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In The Get Down, Justice Smith Plays The Kid Who Feels Everything

MTV News gets down with the breakout young star of Netflix’s dazzling hip-hop drama

The Get Down is many things. It’s a dazzling account of the birth of hip-hop in the Bronx during the late 1970s; it’s a superhero origin story, ambitiously woven with spectacle and pure emotion; it’s messy in a way that leaves you wanting more; it’s a love story, raw and painful. Simply put, it’s a true Baz Luhrmann production — radical, disorienting, and yet so vibrant you feel lucky to have met these young characters at the pinnacle of their coming of age. Because that’s what The Get Down is at its core: A story about young people finding their voices at a time when young, marginalized people were made to feel invisible.

There’s a moment in the sixth and final episode of the Netflix drama — at least until Part 2 premieres in 2017 — where its main character, Ezekiel (Justice Smith), addresses the people of the Bronx as New York Mayor Ed Koch’s teen ambassador for the ghetto. “The young people aren't the problem,” he says after Koch rails against young graffiti artists who paint their feelings and frustrations alongside subway cars and ramshackle buildings. “We’re the solution.”

A poor kid from the Bronx, Zeke has a way with words, but he’s not verbose. He’s a poet, a thoughtful wordsmith emanating a combustible mix of repressed anger and untapped potential. It’s that anger that propels Zeke’s story forward, as he learns to express his pain through the emerging art of hip-hop.

“When I read the script, I was immediately interested because [Zeke] wasn’t this traditionally masculine guy,” Smith told MTV News. “He actually was very sensitive and smart in such a hypermasculine environment. I didn’t want to play a jaded, emotionless person.”

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The character Smith plays is a kid so bookish that he’s nicknamed Books by his friend and mentor, Shaolin Fantastic (Shameik Moore). “I had read this book called Down These Mean Streets by Piri Thomas,” Smith explained of his research for the role. “It’s about this 17-year-old kid growing up in Harlem in the 1940s, and he talks about when you’re walking in the streets, you have to have cara-palo, which means ‘stone face.’ I wanted to play with what it means to put on a stone mask — what it means to not show emotion on the outside but to feel so much on the inside.”

That’s Zeke’s most beautiful quality; he feels things so intensely it permeates the screen. For Smith, who grew up the middle child of eight brothers and sisters in Orange County, California, the concept of “stone face” was a foreign one until he graduated from his performing arts high school. “I started to see how other men interact with each other in the real world, and there was a lot of straight lines and dead eyes — very expressionless people walking about,” he said. “But I have this bottomless well of emotion inside of me.”

We’re first introduced to Zeke’s talent through a high school poem he was too embarrassed to read in front of the class. As he recites it line for line in front of his teacher, we see Zeke for the first time as he truly is: Heartbroken, yet resilient — a kid who doesn't believe his voice can be heard among the daily violence, racism, and struggle that is life in the ghetto. “I remember reading it and getting goosebumps,” Smith said.

The actor attacks every line with passion and heart — and so much rhythm — that it’s easy to think that this 21-year-old has aspirations of rapping too. But surprisingly, Smith isn’t an MC. (You wouldn’t know it watching him perform at The Get Down in the pilot episode.) In fact, all of his evocative rhymes were written by rapper and executive producer Nas, whose own distinct flow revolutionized the genre just a few decades later.

“Rap was fairly new to me, and even though I did all of this research, and I really tried to immerse myself into this musical culture, you can only do it to an extent,” Smith said. “If you don’t have it, you don’t have it. So we had to fake it to make it.”

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In order to “fake it,” Smith would listen to tapes of either Nas or Rahiem (of The Furious Five), yet another adviser on the series, performing the raps so he could get down the exact rhythm and cadence. “All I had to do was translate it to Zeke’s character,” he explained. “Sometimes I would memorize the rap, but I would also have an earpiece in, so I could be exactly on beat.”

Smith didn’t even meet Nas face to face until the Met Gala back in May. “I walked up to him and couldn’t say any words,” Smith recalled. “I just shook his hand and said, ‘It's nice to meet you,’ and then I kinda blacked out. I stared at him for five seconds and then walked away like a really awkward person.

"But TJ [Tremaine Brown Jr.], who plays Boo-Boo, he's super charismatic and friendly, and he’s like, ‘Hey Nas, let’s take a selfie!’ What I would do to have that sense of fearlessness.”

Smith and his costars — Moore, Brown Jr., Jaden Smith (Dizzee), and Skylan Brooks (Ra-Ra) — went through a monthlong boot camp with Kurtis Blow, who crafted some of the earlier raps in the series, and associate producer Grandmaster Flash. During the boot camp the young cast learned rap cadences, the art of freestyling, and most importantly, how to move when MC’ing.

“They helped us learn certain phrases to rely on when you don’t have anything else to say — like, Yes, yes, y’all. To the beat, y’all. Freak freak, y’all. Because the number-one rule in MC’ing is: don't stop talking," Smith said. “You always want to be on the beat, and you always want to be saying something.”

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Of course that also meant letting go of everything they thought they knew about the genre. “Nelson George told us that we had to completely unlearn everything we knew about modern hip-hop,” Smith said of the show’s adviser. This also meant they had to unlearn, or at least forget, millennial slang.

“We were given a ’70s slang list from our dialect coaches on things we could say in improvs,” he said. “We would sometimes slip into some things that were not appropriate, so a lot of our improvs got cut. A lot of the times they were like, ‘Can you just stick to the script?’ [laughs]. But I tried to memorize that list as much as possible.”

“I really want to bring def back,” he added. “Yo, that music's def. I had heard it in Krush Groove and thought it was a cool word.”

The boot camp did more than prepare Smith and his crew for the 1970s hip-hop scene — it brought them together. Some of the best scenes in The Get Down are those between Zeke and his friends — and the neighborhood girl of his affections, Mylene (Herizen Guardiola). “Our dynamic matches the dynamic in the show,” Smith said. In those often tender moments, Luhrmann lets his kids be kids. They idolize the likes of Star Wars, comic books, and Shaolin Fantastic, whose own mythological perception precedes him.

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“We have that roughness and violence in the show already — we don’t need it to be in every aspect,” Smith said. “Wherever we can, we try to let the story breathe by adding those heartfelt moments, whether it’s the unrequited love between Zeke and Mylene or it’s the brotherly love between Shao and Zeke or Boo-Boo and Ra-Ra or the Kipling family. All of these characters have aspirations and dreams. They may come from a tough place, but they are not victims in this story.”

Take the series’s most fantastical wild card, Shaolin Fantastic, for example. Shao is trapped in a life of street crime with dreams of becoming the Bronx’s next great DJ, and under Grandmaster Flash’s (played onscreen by Mamoudou Athie) tutelage, he just may have a shot. But as he absorbs Flash’s wisdom, there’s a sickening sense that Shao’s dream is ill-fated — that unlike Zeke, he may never get his chance to fly. Yet his streetwise charm is so enchanting it’s easy to see how Zeke falls under his spell. When Zeke writes the lyrics, “Shaolin’s the DJ that we call conductor / ’Cause Shaolin Fantastic’s a bad motha —,” you know he means it.

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“Hip-hop is a colorful genre, especially in the ’70s,” Smith said. “It was vibrant and alive. If we’re just going to make a gray, violent, drugged-up show, no one is going to watch that — there’s no life to it; there’s no hope. I hope our show changes the perspective of what it’s like to grow up in the ghetto or grow up in an underprivileged area. You can be poor and still be happy. There's a lot of love in the streets.”

It’s as simple as that.