A glimpse into the journey of an independent artist on performance night
Written by Tyrone Shivers Illustrations by Tyler Jackson
“Can it be that it was all so simple”
May 5, 2023
I sat at my desk in janky chair that was being held by two bolts, the glow from the halogen lights illuminating the room, the sounds of students yelling obscenities at each other while my co-teacher, an older woman with over 30 years experience, tried to calm them down—my mind can’t help but be somewhere else.
I absentmindedly stared across the room through the window on the door; I could see into the class across the hall where the teacher seemed to be really engaged with his students. Must be nice, teaching honors and AP classes. Those kids are often even easier to get to because unfortunately unlike most of the other kids, they’ve been programmed to believe this school stuff “matters.” Everyday it’s like pulling teeth trying explain to these kids that “Yea, you don’t need to know who the secretary of defense is, but you should know how to find out who that is and why they’re there.”
My thoughts should probably on some sort of plan of action for tomorrow or a lesson plan, but I couldn’t care less. One reason being that in my time in the Clayton County School District has shown me that most of the education is about optics than actually caring for the children, but the main reason being that today, I will be traveling to Athens with artist and my friend, Jelani Imani in a efforts to understand the everyday struggles of rising artist. Jelani and I have grown close over the years and recently I’ve joined his team as the creative
director so in support of the team, I’ll be riding with him and helping document the trip.
Since my last piece at the Tia Corine pop up, I’ve been fascinated by the operation and connectedness between media, music and content. At Tia’s, I really examined media aspect and how the emptiness and vapidity in that world is often overlooked. So on this go round, I wanted to come from the artist’s perspective. I’ve always felt that the life of an upcoming artist is romanticized. People either think you’re a nobody that no one cares about out or you’re damn near famous. However, in my experiences with artists, it manages to be both and neither at the exact same.
“Mr. Shivers, you marked me absent, Im right here!”
Sure, yea, whatever.
All I’m concerned with is can I pull this off. Is this story Im trying to write..worth it? Do I posses the abilities to even do good journalism. In the interim between this story and the Tia pop up, I’ve tried to recreate that style and I just couldn’t do it. I was beginning to doubt if I was actually cut out for this. As an added pressure, working around these teenagers give me this existential dread about seizing the time I have now to make everything “right.” One reason being these teens are so hyper aware of their shitty conditions that they view anyone “stuck” in there with them as failure, and I want to show that them that you can live the life you want despite where you come from or where you may be at a certain point in your life. Ya know, real role model stuff.
“So what do you think they should do tomorrow?” my co-teacher asked me.
It’s at this point that I should mention that she’s not really a teacher, and neither am I. I mean she is. She’s been in education for over 30 years. However, in this moment she’s more of an assistant to a main teacher and the main teacher of this particular class passed away earlier this year. Concurrently, I happened to be working as substitute consistently at this school and they were happy with my willingness to be help, I just wanted the check. So they offered me the long-term position, but not much else. I didn’t have a lesson plan, a workbook, or even older work to pull from, so every day was freestyle.
I could’ve responded in multiple ways here but it was probably something to the affect of “Yea whatever you had planned.”
and we would go from there.
I ran to the door to dismiss the students for the day. I was so hellbent on getting out of there my vision was as tunnel as the hall way I was look down as I stood at the door to let the student out.
“Have a good weekend, Mr. Shivers!”
“Oh! I’m sorry! Bye, have a good one”
I didn’t mean to ignore her, my mind was just in a different place. I had to make it to Jelani’s before 4. One thing about me is that I pride myself on my punctuality. When I say I’m going to be there, typically, I try my hardest to be there when I said I would. And as admirable as that may sound it drive me crazy most times, to the point to where I when I realize I’m running behind I begin to breakout into nervous sweats. So I had to get out out here as soon as possible.
I gathered all my things and power walked down the hall way. Seamlessly weaving through the crowd of students like a running back slipping through a defensive line. I had a swagger to my walk almost as if I had to use the bathroom so maybe that attributed to lack of resistance I was facing from the kids.
