Editor’s note: Startland News is showcasing five Kansas City changemakers from five local organizations through its third annual Community Builders to Watch series. The following highlights one of the 2023 honorees, selected from more than 100 initial nominees. Click here to view the full list of Community Builders to Watch — presented by Cyderes.
Check out these Community Builders and their organizations in person, Friday, June 9 at Startland News’ Startup Crawl. Click here for free tickets to the one-night showcase.
Whether he’s working on a hip hop EP, as an event emcee, or as the executive director of an organization focused on educational equity, Jeff Shafer makes sure to lead with authenticity, he said.
“I think that it’s been interesting for people to meet different sides of me,” Shafer said. “Some people know me as Flare Tha Rebel; some people know me as the executive director of City Year. As of lately, I’ve been able to merge those worlds in a very authentic and empowering way.”
“I don’t necessarily mind if school partners or donors know that I rap,” continued Shafer, who performs under the moniker Flare Tha Rebel. “I’m actually really grateful when people who got to know me through my music also learn about City Year and education equity. I’m really excited to merge those, because that hasn’t always been the case.”
Shafer’s time with City Year has spanned 13 years and two cities. He began as a full-time mentor through AmeriCorps in Chicago before moving home to Kansas City five years later to launch the City Year location in his hometown.
“I was loving my life in Chi-town; had no plans to come back home until the opportunity presented itself to join a team and help launch City Year in Kansas City,” Shafer said. “I couldn’t pass up helping to bring this organization that I saw have such an impact in Chicago to my hometown, and even primarily serving in the same school district that raised me: Kansas City Public Schools.”
After the initial pilot program in 2015, City Year officially kicked off in September 2016 in five schools, making Kansas City the organization’s 27th site across the country.
“Being a part of City Year has allowed me to bring people back into the fold, to point out that there are a lot of students in this district who have incredible potential,” Shafer said.
“I’ve seen folks who maybe have given up on the school district — or given up on the education system in Kansas City — get more involved, by way of City Year, in understanding the amazing talent that we have in KCPS,” he added. “I’ve been really grateful to be a conduit of that.”
Shafer’s work on the microphone and in the educational space have traveled on parallel paths, he said, both beginning in Kansas City before moving to Chicago and back again.
The Kansas City native began his hip hop career roughly two decades ago as a high school student at Lincoln College Preparatory Academy, even quitting the baseball team as a senior to “lean into music” and release his first album with his now-defunct rap group “Anti-Crew.”
Following graduation, Shafer moved north to the Windy City, where he attended Columbia College Chicago.
Earning his degree in marketing but struggling to land an entry-level position during The Great Recession, Shafer got involved with City Year in 2010, he shared.
“I’ve always felt that education equity, or the lack thereof, is the root to a lot of our societal ills,” Shafer said. “If we want to talk about crime or poverty, I think we should first talk about, ‘Are we actually educating our citizens equitably? Are we actually providing opportunities and removing barriers for young people to be positive contributors to our society?’”
“I never wanted to go the teacher route, but education was important for me, and I wanted to have an impact there,” Shafer continued. “City Year gave me that opportunity … which was truly meaningful for me and something I was excited to be a part of.”
All the while, Anti-Crew (based in Chicago during that time) was releasing music and touring the Midwest, Shafer said.
Anti-Crew broke up when Shafer decided to move home, he shared, adding that he took a couple-year hiatus from music before re-launching his career as a solo artist.
“I found that something was missing,” Shafer said. “Music was part of my identity; I put that on pause for some time, and I wanted to reconnect with that.”
Moving home to Kansas City also allowed Shafer to reconnect with some old friends and collaborators, he said.
Flare Tha Rebel often performs with a full band known as Woodland Ave., a collective of four solo artists whose name derives from the street on which Lincoln Prep sits, and where they all met years ago.
“I think the [local] music [scene] now is better than it has ever been, and to be able to re-establish that in Kansas City and regain some notoriety has been great,” Shafer said.
As Flare Tha Rebel, Shafer has enjoyed success in the second act of his hip hop career. His song “Playground” was voted the number one song of 2022 by listeners of 90.9 The Bridge.
Shafer has always used the same stage name, he shared, noting that Flare Tha Rebel stems from a combination of a comic book character he created as a teen called “Flare Guy,” and his interest in studying revolutionary themes, specifically slave rebellions.
Fittingly, Shafer often explores serious topics in the lyrics of his songs. For instance, the track “Child’s Play” focuses on the intersectionality of gun violence, he said.
“I’ve always leaned on having a message with my music, but now even more,” Shafer said. “When I got back into doing music, I didn’t want to just rap just for rap’s sake. I was like, ‘How can I use my music to create a platform to empower something else?’”
Shafer answered his question through his Art to Empower initiative, through which he raises awareness and funds for social justice causes and nonprofits.
Shafer hopes to expand that initiative, and set an example for others to lean into what’s most authentic to them, he said.
“At City Year, we want people to have a strong sense of belonging,” Shafer said. “It’s a place where we bring together folks from all walks of life for a common mission. When you do that, you want people to be able to show up as their authentic selves. I’ve been leaning more into that for myself, and I hope it’s an example for others.”
Setting that example starts and ends with youth in Kansas City, who Shafer hopes will realize the immense potential within themselves.
“I want young people to know that they are deserving of greatness, regardless of their ethnicity, zip code, economic status, or where they go to school,” he said. “You might have barriers that might be unfair, but you still have potential, and you deserve greatness. And greatness awaits you. … I would never want a young person to not feel deserving of the blessings that could come their way.”
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