Rodney Carmichael

Rodney Carmichael is NPR Music's hip-hop staff writer. An Atlanta-bred cultural critic, he documented the city's rise as rap's capital outpost for a decade while serving as music editor, staff culture writer and senior writer for the alt-weekly Creative Loafing. During his tenure there, he won awards for column writing, longform storytelling, editing and reporting on cultural issues ranging from gender to economic inequality. He also conceptualized and co-wrote "Straight Outta Stankonia"—an exhaustive look at Atlanta's gentrifying cultural landscape through the lens of OutKast—which was voted as one of the Atlanta Press Club's Top 10 Favorite Stories of the Past 50 Years.

A former Poynter Fellow for Young Journalists, Rodney started his professional career in Waco, Texas. He was enticed by the opportunity to cover religion in the same small town where the infamous Branch Davidian standoff occurred almost a decade earlier. What Waco may have lacked in charismatic cult leaders during his time there, it made up for with plenty of rich stories, and people, that enabled him to explore the cultural crossroads at the center of the Southern Baptist stronghold. He was nominated Rookie of the Year within the Cox newspaper chain for his coverage of religion, health and social services.

Rodney returned to Atlanta and enrolled in his alma mater, Georgia State University—where he'd previously earned a bachelor's degree in journalism and playwriting—to pursue further studies in cultural communications, with an emphasis in hip-hop studies. He was enamored by a new wave of scholarship from the likes of Tricia Rose and Mark Anthony Neal that paired hip-hop criticism with urban sociology and cultural ethnography. It would influence his approach to writing and criticism, even after ditching academia to return to journalism. After covering red carpets (BET Awards, MTV VMAs) and interviewing big names ranging from Quincy Jones to Rick James during his three-year tenure at the fast-paced urban weekly Rolling Out, his passion for storytelling called him to the alt-weekly world. During his first five years at Creative Loafing, he entrenched himself in local music coverage as music editor. He put a young Janelle Monae, already talented beyond belief, on her first cover for the publication's annual music issue. He watched Bankhead, the disadvantaged neighborhood on Atlanta's west side, become the epicenter of a sonic snap-and-trap boom that would overtake the nation and, eventually, the globe. He oversaw coverage of the scenes from the ground-up, as they emerged and submerged around an ever-evolving soundscape of micro-genres and spinoffs.

During the next half-decade, Rodney dug deeper by covering the city's music and culture scenes with an anthropological bent, historical arc and a critical eye. As the city began to be reshaped by cultural upheaval and shifting socioeconomics, he focused on Atlanta's creative economy—expanding from music to include film, TV and tech—and the ways it impacts the character of a city that has long grappled with its identity as a New South gateway, black mecca, human rights hub, strip club capital and hip-hop hotbed. Rodney attempts to make sense of that nexus and all the intersecting identity politics. Now, covering hip-hop from a national perspective at NPR, he's working to expand that lens with regionally-focused coverage. The stories he tells combine reporting, storytelling and criticism to focus on race and place, industry and economy, as well as issues around social justice and its impact on communities of color. As rap music has now risen to become the most popular genre in America, he keeps his ears and eyes trained on hip-hop's indigenous communities and the influence they bear on America's long, storied relationship with black cultural production.

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If a '90s boy band had dropped a new single bearing the title "I Been Born Again" 20 years ago, we would've instinctively braced ourselves for some un-ironic urban-crossover Christian

This story is part of American Anthem, a yearlong series on songs that rouse, unite, celebrate and call to action. Find more at NPR.org/Anthem.

Editor's note: This story includes includes brief mentions of suicide.

Magical things keep happening to Lil Nas X. Crazy, serendipitous things. Take last Sunday, just two days before his 20th birthday: He's sitting in the stands at L.A.'s Staples Center, when out of nowhere the ball in play falls into his possession. "Like literally, I was at the Lakers game, and the ball flew in my hands," he says. "It was just a sign in a way. Or, at least, that's how I felt. And I'm not even a superstitious person, but yeah."

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The Los Angeles County Medical Examiner-Coroner's office confirmed Monday that he died of gunshot wounds of the head and torso.

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify and Apple Music playlists at the bottom of the page.


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But, finally, the wait is over.

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