This story, originally published by the Bristol Herald Courier, was produced by the Virginia Folklife Program and is the latest in a series highlighting individuals working at the intersection of culture and community.
Big Stone Gap in Wise County, Virginia, sits in a valley on the Appalachia Straight roughly 30 miles from the Kentucky border. Built around the coal and iron ore industry, this mining hub was once known as the “Pittsburgh of the South.”
Today this city of around 5,700 is known for two cultural landmarks: the “Trail of the Lonesome Pine,” Virginia’s outdoor drama, and the Southwest Virginia Museum Historical State Park. But Big Stone, which is pursuing a cultural tourism revival, is also home to a nascent hip-hop community, a network of mutually supportive artists and genre-bending venues that are distinctly Appalachian.
Hip-hop artist Geonoah Davis was born and raised in Big Stone Gap, and he is making it his mission to build a supportive community for artists like him—artists that do not fall into stereotypical Appalachian categories. Davis, who recently moved to Norton, performs as geonovah, and helped develop a new fellowship opportunity for artists in the region for Central Appalachia Living Traditions.
“What gives me joy is creating and using what comes from it to help those around me,” he shared at one of the group’s early meetings.
geonovah first started writing poetry when he was 14, and began making music when he was 20 and attending UVA Wise. In 2016, his cousin Raekwon Mitchell (DJ RKMITCH) invited him to write a verse for his “Starry Nights” EP. Soon he began performing with his cousin in the local hip hop collective Valley Boyz Music Group.
“I did it with my head down, I was scared, but I did it and I’ve been going ever since,” he said.
He started developing a distinct sound when he transferred to Eastern Tennessee State University. After moving to Johnson City, geonovah connected with a tight community of hip hop artists including Kareem Ledell, Ishmael Nehemiah, Tyrique Shahmir and Will Castle. Ajavious Deovante (OnlySinger), a producer out of Farmville, VA, was an early champion of geonovah’s work and continues to mentor him.
“There’s not a lot of opportunities for hip-hop artists and artists of the like in this area,” geonovah said. “We know that. We don’t really have the money or infrastructure, so we support each other.”
“Our community is all throughout these mountains. All I needed to do was travel and meet my other people.”geonovah davis
In 2020, geonovah received his first artist grant from Appalshop, and used the money to buy equipment to enable his friends to record their hip-hop music at home. This kind of funding, which is not restricted to a specific project, is a lifeline for rural artists. When geonovah was able to purchase his first car shortly afterwards, his performance opportunities and networks expanded.
“Our community is all throughout these mountains. All I needed to do was travel and meet my other people,” he said.
On his latest album, “Sorry for the Mess” (2022), geonovah honestly shares his experiences, rapping about his love life, his daughter, his gratitude for supportive friends and family and his fears about making it as a musician.
“I express how I’ve lived in, and loved, and loathed these mountains for years,” he said. “I talk about my family and community, about my cousins and our adventures.”
On “Floatin’,” he laments, “Thinking ‘bout the endin’ every single time the rent due,” but geonovah couldn’t imagine not making art—and he wants to make art a possibility for all young people in and around Big Stone Gap.
“I can be, I want to be, and I will be that light that people are looking to if they feel like they can’t do it—because they can,” he shared.
He recognizes the importance of witnessing art firsthand, in your community. “I want art everywhere,” he declared. “I want people to not be able to get art out of their face. I want that much art here.”
Performance venues are somewhat limited in Wise County and its surrounds, which makes geonovah especially grateful to places like Good Times Pizza in Big Stone Gap, which hosts open mics, or the Hideaway in Johnson City, a punk and metal space that willfully blends genres.
“There’s a lot of melding of genres,” he said. “There’s a lot of hip hop, there’s a lot of funk, a lot of rock and jazz. I think that’s ultimately the best thing—being able to get together and blend all those artists together.”
“I want art everywhere. I want people to not be able to get art out of their face. I want that much art here.”geonovah davis
geonovah recently performed at Holler House, a contemporary art gallery on Bristol’s State Street that presents community events in support of new Appalachian creativity. He released a new single on May 24 and is set to debut another on June 14. You can listen to both tracks on his Instagram, @geonovah.
It is this willful blending and spirit of mutual support that is shaping the sound of hip-hop in far southwest Virginia.
“Hip-hop is still relatively new to this area, and music has been changing so much in the past couple of decades it is really hard to tell what hip hop is,” geonovah said. “It is kind of like hip-hop is everything, a diaspora of all kinds of different sounds.”
“I could go the distance,
I could tell the world about the Gap,
Get a holla back,
Put my f— n— on the map
Then we flush it out,
Build up where we living in the South,
Be so worth it though,
I just had to let these n— know”
—“How it Go,” on “Sorry for the Mess”