Rise, Fall, Rise Again
While I fully endorse the idea of pursuing your passions, I now feel equally passionate about having intentional moments of thankfulness for whatever progress is made along the way. The reality is that most people never fully commit to chasing their dreams. For those who do, many of them never actually capture it. And for the few fortunate enough to grasp this thing they've been working so diligently towards, an even smaller amount get to keep it for the long term. Whether it's divine intervention or good old-fashioned cause and effect, life has a tendency to derail our plans. It is imperative that we acknowledge the process and recognize the small victories along the way.
This is how I had to learn that.
I started rapping when I was 16. I didn't know it at the time, but that year probably had the largest impact on the trajectory of my life. I started writing songs, growing my dreadlocks and began to truly discover what it meant to know God personally. At that time I was already known around school as the “Underground Hip Hop Guy” and I felt that I was one of (if not THE) most qualified to speak on the music. My good friend Omar (who was already an MC) came to me at lunch and spit some new rhymes that he’d just written. In my arrogance as the “Hip Hop Authority” I was like, “....man I can do that.” Within a matter of months, four of us started our first rap group called Usurp Nascent. What an incredibly stupid name. Thinking back, I can't help but laugh.
From there, I connected with some artists that you might be familiar with. I met Ruslan (Kings Dream) the same year I started writing. We went to school together and both were MCs who played ball. I couldn't stand Ruslan back then (he had beef with someone in my crew), which is ironic because he and I are close friends now.
I met Propaganda, Odd Thomas, and Braille all separately through completely different avenues, but all around the same time frame. I linked with Prop through our mutual friend Capture of Future Shock. Caps was putting a project together called Audio Engine. In its inception, it was kind of a supergroup album comprised of Caps, Prop, Sareem Poems (LA Symphony), and myself. This was back in 2007. I was a fan of all of their music at the time but surprisingly I turned down the offer to be a part of the project. Many years later, Prop and I finally collaborated on my album, Socially Just (more on that later). I met Thomas probably a year later through another artist named Dan Smith ("The Listener”). I hosted a show in my old boss’s living room and Thomas was the opener for the tour. I knew who he was from his old crew Science Project, but we had never met. He showed up and honestly, he tore the roof off that night. I met Braille because he was touring heavily around that time and I was probably at every show he did in San Diego. After many introductions, we connected on the SphereOfHipHop.com message boards. At that time, Braille was labelmates with an MC named Kaboose who I eventually was touring with. I have a million stories like this, yet you might not have ever heard my name.
In 2008 I released my first true solo project, Mouthpiece of the Lion. I had been building a buzz locally from shows and was finally going on my first tour. The music wasn't great, but it was decent and we had a really dope live show. My DJ (TPHR of Mellow Orange) and I would mix his live scratches and my live MPC drumming (we didn't know of anyone else doing this at the time), and we really started making some noise in the local scene. Meanwhile, the music was getting better and better by the day. In 2010 I released the album, Rosario Dawson, and that's when everything changed for me.
Right before the album came out we opened up for Abstract Rude and tested out all the new material. We were unstoppable that night! After our set, Ab Rude was like, “Yo you guys were really dope, man.” Not only was that the ultimate compliment coming from a legend such as him, but that's when I knew we had something.
That album did over 13,000 downloads in just over six months (this is prime bootleg years so who knows how many if you include those other blogs). I had never experienced this much exposure before. All of the sudden I'm getting flown out to do shows and put up in hotels. I'm like actually making a little bit of money now. I linked up with an anti-human trafficking organization called Not For Sale and began ending up in rooms with pro ball players and British royalty.
I was very intentional about using the proper approach on Rosario Dawson to catapult my brand and my influence to the next level. My plan was working, but I never doubted that it wouldn't, so it honestly felt like I deserved it. First mistake.
I mean, I was sincerely appreciative of everything going on, but I never really let it soak in because it just felt like it was supposed to happen this way. Eventually, Rosario Dawson — the actress — got wind of my album and gave it her stamp of approval. She tweeted about the album and video a few times while labeling it “real rap” amongst other things. I think every artist with a “rise story” will tell you that a huge part of the rise is the momentum that comes from multiple things happening at the same time, each thing piggybacking the buzz already generated from the previous. I had that. For the first time, rappers that I was a fan of were starting to acknowledge me as Nomis the artist and no longer “the kid they met at a show one time.” I successfully executed my game plan and earned my respect. It felt good.
