'Street narratives': Boston rapper reflects on art, addiction, race
Miles Karter is an underground sensation, telling lyrical stories often full of nods to a life shaped by drugs and America's Drug War
Miles Karter walks up a narrow staircase, past floor to ceiling Black Lives Matter murals, down a musty hallway and through a few too many doors to count.
With the sun falling outside, he throws open the door of an office-sized space he rents with a few other local artists.
That sun’s low light filters through a single window and an empty beer bottle, lighting up walls made a mosaic by graffiti tags and signatures written mainly in multicolored pen.
There’s a saggy couch and a desk. On that desk, there’s a laptop, microphone and black pop filter.
Within these walls of the Dorchester Art Project in Boston, Karter plugs away at a music career unmistakably shaped by the ugly hands of addiction and racism.
He’s soft spoken but confident, a musician who, as a teenager, spit verses hoping he’d be signed young like 1990’s hip-hop protege Bow Wow. Now 25, a childhood of that aforementioned pain behind him, he’s looking around at a world full of faults. And he’s got ideas for change.
“I try to just kind of capture like a full spectrum of human experience,” he said in a recent interview.
A journeyman childhood
Karter is the child of a Haitian immigrant and a woman raised in the warzone of systemic racism and weaponized neglect that was the Bronx in the 1960s and 70s.
He started his life in Stoneham, just north of Boston, but then quickly bounced between roughly a half dozen homes over the next few years.
Looking back, he says schools were his anchor point, the best way to track those chaotic times.
There was a French immersion program he attended from kindergarten through fifth grade. Even today, Karter still speaks French.
There were the New Bedford Public Schools on the South Shore, where he took classes in sixth, seventh and eighth grade. He lived downtown with his mother in what was and still is a struggling working-class community.
Come high school, Karter’s mother moved a few miles west, to Fall River. Karter, though, kept going, ending up hours away at a boarding school in Upstate New York. The West Point Military Academy was just a few miles down the Hudson River, meaning Karter took classes and played sports with military helicopters regularly buzzing overhead.
Freshman and sophomore year went well in New York. But, by junior year, Karter was back in Massachusetts, now attending a strict Catholic day school in Fall River.
“My mom wanted to keep me out of public school,” Karter says. “She already saw me getting involved in the neighborhood just being around.”
Karter never finished high school in a traditional sense, though.
He dropped out after junior year and later linked up with Gateway to College, a dual enrollment program that helped Karter earn college credits through the nearby Bristol Community College.
Getting glimpses of Boston
Karter spent those years living primarily with his mother. He didn’t lose touch with his father, though, and now lives with him full time.
Through the 2000s, Karter’s senior spent time in the Stonybrook area of Jamaica Plain, once owning a Quiznos franchise that catered for the Boston Celtics.
As his parents had split up, Karter mainly traveled to the city on weekends, connecting with cousins on similar schedules and straddling identities as a city kid also living in the culturally distinct communities of New Bedford and Fall River.
“I was getting these glimpses of Boston back and forth,” he says. “It’s been quite the journey.”
A laptop and an intro to hip hop
Sometime in elementary school, Karter says, he remembers an older relative handing him a laptop packed with digitally downloaded copies of iconic hip hop records.
Jay Z, A Tribe Called Quest and Rakim blew Karter’s mind.
“I was like, ‘This is some shit,’” he now says. “I was like, ‘Oh, that's how I'm trying to do this.’”
Around the same time, Karter got in touch with underground West Coast sounds, stumbling on the music of Nipsey Hussle in the summer of 2007.
“All these influences were kind of coming together,” Karter says.
Though his move to New York for freshman and sophomore year of high school disrupted his rap visions, Karter still dabbled with recording.
Once back in Boston, a singular interaction with a cousin behind an old Hyde Park home, in turn, redoubled those efforts.
“I know that you've been rapping this shit, bro,” that cousin said, Karter recalls. “But you really got to lock in.”
Addiction looming through life
Karter doesn't sing solely about addiction. But its themes do creep into his lyricism, nonetheless. He’s seen, after all, dark things during his years.
New Bedford was bleak in 2007 and 2008 as Karter lived there, for one.
He saw people addicted to heroin every day on his walk to school. Sometimes they would be passed out. Other times he’d actually see them shoot drugs.
