Mr. Rozzi, with his prodigious dreads piled under a knit cap and waist-length beard tied in a bun, and Vanessa Ferguson, wearing a dress shirt, long cardigan and black, felt bowler, could hardly be more stylistically different.
The distinction carries over to their personalities, too. Rozzi, also known as Kenneth Fuller, a laidback dude with a drawl that tends to break into an appreciative laugh at the end of his sentences, exudes the relaxed country cadences of the mid South. Ferguson’s taut and focused demeanor, and straight-forward diction draws directly from her native Brooklyn.
The two, who recently became engaged, are each fully realized as music artists in their own right, although they frequently collaborate. Rozzi, aka Blackbeard da Voyager, refers to himself as a “hip poet,” an amalgam of the early battle rap style inspired by ’90s boom bap that gave him his start and the conscious poetry tip that he pursued in the early aughts.
Ferguson is the archetypal R&B torch singer, but that hardly encapsulates the parameters of her musical talent and interests. She also raps and plays piano and guitar, while exploring a variety of styles from jazz and classical to rock and roll. In addition to writing her own material, she tours internationally with the BB King All Stars singing blues and soul standards, and is currently performing with a jazz ensemble in a Nina Simone tribute.
Both Rozzi and Ferguson enjoy travel — a habit that fits their shared vocation as working musicians. They support each other when they can: Whomever is free on a particular night will show up to work the merch table and hop on stage for a guest spot. Additionally, Rozzi travels the pro-modified car racing circuit, selling T-shirts and performing. He also sponsors a car, the No. 57 “Thundercat” out of Charlotte.
“Sometimes we’ll travel just to eat,” Ferguson said.
They recently took a trip to Pigeon Forge, home of Dollywood in the Great Smoky Mountains.
“Sometimes you got to go and clear your head,” Rozzi said. He had to take advantage of the opportunity to ride go-carts, while she was more into the great food.
The trip originated with a suggestion by Ferguson that they head west on Interstate 40 and just see where they ended up.
They’ve gone further.
In 2011, they spent several months in Beijing. One of Ferguson’s friends pioneered the international circuit on behalf of the North Carolina musicians by going over to Singapore to perform. Ferguson said she was wary of traveling to Singapore because she was worried about the risk of being victimized by sex trafficking, but her friend found work with the booking agency el-live Productions and wound up performing in Beijing. He hooked Ferguson up with the outfit, and she in turn referred Jeremy Johnson, a vocalist from Greensboro. They also worked for SeGrace, which bills itself as “China’s premier luxury entertainment and artist management company.”
Rozzi visited Ferguson in Beijing when she was working six nights a week at the Lan Club, a facility the size of a football field.
“Easy job,” Ferguson said. “I love the location. It’s like New York, but twice as big. We could eat cheap. We were like rich.”
Working with the BB King All Stars has taken her to Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Panama, Colombia and Aruba.
The couple met in 2007, although Rozzi thinks they might have crossed paths before then. He had been promoting shows at a venue called the Remedy on West Market Street in Greensboro. Gav Beats, a hip-hop/R&B artist became a fixture there; Rozzi noticed his dedication and offered him a standing gig. Ferguson performed in a band with Gav Beats called Untitled, so by that time they were moving in the same circles.
But it wasn’t until 2007 that Rozzi was formally introduced to Ferguson. She had joined a group called the Solcetfre Project with William Trice, her voice teacher at NC A&T University, and Jeremy Johnson, with whom she would later work in China. Rozzi was checking out Solcetfre Project because he was interested in managing Johnson as a solo artist. Johnson introduced Ferguson to Rozzi, saying in jest, “This is my beautiful wife.”
In an era when getting signed to a record label with the wherewithal to give artists promotional backing is no longer a viable option and free music streaming over the internet is ubiquitous, Rozzi and Ferguson have become prolific videographers as a means of keeping themselves in the public eye.
Any review of Rozzi’s canon has to begin with “I Love Miself,” a slice of hip-hop uplift that juxtaposes the emcee’s gentle flow with scenes of breakdancing on a blanket in a suburban backyard. “Long Ride,” released in 2007 is a classic, built around the hook, “We in this for the long ride/ Gon’ be in this for a long time/ All haters please step aside….” The colored paper cutout cinematography — one scene shows Rozzi bouncing along behind the wheel of a boxy car with cacti flashing by — suggests “South Park,” underscoring an artist who is confident but doesn’t take himself too seriously.
The gonzo stance and technicolor eccentricity of “Let Me Do Mi Thing” from December 2015 with a video centered on an illicit parking garage party is balanced against “Finish U Off Part 2 & 1,” a heartfelt homage to Rozzi’s boom-bap roots. Rozzi declares in the video, which was released in early April: “I’m an East Coast type cat grew up on BDP tracks/ My mind is well rounded, my kids keep me grounded/ Been looking’, but I haven’t found it/ Old-school vibe mixed with new-school mass appeal.”
Rozzi and Ferguson’s most notable collaborative track “N da Jungle,” with counterintuitive videography shot in Greensboro’s bucolic Arboretum, takes a more mercenary stance than most of their work. “Throw ’em up, what’s that you reppin’?” Ferguson raps. “Walking down our block will get you shot in two seconds/ I’m gonna need you and them to go back the other way/ People get laid out around here ’bout every other day.”
“With You,” a breathy jazz ballad that has become a beloved staple of Ferguson’s repertoire, is a more standard calling card, while “I Got What the Game Needs” showcases the restless scope of her artistic vision. Opening with Ferguson playing a stinging guitar solo, the artist issues a manifesto: “People say the game is different now, and it’s hard finding something hot/ So I told them I’d go to the studio, grab my pen and pad, give it a shot.
“I’ll take R&B, mix it with jazz, do some rock and roll and a touch of classical music,” she continues. “That’s how I’ll do it: Music is happiness, I must pursue/ Not saying I’m the best, don’t misconstrue it/ But I never would have bit it if I couldn’t chew it.”
Circling back to hip hop, Vanessa takes the perspective of a bereaved mother in a genuine anthem for Black Lives Matter, rapping over a sample of Sade’s “Pearls” with verses directly referencing Michael Brown and Eric Garner. “Yo, it’s like they got brand new moves,” she says. “There was lynching, heroin, crack, black-on-black crime, now you get shot six times both those who defend and protect they own neck/ I’m upset, how we gonna convince the young’uns to pick up their hands and put down their texts without them fearin’ that they’ll be next?/ My heart is tearin’ inside my chest, guns be blarin’ in our projects/ Moms be burying their own kids, and I’m so sick of it.”
For Rozzi and Ferguson, the next step is a lot like the last one — steady writing, recording and making videos, letting one gig lead into the next and following through with whatever strain of music gains traction.
“One thing is that tomorrow is not promised,” Rozzi said, “so we’re not sitting around and moping.”
Ferguson considered both sides of the equation for a moment before laying out her manifesto.
“One thing I learned from the greats is — Maya Angelou said, ‘The only thing that’s gonna last is how you make people feel’ — Whitney Houston is gone. Prince is gone. James Brown is gone. Michael Jackson is gone. Luther Vandross is gone. So the only thing that’s gonna last is how you make people feel — and the recordings. The performance is gone after it’s over.”