I got in my car, a red 1996 Toyota Corolla, a car about as old as I am, and just as durable with a faded paint job to complete the set. Pull my my keys out of my pocket, put them ignition and turned
*Bluetooth Connection Successful*
*Plays ‘Another Star’ by Stevie Wonder*
I like this song because it makes me feel like I’m in a black James Bond film. I fucking gunned it. I needed to get home to get this quick smoke in, my nerves were at a high from the stress of trying to not be late and from dealing with teenagers and administrators who have about the same level of care on certain issues, but I had to be fast!
I pulled out the school parking lot in blaze only be met with buses stopped. Ugh, OK I’ll stay off the main roads.
I drove down the side streets in a dash only to be met slow drivers. Seriously, alright, I’ll just go around them.
It seemed like any and everything was trying their hardest to slow me down, but that made me go faster. The papers and items in my backseat rustling around from the G forces in my turns.
I was so close, I just needed to make one last left turn at a light.
It’s Red. So I cut across a gas station parking lot on the corner to make the left turn without waiting at the light..life hacks. I turned into my driveway and opened the garage. Opened the door and ran up the stairs past my mom.
“I’m only here to drop something off and pick something up”
I just needed to smoke. I grabbed the goodies and just needed something to roll it up in. Something to roll it up in. Roll it up.
Where were all my cigarillos? Surely there was one in my room, right? No, not on my night stand, and no not on my dresser.
Ok maybe, it just fell underneath my— nope.
I threw my belongings down in a fit of frustration. I had my mind set on that all day. I was really looking forward to this smoke. I did all that and didn’t even have anything to roll, 20 valuable minutes wasted!
So if you thought I was driving crazy before now I have to drive even crazier to Jelani’s. Luckily it was all side streets from my place to his, so naturally I sped the whole way there. At one point, I clocked myself going 60 in 35. In my mad dash, I came up behind a family SUV with a sticker that read “Baby up in this bitch” That doesn’t have anything to do with this drive, I just thought that was a fun sticker.
Shit. I was late.
I got out of my car and walked up to Jelani’s door. I can hear the bass from music playing behind the door.
No answer. Uh..I always get an awkward feeling when knocking on people’s doors. It’s really function of our modern anti social, hyper aware world we’ve built for ourselves. I’ve been in multiple situations where people will tell me “Don’t knock on my door” or I’ll have people who will text me they are outside rather than knock on a door. I feel like I can feel the neighbors looking at me, wondering who I am. Granted, these social cues were only something present when I was in more sketchier situation, but doesn’t mean that those feelings don’t still persist.
I’m greeted by Jamila Gray, actress, artist and girlfriend and Dj to Jelani. She was wearing fishnets on her hands, a black top in some baggy denim pants. As soon as she opened the door, their dog Gup—named in reference to Jelani’s time on Bubble Guppies—as he tried to bum rush the door.
“Get back, Gup!
You can come in..
How are you?”
There was a sense of urgency in the air for obvious reasons. She was in the process of gathering all the cable and attachments needed for her DJ set. Just before I got there they were doing a full run through of Jelani’s performance. For as long I’ve known Jelani and Jamila, they’ve been a duo when it comes to performances. Every performance that I have ever seen by Jelani, Jamila has been DJ’ing right behind him every time. As of matter fact, when I first met them back in 2019, Jamila was beginning her journey as a DJ so it’s great to see her still at it and excelling.
One of the things I’ve always appreciated about the two of them is that they are extremely resourceful when it comes to their abilities. Between the two of them they are fully functioning creative team. When Jelani’s editing a video in one room, Jamila will be in the other going over her lines for an audition; and while Jamila is sending invites for a release party, Jelani is on the internet looking for viable location.
While she was still gathering her things, Jelani came from the back room, with clothes in hand for his performance. He threw his clothes across the couch and picked up some equipment, some cords and the mixing board. As I watched them gather things, I couldn’t help but be overtaken a feeling I’ve become all too familiar with. “I’ll help with that”
“Ah, appreciate that shit”
I started to grab things to help put things in the car, and it genuinely was to help but I’m realizing there’s more to it. I still haven’t become comfortable with the title “creative director,” not because I think it’s beneath me or anything like that, but more so that I feel some times that I’m not doing enough. It doesn’t always “feel” like I’m actually doing anything when all I do is spitball ideas. It’s my imposter syndrome working in overtime. As a result, I find myself a lot of time in “people pleaser mode” because I’m trying to make sure there’s no doubt on the ambiguity of my contributions.
