Hip-Hop

Almost Famous: Rapper Schama Noel on New Music, Going Viral, Epic Highs and Lowest Lows

After years of ups and downs, rapper Schama Noel is finally on a steady path to stardom.
After years of ups and downs, rapper Schama Noel is finally on a steady path to stardom. Cleo Mirza
To say that rapper Schama Noel's music career has been a roller coaster is putting it mildly. Between narrowly missed opportunities with celebrities, going viral with no tangible results, and bouts of depression coinciding with his best chances at success, Noel's story is riddled with could-have-beens, would-have-beens and almosts. But the 28-year-old has had plenty of practice in perseverance, and it's finally starting to pay off. This month, performances include a return to Denver's Underground Music Showcase on Saturday, July 30, and in August, he'll release his sixth full-length album, titled Two Can Play That Game. The rapper has lofty aspirations for himself as an artist, and he's almost where he wants to be. Almost.

Now based in Aurora, Noel was born to Christian Baptist parents in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and immigrated with his family to Florida as a toddler. "I was raised in this suburb of Orlando called Pine Hills. The crime rate was high there. It was definitely more minorities, and still, to this day, there's not much infrastructure," he recalls. "I would definitely get teased for being Haitian, as far as like, 'You worship Satan and you eat cats' — things like that. I would just say I was Jamaican to make it stop. I mean, my name is Schama — there's no way to hide that ethnicity — but I could get away with saying I was Jamaican, and being Jamaican at the time was just way cooler."

Noel, whose first language is Haitian Creole, says his only memories of Haiti are from a trip back when he was slightly older: "When I was nine or ten, my parents took me back. I was just shocked at the poverty. It was my first time seeing people on the streets selling bags of water. The toilets were basically wells in the ground, and there was no electricity where we were. It was quite the experience. I haven't been back since because I haven't had the chance, but I definitely plan on making that trip in a year or two."

Noel began freestyle rapping in the third grade, and by the sixth, he was writing his own lyrics. "I remember just having journals filled with notes and rhymes. In the South, T.I. was really big at the time, and Ludacris and Outkast, so those were my points of reference at ten, eleven years old," he recalls. His first time performing live was at a high school talent show, and by then he had already decided that he wanted to spend his life pursuing music.

But the real precursor to Noel's rap career was his viral Twitter account, RapLike, where he would write verses in the style of popular hip-hop artists such as Nicki Minaj, Jay-Z and Biggie Smalls. "That started due to me commenting on a YouTube video of a Big Boi song, 'If Andre 3000 was on this song, he would have said this,'" he remembers. "That gave me the idea: What if I just made an entire account like that?"

Created in 2013, his RapLike account also led him to his first manager, who ran another popular Twitter account called Only Hip-Hop Facts. "That page started getting really big, then my page started getting really big. Rappers would start following him, like Big Sean, Wiz Khalifa and Logic," Noel says. "He started gaining traffic, and by default, so did I."

After revealing his identity as the brain behind RapLike, that same year he released his first mixtape, God's Playlist, then followed it up with Eternal Feels Vol. 1 six months later. He had hoped that his large Twitter following would give him a leg up in the industry, but he discovered that going viral online rarely translated to real-life opportunities. Larger media platforms such as the Shade Room, Complex magazine and even MTV would share his verses that expertly emulated other rappers, but they almost never gave him credit.

"I went viral first from this Meek Mill emulation that I did. It was during the Drake and Meek Mill beef, and [Mill] took a while to respond [to Drake], so I was like, 'If you don't respond, I'll just do it myself.' So I did, and it went viral," Noel remembers. "I went viral again with this RapLike Asahd I did — DJ Khaled's son. The Shade Room posted it again, and it was my second time getting posted [without being tagged]. Hundreds of thousands of people saw it...but without my name being attached to it."

On the brink of turning 21, with a strong online following but not much else to show for his years of hustling, Noel fell into a deep depression. "There was a storm of toxicity and negativity that was too overwhelming, despite the success I was having. My mom is a schizophrenic, so I was told that by 21 I would suffer from mental illness, and there you have it," Noel says.

He dropped his third project, Ear Candy, in 2015, and quickly realized he wasn't prepared for the kind of attention he had been seeking. "As that was happening, that was the moment where I felt the entire world was really small. Everything felt extremely magnified, like everyone in the world was watching me," he recalls. "I was getting sleep paralysis, and I just felt a very dark energy."

And the people he wanted approval from most, his conservative Christian family, refused to recognize his artistic endeavors. "It wasn't the healthiest relationship," he admits. "I felt like I was doing so much, going to work, bringing my sister to school, doing all of this, and I just felt like I had another life that they didn't really acknowledge. I felt like, 'This is everything I wanted, I did it, but at the same time, I don't have the support of the people closest to me.'"

Around the same time, his then-manager booked his first live performance at an underground hip-hop festival in Dubai. He almost met Drake there, but was instead left waiting with the princes of Dubai as Drake made a hasty exit. The pattern of missed connections and near-breakthroughs continued.

Noel says his mental health struggles were amplified by the increase in racially motivated acts of violence during Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign. "I remember there were a lot of mass shootings, and I was just reading more, watching documentaries, and I started really understanding the depths of white supremacy. I went through this phase for three or four months where I just felt like all white people were racist. And my following at the time was 75 percent white, so that alienated a lot of people," he says. "It just started going downhill. Basically, it imploded. It was too much to handle by myself, not really having a mentor or guidance."

