Newark Rapper Turned Councilman Dupré Kelly Eager to ‘Govern Where I Grew’

Dupré Kelly rose to fame as a rapper with Lords of the Underground. Now he represents his home, Newark's West Ward.

Dupré Kelly
Dupré Kelly grew up in Newark’s West Ward before his rap career took off. Instead of a stage, he now works from City Hall. Photo by Jasmine Hsu

Music aficionados know Dupré Kelly as DoItAll from his work with the golden-age rap group Lords of the Underground. These days, however, the platinum-selling emcee goes by councilman.

Kelly now represents Newark’s diverse West Ward, the neighborhood he grew up in. Backed by Mayor Ras Baraka, Kelly won a nonpartisan city council runoff election on June 14. Sworn in on July 1, the 51-year-old Democrat is believed to be America’s first major rapper elected to public office.

“I am what hip-hop looks like grown up,” Kelly says. He adds that he is eager to “govern where I grew.” 

Speaking with New Jersey Monthly, Kelly discussed his upbringing, hopes for the ward he still calls home, and an eye-opening conversation he had with the late rapper Tupac Shakur.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What were your experiences growing up in the West Ward?
Dupré Kelly:
I’m a young male who was raised by a single mom. That breeds a different maneuvering…. that was an experience for her. Parents… they don’t let you feel the brunt of what’s going on, or they try not to. So when you don’t have food in the house, you don’t really know that those hot dogs and beans are the only things that you have…. Back then in the West Ward, there was a lot of community with neighbors…. I think that we lost the feel of community, and it’s time to rebuild that trust.

How did those experiences influence your desire to help your community?
Her raising me influenced me to want to do good so I could make it out of that community. I wanted to make it out. As I got older, I realized that it’s not about making it out. It’s about making where you come from better.

Your music career helped you do that….
Making it out means making it out of poverty. You don’t have to just make it out of poverty through rap…. It’s just one of the ways that I made it out. And that started with school first. Making it out for me was going away to Shaw University, which was one of the greatest HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) in my eyes…. Sometimes young, Black males in cities like Newark, we look for mentors…. We don’t wanna be in the mess. We want to make it out, but our options are limited. And when we look for mentors and can’t find them, we have to become those mentors.

Lords of the Underground, a rap trio comprised of Kelly, Al’Terik “Mr. Funke” Wardrick, and Bruce “DJ Lord Jazz” Colston, rose to prominence in the 1990s. Watch the music video for their signature song, “Chief  Rocka,” below. Warning: Explicit Language

When did you realize school and music were effective tools for fostering the change you want to see?
Even before getting to Shaw, I had a brother by the name Hafiz Farid who was a legislative aide for a councilman at the time, Ralph Grant Sr…. He took me under his wing and showed me what community was and had me engage with the people. And when I saw ways to make myself and my family better, I wanted to educate people who were still in that mess. So the vehicle that I used, music, that was just—I don’t wanna say luck, but it was the right timing. The universe put it in play.

Farid became your manager, but did you think you’d have a political future when you were following him around?
I wasn’t thinking about that at all. I was thinking that when you do good, you get good, whatever that good is…. It just happened to come in the form of record deals and entertainment and things of that nature.

How did Tupac Shakur awaken your political side?
He talked about activating, about activism. He talked about being aware and being alert of certain things in our community. Your parents, they can tell you certain things, but when a friend or an outsider tells you something, you listen a little differently.… I could relate to Pac.

You guys talked about running for elected office years ago….
Twenty-one years old, Orlando, Florida. We’re in a motel. We were on tour…. Pac came to my motel room. He had a T-shirt in his arm, a Newport behind his ear, and a 40-ounce of malt liquor. He came to my room after a disagreement…. I’m expecting him to be confrontational, and he wasn’t. These were like peace offerings…. He started saying, ‘Dude, we can’t move from where we’re from.’ He said all the popular rappers back then—Common in Chicago, me and Redman in Newark, Treach in East Orange, Ice Cube in South Central (California), himself in Oakland (California)—have to stay where we were raised at. And then we have to turn all of our fans into voters so that they can vote for us in elections. And I was like, ‘Vote for us!? What do you mean?’ He said, ‘Yeah, we have to deal with legislation. If we don’t do that, those laws will never be made for us.’ I said, ‘Man, we rappers. We’re not no politicians.’ He said, ‘That’s our problem. We have to get to the table and be included in the conversation.’ I had never heard anybody that young, my peer, or my age talk like that.