“Anybody that was from New Bedford can tell you what downtown used to be like,” he says. “...It was rampant.”
The storm of addiction also raged closer to home.
Karter’s grandmother’s caretaker overdosed on morphine.
A cousin battling schizophrenia is still self-medicating with hard drugs.
Roughly two years ago, a friend overdosed on his birthday.
“You literally watched the Facebook timeline go from ‘Happy Birthday’ posts to ‘rest in peace’ posts in the same day,” Karter says.
While boxing at a gym in Providence, Karter once saw a man die of a cocaine-induced heart attack.
Another girl he knew was once pregnant. Overwhelmed, though, she drank until she miscarried.
“They're not necessarily teaching people proper coping mechanisms,” Karter says of societal failures enabling these tragedies.
“It creates a situation where it permeates every other part of your life,” he adds of addiction as a whole.
The Drug War, racism and consequences
Looking around at those aforementioned tags and signatures on his studio walls, Karter says almost all of his artistic collaborators have some sort of experience with the criminal justice system.
Theirs aren’t major crimes. Most carry simple drug possession charges. A few involve guns that Karter says his friends have felt they have to carry to protect themselves in tough situations on the streets.
Across the board, Karter blames the American Drug War for these situations.
“This shit is affecting everybody,” he says of addiction. “But it’s weaponized when it’s us struggling.”
Karter recognizes that no one forces people into addictions that often disrupt their lives. Rather, though, he says decades of systemic injustice have warped entire generations.
He name-drops people like Huey Newton, an instrumental street activist with the Black Panthers.
Newton rallied young members of California’s black community around a message of liberation and autonomy. In the late 1960s and 1970s though, prosecutors tied him to three different murder cases, once sending him to jail for the death of a police officer.
Newton spiraled into addiction, then died in a shootout over a bad drug deal.
“We’ve never advocated violence, violence is inflicted upon us,” Newton told the New York Times before his death.
Karter resents what the US’ prison industrial complex did to one of his Black forefathers.
Likewise, he sees direct correlation between patterns of urban decay and now surging drug epidemics.
Structurally oppressed and neglected portions of Dorchester, Roxbury and Mattapan, he says, don’t nearly look like the burned-out Bronx landscapes his mother emerged from. But they’re still difficult places to live.
“If someone’s block is fucked up all the time,” he says, “if there's trash all the time, it there's crime everywhere, if there's no police presence, if there's no initiative taken by the city, if you never see any new jobs created, if there's no money circulating in the community, eventually that person is going to just think, ‘Well, this community isn’t worth shit, so I’m not worth shit.’”
That low self-esteem he says, citing observations from his own life, can lead to addiction.
Addiction, then, can beget even worse local conditions.
“You're seeing your community be torn down by this thing,” he says of addiction. “Everybody's succumbing to it.”
Finding accountability and a future amid systemic abuse
Miles Karter says he crafts “street narratives.”
He tells stories about life, pain, loss, and death. But there’s no one villain or struggle underpinning all his stories. Rather, there’s a cohort.
Addiction, racism, a sense being an outsider, and anger tag team to sometimes pummel the characters Karter soliloquizes on.
On a day-to-day basis, Karter now lives back in Stoughton. He’s with his father and has recently been helping tune up a rental property with new coats of paint.
Well-traveled and well connected, he sees massive ongoing failures in how elected officials handle things like addiction and racial reconciliation.
To fix these issues, though, society will need more than a new paint job.
“We can't just aspire to get people that look like us in these positions, and then expect them because they look like us, to then be able to reverse engineer a system that's been in place for thousands of years at this point,” he said specifically responding to the celebrations of some that City Council President Kim Janey will become Boston’s first Black mayor when incumbent Marty Walsh gets confirmed as President Joe Biden’s Labor Secretary.
Karter wants accountability.
He wants criminal records expunged for people convicted on outdated Drug War statues.
Legalization efforts for substances like marijuana and psychedelic mushrooms are good for society, he says.
But Massachusetts must do more to incorporate the people once subjugated by prohibitions into these new industries.
As for those actually battling the addictions at the root of this all, Karter wants them to actually be able to get support.
“That shit probably helps,” he says. “But you just don't know if you're stuck in the projects.”
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