Hannah Allen for AllenAdams Photography
Don’t Doubt the Detours
R.E.A.L Tha Poet
The first time I saw DeBraun Thomas, a man that I now consider my brother, I resented him. It had nothing to do with him personally, as I had never met him, but it was the idea of him. It was 2011 and I had recently returned to Lexington — a city 15 minutes away from my hometown of Paris, Kentucky after 4 years of college basketball. I was a bit of a globetrotter and spent time in Detroit, Indianapolis and Montgomery, West Virginia. I had long since given up my hoop dreams in exchange for musical ones.
Music was always my true passion, but I was initially unable to pursue a major in music/theatre. Because of a rigorous basketball schedule, my coaches wouldn't allow it. Eventually I became too busy to pursue it much on my leisure either. After a year in Indianapolis, I told my mother as much, I had planned to remain in the city, finish my degree and pursue my passion full time. My mother had other plans and she used the last bit of capital she had to convince me to finish my schooling and pursue an overseas basketball career. So I enrolled in the West Virginia Institute of Technology. I call my year in West Virginia my exile year. I spent most of my time alone in my dorm room working on my passion by moonlight. I was going through the motions on the court but basketball was less intense than my previous stop, so I resigned myself to another year there.
Soon after that resignation, the divine stepped in. That's when the final straw came. At an advisor’s meeting, I learned that the school would not accept credits from my previous universities. I was considered a sophomore as opposed to the senior status my coursework and time had earned. I packed my bags and never looked back. Flash forward to 2011. I am sitting in my mother’s car in the parking lot of my apartment complex. I lived in an efficiency apartment close to downtown Lexington and was working at a Speedway gas station. I was receiving one of my mother’s world famous lectures about my lack of drive, inability to finish my degree and her number one favorite subject: my rap “career” (her quotations). My mother has never considered rap to be a viable means to provide for my family or necessarily respect the skill I had been honing since I started writing 50 Cent-style gun bars in my Spongebob notebook. She didn't understand the journey. She refused to see the growth. She asked the church folks to pray for me through "my confusing season." It was in that car that I first saw DeBraun. My mother handed me a University of Kentucky student newspaper, which featured DeBraun on the front cover. On the inside was a feature on his schooling and prodigious guitar skills (he can shred!) To my mother, this was the acceptable way to carry out my dream. Go to school, graduate and do something other than rap. For years, I kept that paper as motivation. I wanted to prove to her that my journey was just as valid as his was. I wanted to show her just how little she knew about my drive or my will to succeed. That journey is not over and I still carry that motivation.
I first met DeBraun in real life at a show for a local hip hop cover band named A Tribe Called Lex. I had previously performed with them on A Tribe Called Quest tribute show as well as another show, which featured only our original material. This was a different iteration of the band. After that meeting, DeBraun reached out to me to do a feature on an NPR show that highlighted local artists. I remember still holding that grudge going into the interview but thinking afterwards, “Eh, that guy wasn’t so bad!” I still remember the last thing he said after the interview, “If you ever need some guitar on a track call me.” We largely remained acquaintances until late 2015/early 2016 when I decided to take him up on the offer. DeBraun provides the guitar for my song “Couple Days” from Learn On The Fly, my most recent album. Once the album was wrapped, I invited him and another local collaborator to perform on my set for my release show. It was a magical night for me. It was my first packed show I organized with my just my brothers and it was the first time my wife got to see me perform since the birth of our child. There was also a little bit more magic in that night.
DeBraun had been involved as a private citizen in our city’s debate to remove two confederate statues from our downtown area. This debate began in 2015 due to several high profile national news stories — the deaths of Freddie Gray and Alton Sterling, as well as the church shooting carried out by Dylan Roof. Those events brought race relations into sharp focus for many in a city whose citizens didn’t want it to happen here. That, however, was not enough at the time. Our city’s mayor decided the statues should remain and additional context should be added. The night of the show, DeBraun and I discussed this among friends and Take Back Cheapside had been born, we just didn’t know it yet. DeBraun organized a makeshift rally downtown and the groundwork for the campaign was laid. A few days after, he said that he needed help with a few ideas. He called me and that was the first of many hours-long calls. In those calls, we began something that changed both of our lives forever.
Before things heated up for us in the campaign, I wrote a list of goals down for myself musically. I prepared as if I would be implementing these plans to a T. Writing every night. Taking trips to Pekin, Indiana to film videos with one of my other brothers and collaborators Jake (J-Ideas). He’s a master carpenter in all facets of life. He builds sets, tables, beats and just about anything you ask him to. We put in all this work, but the stars had other plans. Everything is ordered in the divine’s timeframe. We are God’s simulation.
A couple months back, when Charlottesville happened, I was cleaning out my car at the gas station watching live streams of the white supremacists and the protestors. It was pure mayhem. The most egregious point being the loss of Heather Heyer and the bodily injury of many more folks by a terrorist. A terrorist name James Fields. I thought to myself in a defeated tone, “They are never going to let us do this. They are willing to kill those who try.” I was right and wrong. A few hours later, my phone exploded with texts from many Take Back Cheapside supporters. All the messages said to check our mayor’s Facebook. My heart sank in anticipation. My heart jumped just as fast once I read the news, the mayor had decided to move up an announcement: the statues were coming down. The next few days were a whirlwind. Confederate statues were top billing in the media, we talked to every media source in the city, half of the media sources in the state, national publications like the Huffington Post, Viceland and NBC. Even large publications from Belgium and Canada came to Kentucky to interview our group. With all that good energy came some bad too. Neo-Nazis had set their sights on our city, the same Neo-Nazis that descended upon Charlottesville weeks before.
Through all the madness a few details were left out, our city council had to vote to move the statues, even with the mayor’s decree. Once they voted, we then thought we would have to speak at a special military heritage commission to get additional approval (this turned out to be a moot point).
The day of the city council vote, the specter of Neo-Nazis materialized. They were in our city and a heaviness had set in. Chaos flowed freely. Unfettered and unvetted information poured in. Some of it was true, some of it was most certainly planted from Neo-Nazis themselves to intimidate and derail us. The thought of putting my family in danger because of my work with Take Back Cheapside weighed on me. I would have broken if it wasn’t for my best man and my wife. When I lose my voice, my wife is there to inject her defiance into me. My best man slept on my couch for a day or so. We went shooting at the range to let off some steam after that. I think he understood what I wanted and needed to do after that day. Credible threats were made to folks' lives. DeBraun took his own personal precautions to feel safe as well. I never expected victory to feel like that.
Just last month we finally wrapped up the full removal process for the statues. That chapter is done but we will definitely have many more to write. I wonder what history will say about this time in our country. I wonder if we will be included. I said earlier that victory felt different than I expected and that’s one constant to this process. Even with what we accomplished in Lexington, Kentucky, folks are still under attack daily. Every underprivileged and marginalized group is experiencing heightened mental and physical attack daily in America.
I think a lot about countries that have descended into authoritarianism. Journalists, artists and activists are targeted and removed. Taking the people’s voice and hiding their truth from them is how you keep them subjugated.
That's the inspiration for my first offering back to music. The video for “In the New World” is a peek into what my strange brain thinks that could look like. It features two songs of mine called "Plastic People," and "newspeak." Both touch the realities we live in now. The most poignant to me personally is "Plastic People," a song I wrote about 45 before the election. In a weird way, I always knew it would be this way.