls slithered around her collarbones. “Baby rapper, why are you here?”
Muffled voices, a distant, ghostly ocean clamored behind dark stone, shiny graffiti. He imagined his voice fighting for space.
Michael considered his dead father, who spoke through nightmares; the torture rack in Uncle Zebb’s studio; the darkness under the rail yard where the news anchors killed O Baby’s brother. He saw the starving emcee, the voice silenced by the security god’s gunfire. So much to say in a world that refused to listen. Michael cradled his gold arm against his chest. His mouth trembled. Tears filled his eyes.
“I wanna be heard. If I gotta suffer, I want Hip Hop to feel my pain.”
Ashlee pursed her lips and nodded. Her eyes glistened. “I know how you feel, baby rapper, but this is a part of it.” She offered Michael one of the heavy, gray chains. The links rattled and clanked like shifting gears. “You have to grind before you shine.”