On a recent afternoon, Nafis Middleton and four of his friends gathered on a quiet corner near Simon Gratz High School in North Philadelphia. Rehearsing lines from a recent video shoot, they all wore different color T-shirts with the same logo, “Started from Nothing.”
As his friends got into into place, Middleton — the lead actor — began directing.
Tyheem Brown played a dealer selling drugs.
“I got that workout, bro,” Brown said, referencing his merchandise. “I got that work.”
A potential customer, played by Rasheed Miller, flashed his money.
“I need two for 25, bro,” Miller said.
During the transaction, Brown and Miller pause, and Middleton steps into the scene. He cautions viewers about the consequences of selling drugs.
Come on now.
It’s nothing wrong with a nine to five, young’un
It’s better being on these corners trying to grind something
Or have your mom fussing
She’s screaming ‘Get a job’, but you can’t find nothing
Just take your time, young’un
Just put your pride to the side and hear me out
Cuz what I’m about to say I know you don’t care about
Or ain’t trying to hear about
But I care to share it out
Playing hard with a soft heart
These streets going to tear it out
Just take your time
Stop trying to live that fast life
Cuz my young’un live that fast life
Got killt last night
Middleton, a part-time paratransit driver from North Philly, is gaining notoriety for these videos, in which he plays both narrator and conscience.
“So I come as if I was never there,” Middleton said. “I stop a bad thing from going on. And I will get in their conscience. Then I step back, as if I was never there.”
After Middleton finished rapping, the actors quickly snapped back into action. Ultimately, Brown cut the deal short. He decided he’s not selling drugs anymore.
“I’m cool, bro,” Brown said. “I can’t sell them drugs, bro.”
“Damn, bro,” Miller said. “What happened?”
“I got to fill out these applications,” Brown said as he walks away, ending the rehearsal.
“Just show people no matter how big or deep the situation is, it’s always space just to walk away, you know, and do the right things,” Middleton said.
Life may not be that simple, allowing you to just walk away, but Middleton hopes his style of storytelling helps encourage young people make better decisions.
“[I’m] trying to show [young people] that you can do the right thing, and it’s cool to do the right thing,” he said.
Middleton has more than 102,000 Instagram followers, and some of his videos have accumulated more than 800,000 views. A few have been featured on several hip-hop blogs.
The topics he covers range from suicide to domestic violence to street harassment and gun violence.
Message To The #Youth For All Y’all Who Think Bullying Someone Smaller Than You Make You Tuff Nah It Makes You A Coward !!! Bullying Is A Serious Matter, You Should Never Fear Going To School, Work Etc Because Someone Is Picking On You.“STOP BULLYING” & Help Pick Each Other Up. Help Spread Awareness!!! Gear By @___nfo #stopbullying #bullying #bully #stopthemadness #sticktogether #wshh #AcappellaKing
Brandon Diggs, one of Middleton’s friends, acted in a video about domestic violence. Diggs said viewers recognized him and thanked him.
“I see a lot of domestic violence every day,” Diggs said. “It shouldn’t be condoned at all. A lot of people said, ‘Ya’ll hit it on topic.’ Nowadays when I walk by, females be like, ‘Oh, my boyfriend seen your video and ya’ll inspired him to look at me like a queen now.’ ”
Middleton said he’s thankful people are paying attention.
“I actually stopped a few fights, but I don’t kind of rap it though,” Middleton said. “You know, they probably going to think it’s a joke. I kinda stop it from happening, and I talk them out of it. And I be like, ‘You know, this is not the right thing to do.’ And once I get their attention and they understand it, I might even show them a few videos, like I want to stop you from doing what you’re doing. Cuz it’s going to hurt you in the long run.”
Middleton began finding his own storytelling style after watching a DVD series called “Headshot.”
” ‘Headshot’ is a rap DVD that came out of Philadelphia hosted by Young Bob,” Middleton said.
The series featured aspiring rappers — including a 17-year-old Meek Mill — from all over the city. They sparked Middleton’s interest in rapping.
“Headshot” would “go around and grab the hottest rappers in the city and bring them all together to battle and what not,” Middleton recalled. “Three rounds. And it’ll be a crowd out there. You’ll think they was fighting, but it was never fights. It was just a big crowd with two spitters going neck to neck. Cracking funny jokes and making raps and it was just a funny thing. A good thing.”
When Middleton got his hands on a few of those DVDs, he watched them for hours at home with his brothers, developing his own voice. He said he never wanted to actually battle — he just wanted to inspire people.
“I started opening up and being myself and trying to rap things that I actually go through — and also how can I avoid others from going through it,” Middleton said.
Middleton said he’s an artist with a message. Most days, he’s writing lyrics, scripting his next video or feeding homeless people. On the weekends, he works as a paratransit driver to support his family of four.
He described himself as a regular guy who wants to make videos with a higher purpose.
It’s time we put down these guns
and help each other
One hand washes the other
Let’s help support one another
We all sisters and brothers
Just different fathers and mothers
Instead of killing each other
Let’s help and build with each other
Let’s set up a better example
Let’s switch up the channel
Tired seeing they’re corner with teddy bears and lit candles
So tired of seeing my people go through it.