Loading things into the car, Jamila pulls out their handheld camera to get footage of the travels. She’s getting shots of Jelani putting things in the car, waking to the car, standing by the car. A lot of car related shots in the beginning.
“Damn, I left my clothes on the couch”
Jelani puts all the stuff in the car and walks back to their apartment to grab his clothes, leaving me and Jamila in the car. With her in the drivers seat and me in the back, I asked Jamila
“So how’s the day been so far?”
“The day has been chill but low-key stressful”
“Yeah, I don’t know, it’s just kinda felt like something’s supposed to happen…..I don’t know, something about the weather says stay home”
Not really the most assuring thing you wanna hear from your driver before you embark on a trip but here we are. Jelani came back for the car, with clothes in hand, and we’re ready to—Wait. Before we pulled out..
“Hold on, let’s see if it’s gonna cut off.”
“Cut it on and let the engine run a little.” and then after a few revs of the engine Jelani gave the thumbs up.
“Aight should be good now”
We started the 2 hour drive towards Athens. We were mentally prepared for the worst of the Atlanta traffic due to the time of day, the holiday, and graduations. Normally on long rides, like most people, I’d put my headphones in and just drift off into La-La Land, but for this ride in particular I wanted to be present in the moment. I’ve always wanted to do journalistic pieces that follow an artist in preparation for a show. As a person who gets very self conscious and aware moments before a performance or something, I’m fascinated by how everyone gets ready. So I wanted listen in on the conversations, hoping to gain some insight what it takes to do a show.
Throughout the beginning of the ride, I would hear Jelani and Jamila go over the possible outcomes of this show
“Hopefully we can win then over, or I just hope they’re fun”
We were potentially heading into the belly of a beast. A college town on a holiday dedicated to drinking, as far as Americans saw it, I could only imagine the type of crowd that would come. Jelani pulled up the flyer for the event
“SHOTS 2 for $6”
Oh yeah, I was prepared for the worst
Jelani and Jamila continued to have casual conversations while Jelani played songs off his album, Don’t Worry and some unreleased songs. It was moments like these that always made me feel super “in the know.” In the age of digital piracy, you know an artist has a sense of trust with you if they let you hear some unreleased stuff, even more points if they send it to you. I would over hear Jelani
“Wasn’t even sure if I wanted to do this show, I was literally about tell them no...”
“People been tryin to get me to come to Athens for like 2 years...”
“What made you say yes this time?”
“Bryan really put it to me, he was like ‘You never know who may be at the show, it could be like your number 1 fan or your next number 1 fan.”
Bryan BBL, Jelani’s long time friend and videographer, was supposed to be the 3rd man on this journey with them but he added me at the last minute while he was coming separately.
“Yea when he said that, I was like shit yea it won’t hurt to come through.”
About an hour into the drive, I began to remember, I haven’t eaten all day. A big symptom of my weed addiction is that it’s ruined my eating habits and if I don’t smoke, I typically don’t eat. This is what I kinda consider a pro for weed addiction and that’s that it’s makes for a great diet control. You can’t get over weight, if you never eat! Malnutrition? For the weak! But in this moment, my stomach was calling out for some replenishment but was just too sober. We pulled off the express way to get to a QT. The QT was across the street from a cemetery for Mason’s. I don’t know if that’s significant but it definitely caught my eye.
“Cemeteries are such a waste of space.”
Jelani remarks to me as he steps into the car
“Wow, every time I bring that up people think I’m crazy, but I say the same thing all the time.”
“Yea, the shit crazy when you really think about it”
“I always tell people that space that we’re dedicating to dead people could easily just be used to make housing. I recently saw a post of an abandoned 20 plus room mansion outside the city and people were like that would make great housing for homeless, so that how I know it’ll never happen”
What started as a small pit stop to refuel, turned into existential discussion about the morality and practicality of funerals.
