Bilal Muhammad couldn't believe what he was hearing. He was at his mom's house, which she had recently moved into, and one of his best friends, Deonte "Strong" Jones, had just left after checking out the new place. Moments later, Muhammad's phone rang.
"Y'all ain't seen Strong on the news?" his friend asked on the phone. "He's wanted for capital murder."
"Nah, you must be trippin'," Muhammad replied. "He just left my house like 30 seconds ago."
Despite his skepticism, he hung up the phone and checked online, and there it was: Jones' face alongside a warrant for his arrest. Muhammad immediately called his friend in tears.
"Bro, I seen this on the news," he said. "You're wanted for capital murder."
"Capital murder, for real?" Jones asked.
"Yeah, bro. I'm looking at the news right now."
Jones hung up momentarily and called back. He was running out of breath.
"The police at my door right now," Jones said.
"What'd you do?" Muhammad asked.
"I can't tell you right now, but the police at my door right now," he said, repeating his words in disbelief.
That was Sept. 4, 2014. The day before, two undercover narcotics officers for the Pulaski County Sheriff's office happened to stop at Walgreens on the corner of University Avenue and Colonel Glenn Road, where they noticed men in two cars engaging in an apparent drug deal. After placing one man under arrest, they approached the other car, a black Tahoe. Upon seeing the officers, the Tahoe's driver backed up and began speeding off. In doing so, the car struck and killed Heather Cater, a 22-year-old who worked nearby. The driver, later identified as Jones, escaped the scene. The next day, police arrested him as he nervously spoke on the phone with Muhammad.
In February, Jones received a 27-year prison sentence for first-degree murder, which Muhammad is still coming to terms with.
"It's just so weird how everything can change in 30 seconds," he said. "Strong's mad at the situation, but we just take it as God working in mysterious ways."
Born in 1996, Muhammad grew up on Schiller Street near Central High and lived through the tail end of Little Rock's deadliest gang wars. Although the city gradually cooled down, his life remained surrounded by violence and drugs. His dad and other family members have been involved in gangs. Despite his father's violent past, he credits both of his parents for keeping him out of major trouble.
"All the way up to 12th grade, if I had school the next day, my mom would call me at 10 o'clock saying, 'Where you at? You got school tomorrow morning,' " he said.
At an early age, Muhammad discovered his passion for rapping. He first wrote rhymes at the age of 6, and in the third grade started a rap group with his brother and cousin. Bilal Muhammad Sr. recognized his 9-year-old son's precocious talents, and helped him record his first studio song, "I'm a Problem." Muhammad doesn't remember much of the song except its reference to his uncle and football star, Darren McFadden: "I'm like No. 5 on the Razorbacks / Gimme the rock, lemme scramble, now it's major stacks." When Muhammad listens to his childhood songs now, he doesn't find any meaning behind the lyrics.
"I used to just write and rap," he said. "But I started realizing that there's more than just rhyming when you rap. You gotta relate to people and say something that people are going to feel."
Muhammad eventually adopted the rap name Feezi Redd, a tribute to his dad, who raps as Feezio. While in the ninth grade, he released his first mixtape, "14 Yrs and Kounting," which his peers in school and around the neighborhood praised. After the positive feedback, he realized that rapping could be more than just a hobby for him.
In early 2012, EMI Records noticed Muhammad's talent and set up a meeting with him. At the time, Muhammad was in Fight Klub, a group of young rappers around Little Rock, many of whom he'd known since elementary school. However, according to Muhammad, the label only wanted to sign one rapper: Feezi Redd. Entrenched in his loyalty to the group, he turned down the offer.
"If it was now, I would've taken it, 'cause by me getting a record deal, that opens doors for everyone around me to get a record deal," he said.
Since turning down the deal, Muhammad has maintained his presence in Little Rock's music scene, performing at the Metroplex and clubs around town. On March 5, he opened for DC Young Fly, a popular Atlanta-based comedian, at the Power Ultra Lounge. Lately, he's been working to finish his upcoming mixtape, which will be on Soundcloud and Datpiff.
Muhammad's style is influenced by features of several rappers, including Boosie's genuine lyrics, Kendrick Lamar's meticulous focus and Future's frenetic energy ("That's my turn-up guy," he said with a laugh). Lil Wayne is his main inspiration, and he often emulates the hip-hop giant's wordplay and quick flow. Muhammad's songs reflect his everyday experiences, from house parties to drug dealing to police brutality. The 19-year-old's recent music details his struggle to bear the responsibilities of adulthood. As on the song "Thoughts (Believe Me)," he raps with confliction and dexterity: "My mind in the glory / My body is stuck in the trap / Sometimes I feel like I ain't leavin' / My race ain't equal / We tradin' shots with the cops / We ain't toting Glocks for no reason."
Despite his lyrics, Muhammad's frustration with police mainly stems not from wild standoffs, but from what he sees as trivial actions. When Muhammad and his friends hang out at the corner near his grandmother's house, he says the police often pull up and force them back onto her property. That sort of nitpicking undermines his trust in the police, he says. However, Muhammad said he understands and accepts officers' purpose.
"You gotta do something wrong for the police to do something to you," he said. "They ain't always the bad guys. They're just doing their jobs, but sometimes they abuse their authority."
In March, his dad was arrested after police searched the family's recording studio on John Barrow Road. Muhammad Sr. received a six-year prison sentence for possession of an unregistered firearm and a pound of marijuana. Muhammad believes his dad will be released on parole much sooner. In the meantime, he tries to be a rock for his 18 siblings.
"I take me losing my father for a year and a half as an experience for me to grow," he said. "I don't think anything bad of it. God just did that so I can grow."
Muhammad's second mixtape, "REDD Alert," was released in March, a prelude to what he believes will put him on the map. The project, titled "Identifying My Craft," is scheduled for release this month. Since January, Muhammad has focused on music, and says he's gradually stopped selling marijuana. He began selling weed in the eighth grade and admits that it has been a distraction from his music.
"It's like I'm on a boundary," he said. "I try to stay away from the streets, but sometimes I have no choice but to be there."
Muhammad's initial plan was to move to Houston after releasing "Identifying My Craft," but now he isn't sure. His family is in the process of purchasing a small tour van, which they'll use to establish Feezi Redd's brand. Muhammad has made merchandise, including shirts and socks, that he hopes to sell with his mixtape. He hopes to use his connections with a few rappers in Memphis and Atlanta to make inroads into the cities' music scenes. Regardless of whether he breaks through, Muhammad credits his experiences in Little Rock for making him a stronger person.
"Life can change in 30 seconds," he said. "I've seen it happen four, five times. My goal is to focus more on myself. Growing up, my granny got 40 grandkids, and we've always been close. Even to this day, we come over to my granny's house, and you'll see 30, 40 people outside. Growing up right here, I learned a lot, and it's time to put that stuff to good use."