That's a rap: Wakefield making a name for himself
CHAMPAIGN — Brandon Lehman, a rapper who goes by Wakefield, knows exactly when things changed for him, when schoolmates and other peers began to respect rather than dis him.
It happened in the spring of his junior year at Champaign Central High School, after he dropped online his new rap "U.O.E.N.O. Freestyle."
A classmate who had been telling Wakefield that his raps were bad and had "a Champaign flow" complimented him as soon as Wakefield walked into class.
Soon, "U.O.E.N.O. Freestyle" started getting 1,000 hits a day. As of last Wednesday, the official YouTube video of "U.O.E.N.O. Freestyle" had 140,892 visits.
"Everybody in town heard it and was talking about it," Wakefield recalled. "That's when everybody started taking me seriously."
Rap fans outside C-U are taking Wakefield seriously, too.
After discovering him online, blogger Janelle Het-Heru Glenn of Queens, N.Y., wrote about the aspiring rap artist, and part of her blog was posted last month at This is 50, rapper 50 Cent's website.
"Wakefield is one of the hottest rappers from Champaign, Illinois," she wrote. "Looking at his work on YouTube I can tell you this guy is about his business. He is not out here playing and he is working extremely hard. With 4,567 subscribers and over 10,000 views a video, Wakefield shows me that he is dedicated, committed and focused."
She went on to say she respects Wakefield's "grind" while noting a rapper's road to success is not easy.
Wakefield, a 2014 Central grad who recently turned 18, is aware of that. But he's motivated and driven, and that impressed Marc Changnon, district coordinator of career programs for Champaign public schools.
When Wakefield, then in high school, told Changnon of his desire to rap as a career, the adult took him under his wing and to Parkland College to talk with people in the music department. Changnon also introduced Wakefield to people in town who had tried a music career but ended up doing something else, like production.
"I think he's a sharp young man," Changnon said. "I think he has his head screwed on right. He knows what he wants. He's very passionate about it.
"He's done a great job. He's got a following. He's done some productions. For a young man his age he's in a great position."
But, Changnon said, he didn't want Wakefield to get burned, so told him to learn the business side of music.
"He said he couldn't agree more," Changnon said.
Wakefield has an agent based in Nashville and Los Angeles who has taught the young rapper things about the music industry.
And Wakefield, to record his raps professionally, went to Eclipse Studios in Bloomington. To pay for more studio time, he's taking this year off school to earn money.
When he does go to college, he plans on majoring in business and minor in English to further his rap career.
Wakefield, who was in gifted programs in Champaign elementary schools, has the verbal skills required. He mostly raps freestyle but doesn't totally ad lib. He hones his topics and rhymes as he mows the lawn or engages in other activities.
And he tries to stay away from the stereotypical hip-hop subjects of gangs and drugs — except green, which he said is nearly legal anyway. He raps about girls but not in a degrading way as many hip-hop musicians do.
He wants to stay true to himself. So he raps about issues in his life, ones that most teens and young adults can relate to.
"Maybe insecurities I had," he said. "How life can be stressful, studying to take the ACT or working to keep your dream."
He first began rapping when he was 14, mostly with friends he considered better than him at the time.
"When I first started it was more about writing things I thought were good, metaphorical things.
"There was a lot of scrapping of raps."
He also listens, of course, to other rappers. He doesn't care for a lot of the mainstream ones. His favorites: the Manhattan-based Skizzy Mars; Hopsin, also a record producer, director and actor based in Los Angeles; and Dizzy Wright, who was born in Flint, Mich., but was raised in Las Vegas.
Wakefield, who considers himself an underground rapper, is enjoying the recognition he's been receiving — online the majority of comments posted after his raps recordings are positive.
But he doesn't want his skills to plateau.
"I have to keep growing forward," he said. "I feel like I'm on the right track and what I'm doing has paid off."
When he feels discouraged, Wakefield remembers his grandfather, Robert Wakefield, who lives in Cleveland. As a rapper, Lehman took his grandfather's last name because of the way he encouraged him.
"He said, 'If this is want you want to do, give it 100 percent. Don't give up. You have to be the best.' That really motivated and inspired me. I know the road will be bumpy. When times get hard I remember his speech."