“Honesty, the whole thing is a scam, you play like 10 bands just to get put in the ground”
Jelani said as he takes a bite out of his cookie that he bought from the QT
“Even crazier when you realize you’re just paying for the box, you can put someone in the ground for free..and even if you decide you wanna be cremated they’ll hit you the head”
“Yea bruh, honestly I’d wanna be turned into like fertilizer or some shit”
I knew we were closer to Athens as the scenery started to change to lots of trees, opens land, Ford f350s. One thing was for sure it was not a place I wanted to be stranded as a black man. Despite all that one that always got me to daydreaming whenever I would drive through these places what I would be like if I grew up out here. Would I still have the same worries that I have now? Would I like the same things? Would I be the same person? So I posed the to the car…
“What do you think y’all would be like if y’all grew up out here?”
Jamila’s face, while still fixated on the road, turned in a bout of disgust at the thought of growing up in these areas. Not because she saw it as a disgusting place or the people disgusting, but just the thought of being so disconnected and away from the life she was used to seemed so incredulous. Jelani entertained the thought a little
“I probably would be into some white joy shit, maybe like hunting or something”
As we all went back and forth discussing just how much our environments could’ve influenced our direction, it became apparent we weren’t making the sound check time at 6:30.
We arrived into UGA’s campus, or at least in the vicinity so that every building was themed around UGA. Riding through the Athens streets, passing by droves of students in various UGA apparel walking to the bars, we would struggle to find a place to park as most bars and venues were starting to fill out. Taco food trucks on every corner with lines upon lines of alcohol fueled college students. In one breath, it takes me aback, being a person who generally hates large gathering, especially for the sole reason to “get drunk.” On the other hand, it had been so long since I had been on a college campus since I graduated that I couldn’t help but feel nostalgic. I remembered being one of these chumps over paying for a piece of paper in exchange for stress, potential life long debt and drug addictions. Felt like old times.
We finally pull up on the street on the side of the venue, called the Live Wire. From the outside, it reminded me on any old bar/social gathering spot in a college town and the inside didn’t really look any different either. Admittedly though, it was a really nice place. We walked in walking through a velvet rope as if we were some movie stars arriving for a theatrical release. The venue was split into two rooms, one with a bar and register while the other room housed the stage and the area for the audience. We walked through the bar into the stage area and were were greeted by thumps of bass from the sound system. The lights were low but there was large glass pane on the ceiling that naturally lit the stage, where an artist was on stage running through his sound check.
It was Tyl3r Davis, one of the headline acts of the show tonight and the one who reached out to Jelani to be on this show. I’m going to be referring to Tyl3r as Tyler from here on out, I hope the pronunciation is still the same. Anyways, Tyler was going through the motions of his sound check, checking his spots, listening for feedbacks, walking into the crowd area in a preparation for what I assume to be a spot in his performance where performs in the crowd. As Jelani, Jamila and I place our stuff down, Tyler spots us from the stage and gives the universal nod.
Tyler hops from the stage to greet us and thanks Jelani for coming out to perform. Tyler then looks to me and motions to the stage.
“Hey what’s up, yo we’ve got a space for you to set everything up right here.”
“Yea all the cables you should need are there and it’s all hidden behind this wall”
“You’re the DJ right?”
“Oh no, that’s her!”
“Oh shit, my bad, well nice to meet you”
Shortly there after, I had a similar experience with Tyler’s assistant as I was recording Jelani’s sound check
“You must be Bryan!”
“Bryan? Aren’t you the photographer”
“Oh, Bryan! No, I’m Tyrone, I’m the creative director, just getting some content”
“Oh! Equally as important!”
After that awkward interaction, Jelani got on stage to do his sound check and Tyler got off to talk to his assistant and just to get a ground level viewpoint of the sound set up. Through the way he talked to the sound people and how he worked the room, it was obvious that he was the one organizing this whole thing, I mean his name was the first name on the flyer. Unlike a lot of the artists I come across in Atlanta, Tyler was only focused on what was right in front of him, I asked him why he never wanted to take this drive outside of Athens
“I’m actually from Gwinnett”
Oh, I wasn’t expecting that.
“I just stayed where the doors stayed open, I started performing down here and after each performance they just kept booking me down here…and you know with schools nearby and they’ve been winning championships, just made sense to stay down here…yo what’s going on”
Tyler went on to speak with the other performers of the night but I couldn’t help admire the self awareness within this guy. A harsh truth is that most music artists are delusional. They all think that their shit is gonna be the one to go global or that the labels and sponsors will come to them, and maybe Tyler believes that about himself to a certain degree. So it was very admirable to me to see some one happy being the big fish in a small pond. I mean when you think about it makes the most sense, you’d be treated as the biggest thing, just the same if you were big anywhere else so why not just stay where you’re appreciated.
