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August 2, 2011

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3 American rappers in Shanghai

THREE American brothers, one who gave up on Wall Street, form the rap group Armada Red that plays city nightclubs and promotes musical exchanges between China and the West. Alex Gladstone reports.

If you like to go to the nighttime hot spots where the crowds are throbbing and the hip-hop beats are bumping, chances are you've seen the rap group Armada Red up on the stage, mics in hand, getting people pumped up.

Armada Red was formed by John Bowdre and his two half-brothers Armani and Ivory Kemp, who come from Long Beach, California. As performing artists, they go by the names MC Lambo, Armanii D and P.I. respectively.

All three can speak some Chinese. Bowdre, the oldest, speaks the best as he spent a spring semester studying at Shanghai University in 2007.

While the oldest, Bowdre, was at first primarily interested in finance, Armoni and Ivory have been in the entertainment business for most of their lives, both having appeared on the American TV programs, the "Bernie Mac Show" and "All That."

In 2005, Bowdre moved to Tallahassee, Florida, to attend Florida A & M University, where he became active in student government and began organizing musical events and concerts. His younger brothers then joined him in Florida, finishing their last two years of high school there and helping their brother with his promotions.

The brothers began to have an idea of how far music could take them when they organized the homecoming party for the university, attended by more than 5,000 people, and featuring such A-list stars as L'il Wayne and T.I.

However, Bowdre was also studying hard to prepare himself for a career in finance, and began paying attention to China's rising importance on the global stage.

"I'm an entrepreneur by birth, so I had my eyes and ears open for opportunities I could take advantage of. China seemed like a place where I could get busy," he says.

He enrolled in Shanghai University for a semester, and on one of his first nights in the city went with friends to Muse club. They began having some fun, getting on stage and dancing around. Then people became excited, and someone asked Bowdre if he was a rapper.

"Honestly, I had never rapped before. I had only organized events. But when someone put the mic in my hand, I said 'why not'?"

His freestyle electrified the crowd. Muse then found a live band for him, and he started going by the name "MC Lambo," performing at Muse and other clubs nearly every night.

When his semester in Shanghai came to a close, the clubs begged him to stay on in the city, but Bowdre was still dead set on returning to America and pursuing a career on Wall Street.

However, after a couple stints with J.P. Morgan and Barclays Capital in New York City, he began to feel tempted by the e-mails from his contacts in Shanghai urging him to return. When the Muse Group finally offered to fly him out again, he couldn't resist any longer. So on January 11, 2010, he boarded a flight to Shanghai. And this time, he took his brothers along with him, calling their new group "Armada Red."

They mostly rap about their experiences of living in China. One of their lines is "I'm right here in the PRC. And all I can feel is the energy."

In addition to their performances, the brothers set up their own company, Double Victory Entertainment, which so far has run over 260 events and promotions. It wasn't long before they reached further afield, assembling a group of both Chinese and expat MCs, dancers, singers and rappers to establish the City Lights Tour, which took them to more than 30 Chinese cities.

During the World Expo 2010 in Shanghai last year, Armada Red performed in the USA Pavilion, taking the stage in September before 40,000 people and putting on the best show of their lives.

Armanii D describes the experience. "It was amazing, seeing all those people out there. At the end of the show, there were people coming up and holding their kids up to touch us."

Armada Red went on to become the official Shanghai host of the Iron Mic, a nationwide MC competition for Chinese rappers. After the competition, the brothers became involved with the promotional campaign for Usher's Shanghai concert, and brought together many of the local MCs to perform at the pre- and after-parties.

As Bowdre says, "We are a multi-faceted platform." At the core of their organization is the brothers' own performance ability as Armada Red, however, they are also actively involved in recruiting talent, both in China and abroad.

The brothers have brought many international artists to China to collaborate with them, aiming to popularize them to Chinese audiences. Likewise, the brothers also work hard to promote Chinese artists to foreign audiences.

The brothers are constantly striving to improve the quality of their music, and are now working on a mix-tape to be released on Vevo.

In the future, they will continue to perform weekly at Muse, M2, Park 97, Brown Sugar and Sky Club, among other venues. In the fall, they are planning to launch a TV show that will focus on the interactions between foreigners and Chinese in Shanghai, which they hope will help to bring the two cultures closer together.

Bowdre believes that Armada Red is on an important mission in China.

"We want to be the premier conduit of Western culture to China and Asia at large. Also, now that China is more open, we want to be vessel for Chinese artists and entities to gain exposure to their story in the West and in America."

Armanii D emphasizes, "We're achieving two victories by both promoting music as well as deepening cultural understanding."

Armada Red

John Bowdre (MC Lambo), Armoni Kemp (Armanii D) and Ivory Kemp (P.I.)

Nationality: United States

Ages: MC Lambo, 25; P.I. 21; Armanii D, 20

Profession: Performers, artists, entrepreneurs


Self description: Passionate about connecting with people through music.

Favorite place: Malone's on Mondays, because we're always finding new friends unexpectedly.

Strangest sight: People using taekwondo to fight each other in the streets.

Worst experience: Getting stuck in traffic on the way to the airport.

Motto for Life: Peace, love, unity and respect.

How to improve Shanghai: Reduce the pollution.

Advice to newcomers: Make sure to network with both foreigners and local Chinese.


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