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Brockton teen hip-hopper answers to a higher power

Jared Lindh | 8/20/2008, 5:15 a.m.
Nyles says he draws lyrical inspiration from the Bible, his friends and family, and his daily experiences: “Spreading the word of God will come before everything I do,” he says. Minister Shirley Houston

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At just 17 years old, Nyles Houston, a.k.a. “Witness,” has already been performing his unique brand of “gospel rap” for seven years, sharpening his skills and developing a style that earned him a support slot opening for a number of hip-hop legends at the Peace Boston 2008 Hip-Hop Festival that took place on August 2nd. (Photo courtesy of Minister Shirley Houston)

Nyles Houston is no stranger to the stage. The Brockton resident and rapper has been on the mic for the past seven years, performing regularly in the Greater Boston area and sharpening his skills.

His hard work paid off earlier this month, when he landed a support slot opening for rap legends EPMD, Das EFX and Chubb Rock at City Hall Plaza at this year’s Peace Boston 2008 Hip-Hop Festival.

“The performance was a great experience for me because it was the biggest crowd I had performed in front of,” said Houston in a recent interview.

It was an impressive achievement for the artist known as “Witness.” Especially considering he can’t even vote yet.

Despite being just 17 years old, Houston has experience and poise, uncommon traits for a teenager. But “Witness” is anything but common, from his demeanor to the subject matter he tackles in his “gospel rap” lyrics.

Because some in the hip-hop community turn a deaf ear to faith-focused rhymes, the opportunity to perform in front of a large mainstream audience at the City Hall Plaza festival was important to Houston.

“It was also redeeming in a sense, by showing that I’m serious even though many don’t in fact take gospel rap serious,” said Houston, citing the Bible, his friends and family, and daily life as sources of lyrical inspiration.

Houston earned the chance to perform at the Peace Boston 2008 show by winning second place in the third annual Take Back the Music Hip-Hop Songwriting Contest, a competition sponsored by Essence magazine and Berklee College of Music.

More than 50 artists from across the country between the ages of 15 and 19 submitted entries to the contest, which were evaluated by a panel of hip-hop professionals and Berklee scholars based on “clever, innovative lyrics that conveyed a positive message, as well as melody and composition,” according to Allen Bush, Berklee’s director of media relations.

Houston, who also took second place in the first Take Back the Music competition as a 15-year-old entrant back in 2006, won runner-up honors this year for his song “The Gamble.”