Neighborhoods like Sedamsville and Lower Price Hill have historically been largely populated by urban Appalachians. These neighborhoods have changed over the past several decades, and the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition continues to respond to the changes. Brandon Shields is an urban Appalachian who grew up in Sedamsville and Lower Price Hill. He offers a great example of how urban Appalachians in Cincinnati remain as linked to the old neighborhoods as they ever were, while expressing all that is new about these places.
Brandon Shields grew up in the thick of Cincinnati’s urban Appalachian neighborhoods. Bouncing around from Sedamsville to Lower Price Hill and back again was the rhythm of his childhood along with all that comes with being a kid in these neighborhoods. He saw his share of troubles even from his own home. “We were poor and always running ahead of an eviction or some kind of problem,” he told me. But, as you will see, the worlds of Sedamsville and Lower Price Hill would come to feed his imagination in some spectacular ways.
In addition to the nomad life in the city. Brandon Shields explained that there were constant trips to Kentucky to see family. “My siblings and I were always getting loaded into the car to go to places like Harlan and Corbin to visit relatives. Some of these trips were pretty strange.” He can remember visiting one branch of the family that had their own graveyard on their property. As he said, “They just dug holes on the grounds and dumped people in them. It was literally that simple.” When called upon to meet the last wishes of a relative, he said he had to buy a casket. He explained, “I just couldn’t do it the way they did. I had to get a casket to bury him.” He has plenty of other tales like this, and I had a great time listening.
If Brandon Shields remains rather matter of fact about his life it may be because his outlet for expressing his sense of the world around him is through music. As Brandon explained, “Hip Hop saved my life.” Brandon Shields is a rapper. Growing up in the contemporary city would seem to lend itself to this form of music. Anyone who lives in the city now will recognize that rap is a signature urban genre, one that is deeply linked to both the struggles and the excitement of city life.
His relationship with Hip Hop began early at Resurrection Elementary. He explained, “my fifth-grade teacher played a song by [the rapper] Common. This song was about peace and love and treating people with respect.” As Brandon continued, the lyrics to Common’s songs were different than many of the other things he heard, and this got his creative gears turning. The timing for this moment was also important. “I was in the fifth grade right about the time the Timothy Thomas shooting occurred. Growing up in a neighborhood that is predominantly African-American made it impossible to not be impacted by this.”
These events and moments of inspiration early in life still shape what Brandon does today. He has several recordings and has performed locally all over. Brandon Shields draws on the world he grew up in. He explained that “we were all just running around Sedamsville and Lower Price Hill being hood rats, and everybody was struggle—why not vent?” And rap offers a creative mode of “venting.” The changes in these neighborhoods can be sensed in his music, the ways these neighborhoods have changed over the years that has not always been for the better is part of the palette that Brandon Shields uses to express himself.
As if this were not enough, Brandon Shields also makes his living in a way some would insist is quintessentially urban Appalachian. He works on the river as a paddle boat captain, although his journey to piloting the Ohio River was distinctly international. After a few years working on ocean vessels that took him from Juno, Alaska to Baja, Mexico, he returned to Cincinnati to help out his family during the pandemic. He found that his childhood connection to the Ohio River made for a perfect bridge from ocean sailor to river captain. He spent a couple months working the barges before reaching his current position. The barges, he said, involved too much down time for a guy like Brandon Shields.
While he is working on getting music back in gear, Brandon Shields is busy on the paddle boats. He told me it was in fact his early childhood proximity to the river in Sedamsville that sparked his interest in being a river captain. As venues begin to re-open, I expect we will get an opportunity to see Brandon Shields perform before too long. From Sedamsville/Lower Price Hill “hood rat,” to sailor, to rapper and paddle boat captain, Brandon Shields definitely seems to have the energy to keep it all going.
The Urban Appalachian Community Coalition has remained deeply involved in the urban Appalachian neighborhoods. Watching the changes in these neighborhoods and advocating on behalf of everyone who makes up our communities. It is especially exciting to see an urban Appalachian come out of one of these neighborhoods as one of the people who shape the culture of the city in ways that reflect these changes. Brandon Shields is one of those who remains tied to the oldest traditions of local urban Appalachians as much as he is shaped by contemporary culture and a genuinely international perspective.
Mike Templeton is a writer, independent scholar, barista, cook, guitar player, and accidental jack-of-all-trades. Check out his profile in UACC’s new Cultural Directory. He lives in downtown Cincinnati with his wife who is a talented photographer. They spend their free time walking around the city snapping photos. She looks up at that the grandeur of the city, while Mike always seems to be staring at the ground.