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#KingOfTheMitzvahs

Party emcee Kareem Wells—a.k.a. K.W.O.E.—once sold drugs on the West Side. Now he’s the toast of Chicago’s Jewish elite.

Above photo: Clayton Hauck

Say you’re a Jewish family in Chicago with a bar mitzvah to plan. You start asking around for suggestions. One couple in your synagogue goes on and on about some emcee named K.W.O.E. that all the kids just must have. They talk about how little Carly and all her friends had him at their coming-of-age bashes and how now they’re totally obsessed. None of the kids will remember the thoughtful toasts, or the $20,000 spent on customized “Carlylicious” take-home hoodies, or the 30-foot Eiffel Tower made of Godiva chocolate. All they really wanted was K.W.O.E.

So you Google him and find he’s the owner of a Chicago events company called Flow Entertainment. A tall, good-looking black man with a close-cropped beard who seems like he could be anywhere between 25 and 45, he also appears to be a rapper who sometimes performs in an “I [Heart] Mom” T-shirt.

Then you stumble onto his Instagram page and spy hundreds of strikingly similar party pics of him in his black Hugo Boss suit and Air Jordans, sporting a perfect smile and a baseball cap with a giant “K.W.O.E.” emblazoned on the front, his long index finger pointing at an ecstatic 13-year-old he has his arm around. To each photo he’s attached an ultraenthusiastic message, along the lines of: “Mazel tov! Enjoyed every minute, your family and friends were LIT,” which he emphasizes with a multitude of fire emojis and the hashtag #KingOfTheMitzvahs. “I had the best night ever!!!” is the kid’s typical reply. Parents respond with gratitude, admiration, and more emojis.

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King of the Mitzvahs, it should be said, is not an official title. (Nor does it, strictly speaking, make sense, considering that it translates to King of the Commandments.) Nonetheless, in a city filled with countless bar and bat mitzvahs, Kareem Wells, whose stage name K.W.O.E. is pronounced quo and stands for the more grandiloquent Kareem Wells of Excellence, has a legitimate claim to the throne. In the past year alone, Wells and the other emcees on his Flow roster have done more than 230 parties—not just in Chicago, but also in Miami, New York, and Las Vegas. If you go back more than a decade, the number tops a thousand.

Oh, and if your bar mitzvah is happening anytime before 2020, you’re out of luck. Wells is booked until then. Tales of kids whose parents didn’t plan far enough ahead are legendary in certain circles. “My good friend called about two and a half years out and he was full,” says Tamara Stein of Northbrook, who hired Wells for her children in 2013 and 2017. “Her son was so bummed.”

For those who do manage to snag him, Wells doesn’t come cheap. Though he’s reluctant to publicize his fees, people talk; party packages with him personally emceeing start at $7,500. That includes sound, lights, a DJ, and two dancers. The price goes up if you want additional dancers and amenities such as a stage or “silent cocktails,” where each guest receives a pair of multichannel, multicolored headphones and three DJs play simultaneously on separate channels so the guests can choose to listen to hip-hop, pop, or music from the ’80s and ’90s.

Wells, who is 43, makes enough from all this to keep more than 30 people on his Flow payroll and still afford a $100,000-plus Tesla SUV, a four-story house in West Town, a high-rise apartment on the Gold Coast, and a bar on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. When he went to Vegas for a recent vacation with his wife, a choreographer named Evelyn Rice Wells, and their 19-month-old daughter, they flew on a private jet. How much exactly does he rake in? Wells smiles sheepishly and says, “It’s a lot.”

Posts from K.W.O.E.’s Instagram page Photos: instagram.com/kwoe
 

“Dad is really into ’80s and ’90s hip-hop,” Wells tells the DJ behind a $1,200 Pioneer digital turntable. It’s Saturday night, and guests will be arriving soon in the Grand Ballroom of the Standard Club in the South Loop. The enormous space has been transformed into a casino at the behest of the Zoller family, whose son, a sweet, athletic kid from Lincoln Park, was just bar mitzvahed at Anshe Emet, a Conservative congregation in Lake View.

“Salt-N-Pepa, House of Pain, Rob Base,” Wells continues, dressed in his usual suit and high-tops. “Stuff they’d play at a college bar. Ones that feel good, going back and forth with the kids’ stuff. For them? Think popular. Bruno Mars. That new one. You got the club mix?”

The DJ scans his catalogs, offering suggestions for Wells’s approval. Flo Rida? Yes. Wu-Tang Clan? Yeah. “Macarena”? Hell no. They dissect every last detail, from whether “Mama Said Knock You Out” is too “urban” for this crowd (it is) to which version of “Hava Nagila” to play (Lauren Rose’s fast dance mix).