After Jelani’s soundcheck was done, he got off the stage to come meet back up with Jamila and I. Somewhere in between all of this, Bryan BBL showed up camera in hand.
“Everyone’s been thinking I’m you!”
I said to Bryan
Jelani proposed we should walk around and get some food, that gas station did from earlier just wasn’t filling us up. We all agreed and so we walked out of the venue and immediately to our right was a vendor selling tacos, ya know on account of the whole Cinco De Mayo thing.
“C'mon over and get a taco! Just scan the QR code to see the full menu”
“Oh, ok, sure!”
“Yea that makes sense”
*Scans QR Code to see a ‘deal’ for 2 tacos for $10*
We all looked at each other with a collective look of confusion. The silence was deafening as this guy stared at us ready to place and order
“So what are you guys thinking? Chicken or Carne Asada?”
“Hmm we actually wanted to look around a little bit first before we made a decision.”
Jelani to the rescue.
“Oh, hey! This is Athens, there’s plenty of great places around here to eat. You’re not offending us, please go enjoy the city!”
We started walking down the streets of Athens, trying to only go so many streets away so we could make sure we weren’t too far from the venue. We first began to walk toward this BBQ joint that’s pretty famous in UGA i guess, The Dawg Gone Good BBQ. The place reminded me of any of your favorite, local, mom-and-pop restaurants, an small dining area that I still imagined managed the large crowds, a chalkboard with todays special that sat right below the menu which was perpendicular to the register and counter where a large man, who I assumed to be the owner, sat behind it taking orders. The tables were lined with that cliche picnic pattern and the food was sevens on paper plates, a real true hometown local feeling.
“Y’all want something from here?”
So we left.
We continued down the streets, pointing out all the dog inspired restaurants and admiring all the college students waiting in lines to get overpriced tacos from the food trucks that were on campus for the holiday. In our passings, I would overheat college students just talking about college shit. It really made me realize how far I had come; listening to them complain over the most trivial things or their desires to make it to whatever frat’s party that night.
After walking around the block for a couple more minutes, we had to make some sort of decision. Personally, I couldn’t even really eat because I hadn’t smoked so it didn’t really make difference to me. Bryan had his mind set on a pizza place a few block away. However, Jelani and Jamila decided to eat a Farm Burger. I find these new aged restaurants that cater to both the health conscious while still being unhealthy. We walk in and it reminded me of any other small shop ran by a bunch of college students although some of the employees looked like they may have just been locals. Jelani turned to me and Bryan standing in line
“Y’all gonna get something from here?”
“I would but I literally can’t eat right now,”
“Why, what do you mean?”
“I’m an addict bro, I smoke so much weed that now it ruins my appetite. Like I try to eat but then a couple bites in I can’t finish it…and this stuff is too expensive to not finish it.”
“Ah damn, I been there before and I had to take a break.” Jelani said in a manner of understanding.
“Yea, I’m trying to be better.”
Bryan looked to me and said
“You trying to quit or something?”
“I never said that! I’m just acknowledging where I’m at with it”
“Oh because I was gonna say, I got a lil sum if you need to eat.”
His offer was tempting. I was hungry but above all I was sober. This could be an opponent to get something on my stomach and just enjoy the night. However, I get self conscious when I’m the only person who want to smoke, or in the case “needs to.” Part of the reason I’ve even cut back smoking this much is just by not being around people who smoke like me. I had to at least try to be better.
“Nah it’s cool man, I’ll be fine for now.”
We all sat down at one of the tables located in the center of the restaurant. From my table, I could over hear more and more conversations from the students around. There weren’t a lot of people in there at this moment so it was pretty easy to make out their conversations. However, I was able to drown out all the noise because the TV in there was playing Friday Night Smackdown and lucky for me I’ve been in my renaissance as a wrestling fad.
Jelani, Jamila and Bryan after a while got to talking about the next steps as far Jelani’s career. It was thing they did a lot; whenever the three of them were around each other for more than 10 minutes, someone, typically Bryan, would bring up some project they need to finish or some person they need to get in contact with. One of the biggest hurdles I hear from them is marketing; how can they get more people aware.