All of the things that we spoke of in that room, I’ve actually done. I started a nonprofit organization, 211 Community Impact. I didn’t move out of my city. I created youth programs and youth initiatives. I’m on advisory boards…. The only thing that I didn’t do, until I did it on June 14, 2022, is win an elected, official seat. And now we’ve done everything that Tupac and I had a conversation about. I know he’s looking down, as they say, but I just pray and wish that he could’ve been there, man. I know he would’ve been smiling. But then again, he might have been the mayor of Oakland or the governor of California or something by now.

Being a hometown rapper, you had name recognition in your election. But did anyone try to peg you as ‘just a rapper’ who wasn’t fit for this job?
Yes. Remember, I ran in 2018 and we lost it. It wasn’t a loss, but we didn’t get the seat. It shows you that popularity does not win elections. Votes win elections, and you have to really run the right campaign to make those people in your community believe in you. The only way they’re gonna believe in you in cities like Newark is if they can see the receipts of the work that you have done. So people in my city—minus all of the people who said I was just a rapper—have seen the receipts of the work that I have put in for over 30 years—while being a rapper.

I am the young male child in our community that our ancestors and our elders prayed for. You prayed for me to make it out. You prayed for me to do better. You prayed for me not to fall victim. You prayed for me to not become a statistic. So now, don’t shoot me down when those prayers have been answered just because of a career that I took money out of my pocket to help the people with. I didn’t only go platinum for myself. I went platinum for Newark. I went platinum for the people, so I can take those same dollars and put them right back into the community. And there’s receipts to all of that.

If that’s the only thing that you can go off of, that I’m a rapper, they have to do their research and see what type of rapper I was. Rolling Stone said that we were music for your mama. This rapper was in schools putting on positive plays for youth against drugs. This rapper was fighting on the steps of City Hall with an activist, at that time, by the name of Ras J. Baraka, to bring gang truces to the city. This rapper loaded up tractor trailers in the community and gave out over 100,000 pounds of food. This rapper got a lift bus for our special needs school. This rapper has provided free haircuts and look-good, feel-good programs. This rapper has fed thousands of families in his city. So if that’s a negative thing, I think you gotta check the lens of what they’re looking through.

Dupre Kelly

Kelly poses with his platinum Lords of the Underground record, which hangs in his City Hall office. Photo by Jasmine Hsu

Do you hope this victory motivates other hip-hop artists to run for office?
Most definitely. I wanna reignite the spark that Tupac started…. I pray that I spark a whole generation, and I know I’m already doing it. That’s what this is for. People gotta understand, hip-hop is not just music. Hip-hop is a culture, and as of right now, hip-hop is the pop culture…. In my 50 years of living, whatever the pop culture was, it always moved society forward…. It’s about movement. The naysayers, they hate movement. They hate to hear a march coming. They hate to hear the stomping of the feet. They want you to be stagnant…. Hip-hop is that movement.

Getting into ideas you ran on, your nonprofit, 211 Community Impact, does a lot for kids. Newark’s youth were a focus of your campaign. How are you looking to invest in them as a public official?
Well, the core of my campaign was getting the people to change their mindset. No matter what legislation we create, if we don’t change the mindset of the people, if we don’t get the people to believe in themselves and understand that they really have the power, I don’t care what we build or develop. I don’t care what planning board or economic development happens. None of it will change if we don’t utilize the people. There’s an old African proverb that says that if you don’t have the people help you build it, they will be the ones that tear it down. So we have to change the mindset through initiatives and programs and things of that nature. But if children are truly the future, like Newarker Whitney Houston said, then we have to focus on them first.

You also mentioned revitalizing the West Ward and improving quality of life. How do you do that?
It takes communication and comprehension, having an understanding. It takes getting with the business owners, talking about what we’re doing around your workspace. What does this area need? What can we do? How is it gonna make your business more successful? But more importantly, how does it make our neighborhoods more successful?