Minutes later, the ballroom is packed, and the bar mitzvah boy, all elbows and Adam’s apple, sprints in to the flash of cameras and thick blasts of smoke from canisters. “No Problem” by Chance the Rapper pounds loud enough to rattle the chandeliers overhead. The figure emerging from the gray haze may as well be WWE wrestler Brock Lesnar entering the ring instead of some Bernard Zell Anshe Emet Day School seventh grader entering manhood. Closer to the stage, a tiny girl in a frilly white dress grabs the microphone and screeches, “Let’s get this party started!” A hundred teenagers rush forward, the girls in their matching socks, the boys in their shirts already untucked and sweat-stained. It’s not even 8 o’clock.

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At 6-foot-1, Wells towers over the 13-year-olds as he glides through the mob, issuing high-fives and hugs. Boys descend on him with shoulder bumps, and packs of giddy girls with bedazzled iPhones enfold him into selfies. His smile is the same every time. “All the party animals right here!” he calls out. “Ladies and gentlemen, you’re looking good!”

For the next four and a half hours, Wells has the ballroom gyrating like a club rave. The kids—rocking LED bunny ears and powered by thick beats, sugar, and kaleidoscopic lights—laugh, scream, and bounce off each other. When Wells drawls “Clap your hands!” or “Jump to the beat, yo!” it doesn’t sound like an order so much as a promise: If you follow me, you will feel good. He puts his arm around a shy-looking boy, gently coaxing him into the throbbing mass, and constantly shifts the event’s focus back to the bar mitzvah clan (“I need you to scream and shout for the entire Zoller family!”). When “Baby Got Back” comes on, Wells dances and raps along with Sir Mix-a-Lot like it’s the funniest song ever written and not something he has played at parties approximately 500 times. The DJ follows his musical advice to the letter, blasting Lil Yachty and Kendrick Lamar for the kids and Prince and Young MC for the adults, the tunes stopping only for the traditional blessings over bread and wine. One older man calls Wells a mensch, the Yiddish word for a person of integrity and honor.

As the party winds down, Wells seeks out the bar mitzvah boy, who cannot stop smiling. They pose for a picture, looking for all the world like bros. The snapshot will go up on Wells’s Instagram page that night.

Welcome to the era of hip-hop bar mitzvah parties. You’ve got rooms full of Jewish kids who were raised on Drake and Kanye and unironically call each other ballers in Hebrew school. “These kids are really in tune,” says Wells. “You’ve got to be on your A-game when it comes to the music.” For these teens, landing K.W.O.E., a black rapper who grew up on the West Side, lends instant street cred to their party, even if their street is a cul-de-sac in Winnetka.

A word about bar and bat mitzvahs: The ceremonies marking a Jewish child’s entry into adulthood are meant to be celebrated. But they also represent the culmination of years of study. And each child undertakes a mitzvah project, usually some kind of social action involving a particular charity; some have worked with Wells’s nonprofit, the KWOE Hope Foundation.

Though cynics might view all this as some kind of coexploitation based on cultural appropriation, the relentlessly positive Wells doesn’t see it that way. “The Jewish families love what I’m doing, and the people in the hood love what I’m doing,” he says. “And I believe I’m the bridge between the two sides.”

A very expensive bridge—although in the context of the arms race that bar mitzvah staging has become, paying 10 grand for an emcee doesn’t seem so ludicrous. “Any amount of money is worth it for K.W.O.E.,” says Elliana Bondy, who hired Wells for her son’s party in April and her daughter’s in 2015. “He made our family feel special.”

She describes how Wells sat down in their Highland Park home and got to know the entire family, especially her son. Before long, the emcee was telling his own story, a tale involving a hardscrabble youth, bad choices, a mentor’s death, hard work, and an ultimate overcoming of odds—the kind of cinematic arc a Hollywood agent would call an “urban drama of grit and redemption.” Wells is not shy about playing that up because, in his case, the clichés ring true. “By the end, he was literally crying in my kitchen,” says Bondy. (More than one North Shore parent described a similar scene.) “In the community we live in, the kids think everything is roses, so to meet someone who has overcome his upbringing—they were touched.”

 

That upbringing began in the Near West Side’s Henry Horner Homes, the public housing complex immortalized by Alex Kotlowitz’s book There Are No Children Here. Wells would tag along with his mother to rehearsals for her disco/R&B band, Coffee. (His father, who wasn’t around much, performed in a ’60s soul group called the Steelers.) When Wells was about 13, he and his mom moved to West Garfield Park, but within three years he had left school—and home—and begun dealing drugs near the corner of North Hamlin Avenue and West Fulton Street. “I sold to pregnant women, my relatives, anyone,” recalls Wells. He became a father at 16, then again at 20 with a different woman.

