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The Army Field Band now has its first rappers

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Army music has come a long way since bugles and fifes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE ARMY GOES ROLLING ALONG")

US ARMY FIELD BAND: (Singing) Proud of all we have done, fighting till the battle's won, and the Army goes rolling along...

KELLY: The U.S. Army Field Band has always adapted to changing tastes - marching in parades with brass bands, string ensembles and percussionists. Now it also includes rappers. Christopher Alston with member station WABE in Atlanta introduces us to the first two rappers to join a military band.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing, inaudible).

US ARMY RAPPERS: U.S. Army Rappers live, A-T-L.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing, inaudible).

CHRISTOPHER ALSTON, BYLINE: On stage during a festival in Atlanta's Centennial Park, a pair of soldiers in full uniform take turns trading bars as their lyrics are projected on a screen behind them. They perform as Staff Sgts. Lamar Riddick and Nicholas Feemster, their official rank.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NICHOLAS FEEMSTER: So I got this song. This next song is called "Second Chance." And this uniform, at the end of the day, was just a second chance for me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SECOND CHANCE")

US ARMY RAPPERS: (Rapping) Loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service and honor, integrity, personal courage, what I got to offer...

ALSTON: Feemster joined the Army last year after the pandemic gutted his solo music career.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SECOND CHANCE")

US ARMY RAPPERS: (Rapping) Been on a path of retribution, and I'm finally here. And all the sacrifice is worth it as I seen her tears...

ALSTON: His partner, Riddick, brings a church background to his music and also joined last year.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LAMAR RIDDICK: (Rapping) Put your hands in a pie, it's a potluck, if you want to sit down at my table thanking God for the men and women in my life to help me keep my mind on stable, tell them go run then stretch, bend over, then check your laces, better check them. Down for the day, he'd come and take me to higher places. Wait for the day my brother come home, and they drop his cases...

ALSTON: Feemster and Riddick went through basic training at Fort Sill in Oklahoma before joining the field band.

LAUREN URQUHART: Rap and hip-hop are the most popular genre of music in the United States and, I believe, worldwide.

ALSTON: That's Master Sgt. Lauren Urquhart, the senior producer of the U.S. Army Field Band. She says the two were hired specifically for their talents and also to expand the Army's outreach.

URQUHART: Our job is to help the American public understand what the army is about and get to know the soldiers who are serving on their behalf better.

ALSTON: She says because of that, it was an easy decision to include rap.

URQUHART: As musicians, we look for the best music that connects people, that helps them feel things, that tells stories. And rap music is perfect for that.

ALSTON: Riddick and Feemster say becoming the first Army rappers wasn't easy. The process of getting the job was less like an interview and more along the lines of an "American Idol" style audition competing against other soldiers, says Riddick.

RIDDICK: We had to sing. We had to rap. We had to freestyle. And during that process, Nicco and I met each other.

ALSTON: And after meeting in the waiting room, the two got to talking and decided on the spot to combine forces, says Feemster.

FEEMSTER: You know, Lamar and I became the last two. And we actually campaigned for each other to do it together because we're thinking, like, you know, if there's going to be a rap program - and we know the Army's real big on, like, teamwork and stuff - we're like, why don't we form a team together and really try to build this into something that's sustainable for the future?

ALSTON: Before enlisting, the 30- and 31-year-old were both civilian artists, and Feemster actually comes from a family of music royalty. His grandfather is half of the famous R&B duo, Peaches & Herb.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHAKE YOUR GROOVE THING")

PEACHES & HERB: (Singing) Shake your groove thing, shake your groove thing, yeah, yeah.

ALSTON: But for Feemster, his musical expression today is in service of his country, using a genre that's historically been quite explicitly anti-authority. He says there's no conflict for him.

FEEMSTER: Hip hop is what? - self-expression. That's it. You're telling a story, and that's all we're doing. You know what I'm saying? And it's like, we're just as much a part of the culture doing that as anybody else. So it's our job to just, you know, connect everyone, like, connect our veterans, connect other soldiers, connect civilians. And we're pretty much the bridge that holds that together.

ALSTON: And the pair gives Army recruiters a new tagline to work with. If they can get a job rapping in the Army, there's probably a job for you. For NPR News, I'm Christopher Alston in Atlanta.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

US ARMY RAPPERS: (Rapping) Hey, we salute. In the states, we keep the faith and ain't nobody owning you. They gave us the metal (ph), the ammo, the camo... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Christopher Alston