HIP-HOP: Going straight, coming clean with Feenix

In the world of gangsta rap, street cred is key.

But when does “keeping it real” go too far?

Local rapper Shawn Bernard, who also goes by the alias Feenix, has been to the edge and back in the rap game.

Bernard will drop his new album Collabonation with a show at Empire Ballroom in West Edmonton Mall Friday.

Bernard lost both his parents to drugs at a young age, and founded a rap group in 1992 that grew into a nationwide gang.

As he bounced back and forth from jail, Bernard says rhyming about selling drugs and toting guns on the street only served to perpetuate the cycle of violence and abuse.

“It didn’t help. It glorified it,” he says. “I noticed that because, especially at parties when everybody was drunk and they saw … us there at that party – rappin’ hardcore and rappin’ these lyrics, and seeing that we were living that lifestyle of drugs and money and those things – people were like, ‘Hey man, I want to be down with you guys. Can I join you guys? Can I hang around?’”

Back in the day, his high-risk lifestyle sent Bernard, and his gang, spiraling out of control. By 2004, he wound up in jail for a stabbing.

With little hope in sight, Bernard knew things would only get worse unless he completely transformed his life.

So that’s what he did.

“I ended up getting out on bail and I started working hard with the community, giving back and doing all these good things, and giving talks across the country to kids and focusing on my dreams on music,” he says.

“And then (those dreams) all started to come true. I noticed that it was because of the good things I was giving back to the community that good things were happening for me. ‘What comes around goes around’ was going into effect with my life. I saw the power in it and I kept living that lifestyle.”

Bernard dropped his first solo album, The Real OG, in 2007. The disc detailed his experiences on the street, in jail and at the Edmonton Remand Centre.

While cathartic, he deemed it too dark in hindsight.

“That first album, I had some swear words on one of the songs. And I just realized I didn’t want my kids to be listening to that and picking up words like that. So I decided to start making my stuff a little cleaner, because I realized other kids out there might be listening to it,” he says.

“I (thought) maybe I could be positive, and show kids that I could be successful and win awards and have all my dreams come true while being positive. It doesn’t always have to be about sex, drugs and violence.”

He feels the profanity-free Collabonation, with its polished, radio-ready sound, is one of his last shots at mainstream success.

Still, he’s racked up some impressive accomplishments already.

He’s graced the cover of RezX magazine, won Best Rap or Hip Hop Video at the 2009 Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards, performed at the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver, and starred in the documentary Walking Alone, which tells the story of his music, family and recovery.

Bernard continues to give talks encouraging kids to stay away from drugs and gangs.

He just wishes he’d had someone to do the same for him.

“When I first started rapping when I was 14 years old, I’d never heard of a Native rapper before. I felt like I had something unique. It’s just that I kept going in and out of jail, not doing anything with it,” he says.

“It wasn’t until I straightened my life out and started raising my kids and taking care of my responsibilities I started being able to focus on those dreams. And now all these good things are happening to me and I wish I would have done it as a kid. Now I’ve got kids of my own.”

Tickets for Friday’s show are $10 at the door.