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Photo by Avi Loud
Photo by Avi Loud

Balancing Saturday night with Sunday morning

It’s a rainy Sunday morning in the Judkins Park neighborhood on the edge of Seattle’s Central District and Romaro Franceswa has everyone in the Christian Restoration Church on their feet. Dressed in a grey hoodie and slacks and sporting a mushroom cloud Afro, 23-year-old Franceswa—pronounced like the French François—lays down kinetic breakbeats funky enough to make senior citizens start two-stepping. He’s just shy of hot-dogging on the drum kit when the angelic voice of singer Josephine Howell comes in, breathing life into a gospel hymn with a five-person choir behind her.

Franceswa has a weekly residency here as the church’s drummer. Later in the service, his father, an assistant pastor, will deliver a sermon about being thankful for what you have during times of a personal drought. But before Franceswa will sit in the front row and listen, he has to finish his 30-minute set.

Alongside him stands a tall, lanky trombonist invoking the sound of New Orleans and a keyboardist working double duty, playing bass parts with his left hand and lead with his right. Among the trio, Franceswa is unmistakably the sonic glue. His rhythms are controlled chaos, Clyde Stubblefield drumming for James Brown, four-on-the-floor gospel rock with limbs flying in every direction. He nearly overpowers Howell’s imposing voice, which isn’t easy to do. Two songs in, one woman is already out of her shoes, almost everyone is standing and the whole church is swaying with the music.

A few days later, Franceswa once again has a packed house watching his every move. There’s no gospel to be found at the Neptune Theatre though: This is hip-hop. Unlike the church congregation, this audience is mostly white college kids who just want to party. Franceswa was a last-minute addition to the night’s bill, opening for Long Beach rapper Vince Staples. Franceswa strolls on stage like he owns the place and instantly has the crowd in his back pocket. With his DJ, producer and long-time mentor BeanOne behind him, Franceswa raps about girls, fast money and street life with the bravado of a headliner. Before it’s over he’s grabbing cell phones from the front row and taking selfies while rapping, stage diving and spitting bars at a lightning pace. Throughout parts of his 45-minute set, a 1,000-watt smile beams from his face.

In between church and his gig at the Neptune, Franceswa relaxes at BeanOne’s North Seattle home and tries to make sense of his overlapping worlds. “I never walk into church and feel like I shouldn’t be there. And I never walk into a situation where there’s hella dope on the table and hella money and naked bitches everywhere and feel like I shouldn’t be there,” he says, a distinct South King County accent lilting his speech. “I don’t feel conflicted. I feel purposed in everything that I do.”

Growing up in Federal Way to Southern-born parents, Franceswa was kicked out of almost every learning institution he ever attended, including Federal Way High School, Southwest Interagency and Alder Academy at the Juvenile Detention Center. Rapping about the streets isn’t fiction for him. One moment he’s describing the time he spent in jail last year for evading police and domestic disputes with his girlfriend, the next he’s sharing his desire to show young listeners a better path. He’s father to a seven-year-old and a newborn, and is a cousin of Seattle gangster-rap icon Fatal Lucciauno. He has strong influences on all sides demanding his best.

“The Bible says no man is free from sin. We’re born into this shit,” Franceswa says. “Going to church stops me from going overboard. When you’re so in debt to a world based off violence and drugs, [spirituality] keeps things in perspective. With my music, there’s balance where I can be in the streets enough so that what I’m saying in my raps has validity, but also knowing the outlets and being able to get out.”

“My church is called Christian Restoration Center,” he adds. “Our basis is around bringing in drug addicts. Our pastor was an addict. All I know is dope and church.”

Listen to Franceswa’s debut LP Balance and the lyrics reveal an artist in metamorphosis—on top of his game one moment and careening out of control the next. The title track is a quest for validation within the Seattle music scene. The chorus finds Franceswa, bold but insecure, namedropping the local MCs that might be perceived as better than him. In the verses, he explains why he belongs among them. “Nigga, who am I? I’m a son of the Most High/More real than them other guys/More truth than them other lies/That’s why they slept to y’all shit just like a lullaby.” On “Hadaat,” the album’s most radio-ready single, Franceswa flexes his lyrical dexterity atop BeanOne’s flawless production for the album’s requisite weed anthem.

“When you’re balancing something for the first time, it goes back and forth until you can find the center,” he explains. “I’m going back and forth ’til I can figure out where I stand and what actually matters in my life.”

Other parts of Balance are Dear John letters to the streets he’s trying to leave behind. On “Toy Soldiers” he raps, “They want to see me dead/Place infrareds upon my head/But I’m from Fed/I’m never scared.” The voice of Franceswa’s mother, a missionary at Christian Restoration Church, appears on several of the album’s interludes, telling her son to quit screwing around and get focused.

His parents have had a hard time reconciling his dual nature. But over time, he says, they’ve come to realize that he’s serious—both in his talent and in his ability to teach with his music. “They understand this is what I’m blessed to do and this is what I’m going to do.” He recently brought on a manager and booking agent and soon will re-release Balance on BeanOne’s YukTheWorld label—all signs of a young artist ready to take his next step.

During his set at the Neptune, one key moment revealed Franceswa’s deepest potential. For much of the show he was flying across the stage, bouncing left and right for an audience that devoured his energy. But how much of his lyrics could they really hear? As if he sensed the gap between his delivery and the crowd’s reception, at one point he cut the music, steadied himself, and rapped a cappella, in a sped-up spoken word style. Standing on the edge of stage, one hand in the air, the other clutching the microphone, he performed his song “Keep it Pushing.”

“A product of an ’80s generation where only two things were taught/Fight back and fuck that boy Reagan/But who’s the real culprit, Reagan or me, for getting caught up thinking I had to shoot the three or spit a hot 16?”

That’s Romaro Franceswa in a stanza: A young black man caught between extremes, embracing both sides of his nature, hoping, striving, to find balance.

Romaro Franceswa plays the Crocodile on April 28.

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