The seminal moment of Ezri "Ezzy" Walker's music career almost never existed at all.
"Last call for boarding for Alicia Miranda, Ezri Walker and Jordan Morales."
It was a Wednesday night this past March at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport, and Walker and his management team (made up of his mother, Miranda, and a good friend, Morales) were scrambling to get through airport security when that announcement came crackling over the speakers.
The team was on its way to New York City to appear on Sway in the Morning, the SiriusXM satellite radio show that has become a rite of passage for aspiring and established rappers alike. It was one of those proverbial "once in a lifetime" opportunities, a chance for Walker's name to ring out much further than just the confines of Cleveland. This was a flight they could not afford to miss.
But, as happens with airport security lines, getting through took a while. By the time the trio made it into the gate area, their plane was already rumbling down the runway.
Morales took out his cell phone and nervously dialed Reggie Hawkins, the director of programming for SiriusXM and the man who had introduced Walker's music to Sway Calloway, the former MTV mainstay and current host of Sway in the Morning. Walker was booked to appear on the show in New York at 9:00 a.m. the next morning, and he was still stuck in Cleveland.
"Sway can't find out about this," Hawkins told Morales. "Just be here." Morales hung up and frantically began looking up any remaining flights heading to New York that night. There was nothing. So the team went with the only viable option they had left: Rent a car and drive the 460 miles to New York City.
With Morales behind the wheel, they sped through the darkness to arrive in Manhattan at 5 a.m. Four hours later, Walker, who hadn't slept a wink, sat next to Calloway and spit a freestyle that would change his life.
Today, Walker can look back on the near disaster and laugh about it.
"It was fun," he says of the adventure. "Now it's just back to making music."
Spurred on by Lil' Wayne's "No Ceilings" mixtape, the stylings of Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole and the support of his mother, Walker was pursuing rap by the ripe young age of 12.
Glen Infante, the founder and owner of the I Love The Hype (ILTHY) clothing label, first met "Little Ezzy" when he was 12 years old. At the time, Infante had taken to filming short cyphers of local rappers spitting their best stuff for two minutes, then posting it to ILTHY's website. ILTHY was still a side hustle at the time, so Infante would host the cyphers at Hot Cards where he worked during the day. Walker was invited to participate by a mutual friend, and was immediately thrown into the fire upon arriving.
"We had him jump in a cypher right away because they told us he could spit," Infante says. "When we heard him the first time I was like, 'Wow, he's really good.' His skill level, it didn't match his age. He knew exactly how to perform. He had a lot of energy. He was better than everybody in the cypher."
Fellow artists also took note.
"I met Ezzy when he was 13, I believe," says Cleveland hip-hop mainstay DJ Corey Grand. "I still remember the night. It was cold and winter and I was DJing a hip-hop showcase downtown. I had never heard of or met Ezzy and when he took the stage, he blew my mind. His lyricism and his delivery was amazing, especially for him being so young at the time. He was the best performer that night in my opinion. Fast forward to today, I'm really proud of his growth not only as an artist but as a human being. He stands for righteousness and just being a good person overall."
Now a wiry 19-year-old, Walker sits in a bedroom he's morphed into a makeshift studio at the Tremont Lofts, the pad he's sharing with a few of his fellow actors from The Land, the movie he's been filming. The room is windowless, a place where you could record for hours on end without ever knowing what time it is or what the weather's like. When the door is closed, the walls contain the sound surprisingly well, allowing Walker to blast one of the hundreds of songs stored in his iTunes without disturbing his castmates, who are scattered throughout the loft. Clothes and shoes have been tossed every which way around Walker's room, and his music library is organized in similar fashion. Like maneuvering through a digital labyrinth, Walker searches for a clean version of one of his tracks to send to a DJ. The process takes almost five minutes. But when he finds and double clicks on what he was looking for, the beat emanates from the speakers below. He knows the song's ins and outs, its intricacies. It's an attention to detail with music that he brought with him through high school and college.
Walker attended Cleveland's MC^2 STEM high school before enrolling in Kent State. There, he'd been studying fashion design, though he quickly realized his enjoyment comes from wearing clothes, not sitting down and designing them. In his spare time, he was cooped up in his dorm room making music, though inspiration wasn't exactly oozing down the halls.
"It was hard to get inspiration out there because I didn't really know too many people," Walker says. "I like being back here."
Walker doesn't anticipate being back at Kent State this fall, instead opting to attend CSU or Tri-C to be closer to home. He's also got an inkling to move out to Los Angeles for a month to work and make connections. But for now he's here, in his loft plotting his next move.
Walker adjusts his red Los Angeles Angels fitted hat and starts to reminisce about how far he's come and that Sway in the Morning appearance a few months back.
For Walker's music to find its way to Sway, it first had to reach the ears of Hawkins. It just so happened that Hawkins was in Cleveland this past January acting as one of the judges at the Deal Makers Conference, a platform for unsigned artists in Cleveland to perform in front of a panel of movers and shakers. Walker wasn't planning on performing, as the entrance fee alone was almost $1,000 ("Nothing we would ever pay," Morales adds), but Karen Civil, a staple in hip-hop media and organizer of the conference, wanted him there. So she waived the fee, Walker performed, and Hawkins was blown away.
Back in New York, Hawkins played Walker's music for Sway, who requested Walker come appear on his remote broadcast from Austin during South by Southwest. A few days later, Hawkins called and said scratch that, we want you in New York next week. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Walker admits the spot has put his blossoming rap career in a precarious place. On one hand, the credibility and publicity Walker's received since his time on Sway has been invaluable. On the other, the scent of success has attracted a sense of urgency to Walker's career. Seize the moment now, or be forever anchored to Cleveland like the steamship William G. Mather.
"A lot of people didn't know who I was before Sway," Walker says. "At first, it was a lot of pressure, like, 'What am I going to do next?' But I did that (on Sway) when I was 18, and nobody else has done that at age 18 on Sway, ever."
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