Requiem for a Rapper

Why was Kenny Smith shot by police? While his family and friends wait for answers, they ponder the tragic loss of a promising artist

Martez Little doesn't look like a guy who's just hit a new career high. Sitting on an old couch on a porch in Cleveland Heights, the Cleveland rapper known as "Tezo" is hanging his head, swinging through emotions.

"It depends on the day," he says, squinting against the afternoon sunlight pouring out of a cloudless sky. Streetwear-stylish in a designer T-shirt and jeans, the 21-year-old rapper absentmindedly adjusts a rubber bracelet inscribed with "I Am Too Much." "Sometimes I hear that shit and it makes me cry. Sometimes it makes me feel good as fuck. Sometimes I hear that shit and it makes me mad."

Little is talking about "Dinner Date," a song he recorded earlier this year. With a tinkling piano line falling as quick and even as rain matched with footfalls of bass, it's menacing but catchy, a slasher-movie soundtrack domesticated for the club grind. All summer, the track has been on repeat at local hip-hop stations and clubs. Although Little should be poppin' celebratory bottles over the viral spread of his most popular song so far, he's still going head-to-head with the hard facts of what it all cost.

"That shit was fucked up," he says, the words bobbing on waves of checked tears.

The track was pieced together only a few steps away, in a makeshift studio in the family room. After first hearing the beat, Little quickly penned the hook and verse, then realized there was elbow room for another rapper to add an additional verse. He decided to reach out to Kenny Smith, a younger friend from Euclid who rapped as Kenn Ball. Though Little, a more established artist, hadn't yet collaborated with Smith, he had watched the 20-year-old work through his artistic growing pains over the past year and liked his work.

"I called him that morning and he came over," recalls Little. "He wrote his verse that day, and he knocked it out. It was a wrap. I knew it was good enough for people to hear it. We were talking about the video."

But by the time Little filmed a video for the song, Smith wasn't sharing screen time, at least not in person. Before "Dinner Date" even had a chance to shake a neighborhood from the booming stereo of a passing car, Kenny Smith was dead, killed in a police shooting that is still under investigation. While Cleveland has spent the summer nodding its head to the MC's work, Smith's family and friends have been mourning and waiting, their questions unanswered.

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