As Bun B stood before a mirror in a fluorescent-lit room the size of a walk-in closet, tugging on a dark-purple bow tie, his entourage huddled by the door, assessing his mood. Just a few hours earlier, the Grammy-nominated rapper—the famous surviving half of the hip-hop duo UGK—had seemed buoyant, with a nod and easy smile for anyone who approached. He had recently released his fourth solo album, Trill OG: The Epilogue, and he would soon be heading out on tour. But now, minutes before the show on this cool November evening, he’d grown solemn, tense. Bun B was about to do something new: perform with the Houston Symphony.
That he had rapped in front of crowds 25 times the size of this sold-out audience in Jones Hall didn’t seem relevant. As the moan of a violin warming up drifted in from the stage, Bun B’s official photographer, his videographer, his social media promoter, his manager, and a Houston Press photographer watched him attentively, documenting every move with their cameras. Bun B struggled several minutes to tighten the tie band around his tuxedo collar, then cocked his right eyebrow. “This tie isn’t working,” he said. “This tie is not going to work.” His crew exchanged glances. He was nervous.
It didn’t help that the rapper had been getting fewer than five hours of sleep a night lately, thanks to a grueling schedule. In addition to finishing the album, Bun B had launched a blog, co-authored a book, and spent an inordinate amount of time promoting the three—all while finishing up a semester as a distinguished guest lecturer at Rice University. At age forty, he was one of the hardest-working performers in the music business, with a remarkable longevity in the youthful universe of rap; that same month marked the twenty-first anniversary of the first album released by UGK, short for Underground Kingz, the group he’d formed with the late rapper Pimp C. The pair had helped introduce Texas rap to the world, an accomplishment that had since earned Bun B the honorific “original gangsta,” or OG.
In an effort to calm him, or maybe just break an awkward silence, the videographer, a sweet-natured film school graduate named Sama’an Ashrawi, zoomed in with his camera and asked, “So what’s about to go down?” Earlier that day, Bun B had offered some thoughts on what he felt was at stake. “If this collaboration goes well with the Houston Symphony, just think of the possibilities for hip-hop in classical ballets, classical operas, and so forth,” he said. “There’s room for a lot of groundbreaking interpretation. It makes me want to take something like The Merchant of Venice or Fiddler on the Roof and see if there is a place—one or two places—to incorporate different elements.
“If I do right by this opportunity,” he continued, “it could open the way for many other young rappers to be part of something positive. I only get one shot. I haven’t done it yet. I get one time.”
Ashrawi, who had banked hundreds of hours of Bun B footage at family barbecues and other events, had been witness to this kind of creative fusion before. Bun B’s vast network of contacts and eclectic array of tastes—the blog he’d just launched, with sneaker site founder Premium Pete, was all about food; the title he’d just published, in collaboration with middle-school science teacher Shea Serrano, was Bun B’s Rap Coloring and Activity Book—were in part what made his fans, some 900,000 of them on Twitter, so devoted to him. Bun B didn’t just habitually cross genres and media platforms, he also moved among Houston’s subcultures with a native’s easy authority. He seemed to embody modern Houston itself, his endeavors a celebration of the steamy, glorious complexity of the most diverse city in Texas. This, not surprisingly, inspired a fervent sea of followers, Ashrawi among them.
Except that, at this moment, Bun B wasn’t feeling quite so self-possessed. “If you want to video me, you can video me, but we’re not going to do a Q&A and all that; this is nerve-wracking enough as it is,” he snapped. Unfazed, Ashrawi turned to me instead and began describing his love for Bun B, summarizing his feelings with “How does the grass thank the sun?”
A petite blond woman in her sixties poked her head in the doorway. “You guys doing okay?” she asked, as Bun B pulled off his tie and traded it for another. “You look beautiful. I’m so proud of y’all.” Her name was Sherry Levy, she said, and she was a volunteer for the Anti-Defamation League, which was co-hosting the concert with the Houston Symphony in honor of the two organizations’ centennial anniversaries.
It was Levy who was responsible for Bun B’s being there. After hearing that one ADL member had purchased concert tickets for 650 high school students, Levy had turned to her daughter, Gillian, for suggestions on a musician to include who would appeal to the teens. A college senior, Gillian had resented growing up in the “conservative bubble” of Houston, as she called it—until she discovered the vibrant local hip-hop scene. This changed her view of the city, and of herself. (“I realized how great our rap scene is, and it made me proud to be from Houston,” she told me.) The person at the center of that scene, she told her mom, was Bun B.
Curious ADL board members who Googled “Bun B rapper Houston” would have unearthed a peculiar combination of images. Some photos show a large glowering man in an assertive pose, wearing a baseball cap and an imposing gold chain, promoting song titles such as “Murder” and “That’s Gangsta.” But there are also photos, taken in recent years, of him in a staid V-neck sweater, his beard shaved close, smiling like a toothpaste model. Those doing the research might have gathered that Bun B is a big deal—he has collaborated with Jay-Z and OutKast, among others, and Beyoncé counts him as a friend—but they might not have fully understood his role in defining Houston for young people across the globe. In other words, these symphonygoers still weren’t sure exactly what to expect. And now they were in the audience, waiting.
At eight o’clock, the lights dimmed, and the audience’s murmurs quieted as heroic trumpets and thundering timpani signaled the start of “Fanfare for the Common Man.” Backstage, everyone cleared out with the exception of Bun B and his acolytes, who tried to look anywhere but his direction: the floor, a watch, a phone. Bun B straightened his lapels repeatedly, peering out the small window of a stage door at the orchestra. He started to pace. “This is my life now,” he said.