City of Hope.
That’s what Jamal Williams calls his new home.
He moved from Virginia to Raleigh in 2013 to pursue basketball coaching. He landed at Millbrook High School and was prepared to start a different life, as he had planned to leave something behind – his rap career.
A popular independent artist, Williams, 31, wanted to focus on coaching. He loves basketball as much as writing rap lyrics but wanted a fresh start because of the crowded indy scene in Virginia.
But when a Millbrook player noticed him from his previous work, even convincing him to write a team hype song, Williams, who raps as Rise Rashid, felt rejuvenated. He resurrected his music career, pulling inspiration from his powerful influence as a Millbrook assistant coach, and found much support in Raleigh, his City of Hope.
“For me, the grass was greener on the other side,” said Williams, who comes from an Air Force family and graduated from high school and college in Virginia. He read about Raleigh’s nickname, the City of Oaks, stemming from its plethora of oak trees.
“If they’re doing all this building, obviously they’re cutting down trees,” Williams said. “The trees are coming down and hope is kind of being built in their place. A lot of people are moving here with hopes to find a better life.”
The move has paid dividends for Williams so far. He’s part of a successful boys’ basketball program; Millbrook has won five straight Cap-8 Conference titles and made it to the fourth round of state playoffs last season. He helped plant mentoring programs at the school, which currently serve nearly 40 Raleigh youth.
Best of all, he gained a young fan base by using positive, intellectual music to empower his listeners.
Millbrook students are familiar with his songs, as Williams aims for a catchy sound. He serves as an on-campus mentor on the administrative side of his job, and many messages he tries to promote during the school day he includes in his lyrics.
“They really listen deep because they know me personally,” said Williams, who is constantly interacting with some 2,500 Wildcats throughout the day. “Everything I try to say to each kid, I put in the music. They might listen to me out here, but they’ll really listen and play it over and over and over again if it’s put into the song.”
Williams, who started rapping at 13 and sold CDs out of his locker in high school, realized the power rap had on players and students after writing an impassioned piece for Tahje Alexander Mials, a Millbrook student who was stabbed to death in 2014.
Bridgett Rogers, the current student body president and a four-year basketball assistant, said Williams allowed her to listen to the song before he released it to offer feedback from a student’s ear.
Songs on his CDs “Microphone Ali” and “Microphone X” feature ideas about ignoring negativity and how to be comfortable just being yourself.
“He’s talked to me about his albums before, and I understand the story line of them,” Rogers said. “I like the authenticity of it.”
Williams described basketball as his other, other wife. Being married, that makes three, he joked.
“I played basketball my entire life,” Williams said. “The metaphor of the game of basketball relates directly to life, every aspect of the game. There being a leader and there being role players. There being success and there being failure. When you’re coaching the game of basketball at this level, it’s not about wins or losses. It’s about taking a young kid and making that young boy or girl into a man or woman.”
Williams played basketball at Randolph Henry High School and while attending Central Virginia Community College, and he stayed involved by competing in recreation leagues before becoming a coach. And Williams can’t help but make references to NBA players in his music, from Kareem’s sky hook to Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony to North Carolina’s own Jerry Stackhouse.
He said he came to Raleigh with more than 50 resumes to distribute before Millbrook hired him. He found that the same impact he has with rap is present with coaching basketball.
“Everything I’m saying in the music, I’m also trying to say and convey on the basketball court,” Williams said.
Williams’ energy on campus is infectious. There’s a buzz when he engages with students.
Because he’s not too far removed from high school himself, it creates a trust and a unique bond.
“He understands us,” Rogers said. Williams said that was key to creating the new fan base; he had so much access to what it responds well to.
“All the students love him here,” said Rogers, a senior. “If they have any problem, they can go to him about anything. One of the things … I’ll remember most about him is the conversations we had, especially about controversial issues. He practices Islam and my religion is Christianity, so we can debate about anything.”
Some of Williams’ rap name was derived from his faith. The Muslim last name he recognizes is Rashid, which means rightly guided. He takes pride in sending people in the right direction through music and through coaching.
Williams is compassionate about the chance he has to move lives and affect change. He can only hope his platforms have made Millbrook a better place than when he arrived.
“Whether they listen to the music or play basketball, they’ll remember that coach that rapped that taught me some things,” Williams said.
Jessika Morgan: 919-829-4538, @JessikaMorgan