A weekly series about the ordinary people who make Philadelphia extraordinary.
When your stage is the sidewalk, your audience is at eye level. That helps street performers Eli Capella and Seraiah Nicole create music in real time that’s inspired by the people who pass them on the streets of Philadelphia.
Nicole, a vocalist, and Capella, a freestyle hip-hop rapper, have performed on Philly stages and opened for local acts like rapper Freeway. But they continue to perform on Philly’s streets — where their stunning talent is often ignored by many — in the hopes that they might touch a few.
“We honestly do this just to keep ourselves humble and grounded,” said Capella, 21, of Northeast Philadelphia. “We like to make people happy.”
On Walnut Street in Rittenhouse — an area of Philadelphia where high fashion is on full display and everybody seems too busy for whatever you’re selling, even if you’re not selling anything — Capella and Nicole set up a speaker and two mics outside an empty storefront.
Among the women decked out in designer threads, Nicole, 19, of the city’s Andorra section, stood out in an oversize green Tigger sweatshirt she accessorized with a nose ring and a warm smile. As she gave a rich, radiant rendition of Childish Gambino’s “Redbone,” many passersby ignored her and, thus, the song’s call to “stay woke.”
When he got on the mic, Capella spit out freestyle rhymes so fast they tickled the sound barrier. He rapped about the FedEx truck parked in front of him, the woman on her smoke break, the lady handing out pamphlets, and the clothing choices of dozens of passersby.
Every so often, someone would realize Capella was rhyming about them and would smile or stop to listen, having been taken out of their own mind, if just for a moment.
“It’s hard when you’re a full-time artist, but this is what keeps us driving, the support,” Nicole said.
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But adversity also drives the pair. They’ve been asked to move their act many times by police officers. Some ask nicely. Others don’t. Nicole recalled one officer who asked her to move and belittled her as she tried to gather her belongings.
“That had me frustrated, but it had me frustrated to keep going, to keep pushing because I was like, ‘One day, your wife and daughter just might be singing my songs,’ ” she said.
Nicole: “I choose Philadelphia because I want people to know … ‘Hey, that’s Philly’s own, she’s providing soul to the city, she’s providing hip-hop to the city’ because that’s really what we come out here to do, all positive music to get people motivated because everybody’s going through something. You never know.”
Capella: “Because, of course, I was born here, but I really feel like this city just has a lot of potential of being one of the greatest music hubs in like this country, period.”
What was the most Philly moment you’ve experienced?
Nicole: “The fact that I eat soft pretzels all the time. Soft pretzels are really important to me.”
Capella: “We opened up for Freeway, who’s like a Philly legend. And the most Philly moment for me was when we were performing, and he was literally in the crowd watching, and I freestyled about everything he had on. He had the biggest smile ever. And that was like the most Philly moment for me because I’m a young Philly artist rapping about a Philly legend.”
What do you wish for Philadelphia?
Nicole: “My wish for the city is that we continue to thrive … You know, everything is the circle of life. So, we’ve had Jill Scott, we’ve had the Roots … but now, it’s time the circle is coming back around … and [Philly artists are] coming from all different background and genres … we just keep thriving and being unapologetically us.”
Capella: “I want this city to be a lot more united in the underground local community … if we stick together, then we could be, once again, one of the greatest music cities ever, and we can uphold that.”
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Last week’s profile: John Sebastian, the maintenance director at Reading Terminal Market, was a steel drummer who toured with a Caribbean orchestra and jammed with Jimmy Buffett.