Royce ‘Sauce’ Handy’s positive raps have earned him space in KC’s hip-hop scene

On a warm Tuesday night, at the east edge of the Crossroads, Royce Handy is delivering handshakes and daps, head nods and side hugs. In the upstairs meeting space of the ArtsTech building, on Holmes, he’s greeting friends and acquaintances and civic leaders; later, he’ll end up on Mayor Sly James’ Instagram. These are the unexpected places his hip-hop career has taken him.

Handy, who raps under the name Sauce, traffics in old-school, East Coast bars packed with heady rhymes and intricate couplets. His lyrics have always mirrored his life, from the gritty street raps of his early days to his explorations of faith and beauty and black culture. At ArtsTech, he’s showing off the work he’s done with local teens who needed guidance in their lives, and this is exactly who Handy is. Among Kansas City rappers, there are few like him.

Over years spent in the city’s underground hip-hop scene — eight records put out at a deliberate pace, a combination of full-lengths, EPs and mixtapes that stretch in every stylistic direction — Handy has become an improbable crossover success. His new six-song EP, Summer Sauce, burst onto the iTunes and Amazon charts when it launched in late July. He plays his first headlining gig at the Riot Room next month, with a spate of high-profile support shows to follow. He says his music can speak to any crowd, in every corner of Kansas City and beyond.

“I’ve been changing my music, my message, even a little bit of my image to what I actually want to do,” he tells me.

Along the way, Handy has cemented his place as an activist and organizer in the city’s black community. His lyrics espouse the kind of belief system that few of his peers promote publicly — God, family, community, culture — but Handy embraces those messages, in his life as well as in his art.

So here he is, in the industrial-chic upstairs of ArtsTech, ready to premiere a music video he made with a half-dozen teenagers from the city’s urban core. In the video, the teens drop bars alongside Handy and his musical partner, rapper and producer Kartez Marcel. Every lyric is squeaky clean — no swearing, no violence, no misogyny. Instead, the kids deliver a snapshot of their Kansas City lives. You don’t know about the struggle, the singalong chorus goes.

“He really added another dimension” to the four-year-old Teens in Transition program, says Michael Toombs, the director of Storytellers Inc, who coordinates the program and invited Handy and Marcel to show the students how to write a song, make a beat, release a record. Handy knows kids like this, knows that if they’re to succeed, they’ll need the one thing Handy’s path to hip-hop success has given him: an opportunity.

Handy grew up in Kansas City, Kansas, with his mother and, like most kids, often found himself in trouble, he says. His mom would dole out the punishment, and when she grounded him, he spent the days reading books (Goosebumps, mainly). He wrote, too, and gradually the nuance of the language began to crystallize with him — the rhythm of words, the pacing of sentences. “I think that kind of helped when I first heard hip-hop,” he says. “I was always into the lyrics.” He honed his sense of rhythm in the drum classes he took (at his mother’s urging). By fifth grade, at Fairfax Elementary, his classmates called him the human jukebox. He could memorize any song on the radio. Master P, Biggie, Pac, Naz — he could rap it all.

By the time he attended Wyandotte High School, he and his friends would pound out beats on lunchroom tables and battle whenever they could. Everyone in the group had a rap name except Handy. At the time, the And1 Mixtape Tour filled ESPN airwaves with cartoon crossovers and impossible dunks; the king of the dribble back then was a scrawny kid named Philip Champion — Hot Sauce. Handy considered himself the king of his crew, so he cribbed the name. People called him Sauce.

In those days, Handy’s songs were, as he describes them, standard-issue gangster rap. But that bluster smacked of a young man’s instincts, and by the age of 22, he had transformed his life. He got married, and his focus changed — religion entered his life and his music. Family became crucial. And though he was still writing and was at the age when most rappers hit their strides, Handy took a step back.

It would take tragedy to refocus his lyrical goals once again. Years later, in 2012, a drive-by shooter unloaded six bullets into the chest of Handy’s friend, whom he calls George. George is a big guy, and the bullets didn’t kill him, but he was hospitalized and in a coma for months, Handy says.

“When I started recording again, I wanted my music to be: Stop the violence,” he says now. “I wanted to start showing the city that we had rappers that cared about what was going on in the city.”

Handy’s new message found an audience quickly. He began working with the AdHoc Group Against Crime, KC Mothers in Charge and other anti-violence groups around the city. His 2013 single “Gunshots” railed against the adoration of gun violence, in hip-hop and elsewhere: It’s glorified in our music, it looks good in them movies, until somebody acts up and actually will he do it?  It was a powerful message, and Handy took it everywhere he could — churches, schools, YMCAs, Boys & Girls Clubs. Around the same time, he began putting together stop-the-violence protests, even before he knew the basics of community organizing. The song was a minor hit, played on Hot 103 Jamz, and the positive message it contained became his calling card.

Handy began to find opportunities where he did not expect them.

At the time he released “Gunshots”, rapping was Handy’s side hustle. His main gig was at the Harley-Davidson plant north of the river. He worked on the line, assembling V-rod engines and the company’s street bikes. He knew every station in the plant, he says, and he worked fast. Before long, he was making good money. But the work taxed him — 10-hour days, six days a week. His music suffered. His family life did, too.

