Known for playing classical violin to the accompaniment of hip-hop beats, Humble G tha Fiddla (Myles Alexander Keaton Smith) is fast becoming one of the most recognized personalities on the local hip-hop scene. But his career got off to a rocky start.
When he was in grade school at Greenview in South Euclid/Lyndhurst, he was introduced to a variety of different instruments — "woods, brass and percussion."
"If you didn't see anything there that interested you, they took you into another room with the classical string instruments," he says. "The last kid who performed played the violin and I just really liked it. I picked it up."
When his mom lost her jobs — she had two at the time — he moved back to Cleveland. He took a "music history-type class" but had a failing grade. His mother knew he shouldn't be failing so she told him to bring his violin to class for "show and tell."
"Long story short, it shocked [my teacher]," says Humble G. "He was finally introduced to the real me, I guess. He ended up writing an apology letter to my mom and eventually referred me to Cleveland School of the Arts. Truth is, when I first got to Cleveland School of Arts I didn't fully know how to read music, but I didn't let them know that. I went through the first few months playing catch up."
Humble G's mother continued to support him in his interest in the instrument.
"My mom used a whole two paychecks to get me what I needed," he says. "She really wanted to be sure I took it to the next level. I think people around me were surprised by it. Where I grew up, I was subject to some name-calling, especially because I was 320 pounds in high school and I played football. Other kids said, 'Oh, he plays a sissy instrument.' But here I was this big, insecure boy who wasn't insecure on the violin at all. They didn't go too far. They probably thought, 'He's a little big, I shouldn't test him.' Luckily, I didn't have a temper. They really did say some things that hurt my feelings but it never pushed me to want to fight anybody."
He originally started recording music as Humble G and would add "tha Fiddla" a little later.
"It all just came from people calling me that," he says of his moniker. "When I was younger, people just always called me Humble. Then, when I was trying to come up with a stage name they said, 'We should just call you Humble G.' But everyone was always asking me what the G meant . . . Humble Gangsta? I was like, 'No, no. I am just a Humble Guy.' Then I found out there was another musician out there calling himself that and he really did have all this gangsta music. I didn't want to fight over that but I also didn't want to change my name. Since there were people already calling me Fiddla, that's how it all came about."
Humble G, who cites Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole and Macklemore as artists who "take some chances when it comes to the creativity," thinks of his sound as "a movement." It's certainly his reaction to the negativity he hears in rap and hip-hop. "When hip-hop first started it was people expressing the lives they were living and sometimes that was like a warzone," says Humble G. "Today it's really more fast money. Controversy sells. Focusing on that takes away from people who are actually talented. And now there are all these people who are entertainers but they can't even perform . . . Hip-hop is a part of our culture, but it still needs some saving; it really does."
That's why the 27-year-old and his team at Global Entertainment started a genre they call hip-hp (pronounced "hip-hope") that they often take straight to elementary schools. It's life-changing music, from my violin playing to my lyrics," says Humble G. "I've been playing so long now that there are teenagers and kids in college who let me know that they're playing music because they saw me when they were little bitty kids and it inspired them. This music shows them that you can be cool and love hip-hop and own your individuality and swagger without crossing the boundaries of disrespect."
For his music, Humble G. actually draws from both hip-hop and classical.
"Some people I guess might see my music as a hybrid because I mix a lot of sounds together," he says. "Whatever you call it, at the end of the day I just really want to be an inspiration to others. That's my mission. I am here to be an example, most definitely, in music. So, if I am able to blow up and create my own lane, I'll be able to help so many others who need this sort of example out there so they can take it further."
Last year, he released the One of Kind mixtape on iTunes. From noon to 3 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 26, he'll perform at the RTA Terminal at Cleveland-Hopkins Airport for Black History Month. He'll be in Columbus at the King's Art Center doing a residency in March.
"My primary promotion is performing," he says. "That's what I think sets me apart. Even though I rap and sing, I am actually a musician. My performance sells. Social media can help create momentum with your movement, even without a label. And TV and radio do grab public attention. But, in the end, nothing beats word-of-mouth. Performance has brought us a long way."
For Humble G, the message is what matters most and he makes sure his audiences — especially his young ones — know he thinks education, respect and love are critical; a belief that can be expressed without sacrificing a good beat.
"Most of my songs have messages, but not all of them do," he says. "My point is you can make fun music without promoting criminal activity. I can have a fun club song that isn't about stealing someone's wife, throwing money at strippers, selling rock or threatening to shoot someone if they spill champagne on your shorts."