He retreated into himself, moved out of his parents' house and took a step back from music until he dropped a remix in 2016 to Travis Scott and Kendrick Lamar's hit "Goosebumps." The remix racked up hundreds of thousands of listens, but once again failed to translate to career opportunities. "I'd end up going viral again in 2018 when I posted, 'My future wife is probably in the car with some nigga that's not letting her listen to Frank Ocean. Don't worry, I'm coming for you boo.' And Worldstar ended up posting it, and again I had to ask for credit," he recalls.

Though he would always be credited eventually, it would usually be too late for him to capitalize on the critical period of engagement. Also in 2018, he was set to play an underground show in Miami, opening up for controversial rap sensation XXXTentacion, but the event got shut down before his set because of an alleged shooting in the crowd. "What are the chances I'm there, I'm on the lineup, he's there, he's probably going to hear my songs, and I know exactly what to play...and then it doesn't happen," laments Noel. "It just felt like every win I get is an L. One step forward, two steps back."

He channeled his disappointments into that year's Millennials, which he has considered his best project until now. "It's an analysis on everything from gun violence to mental depression, but over trap beats. The songs on that were inspired by not being with my parents for the first time as an adult, not knowing what will happen next, eating Burger King every day because that's all I could afford, making a meal last a whole day and sleeping through the hunger," he says. He had to take the album down because of copyright conflicts, but plans to re-release it when he can afford the proper permissions.
Moving to Denver in 2019 was a game-changer for Noel.
Cleo Mirza
It wasn't until Noel relocated to Denver in 2019 that he found the real-life support that he could never seem to solidify in the past. He ended up guest-performing at Cervantes' with his longtime friend Harvey Tukutau (aka Rev. da IV), a Greeley-based rapper whom he had met online years earlier and collaborated with on the track "Scrunchie Gang."

"I happened to be here the same time that Harvey was opening up for Phony Ppl, and he invited me to perform 'Scrunchie Gang' with him," Noel says. "I did, and after the response I got, it clicked, like, 'Oh maybe I should stay here for a little bit.' I started doing open mics, and the reception I was getting was just so great. It felt like people wanted me here and people appreciated the type of music that I made — alternative hip-hop, conscious hip-hop, however you want to classify it. I felt like I was in the right place."

He began showing dispensaries his songs as well, and ended up on playlists that would showcase his tracks in stores like High Level Health on East Colfax. He also started reaching out to local blogs and radio stations, which led to his 2019 singles "Sunrise" and "What's Happening Now" being played on Indie 102.3, and his 2020 track "Big Plans" being played on The Drop 303.

In a new environment, surrounded by a supportive group of music lovers, Noel started to find balance within himself, and evolved as both an artist and a human being. "I know how to breathe now. I know how to cut out the negative energy. For so long, I felt like I had to be with my parents because they're my parents, not realizing that I could actually leave. Choosing my friends better, and just knowing what works for me and what doesn't, and being okay with that," says Noel. "Obviously you go through your phases and seasons, and there are certain things you just can't get out of, but you work every day toward getting out of it."

While he still draws inspiration from some of hip-hop's most commended lyricists, his ultimate goal is to start trends rather than follow them. "I really value uniqueness, creativity and innovation. That's what I'm drawn to the most, is how do you make it sound new? ... Every single one of my projects sounds so different, and they're all themed and conceptual, which is something I picked up from people like Kanye and Kendrick," he explains.

The ten tracks on Two Can Play That Game will give audiences a taste of his genre-bending skills. Noel credits Denver's vibrant live-music scene as well as his "white friends" for exposing him to the different styles of music that inspired his new album. "Hanging out with my white friends and having them put me on to certain rock songs, listening to Nirvana and the Rolling Stones — that definitely opened my mind up more to genre-bending. Like, 'Wait a minute, I'm not just a rapper, I'm a writer.' I feel like being in Denver is what gave me the IQ to make something like 'Bumblebees,'" he says, referencing the alt-pop-influenced track from his upcoming project.

"The concept [for Two Can Play That Game] is I can do it all," he states. "I'm going to give you the confident Schama, talking heavy. I'm going to give you some soulful samples, a Beatles sample, just give you a piece of everything. There's a song called 'Let's Dance' that I feel like will do really well with younger people. It falls in the same lane as artists like Juice WRLD. There's a song for everyone, really, while maintaining a level of artistry I think will be appreciated by musicians."

Perhaps the most distinctive feature of Noel's artistry is his intentionality: Every song of his is made with a potential audience in mind. On Two Can Play That Game, he firmly establishes himself as the thinking man's rapper, but one who can also take your mind off things with a good dance beat when needed.

The best way to hear a preview of his upcoming album is going to one of Noel's performances, where he plans to perform several songs off the new album. He's been hitting up open mics to prepare for his UMS gig.

"This is probably my most consistent month," Noel says. "It's all muscle memory and being comfortable with the crowd, and I'm naturally an introvert. But I'm very grateful to be on these lineups to get myself back in the groove."

Schama Noel plays Underground Music Showcase at 8 p.m. Saturday, July 30, at the L, 45 Broadway; UMS tickets are $50-$100. Two Can Play That Game drops August 19 on all music platforms.
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Cleo Mirza is a real-life Daria Morgendorfer who worships at the altar of Missy Elliot. She left the East Coast to live vicariously through Colorado's drag performers, and only returns for the pizza. Cleo has been a contributing writer for Westword since 2019, covering music, arts, and cannabis. She loves white wine, medical marijuana, and her possessed chihuahua, Rudy.
Contact: Cleo Mirza