By the next year, I transitioned into doing music full time as a career. Between selling beats and doing shows, I was making it work. I channeled all of that momentum into my next album and the next step of my rise, Searching for Alpha Trion. It’s 2012 and I had just finished a successful crowdsourcing campaign. We had an incredible album release show and Searching for Alpha Trion was doing well, but it was also the beginning of my downfall.
I was unintentionally garnering two separate identities between the social justice world and the hip hop community and wasn't really sure how to bridge the two. I made some choices and took a few risks that seemed wise at the time but ultimately didn't pan out for the long term. I've always been really big on wanting to share my art with those who I felt understood its value and I was pursing that full force, for better or for worse.
Coming off of SFAT, the bookings and events that seemed to value me the most were predominantly related to human trafficking or social justice in some way. Meanwhile, locally my name was growing tremendously but some were still treating me like I should just be happy to play whatever show they offered me. I honestly didn't understand why, but then I remembered reading about the “prophet being without honor in his own home.” I had been growing in my faith, but prior to this experience, these words from Jesus about being rejected in his hometown of Nazareth never held any meaning to me. I thought to myself, “THIS is why it was so difficult for some of the people closest to Jesus geographically to understand and believe what was happening before their eyes.” No matter what Christ did, he was always going to be just a carpenter from down the street in their minds. Many of these guys knew my humble beginnings when I was still trying to figure it all out and that over-familiarity impacted their approach to me. This really bothered me and while I wasn't comparing myself to Jesus, the principle finally started to make sense to me.
Besides growing in my faith, I was growing in my confidence as an artist in the social justice arena. Another thing I was introduced to in the anti-human trafficking world was that I would often be the only musical act to touch the stage at an event. Performing in these types of environments showed me that I didn't have to compete with seven other rappers at the merch table anymore. It was also the first time people dug my music for more than just thinking I was a dope MC. They viewed me as someone who said things that they felt but didn't know how to articulate themselves. I was their voice and that meant the world to me. It still means the world to me. At this point, I personally was becoming more passionate about these issues so I decided to fully dive into this identity as “The Social Justice Artist.”
I never wanted to pigeonhole myself previously, but this seemed to make sense. My logic was, “I’m passionate about this, I’m finding affirmation in this arena, and I’m tired of competing with other rappers.” I was tired of being one of a million MCs who works toward a release just to hope and pray it gets picked up by 2DopeBoyz and HipHopDX. I love competition if we’re talking about the artform, but I hate it as it pertains to the rat race. Not only that, but I also had a strong aversion to “Christian Rap.” I’m very much a follower of Christ and support the promotion of Jesus through beats and rhymes 100%. But, I really hated a lot of the “Christian Rap” scene. This is the scene that gave me heat for doing music with Sadat X because his beliefs differ from mine. The scene that laid into me for rhyming with Phil the Agony and having affiliations outside of the Church. The scene that made John Reuben and KJ-52 rap stars while the majority of Deepspace5 and the Tunnel Rats never stopped working a day job. I didn't want any part of that and honestly, in my frustration, I thought I was above it.
So I intentionally placed myself on an island. Second mistake.
There's a few things that I believe separate me from a lot of rappers out there. One is that I’m inspired by all different types of art, not just hip hop. That directly affects my music. Secondly, I find an extra significance in pushing our genre and being truly original in our art as much as I can. So being a kid raised watching West Side Story, Oliver! and Into the Woods, I found a way for these two aspects of my approach, as well as everything I was feeling to come together. So I decided to make The Wretched. The Wretched was an idea inspired by the musical Les Miserables. On the surface, many just see an old story about the French, but its themes are deeply embedded in justice and redemption.
So I thought to myself, “I’m going to make the most genre-pushing, innovative, original, artistic piece of hip hop EVER!” The goal was to reach out and expand to a new audience outside of hip hop. To carve my own lane by tapping into the musical theater world as a hip hop anomaly. Something completely unorthodox that represented their community in a new way (again, another way to distance myself from other rappers and carve my own lane). This was Hamilton before Hamilton. I threw out almost every hip hop format you can think of. I was producing in different time signatures, changing tempos mid-song, and a bunch of other outside the box ideas. I was literally breaking new ground in our genre. After teasing the project for a month, my audience's curiosity was at an all-time high. I felt like I was walking into the perfect storm and everything would be different after this. Essentially my next Rosario Dawson.
