Like a lot of hip-hop artists, Marleik Walker, better known as Mar Mar, raps about stacking paper. But he's doing it to save up for college.
On Mar Mar on Fleek (2016), his debut mixtape, the 14-year-old Compton actor and rapper proudly proclaims his dreams of inspiring kids from his neighborhood, enriching his family and becoming a great rapper. Recorded when he was barely a teenager, the mixtape is so full of prepubescent hope that it sounds less like naivete and more like a fully realized state of being. Bigging up his city on the track “Do What I Do,” Mar puts Compton on his back to get “ready for the cover of a magazine.” Another track, “Make Em Jump,” is an ode to early-’90s rap duo Kriss Kross and their 1992 hit single “Jump.” “They were ahead of their time,” Mar says. “I’m trying to become just like them, but with a different style.”
He made his acting debut on the Disney TV show Good Luck Charlie in 2012. In The Peanuts Movie (2015), he did the voice of Franklin. Just recently, he was on HBO’s comedy series Insecure. Like a regular kid, he goes to school, takes AP classes and gets good grades. When asked about his studies, he says, “It’s hard juggling Marleik as well as Mar Mar, but luckily I have a good foundation with my parents."
His mother makes sure that he does his homework, and talks to his teachers to monitor his progress. When his acting schedule gets hectic, his teachers give him work to do on set. Though he and his parents are considering home school, he says, “I do plan to go to college. I just don’t know when exactly.”
On the music front, Mar Mar's father, Marleik Walker Sr., mentors him in the studio. Aside from racing cars, Walker is well-versed in the music business. As a singer and songwriter, he’s worked with Terrace Martin, Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, among others. “I’ve been around them all and done it all, but not to my overall benefit,” he says.
In 2009, Walker put out a project called Perfect Timing. During the recording process, he taught himself how to write, produce, mix and engineer. Without a promotional machine behind his music, he couldn’t get it exposed, but the experience multiplied his skill set, giving him a wealth of knowledge to pass down to Mar.
“I seen the talent,” he says about his son. He noticed that Mar had an interest in music starting at around 5 years old. “He does a lot of things that I did when I was his age. I just didn’t have a father figure to nurture it.”
Mar, like most kids, wanted to be like his father. “He had the headphones, the microphone in the house, and I was just doing what he was doing,” Mar says.
Walker says he doesn’t push his passion onto his four kids. They tell him what they want to do. “When Mar came to me and said, ‘Hey, I want to do music,’ we did that first record in two hours.” On that bass-heavy party track, “Ice Cream,” Mar sounds like a kid who's been spitting longer than some of the mainstream’s most popular rappers. Walker says he knew his son was serious about music when they did a 12-hour shoot for the “Ice Cream” video; Mar had three bites of pizza the whole time and didn’t complain.
According to his father, Mar takes direction well, “which is what separates him from other artists," Walker explains. "If I say, ‘Do a note like this,’ he’s able to mimic it and do it right away.” It's a skill that runs parallel with Mar's second career as an actor, taking notes from directors. “I’ve worked with a lot of artists that I’ve written songs for, and we’ll be in the studio for a long time and they can’t get the small adjustments," Walker continues. "No one wants to work with an artist that’s tone-deaf and can’t understand the simple things that you asking them to do.”
Mar Mar's latest single “Ghetto," from his next project, PG-14, celebrates his neighborhood while denoting its complications. “Everybody thinks that the ghetto is one particular thing, given what other rappers say in their raps. Coming from Compton, having both parents in my household and being privileged enough, I was just able to portray it and tell everybody what I see and go through on a day-to-day basis," he says.
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"Ghetto" also introduces Mar's new voice, since it recently changed. Over the phone, he sounds like a well-adjusted young black man, whose early career peak has given him an elevated perspective. “Now I feel like I can talk in a more mature manner and I can relate to more people.”
Because he sounds like a kid one might see peddling down the street, it’s easy to forget that Mar Mar's on the grind, building dual careers. “I still am a normal kid. I can do whatever I want, but I would rather work on my craft right now so I can perfect it. So when the time comes that I get a big opportunity, I can kill it and just be somewhere better in life,” he says.
In 10 years, Mar sees himself “having a hit record, moved out of Compton, having a dream house, putting my little brothers and sisters in a good environment. I feel like my music will inspire a lot of people. It’ll help kids from Compton propel themselves through life.”
Looking at the XXL Freshman Class of 2017, one might think that this year’s crop of young rappers is entirely composed of depressed, drugged-out goth kids. Mar Mar offers a different, more positive version of hip-hop's future. And though he wasn’t included in the Freshman Class this year, there's still time for him to make the list. After all, he's still only 14.