The welcoming warmth of stage lights beats on his skin. Sweat accumulates on his face, adding to the benevolent butterflies fluttering in his stomach. He steps to center stage, microphone in hand, crew in back and crowd in front. A breath in, and a breath out, with each exhale of wind guiding the departure of a single butterfly. They are now all gone. He is ready — he always was.
Michael Rizzo, a senior human communications major, is an aspiring rapper. His most recent single, "The Grey," was just released less than a month ago on his Sound Cloud account, and earlier this year, he released a full album, "The Conscious." He's also performed alongside Hoodie Allen, Nappy Roots, Cris Cab, Aer and Caskey. Originally from Gainesville, Rizzo transferred to UCF from Santa Fe College during the spring 2014 semester.
But in another world, Rizzo is no longer a full-time student chained down by daily, pedagogical obligations like other students. As his stage persona, Rezza, he does not have worries about feeble, fiscal issues.
Rizzo was born for the stage. His lyrics are carefully crafted line by line and altered to perfection. Rapid recitation of each rhyme and line seems to sound better for Rizzo each time. His songs have to be perfect — anything less is unacceptable.
"I wanted to perfect each song," Rizzo explained. "If it's not something I love, I don't want to put it out there. I don't want work out there that feels like it's unfinished."
The 21-year-old's desire for musical excellence, perhaps, derives from his family tree. Rizzo said many members of his family surround themselves with music.
His creativity began to flourish during his senior year of high school. Rizzo and his other like-minded friends formed their own rap group called the B.A.S. Squad. The group did not last long, however. Eventually, Rizzo got in contact with his current mentor of three years, KB Da Boss, or Kenneth Brown.
Rizzo had previously remixed a song by nationally acclaimed rapper Childish Gambino, called "Freaks and Geeks." Brown, a photographer, videographer and fellow rapper, heard the track and saw potential in Rizzo.
Brown photographed and filmed Rizzo's first-ever performance as Rezza, becoming increasingly impressed with what he saw. Brown's trust in his new apprentice was never more apparent than when he offered Rizzo the opportunity to be the opening act at a show called AMH Takeover.
"We just got this huge music connection that was constantly back and forth," Rizzo said. "I got introduced to more people in his music group called AMH Incorporated. And now, I'm recording [with him], and we're throwing verses for each other, and just giving each other feedback."
Like gym buddies battling for who can lift the heavier weight, Rizzo and Brown developed a healthy, competitive relationship through which one would push the other past what appeared to be his limit.
While friends may push him forward professionally, much of his inspiration still comes from his family.
Growing up in a single-parent household served as material for the young rapper. Rizzo said a lot of his early music revolves around his family experiences, and he tries not to deviate too far from the reality of his circumstances in his music.
As one individual trying to fulfill two of the most pivotal roles in society, his mother remains vigilant in trying to teach her children the appropriate lessons.
"I'm trying to teach my kids to be self-sufficient," she said. "Don't rely on anyone and try your hardest. They already have a disadvantage with no father, so I tell them all the time, they will have to try harder than the next guy who may come from two parents."
Even though he has moved to another city, the familial inspiration appears to never cease. Siblings Anita, Antonio and Gianna continue to support their older brother in pursuit of his dream.
Rizzo likes to keep his everyday life separate from his music life.
Kathryn Ramey, a high school friend, spoke like-mindedly about Rizzo's two lives, saying she never noticed the distinction before it was presented to her.
"Whenever I've hung out with Michael, he never really talks about his music or tries to force it on me or anyone else," Ramey said. "If someone didn't care for his music, though, he's not the kind of person that would take offense. He loves what he does and he works hard at it, and he doesn't let anyone else influence that."
In a hip-hop and rap world where sex, drugs and lewd language dominate the industry, Rizzo desires to create something unique from this. He is not bound by the confines of conformity that demand he spit a specific rhyme; rather, he looks to put his voice, experiences and life into the mix.
For Rizzo, cursing is not some convenient, auxiliary placeholder for a word he could not think of. He said cursing is sometimes a necessity to evoke an emotion that a listener did not know he or she felt before.
"They would say things like, 'Why do you have to use that word?' and I say, 'That's a word that probably opened you up,'" Rizzo explained. "That power, the emotion grasped you right there. But that's something they do notice, that's something they can't avoid, and that power, that emotion, that I am portraying from my mind, that's something that grasped the audience right there."
Fame — however major or minor — is empowering and indulging, but it is not without its negative counterpart: scrutiny. Rizzo recalls a time when he was 19 years old at the center of a social media attack by another rapper from Gainesville.
Rizzo recalled how this experience was somewhat of an eye-opener for him, and how reality began to sit in.
"[I] kind of got into seeing how there are people in the music industry who are just throwing this hate and that kind of stuff, and that's something I never want to be a part of," Rizzo said.
The stage serves as many settings. For Rizzo, it is a second home. Being on stage takes him out of the present. There are no worries about school, or anything else — only the lights, the stage and the crowd. For him, it is here and now.
"It's a really powerful feeling because as soon as I get on stage, and I get to doing my thing, there's no anxiety there; it just comes as a natural flow," he said.
Victor Ng is a Contributing Writer for the Central Florida Future.