THE MAN BEHIND THE MUSIC
When I walk into the sound booth of a music studio and put on my headphones, I enter another world – one where I find harmony and power. The studio is transformative, a meditative place of self-discovery. Pressing down on piano keys, laughing with friends, talking a hundred and sixty words per minute, hardly taking a breath, we record, edit, record again, and soon these sound bites create the rhythm of a rap.
The origins of rap go back thousands of years to West African Griot storytellers, who delivered important news while music was played. Today’s incarnation of rap began with DJ Kool Herc in the 1970s, who realized that rhymes could combine spoken word with hard funk music. Contemporary rap artists have expanded on this template with a variety of stylistic innovations. Their works often depict “the Struggle” of life in marginalized communities, or the pain of personal adversities. Inspired by this tradition, I dove headfirst into a rapidly changing industry, developing a passion for creating music with my own personal twist.
As a young child, I would turn the radio to rap whenever I could, to the dismay of my parents, who would quickly change the station. Despite their views, I connected deeply with the power of these rhythmic, spoken words. 1980s group A Tribe Called Quest spoke of self-discovery arising from unity and love in the face of hate. Contemporary artist Kendrick Lamar’s album “To Pimp a Butterfly,” borrowing imagery from mathematical chaos theory, showed how small actions can have greater impacts, like air wafted by a butterfly’s wings. Inspired, I started writing my first rhymes at the age of eight, using the GarageBand app. At age twelve, I released my first single on iTunes, “Living This Life.” The song questions why society cares more about beauty than brains, and why violence is taken so lightly. Within a week, the song had sold one hundred times; after a month, it had sold one thousand. While it was a risky song to release, people enjoyed it, and told me to keep making music with positive connotations.
As my artistry deepened, so did my business aspirations, despite significant challenges. I soon found that most major record labels want instant bestsellers through formulaic songs with familiar themes, instead those that strive to innovate and make a unique, lasting impact on audiences. Every time I return to the studio, I have a choice: make a song with that commercial “pop”-oriented sound and nothing else, or take a risk, and try my hand at crafting something that can change the way others discuss critical social issues — from poverty to gender relations. Inspired by my favorite artists, I refuse to compromise: I make my art to say what I want to say, not just to get the most clicks and downloads.
But the fast pace of technological change poses further challenges. After I started recording my own music, I reinvested in my career by using iTunes advertisements. But sales soon plummeted: people had switched to using free music services like Sound Cloud, abandoning the iTunes download model that had been so dominant merely a few years before. I lost all my earnings and needed a cost-effective way to promote my music. Despite the setback, I gathered what little funding I could and released more of my music via streaming sites. My listeners increased, and I gained a larger social media footprint.
Recently, the producer I’ve partnered with suggested that I construct a song about some form of suffering I have witnessed. Inspired, I spoke about how everyone needs moral support, especially through practicing self-care. My fans instantly connected to my song, “Priceless.” They found meaning in my lyrics: “Life gets tough and lonely, life is like a marathon, you just got to carry on.” In the future, I hope my music can continue to change people’s lives, one track at a time.