“I hate putting out music.”
Jelani said as stuffing his mouth with a fry.
“I hate and I like it at the same time.”
“It’s so stressful. Like I expectations on it and then I be looking for it. And the shit don’t ever be what you want…or at least not yet.”
As a person who also releases my own content, I empathized with him. The catch of getting into entertainment is that no one cares until everyone cares, but you have to care just the same the whole way through. That is a task easier said than done, especially when you put a lot of thought and effort into something only for it to get overlooked by an algorithm. Or in some cases overlooked by a label executive because you refuse to play a certain game or role. It becomes demoralizing, to the point where you start to second guess every move you make. Jelani would say in reference to making his own promo..
“In my mind, it’s a big ass thing and in other people’s, it’s not.”
“It is a big ass thing…but the world doesn’t know that.”
Walking down the Athenian streets more in route to a pizza shop for Bryan, I started to get that feeling again of liking being on a college campus. I was going back and forth the whole time there, reminiscing on the hood and bad times of college. However, just walking around, looking at the buildings that looked as if they had been standing since the school opened, seeing student mingling, pre-gaming before going to clubs, and the feel of being around young people or people your age, activated a positive feeling in my head. We walked by countless signs and poster advertising upcoming events and more dog related statues and monuments. I even grabbed one of the Athens tour guide booklets, called Flagpole, that were located in multiple grab-and-go news stands around campus.
“Y’all tryna get a tattoo or a piercing?”
I said flipping the pages upon pages of advertisements and references to multimedia businesses and establishments around the city. As I was getting so swept up in the Athenian culture and economy, Jelani said some that really struck me.
“You know, if I could tell myself like 10 years ago that this is what I’m doing, I’d be lit”
“Wow, you think so?”
“I mean, yea. If I told myself in high school that I’d be making music and traveling to campuses and wherever just to perform, I would’ve thought I’ve already made it!”
He was definitely on to something. I remember how my aspirations and dreams from just 5 years ago seemed so impossible. It really started to put things into perspective in that moment. There’s probably a kid in high school watching what I’m doing and reveling at the opportunities that I get, just like how I would have at someone in my position at that age. This entertainment life can often leave you comparing yourself to the next person so much that you forget to hold yourself to your own standards. I can only imagine how much Jelani has to combat those urges on a daily basis, being surrounded by as many successful artists and figures in the music industry. I mean you see it on the internet all the time —an upcoming artist, raging against the machine that is the industry because of resentment towards labels and artists that they feel are undeserving. So I commend Jelani for keeping his mindset in a grounded place while taking on this task.
“Damn, yea, I guess you’re right.”
We turned to cut through a parking lot to head in the direction of the pizza place that Bryan wanted. Through the parking lot, I can see across the street a bar or restaurant touting a massive four TV sized image of the Braves game—and when I say “four TVs sized” I literally mean 4 big screens showing 1/4 of an image to make one image. It would be things like this that would remind me of the huge gaps in resources between a lot of schools. Like, Georgia Southern —one of the schools I attended—could’ve definitely used this giant ass TV set up. Granted we didn’t need but that’s how I know UGA rich ass don’t need it.
We’re all admiring this giant TV set up, still walking through the parking lot and then from the darkness of the shadows that were the parked cars on the sides of us we hear a voice.
“Y’all walking to the drugs?”
“Uh..nah we straight on it bruh,”
Jelani said with half hearted laugh.
That was pretty bold for someone to just ask that blatantly. I get where on a college campus and we don’t look the oldest people on campus, but I figured there’d be a little bit more subtlety. We walked through the parking lot and passed by this grand looking place, at least at looked so in the night time. There were light bulbs flickering, with an old school movies marquee and line that was wrapped around the place. On top of the marquee and the flashing lots read the sign “Georgia Theatre.” From the outside, I could see inside to a nicely sized venue, more spacious comparatively to where Jelani was performing that night. People were filling in the place as they were getting ready for some band performing that night, as there were in the multiple bars and clubs we passed on the way here.
“This place look fye.”
Jelani said as we marveled at spectacle of it all.
