Tef Poe grew up in a household with equal footing in the worlds of crime and church. He and his older brother Black Spade found music as an escape, something to focus on to avoid the pitfalls of growing up in poverty on the West Side of St. Louis, but other members of their family weren’t so fortunate. Like so many others in their neighborhood and hundreds of others like them across the country, the world outside their window and its temptations eventually led them to the most likely, and most unfortunate, destinations for young black males in their positions.
With a brother already in prison for the largest cash robbery in St. Louis’ history, Tef began writing for his collaborative album with DJ Burn One, Cheer for the Villain, with his mind on his younger cousin Greg. Born in a more stable area of town, Greg’s mother passed when he was young and he ended up living with a relative on the West Side. Tef included him in the first verse he penned for the project, on “The Realest Ever,” worried about the effects that the surroundings had already had:
“This record is for my cousin Lil Greg,
Sellin rocks on the corner.
He pray that heaven’s closer than his high school diploma,
His mom in the grave,
He don’t know I’m here for him,
If you listen to my music please say a prayer for him.”
Hoping the shout-out on his biggest release thus far would communicate his love and support, Tef looked forward to playing the song for his cousin upon completion. Sadly, before the record was even finished, Greg was involved in a high speed chase with police that ended with his death, along with two of his vehicles’ other occupants, including a young mother. The details of Greg’s presence in the car were unclear, but the results were tragic and final.
With a heavy heart, Tef dedicated Cheer for the Villain to Greg’s life and memory. Though not purely a concept album, the skits provide a narrative that may have approximated the fateful activities that led to Greg’s passing, and the songs paint pictures of the allures and pressures that face so many who grow up like Tef, his brothers and cousins. Over vivid production from DJ Burn One and Five Points Music Group, he reflects on the situations he’s lived and seen, the emotions bred by those conditions, and the consequences of the various ways those emotions are expressed.
Art itself can’t change the world, but talents from Marvin Gaye and Bob Marley to Public Enemy and Tupac have shown that when presented in an understanding and relatable manner, lyrics and music can inspire listeners to overcome their circumstances. This has always been Poe’s mission, and with Cheer for the Villain he has provided his most complete effort at contributing to the betterment of the people in the world he was born into–hopefully helping some of his listeners evade the effects of their environments in time to save them from the outcomes that befell his loved ones.
Listen to the album below, and then head over to Tef’s Bandcamp to cop it. Also, check the visuals for the album track “Hennessy” included below.