“It was just really rough on the family altogether,” he says. His wife taught school, and there was little time left for their kids. Handy decided he wanted to go back to school, and his wife agreed: He’d enroll at the University of Missouri–Kansas City, take classes and focus on his music. Talking about it, Handy smiles. It was the dream, you know? He was in his late 20s, a family man. Most folks at his age are beginning to pack their dreams away in boxes and store them along with the rest of life’s mementos. Handy’s artistic ambitions were just beginning to blossom.

His songwriting prowess grew. Where his writing on “Gunshots” felt stilted at times, the lyrics on his SoulFood mixtape series, released in three parts over the past three years, burst with maturity, skill and story. SoulFood 2 introduced a throwback sound bathed in 1970s-funk bass licks and horn blasts and Handy’s big, bombastic bars. He released the album in November 2014, a few months after Darren Wilson gunned down Michael Brown on Canfield Drive in Ferguson. Handy’s lyrics crackled with post-Ferguson fire.

At the time, he says, his urban-studies classes had begun opening his eyes to systemic forms of racial oppression he’d never before considered. “It really broadened my horizons more than just inter-racial violence,” he says. “It was about the causes — the policies of poverty, colonialism, all the way out there.” His new lyrical direction pushed away some fans — mainly, Handy says, some of his white supporters. He’d been apolitical, uncontroversial, but now he was hitting with songs about Black Panthers, about Pete O’Neal and Marcus Garvey. The series also shined a light on the black men whom Handy feels the mainstream media ignores — men like himself, who go to church, raise their families and drive a minivan.

With more time to focus on his music, he performed at every event and open mic night he could. He caught on with the local performance series Soul Sessions — then called One Mic — and landed shows in the 18th & Vine district at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. He says he won access to these spaces because he’s good — but also because his music is clean and positive. The message he had honed for so long had become his opportunity.

What separates those who succeed from those who do not often reduces to a question of access. If you can get somewhere, if you can just reach out with the very tips of your fingers and touch something, it can be yours. But only if.

Three years ago, Nedra Bonds, the Kansas City quilter-turned-political activist, invited Handy to an ArtsKC benefit gala, held at a hotel on the Plaza. When he went inside, the room teemed with men in jackets and ties, women in pearls. Lots of white people. Donations began at $5,000. He was one of three black people in the room, he says.

“I didn’t know what ArtsKC was,” Handy says. “I was dressed like I was at UMKC. I had a backpack on. I walked in, and there was a valet, there were Benzes and, like, Volvos.”

Handy was getting a lesson in the importance of being connected. The room that day was filled with patrons, the financial engine of all varieties of art. Handy was the only rapper there, and he can’t really know whether his attendance helped him. But he now had a clear picture of what separated the people he knew from the people who might make a difference for them.

“Ever since then, I noticed this disconnect of knowing what’s going on,” he tells me. “It’s hard to prove the malicious intent of it. But it’s very easy to say: The promotion of it in certain areas is not there, and the representatives of certain areas are not there.”

Handy thinks about his construction-worker friends, about the guys who landscape and mow, about people the city needs — especially in the summer, when city-owned vacant lots clog with weeds. But these people don’t know how to get those jobs, how to get the right insurance, how to get their paperwork together to bid for city work. So they don’t get it. “That is that thing,” Handy says. “That disconnect.”

Last December, Handy performed at the Juke House, part of the One Mic series. SoulFood 3 had dropped a month earlier — the mixtape was dedicated to black women — and it was a hit. In the audience happened to be the director of programming for the Mid-Continent Public Library system — who, a week after the show, contacted Handy and invited him to rap at the library.

Now, Handy and Marcel have been hired to do a 16-week We Are RAP series, teaching young people the details of the music industry, from writing lyrics to shooting a music video. He says they saw the paycheck before the dates were booked. His songs gave him that access, he says, and it matters. He sees more of it in his future.

At the moment, Handy feels good. We’re inside Ruby Jeans, the locally owned juice shop downtown, and he’s explaining the opportunities in front of him.

He feels like he’s earned his place in the community, he says. He can play a set that would appeal to almost anyone. And now, he looks around the rap world and identifies songwriters who operate on his lyrical level. Chance the Rapper won a Grammy last year for an album infused with God and faith. He sees positivity and political awareness everywhere now. He believes the time is right for his message to find a wider audience. 

Last year, Missouri state Rep. Brandon Ellington asked Handy to take part in his community concerts series. He suspects Ellington’s list of potential rappers was short. “What other rappers does he know that could come out and do it?”

Handy keeps tabs on some other rappers around the city, but only transitively. They can’t get the gigs he gets, he says, in part because there’s too much beef in the hardcore scene. “They can’t even be out, because there might be an altercation with somebody they’d see,” he says. In himself, Handy sees a leader for the city’s scene — someone who could expand the national profile of Kansas City hip-hop beyond Tech N9ne and the like.

“I see myself as being a person that can provide a newer face to Kansas City,” Handy says. Thanks to the opportunities he’s made for himself — and has set out to make for others — he sees himself right.

Royce “Sauce” Handy plays a Summer Sauce release show August 30 at the Westport Coffee House.

Categories: Music