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Spc. Maladrique Wilson, right, a soldier serving with Combined Joint Task Force–250, laughs as he listens to KBR contractor Wilton Jackson’s putdowns during a freestyle rap battle Thursday night at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. The competition is the highlight of the base’s weekly open-mic nights.

Spc. Maladrique Wilson, right, a soldier serving with Combined Joint Task Force–250, laughs as he listens to KBR contractor Wilton Jackson’s putdowns during a freestyle rap battle Thursday night at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. The competition is the highlight of the base’s weekly open-mic nights. (Leo Shane III / S&S)

BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan — Spc. Maladrique Wilson had been looking all over the stage as he delivered most of his rhymes, but he looked right at his opponent when he dropped the winning line:

“I don’t give a damn about your titles and (expletive), just because you shine you ain’t anything, (expletive).”

The verbal shot nearly brought the roof of the clamshell tent down, as the crowd went wild. Shouts of “Served!” and “Ain’t no rules in Bagram!” continued even as the champion tried to defend his title against Wilson’s assault.

But it was to no avail. Another week, another new champion in Bagram’s Thursday night freestyle contest.

The rap battles have been taking place for more than three months now, in a gym near the center of the air base. Army Sgt. Vardly St. Dreux said he and other members of the 23rd Postal Company’s “viking crew” set up the event to fill a gap he saw in the recreation offerings.

“Really, there was a lack of things for the black community,” he said. “I’m a [music] producer back home in D.C., and I knew we could do the same things here. So we started it up, and the talent just started pouring in.”

Over the weeks the event has evolved into an open-mic night and after-hours hip-hop club. About 300 troops and civilians — of all races, St. Dreux notes — attended this Thursday’s party and stuck around until late in the night.

Emcee Sgt. Brandee Whitelow, also with the postal company, said despite the talent some nights it’s tough to get fellow soldiers up on stage.

“You’d think, with being in the military, these folks would have more confidence,” she said, laughing.

Most show off their voices with a capella songs. Sgt. Samantha Jewers, a Marine with Combined Joint Task Force-76, riled up the crowd with a comedy routine comparing the dining halls to the base portajohns and detailing a recent full-body wax done by an Afghan “expert.”

But the highlight of the evening is usually the freestyle battles: three rounds of rhyming insults and boasts done off the cuff and in front of a critical crowd.

Wilton Jackson, a KBR contractor from Houston, had won the event three weeks running. But on Thursday he was outdone by Wilson’s quick words and even quicker wit.

Jackson said he competes in clubs at home, and welcomed the chance to refine his skills in front of a new crowd. But Wilson, a soldier assigned to Combined Joint Task Force–250, said he hopes to make a career out of his musical skills, and meeting St. Dreux might give him that chance.

For his part, St. Dreux said he hopes to put together a “King of Bagram” compact disc based on recordings from the Thursday battles in the coming months.

“We want to present to the music world what Afghanistan has to offer,” he said.


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