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."
Before he was dropping bars on national radio shows, Walker was a singer. Sort of. At the age of 11, Walker was commissioned to write and perform a song at his cousin's birthday party. The writing stuck with him. The singing? Not so much.
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."
At the time of this writing, the video of Walker's tantalizing performance on Sway sits at just over a million views on YouTube, more than a recent Meek Mill freestyle session on the same show. Walker spazzed out for five minutes straight over Future's "F**k Up Some Commas" beat, and spent the final minute rapping a cappella. As he finished his last line, Calloway leaned back in his chair, his hand over his mouth in a flimsy attempt to contain his bewilderment.
"It was half written and half off the top," Walker says of his freestyle. "I appreciate the fact that it was a slower beat because it actually gave me time to think about stuff and put the pieces to the puzzle."
The feedback was instant and overwhelming. Of the 10 calls Calloway took on-air following Walker's freestyle, nine of them were effusive in their praise for Walker. A few weeks later, while at South by Southwest, Walker was video-chatted by a member of Kendrick Lamar's management team just to tell Walker how good he was.
His performance was posted on national hip-hop blogs like Uproxx's Smoking Section, as well as on the infamous World Star Hip-Hop, to which Walker posted a Facebook link with the caption, "Look mama, I made it to World Star."
"I knew whatever he was going to do, it was going to get a lot of attention," his mother, Miranda, says. "All it takes is for people to listen to him and they are floored, not just by his ability, but by what he's saying. It was a big moment."
Walker's performance was a summation of what those familiar with his music, like his mother, see in him. It's a perfectly blended mixture of clever wordplay ("Like Nicolas Cage I'm on fire/So I would never need a Ghost Rider (writer)"), complex rhyme schemes and an uncanny ability to speak on his life experiences with the foresight of a man in his 30s.
"When he was young, his subjects (in his music), no one could really relate to it unless you were a young kid," Infante says. "Now that he's older, he's speaking on subjects that we all can relate to. That part of his music is really making people pay attention."
It should come as no surprise, then, that the 19-year-old born on Cleveland's eastside is something of an old soul. When he began rapping at age 12, Walker had already been through some shit.
His parents divorced when he was young, leading Walker to live in Ohio, North Carolina and Florida all before the age of 10. Though his folks would ultimately reunite and marry, the trouble kept coming: His mother developed breast cancer in 2010. She beat that diagnosis in just nine months, but that's the type of emotional baggage that can weigh on a kid, especially one as close to his mom as Walker is.
"It was only him and me up until he was 11 (when his first brother was born)," Miranda says. "His dad was certainly in our lives, but as far as me having to share my time, that really didn't have to happen until he was 11 years old. So we had a very close relationship, and that foundation has helped us keep that going."
That closeness has allowed Miranda and Walker to maintain a fruitful business relationship on top of the usual mother-son dynamic, though Miranda says her son certainly tested her patience during his early teen years. Still, she persevered, paying for studio equipment and driving Walker to his shows, then bringing Morales on to help when her fight against breast cancer zapped her of her energy.
"Nobody can match what my mom has done for me," Walker says. "She does stuff that moms don't have to do. Her support and how she helps out is next level."
It's one thing to go through hardships, and another thing completely to posses the ability to tell that story with your music. Walker credits his obsession with reading as the catalyst for his lyrical prowess.
"I used to read a lot, until they made Instagram," Walker says with a laugh. "I was reading when I was 3 or 4. My mom would read me Dr. Seuss and I would always buy stuff from book fairs at school. It's how I'm able to talk and just communicate (with my music)."
"Ezzy is a talented artist who has a very raw and pure ability to rap, and he's proven time and again that, if nothing else, he can downright spit," says Zach Frydenlund, a music writer for Complex. "But the (challenge will be the) transition from youthful, teenage rapper to going forward into his later years and developing as an artist."
Walker does have a few big performances under his belt, acting as one of the openers for Drake in 2012 and playing this year to a big crowd at 13Fest, the ongoing concert series held every year at Ohio University. He's also been known to pop up at other artists' shows just to observe, like when he was spotted at a recent rapper ILoveMakonnen show at the Grog Shop, rapping along to every single word. Despite the almost palpable urgency to capitalize on an opening in an industry where rappers come and go as quickly as a Kanye West smile, Miranda and Morales remain patient.
"It's always a pivotal moment," Morales says. "It's like continuously climbing a ladder. In this industry you never want to plateau. But we're very patient people. We're not racing against time. A lot of people feel like we have a small window. We feel like we have a wide-open window."
"It was that moment to get us to that next level," Miranda says of her son's performance on Sway. "Now we're going to have to seize that next moment. When will that happen? We don't know. But we're prepared and we'll be ready for it."
While Walker and his team wait for the next time to pounce on the music side of things, they continue to make moves elsewhere. Walker just finished up filming for The Land, the story of four skateboarding kids in Cleveland who get caught up selling drugs to try and better themselves; it will debut at the Sundance Film Festival in January. Walker has grown close to the cast and says he's been told his performance has been good despite this being his first true acting experience. He shot scenes for a month and, after some brief down time, will ship off to New York City to start working on his music again.
"It's happening now," Infante says of Ezzy's climb to national recognition. "He's really working hard to make sure people don't forget about him. His interview on Sway was no fluke. Somebody's going to be knocking on the door soon."
But Walker isn't sure he'll answer. Though record labels may come calling, Walker and his team plan on remaining independent for the foreseeable future.
When a window opens up, especially in the music industry, you only have so much time before it slams shut and you're left trying to figure out how to pry it open again. Despite the message of patience from Walker's team, there's no rest in sight for the Cleveland native.
On the day we interviewed him, Walker performed a brief five-minute set at the Cleveland Latino Arts and Culture Celebration. The crowd was largely unfamiliar with his work, but during his three-song set his energy and talent were such that they couldn't help but vibe along with him. Bigger crowds and more rabid fans are the goal, though Walker says he's starting to get recognized more and more on the street. But for now, the work continues.
"We're still building, man," Walker says. "I'm going to keep doing what I'm doing and keep making sure I'm always prepared for more opportunities to come."