Meta Sarmiento wants to take Denver by storm. The only question that remains is whether he believes he’s ready.
The 28-year-old native of Guam has always been a wordsmith. From slam-poetry performances in Denver to rap battles in a graffiti-filled skate park as a kid, Sarmiento has spent his life trying to explain himself to the world through words.
As he saw his early twenties pass, Sarmiento decided it was now or never if he was going to give hip-hop a real shot.
“I think I’m more of a poet than a rapper at this point," he says. "I remember Ru Johnson [a Denver hip-hop champion and former Westword scribe], when we had our consultation, she was saying the same thing. When I slipped her my résumé, she was like, ‘Everything about you screams poet, not rapper.' And I’m like, 'Well, yeah, that’s why I chased a different side of the career. Because I’ve been a poet longer than I’ve been a serious rapper, and that’s why everything about me screams poet.”
It doesn't really matter the medium; the drive to tell his story threads through everything for Sarmiento, from his sophomore EP Nobody Knew , which dropped in September, to competing in the 2018 World Underground MC tournament in New York City and filming an accompanying documentary with filmmaker Diego Estrada (Word Underground: A Journey With Meta Sarmiento), to his participation in the upcoming Denver Local Love Artist Showcase at the Roxy Theatre on November 30.
Not only does he want to prove to the Denver hip-hop community that he is elite; he also needs to prove to himself that he can live up to his own expectations.
Without a real story idea in mind for his Word Underground documentary, Sarmiento enlisted Estrada to shoot his time competing at the event and to help craft a story around the footage once the competition was finished.
Out of 1,000 entries, he was among 64 chosen to compete in the World Underground. In his fourth appearance in the competition, Sarmiento finished twelfth; it was an unsatisfying conclusion, and the documentary captures as much.
“Coming home, to be honest, I was depressed, and I haven’t really talked about it with people — with fans or whoever — just the circle that was with me in New York and then my close friends and family," says Sarmiento.
“I remember when I came back, I was chilling in my studio at home, and my brother came in the room, and after a few days had gone by, he was like, ‘Bro, are you okay?’ And I was like, ‘What do you mean?’ And he was like, ‘You haven’t been the same since you got back from New York.’ And I think that was the first time that I had to admit out loud that I was depressed," Sarmiento recalls.
“I just told him, 'Bro, I’m just so disappointed in myself. I know I’m better than that. I know my writing’s good, and I know I’m a strong performer. What the fuck happened when I was out there?' Had I been 100 percent on point every verse, I don’t know how the results might have changed, and I think that’s what was really getting at me.”
While it took time for Sarmiento to get over his disappointment in placing twelfth, it’s become a learning experience for him as he has processed the results.
“We all know that I’m better than top twelve," he says. "I should have been top four or even won the whole thing. But there was a lot of things that were happening in my head at the time, and I think that’s what the documentary captured.”
Sarmiento is trying to fit into Denver on his own terms. The last two and a half years have been about connecting with communities in and out of the music scene while jumping onto whichever shows he can.
He estimates that Denver’s hip-hop scene boasts at least three times the amount of competition that he faced back home in Guam, and he rejects what he describes as predatory practices of local promoters throwing pay-to-play shows.
There’s also the matter of being American without being recognized as such by other Americans.
“In Guam, you grow up being taught that you’re American, because you’re born as a U.S. citizen. It’s an unincorporated territory. But then you get to America; nobody knows what the fuck Guam is. They’re like, 'What’s Guam?' Until North Korea threatened us with nuclear missiles — then everyone knew what Guam was.
“I think it’s like this weird feeling that I’m actually not American to most Americans, even if all my life I was taught that I was American," he adds. "Navigating and negotiating those boundaries has been really weird for me, but fun — a lot of opportunities to educate people about a lot of things.”
It’s possible that taking issue with promoters' practices has resulted in not getting calls to open for big national acts passing through town, but Sarmiento is taking everything in stride. He’s confident that his hip-hop career will blossom in time as he puts in the work and stays true to himself.
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Almost out of necessity, Sarmiento has gotten creative in introducing himself to people while he's competed in the National Poetry Slam with the Denver team; he was featured on TEDxMileHigh, hosted the Asian Pacific Development Center’s gala and taught a workshop for the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition.
"I should be doing the bigger shows," he says. "I should be opening up for these bigger artists. I should be getting opportunities that a lot of the veterans have here, but in a lot of people’s eyes, I’m still that rookie. Part of the goal is to show [the hip-hop community] that they think I’m a rookie, but performance-level and writing-level, I’m clearly a veteran, and I got what it takes. I should be hanging out with the big kids at the big table."