We flipped a coin; I had to go first. The lights from the ceiling disappeared along with the audience. I looked towards my opponent, Emory Forbes, and began rapping the round I had rehearsed the night before. “Your name is Forbes, I get it, well catch the scheme. You’ll get a fortune from the bucks I give you from this magazine!” And from there I was hooked. The crowd’s howling made me feel as if I belonged. They motivated me. I could’ve lifted a 4-door truck with that motivation behind me, or at least attempted to.
That was my first taste of Be Civil Battles.
Baltimore is home to a very popular and well-known rap and dance battle event called Be Civil Battles. Created by Baltimore native Ejay McDonald nearly four years ago, the event embodies the elements of hip-hop, culture, and community. Every month, poets, artists, rappers, dancers, and DJs pack into building owner Keith “K.C.” Cooper’s second-floor suite—located on South Pulaski Street in West Baltimore—looking for creative competition and congregation. During the three-hour event, groups and individuals battle against one another through dance and rap.
The event is part of Baltimore’s underground—in order to perform you must be invited, or know somebody who knows somebody. “Attending Be Civil is like attending the after-party to your high school reunion,” says Briana Tyson, who frequently attends the event as a vendor selling bracelets. “You get to reconnect with old friends, and build a network that can last a lifetime.”
A dimly lit studio space with abstract artwork scattered across the walls from window to window and DJ Focus playing classic songs from the ‘90s provide a relaxed and comfortable atmosphere. That is until the dance battles start. Two individuals facing each other, with no personal space between them, stand center stage under the dangling Christmas lights. Both competitors are hungry, looking to defend a reputation that could be ruined in a matter of nine minutes.
Entertainer and host Nova Gray starts the battle and allows the individuals to introduce themselves before tossing a coin to determine who will go first. The music starts and a dancer begins contorting her body with rhythm every round until the winner is chosen.
Ejay McDonald addressing performers at Be Civil Battles
McDonald, 31, created Be Civil Battles in November 2015 as an extension of a clothing line she had developed called Civil Wrongs. McDonald describes Civil Wrongs as a black liberation brand for the community. “Community is everything,” McDonald says.
After graduating from City College in 2005 she wanted to become a part of this community’s growth. “I didn’t want to work a traditional job for 40 hours and 40 years,” McDonald says. “I wanted to build.” Civil Wrongs brought growth. A successful underground brand, Civil Wrongs sells hoodies, tees, tank tops and more with iconic phrases and imagery, like a Black Power fist wrapped with the Pan-African flag. Through her clothing line, McDonald was able to make enough money to help rent a space and fund Be Civil Battles.
“I would have never thought I’d be part of the arts. All I wanted to do was create something in the community, something that can be built and spread across the country. I wanted to give many of my friends a platform where they could showcase their talent,” she says.
Providing a venue for these artists to perform also came with a price for McDonald. From 2015 to 2017, McDonald would offer $100 to $250 of her own money to the five to ten winners of each Be Civil Battles event. Offering a small stipend to the winners helped the event to grow. “Unfortunately paying $200 to multiple winners every weekend became overwhelming,” she says. From word of mouth and the potential to win money, hundreds of artists from throughout Baltimore began showing up to Be Civil Battles.
“I would have never thought I’d be part of the arts. All I wanted to do was create something in the community, something that can be built and spread across the country,” says McDonald.
Be Civil continues to expand its audience of young creators and artists looking for entertainment, inspiration, and performance opportunities. In addition to the battle rap events, Be Civil Battles has conducted workshops for youth at Harlem Park Elementary and Angela Y Davis middle school and is looking to work with other organizations. Be Civil also helps with back-to-school drives for school supplies, toys and clothes giveaways, and feeding of the homeless.
Though Be Civil Battles has cultivated a successful following in the Baltimore region, “being local is not enough,” McDonald says. “For at least six months out of the year I want Be Civil to travel to historically black colleges and universities battling the top talent at each university, allowing local artists with a story to interact and inspire those in the audience.”
For four years now, McDonald has inspired Baltimore and the artists who have performed at her events. “Be Civil Battles is a safe place to express yourself and enjoy life,” says Tyson. “Be Civil Battles has given [us] a voice and a vision that can help save our community.” Many local battle rappers and dancers have gotten their first chance to perform their craft publicly, with footage to go along with it, all of which is necessary for a performing artist’s development. The lyricism and wordplay of this art form make listeners think and feel—in spite of how the world pushes us down, battle rap teaches us to get back up.
Be Civil Battles is held the second Friday of each month; the next event is scheduled for April 12. For further information, visit the website at shopcivilwrongs.com. Information can also be found on Instagram @BeCivilBattles.
Photos by JassyFreshPhotos.