Rather than stripping resources, you advocated for collaboration with police. How did you land on that approach at a time when the topic of policing is heavily debated, especially in communities of color? What do you hope those efforts look like in the West Ward moving forward?
I landed on that space from my own experiences. Policing is tough, and I salute all of the police out there. At a younger age, I might not have talked like this because we always looked at police as being bad guys because they did bad things to people who look like me and our communities. But police are not all bad…. I believe that if you bring more police presence, you deter what’s going to happen with crime…. People say, ‘Oh, we don’t need no more police.’ I believe we do. We don’t hate the police. We just don’t want them beating up our grandmothers, punching our women in their face and killing our men. We don’t want that, but we do want them to be present. We don’t want to defund the police, but we wanna take money and utilize it in our community to be proactive. Things like officer violence and prevention, programs that train them to be able to deal with the community. Put more police that actually live in our community. If they don’t live in our community, they have to spend certain hours and certain time in those communities.

When I was younger at 13th Avenue school, we had officers who would come into our elementary school and talk to us and make it a fun day. So now when we’re out and maybe it’s a year or two later, we see that same officer patrolling the street or in our neighborhood. You’re less likely to treat anybody bad when you have a relationship with them. You’re less likely to do anything that’s hurtful or harmful to them. You’re less likely to lock somebody up without having a conversation with them because you’re scared. You know, a lot of these police are scared. They react instead of responding. I believe that’s the type of training we need for our police, teaching them how to respond and not just reacting.

Kelly’s campaign focused on helping Newark’s youth, revitalizing the West Ward and collaborating with law enforcement. Photo by Jasmine Hsu

Did you find that there was any resistance or skepticism to that approach when you were campaigning?
Yeah, because there’s a lot of stain across the country when it comes to police…. You can go on and on and on about who was killed…. When you deal with policing in any city, I think it trickles down from the leadership. It trickles down from the governor, then the mayor to our police director, to our police chief. In Newark in 2020, not one [police] shot was fired. That has to say something about our leadership and Mayor Ras J. Baraka. I think he has done an extremely good job with his approach to policing.

We want to encourage people to understand that it’s a great opportunity to be able to police where you are from. I think that people should really explore police employment. I think we need more people who want to be cops. Police around the country, the way they respond to people, it makes people in our city not even want to be the police. It gives them a negative connotation. I want people to know that in cities like Newark, our police are good guys for the most part. You might catch a rogue officer here and there, but the police here, for the most part, they are the way they are because of our leadership.

One of those leaders you mentioned was Mayor Baraka. What impact has he had on you and your political career?
My whole development in politics, I like to look at things off in the distance and kind of step back from the picture and just kind of get a different point of view and a different angle. Amiri Baraka, he was the guy who—even though he wasn’t a political official—helped revolutionize what politics was in Newark. He led the charge to get Kenneth Gibson elected the first Black mayor in Newark…. He’s the one who revolutionized us, Black and brown people. He made them realize that they’re important in their power. And then you had Sharpe James who came in, and he showed the people that he was for us. He gave us a sense of deserving this…. Then you had Cory Booker, who came in and put Newark on a national platform. He showed people that this city was truly a prestigious city…. And then you have Mayor Ras Baraka. He made us believe that we all could have this power. He made us believe in Newark again. He made us believe that we too were the mayor…. So to answer your question, he made us believe in Newark. He made me believe in my city again.

You mentioned making where you come from better. You’ve spent most of your life helping the West Ward. Do you have political aspirations beyond the ward and Newark?
No, right now my political aspirations are to make the West Ward the best ward that I can make it. I always treat my journeys like a highway…. On this highway, you’ve got headlights on your vehicle. You only see 200 feet in front of you, but that’s when you’re not moving. When you move a little bit, you see another 200 feet…. You start to see things that you couldn’t see off in the distance. You start to see exit ramps and on-ramps and destination signs that you didn’t even know you would be interested in. So I can’t really answer that in its completion because my journey has just begun.

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