A well-connected neighborhood dealer named Marshall “Chief” Hill Jr. took Wells under his wing after hearing him freestyle rapping on a street corner. Certain that the boy had inherited his parents’ musical genes, he promised to get Wells an apartment in Noble Square, four miles to the east, if Wells returned to school or got a job. “A job?” Wells recalls saying. “I’m making $4,500 a week! I’ve got a job!” But Wells took a chance and landed a position busing tables at the East Bank Club, where he overheard well-heeled clientele discussing multimillion-dollar deals over lunch. To supplement his income, he worked as a waiter at a Bakers Square in Wilmette and began doing odd jobs at Dupée Productions, a small recording studio in River North. A series of tantalizing near misses as an artist followed, including one involving, ironically, a song he recorded that didn’t make the cut for Oprah Winfrey’s 1993 TV adaptation of There Are No Children Here.

Wells’s mother, Lenora Sutton-Kpa (at left in photo), performed with the early-’80s disco/R&B band Coffee under the name Dee Dee Bryant.
Wells’s father, George (bottom center), sang with the ’60s soul group the Steelers.
Wells on his 21st birthday with his mentor, Marshall Hill Jr.
KWOE's graduation photo
Wells’s eighth-grade graduation photo Photos: COURTESY OF KAREEM WELLS

In 1997, Marshall Hill was shot in the face five times and died in an alley on the West Side. Police never caught his killer. Hill was the closest thing to a father figure Wells had at the time; in fact, his last phone call was to Wells to express his love. The way Wells tells the story—and he tells it often, especially to young kids on the West and South Sides—it was a pivotal moment in his life. Devastated and furious, he drove to his old neighborhood and began asking questions, intent on revenge. But nobody talked. So he drove away, leaving thoughts of retribution behind. “It was the hardest thing I ever did,” Wells recalls. “I turned into a man.”

Around that time, Wells’s half-brother Jamahl was earning money dancing at bar mitzvah parties and asked Wells to join him for one in the old River North nightclub Excalibur. When Wells arrived, he was amazed to find that the entire 60,000-square-foot Romanesque Revival graystone had been rented out for the party. The moment he got on the floor and began dancing—“soulful, head down low”—he drew attention. “Kids kept coming up to me,” he recalls. “And the moms were real interested in my dancing—I think it reminded them of aerobics. My adrenaline was pumping to keep them all happy.” His tip alone that night was at least $50. But more significant, he landed a regular gig.

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In the ’90s, bar mitzvah bashes, while often glitzy, were predictable affairs. An overbearing emcee, like a drill sergeant in a rented tux, made demands of the audience—Get up! Dance! Have fun!—usually while playing square music, like “Celebration” by Kool and the Gang. “It felt corny, the way bar mitzvahs were done,” says Wells.

He sensed an opportunity. He began booking gigs himself as an emcee and made the venues feel like chic nightclubs, full of soul and swagger. “We brought a hip element, and the kids picked up on it quick,” he says. At the same time, he embraced the Jewish rituals. (He had a personal connection: His second child and that child’s mother are Jewish.) When the guest of honor would get hoisted in a chair during the hora, Wells would lead the parade. He made a point of learning the hamotzi and the kiddush, the traditional Hebrew blessings over the bread and wine, which paid off at one particular party when a flummoxed grandfather had trouble remembering the words.

By 2006, Wells had saved enough money to launch Flow (which doubles as an acronym for Families Love Our Work), enlisting family and friends to work with him. He eventually hired buzzworthy dancers (including a pair of women who had toured with R. Kelly) and built the business through word of mouth. He taught his employees everything he’d learned: Make the family feel special. Stay positive. Don’t pass out business cards during the party. Bring the lights down during dance sets. Dress in black so you don’t draw too much attention. Make the traditions cool. Develop a real relationship with the children and their families.

“Every kid is different, so you go in and find out what they like and make it about them,” Wells explains. “If he’s shy, he doesn’t want you to say his name a thousand times. But he does want you jumping around with his friends. If they’re having a good time, he’s having a good time.” A few years back, Wells emceed a party for a boy who liked death metal—not the easiest music to dance to. But Wells figured out intervals throughout the party when he could play the boy’s favorite songs, and he helped turn the dance floor into a periodic mosh pit. The kid loved it.

“Most emcees are egocentric,” says Syril Karel, a Highland Park–based party planner who has worked frequently with Wells. “But K.W.O.E. never makes it about himself. He makes it about the family. And he keeps getting better.”

