It's fair to say that Arizona has never been seen as the rap capital of America. That's not to say that there aren't a good number of talented hip-hop artists in Tucson and Phoenix—there truly are—but the scene is perpetually playing catch-up with what's happening in New York, L.A., and Atlanta.
But there are bright spots on the Arizona hip-hop horizon and Black One, real name Jaron Ikner, is certainly one of them. And while he says that it's entirely possible that Arizona will never be in the same league as those aforementioned strongholds, a lot of hard work can put this state on the rap map.
Ikner's story is as inspiring as it is heartbreaking. He started making music when he was about 7 years old, messing around with his father's Casio keyboard. He parents introduced him to Motown, soul, and jazz, while his sister exposed him to rock 'n' roll bands as diverse as Skid Row and Nirvana, then, later, his first rap music courtesy of A Tribe Called Quest. Ikner was on a fairly familiar path to musical experimentation, when tragedy struck his family.
"My father committed suicide when I was 8 years old," he says. "My dad was in the military and we moved around a lot. I've lived everywhere from Colorado, where I was born, Louisiana, Seattle, California. When he passed, we moved to Tucson and that's where we settled down. I started writing a lot more darker content. I was going through various states of depression. When my father first died, I was told that he just died. I was 8 years old and didn't know how. When I got to high school, I realized that he committed suicide, and that was a devastating thing to realize. So high school was difficult as a result."
However, it was during his time as a student at Mountain View High that he met a handful of line-minded souls, a group of 12 people that would rap-battle between classes. After a short while, Ikner was impressing with his incisive lyrics and, when he graduated from high school, knew that he'd found his calling.
"I started doing shows and putting out music," he says. "The first album I put out was called Notebook. It's still online, but it makes me cringe. I started doing a showcase in Tucson at a place called Vaudeville Cabaret that doesn't exist anymore, a monthly thing called Chronicles. I did that for seven years or so. Then I prepared to release my first album, Black Sun Rising, in 2011."
Off the back of that album, Ikner was offered an attractive record deal with a relatively small label that doesn't exist anymore. However, the very same day he discovered that his ex-girlfriend was pregnant. Ikner had a decision to make—take the deal, or relocate to Phoenix to be with his son. He picked the latter.
He never let go of his career aspirations though, forming collectives such as Starstruck, and encouraging other hip-hop artists in both Tucson and Phoenix. And, while his early lyrics dealt with the darkness that naturally enveloped his young life after facing so much at such an early age, he's able to pull inspiration from positive places now.
"Nowadays, it's really all about perseverance, focus and grind," he says. "I feel like music is salvation, in the sense that there's always a story to be told through music."
The brand new album from Black One is called Breaking Infinity, and he swears it's his final studio album. He intends to continue to release new music, but not in traditional album form. Breaking Infinity tells the story of an astronaut floating through space, enduring an infinite number of lifetimes. It's all a big metaphor for depression, anxiety, and mental health. And that's kind of Ikner's bag—creating characters to fully embody a particular strand of his own psyche.
"In hip-hop, we're slowly just starting to address the problem of mental health," he says. "Kanye West's breakdown, Kid Cudi—it's starting to be a real issue. I'm at the age my father was when he committed suicide, and now I'm like, this life shit is pretty hard. I understand why he'd want to leave. Not that I'm suicidal, but I get it. I understand why people do what they do. There are some people who can't handle this world. Instead of shying away from that, I figure I'd attack those feeling that are probably in a lot of people."
That's important work, and it's wonderful that Ikner continues to play such a prominent and supportive role in the Tucson hip-hop scene. He says that we've come a long way in the past decade.
"When I started in Tucson, there were one or maybe two venues that would accommodate hip-hop artists," he says. "Now, there's a handful, and there's a handful of really talented artists repping the city outside of Tucson. Nowadays, there's much more community and support. With the development of the downtown area, Tucson is blossoming into something beautiful.
Ikner adds that the Tucson scene has more creativity and authenticity when compared to Phoenix, which is good to know. It's also good to know that he's performing here this weekend, and he's preparing for one of his biggest shows.
"With this show in particular, I'm hoping to do an anthology of all my big hits, or I might just do the whole album," he says. "It's only 35-40 minutes long."
When this show is out of the way and the new album has dropped, Ikner can look forward to the new year. He has more Chronicles nights coming up, and he'll be curating the Tucson Hip-Hop Festival. And then he's hoping to finish film school and move forward in that industry.
"You'll be seeing a lot of a short films and multimedia content from me," he says. "I plan on making a massive push in 2018 as I make this transition from whatever I am now to whatever I will be." ■