TORONTO – It was three years ago that Robyn Zeldin’s then-10-year-old son came home from summer camp and declared he wanted to be a rapper. It’s a path that might make some protective parents feel a bit uneasy, but it was music to Zeldin’s ears.
That’s because Robyn’s son, Jake, suffers from a stutter so severe that it can be a struggle to get through more than a few words at a time. The transformative discovery of that summer-camp stint, however, was that Jake’s speech impediment fades entirely when he raps.
In the intervening years, Jake has cultivated both his rap skills and an impressive array of contacts in the hip-hop world eager to see him succeed. But beyond the Toronto native’s burgeoning career, his mom is thrilled by the drastic change she’s seen in his overall demeanour.
“It’s unbelievable. It’s amazing. It’s pretty much why we’re encouraging him to do this,” she said in a recent interview alongside her son.
“We’ve seen him grow so much. It’s amazing for his self-esteem. He’s a different child. He says he’s found his voice.
“And when he performs in front of tons of people, he becomes a different person.”
It’s easy to understand why the potential to transform is so appealing to the charming youngster.
Jake — who raps as Lil JaXe, the switched-up letter representing his “X-factor” — is uncommonly ebullient and upbeat for a teen, nevermind a teen enduring a difficult speech disability. Fresh-faced with short blond hair that swoops across his forehead and stylishly dressed in high-end streetwear, he certainly has the look of an aspiring teen-pop star.
But he’s been dogged by severe speech problems as long as he’s been able to talk. The condition has long made him a target of bullies at his Toronto school.
“Kids at school have teased me, even teachers have teased me about it,” he says, still barely letting his eager smile fade from his face.
“Yeah, but haters are a part of life, right? ‘Cause you know you’re doing it right if you have haters. If you don’t have haters, something’s wrong, right?”
Indeed, beyond the discovery of how rap frees him from this stifling speech condition, Jake seems to have drawn strength from the swaggering, bravado-building ethos of hip-hop.
On this day, he wears a grey baseball cap with “I (Heart) Haters” written across the front and “motivation” scrawled on the underside of the brim.
He loves freestyling, but comes back to common themes often, particularly one of resilience in the face of doubt.
When he cheerfully agrees to toss off some raps in person — and it’s truly amazing to watch someone who has such trouble speaking immediately segue into smooth, rapid-fire rhyming — he intersperses fun, frivolous material with lines hinting at his struggle, such as: “I’ve been bullied all my life, even by teachers once or twice/ Hard to live life to the fullest when you’re hit by haters’ bullets.”
His mom says that when he’s bullied, Jake tends to get his revenge against his tormenters in song. She points this out somewhat sheepishly, but says she’s glad he’s found a way to stand up for himself — and it’s better than getting into fist fights.
She’s not necessarily comfortable with the content of all the stuff Jake listens to, either, but she likes the message of his music.
“I love his stuff. I love what he writes and his messages,” she said. “But it’s so different from what I’m used to. I’m sure as he gets older, it’ll progress and that’s what it’ll turn into but at the moment it’s clean and it’s a great message, and that’s what we’re focusing on.”
And thus far, his message seems to be connecting.
YouTube videos of his rapping have combined for well over a half-million views, including a collaboration with Montreal pop-R&B crooner Karl Wolf that has drawn more than 230,000 clicks. He’s also going to be featured on a children’s compilation called “Pacha’s Pajamas,” an environmentalism-themed hip-hop record that features contributions from rap luminaries Mos Def and Talib Kweli.
And Jake has a talent beyond rapping — he’s shown a knack for getting behind the scenes to meet the legends he looks up to. Over the years, he’s managed to charm his way to meeting the likes of Busta Rhymes, Katy Perry, Far East Movement and 25-year-old Toronto hip-hop superstar Drake, who has become a friend (a video of Jake rapping for his hero backstage after a concert in December has been viewed more than 200,000 times, too).
A basketball fan, Jake has also become familiar with an array of NBAers who have hung out with him or gifted him with choice memorabilia, including Gilbert Arenas, Josh Smith and Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins.
Each time an acquaintance hears his fleet-footed rapping for the first time, he and his mom get a little thrill.
“He’s very quick, and apparently he has good ‘flow’ — which I don’t know what that really means — but they’re completely blown away by his ability,” Robyn said.
Pascal van Lieshout, a professor in the department of speech-language pathology at the University of Toronto, says several factors could explain why Jake is so fluid when rapping but not speaking.
The rhythmic nature of the music helps. So does the predictable quality of the words, as stutterers can find reading aloud easier than spontaneous speech. And the breathing patterns in rapping or singing are different than in speech, which also helps.
Robyn says that Jake’s discovery of his skill with rapping hasn’t crossed over into helping him remedy his speech difficulties, which doesn’t surprise Van Lieshout. He says that specialized therapy is crucial in overcoming a speech disability.
And Robyn has, in fact, invested thousands of dollars in a variety of speech therapists for Jake, but was frustrated by the lack of progress. Regardless, Van Lieshout does acknowledge that some stutterers suffer from social anxieties relating to their speech impediments, so the confidence boost provided by Jake’s rapping could still be fairly significant.
“Whenever a person who stutters takes on activities that help them regain some fluency and confidence, I think that’s always a good thing to do,” he said.
Jake is also a skilled painter, showing off an especially appealing portrait of soul legend Stevie Wonder — whom Jake idolizes in part for the way he’s flourished in spite of a substantial physical hurdle. But Jake feels certain his future is in music.
After all, he knows exactly what he wants to say. And now he has a way to say it.
“I wanna get my story out there and get the message out that we can do it. Anything we want. And we can’t let one small thing, like a disability, get in between our dreams.”