In 2006, its first year in business, Flow booked 42 parties; by 2016, the number was 208. Having started with 15 part-timers, the company now employs about 20 dancers, eight DJs, and four emcees. In the rare moments Wells isn’t emceeing or meeting with his staff to prep or practice dance moves, he pursues his music career. Though he’s performed his optimistic brand of hip-hop (sample lyric: “Got two thumbs up / Yeah I’m doing just fine / Got a feeling in my body that I can’t describe”) at festivals such as South by Southwest and Taste of Chicago, he hasn’t gotten much traction.

That’s OK, because he seems to have stumbled into his true calling. “Look,” Wells says, “I know there’s something funny about it—a black guy from the West Side of Chicago running a bar mitzvah company. But I’ve owned it.”

Wells is still a fixture in his old West Side neighborhoods, returning regularly to march in rallies or perform at community festivals. What do people there make of the whole bar mitzvah thing? “Kareem is a good businessman,” says Tony Raggs, who grew up with him on the same block in West Garfield Park. “Black music is so mainstream now. Of course the white kids are into it.”

“Look,” Wells says. “I know there’s something funny about it—a black guy from the West Side of Chicago running a bar mitzvah company. But I’ve owned it.”

Photo: Clayton Hauck
 

It’s a Wednesday afternoon in May, and Wells is standing in front of a class of 22 students at Harold Washington College in the Loop. The young people, mostly black and Hispanic, are not an easy crowd to win over. They’re quiet and serious, and some are paying their own way through school.

But Wells is doing his best to reach them with his story. He tells them about his drug-dealing past and that life-changing moment 20 years ago when he decided to forgo revenge. He tells them about his 27-year-old daughter, whose wedding he just celebrated (and performed at), and his 22-year-old son—both of whom he has stayed close with. At times he whispers (“You can either live in the filth or help clean it up”); other times he bellows (“It’s time for black men to step up!”). He breaks into a rap to announce his recent return to school to earn his GED. When he unleashes heartfelt bromides (“You’ve got to believe and you’ve got to put in the work”), the students don’t roll their eyes. They nod their heads.

It’s a story Wells repeats again and again to Chicago school kids through local organizations, including his foundation. Robbin Carroll, the founder and president of I Grow Chicago, a wellness-based nonprofit in Englewood, says that Wells accepts every invitation to speak she extends. Recently, when Carroll brought middle graders from Lincoln Park’s private Francis W. Parker School to visit Englewood, Wells engaged them in a difficult, race-tinged conversation. “The kids asked how he felt being black, and he spoke to them in a way that no one else is,” Carroll says. “If we could start to bridge the gap like he does, we’d learn there’s a lot of wonderful people everywhere.”

The irony is not lost on Wells.

He’s made enough money emceeing for some of Chicago’s wealthiest families that he is now living among them while pouring a fair share of his spare time—and money—into Chicago’s poorest communities. “I’m excited because I get to talk to both sides, and I get them to talk to each other.” The Steins from Northbrook made an unsolicited $5,000 donation to Wells’s foundation. “If anything, his story makes him more appealing,” says Tamara Stein. “He has a gift of helping people, and we want to help him.”

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After the Harold Washington College class ends, a handful of students go up and hug Wells. One is crying. Wells responds gently, listening, sympathizing. He vows to stay in touch. “I get pretty emotional,” he says afterward, while walking to Virgin Hotels, where a valet has parked his Tesla. “Every time I come out and speak, it’s a healing process for me.”

Then Wells sees his car. “Look at that!” He gestures to the rear tire.

“No! My rim!” There’s a six-inch gash from where the valet has scraped it against the curb. Wells’s broad shoulders slump, and he shakes his head over and over. It’s safe to say the healing process is over.

The valet, a skinny black man about Wells’s age, comes over to inspect the damage. He stutters out an apology, but Wells cannot let it go. The valet is terrified he’s going to lose his job.

As if on cue, the manager appears. “Excuse me. Is there a problem here?”

The valet bites his lip.

Wells looks at the manager. He looks at the valet. He looks at the scratched rim.

Just when it seems he’s about to blow, he takes a deep breath. A sudden calm loosens his limbs, and he straightens his body until he once again looks like the giant on the dance floor, surrounded by ecstatic partygoers. “Nah, no problem,” he says. “We’re good here.” He shakes the valet’s hand and gets in the car.

The whole encounter feels surreal, a test of Wells’s character. “I’ll just get the rim fixed,” he says, putting on his seat belt. “That man’s job is worth way more than $200.” Then he drives away.

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