The Wretched finally dropped and ended up being a total “flying saucer” (completely over people's heads). Not only did I fail to successfully capture new listeners, but I wound up alienating the audience that I already had. The blogs and the hip hop community really had no idea what to make of it.
It went further down from there.
The next year I suffered an injury, and what seemed like a simple ankle sprain turned into seven months of crutches and almost a year without performing. During this time, I fell into legitimate depression and wasn't really creating much at all. I released one song/video called “Peace” as a means of personal therapy. Outside of that I was just doing the minimum and selling beats to pay my bills (which I didn't even always accomplish). Thankfully, I lived with a dude who showed me compassion and covered me when I couldn't make rent. I’m forever grateful to him for that. I had no insurance and my condition was getting worse. I was angry with God that he wasn't healing me.
Things started to snowball. I was taking the lack of success of The Wretched personally and slowly began to develop entitlement issues that led to some heavy bitterness. Third mistake. Considering my audience in general didn't really accept The Wretched as a real project, I essentially went three years without releasing any music. Fourth mistake.
That's basically Indie Rapper suicide.
At the end of 2015, I released Socially Just, which felt like new life. It gave me new motivation and encouraged me to keep making the music I love. I’ve learned so many lessons along the way, and now I think I’ve finally gotten a handle of who I am as an artist and Socially Just showcases exactly that. There were so many factors that helped me get out of my funk, including a girl who I eventually made my wife. In hindsight, I’m beyond thankful for her presence during that time. Just her being there really helped prevent me from slipping into a dark place. And I climbed out.
I don't regret taking any risks artistically by any means, but I do regret some of the additional motives that propelled me during my rise. I would encourage every artist to be original, but also be intentional about checking your heart and your motivation along your path. Walk in humility. The music business is far from a fair game but even still, nobody owes you anything. Bitterness and entitlement will EAT YOU ALIVE if you don't tackle it early on. Additionally, I would say that if you're “riding a wave,” there's no time to take a break and ponder the stars because people will forget about you and stop caring.
As the bitterness grew, I began to doubt myself at every turn. I’ve had moments of deep thought where I'm like, “Am I completely crazy? Do I just suck at this and everyone else knows it but me?” I’ve even tried to convince myself that I'm not talented so I could make a clean break of it all. Every time I’ve tried, I’ll get a message the next day from a stranger thanking me for my art, telling me how it impacted their life. Or an artist that I hold the utmost respect for will tell me how much they dig my music. It's like hip hop won’t let me quit her even when I try. But to clarify, I’ve only considered giving up the pursuit. The career aspect of it all. The promotion, the analytics, the planning, the pieces that aren't actually the music. I’m of the belief that a true creative never stops creating. Those of us with the artist gene can't just turn it off, it's like breathing. While myself as well as countless others have become disillusioned with the chase, I don't think I could ever quit music entirely. Even if it's just creating for myself.
Over the years, I’ve had the strange and extremely humbling experience of seeing artists that I came up with (or sometimes predated) achieve the things I set out to do and was never able to accomplish. I’ve quietly watched as they’ve attained numbers I’ve never been able to accumulate. As I say in my new song, “AGAPE," "Though I body every beat I bless, it don't reflect on streams.” And I’m learning to be ok with that.
I've known Beleaf (Dream Junkies) since before he ever picked up a pen. I taught him how to DJ, which was what got him into doing music and eventually led to him becoming an MC. When I had my album release show for SFAT in 2012, the opener I booked was this young unknown from my city named John Givez. When I met JGivens (early 2011) he was a “nobody” that told me Rosario Dawson was influential on him as he was in the early stages of becoming a hip hop artist himself. Marty of Social Club was one of the many people who wrote reviews of Rosario Dawson back in 2010. Marty was reviewing MY album and I've never amassed half of his following. It's weird in the sense that I’m extremely proud of them. I’m truly happy for all of their success, but the depths of my happiness is tainted by this tiny piece of me that still feels like I deserve the things they’ve achieved.
Thankfully, I’ve had a tremendous amount of healing and as a direct result, I am learning what biblical contentment truly looks like. I know now that I have to genuinely see the value in affecting just one person's life. It’s very easy to say that, but much more difficult to live it when other people are finding a success that continues to elude you. I can no longer doubt my giftings and I most definitely cannot find my validation in the size of my platform. It is a privilege to do what we do. It is a privilege to impact friends and strangers alike with something that started from nothing. It is a privilege to honor my God through my art. I find contentment in that.