“This will be where you gotta perform the next time you come here,”
I told him.
And like a scene out of a movie, the moment I said that we saw a promotional flyer on the wall of the Georgia Theater that was promoting Jelani’s show tonight.
“See that’s a sign!”
I said as it seemed like some divine power was trying to point us in the right direction.
We finally got the pizza place that Bryan wanted to eat. The line was out the door but that’s not saying much as the space in the restaurant from counter to door was about 3 people wide. As we all waited, Jamila asked Bryan to take a couple of pictures, as women like to do when you have a camera. From the corner we were standing on, we could see the bright lights of a store that appeared to just be named “Drugs.” Could this be what those guys were talking about in the car? A drug store that they just colloquially known as “Drugs?” What oddly convenient cover for potential drug dealing. I can’t really think someone woul—
“We can go in now.”
Bryan and I walked into the restaurant while Jelani and Jamila waited outside. The inside of this place looked the most stereotypical pizza place you could think of. The checkered floors, low lights coming from the neon signs and small light fixtures. arcade machines straight from the eighties, another old school looking marquee for the menu, and to top it all off some older white guy with a dingy UGA hat pulling pizza apart and serving with his bare hands. I don’t know if his name was Pauly but I’m gonna assume his name is Pauly.
Pauly took Bryan’s order before going back to doing more bare handed pizza cook shit. While we waited, Jamila and Jelani joined us inside as we sat in a booth.
There was huge juxtaposition going on. The pizza places was filled an atmosphere of “ready to party.” It was Cinco de Mayo after all. There were groups of students all ordering their pitchers of beer in what I assumed to be the pre-gaming for the real adventures of binge drinking that night. Or maybe they were infatuated with the Celtics-Miami Eastern Conference Final game that was live on the TVs in the restaurant. All of this commotion and potential for energy around us, meanwhile everyone in that booth looked at each other in complete silence, with a lethargic look in our eyes. Jelani would yawn, while Jamila would rest her head on her hand while she surfed on her phone. While Bryan are his pizza, we all agreed that were ready for performance to just be over now so we could get some rest.
We arrived back at the venue with honestly not the turnout I was looking for. Not to sound ungrateful or anything, but I just had a grander image in my mind of a bar in college town on Cico de Mayo. I’m sure from Jelani and any performer that night’s perspective, they’re happy even if it’s just one person out there, but my expectations didn’t always lie in reality.
Jelani went to go up closer to listen the acts while Bryan and I walked around the venue. Not even two steps in, I’m greeted by a table sent from the heavens.
“Bryan! Get a look at this!”
“They’re selling weed in the venue!”
Now let me interject here to clarify, I may be addicted weed but I’m not a mark for weed. Meaning that I’m not smoking any everything that advertises itself like weed like Delta-8 or any of that bullshit they sell in gas stations, but for some reason this intrigued me. As a matter of fact I was taken aback, so much so that it was Bryan who actually asked the hard hitting questions.
“So…like what is it?”
Straight to the point, I like it.
“It’s the closest thing to weed without legally being classified as being weed, like this ain’t just that CBD shit, this shit gets you high”
“Yea, my friend was telling me that about one of his pens, he was like ‘nah this ain’t that, you can get a lil buzz’ but like I still don’t get so can you like explain what exactly is it”
Ooh that follow up question hitting like counter punch uppercut in heavyweight fight!
“So yea basically the plant weed is can grow into different species of the plant and they are all picked at the different parts in their life cycle. So like CBD and Delta 8 is just the plant in its most infant stages and the Za or Delta 9 and shit is usually towards the end of the cycle when it’s ready to be picked. This shit is picked like a day before it turns into the shit, so basically as soon as you light it, it turns into the real shit”
I wanna apologize in advance if I’ve butchered that explanation because it was so much so fast that I was more impressed by the sales pitch that the actual content of the sale.
Bryan having retained that information and relishing on the implications, he was struck by the real question.
“Hmmm..you got any real Za on you?”
“No, I run a legal business and I’m not trying to get arrested.”
Bryan looks at me
“Hmm…I’ll put in on a pre roll with you if wanna try one.”
“Fuck it..why not.”
Bryan and I made our way outside the venue, passing by the security and other people walking in to the venue. After we walked outside, we looked around for a suitable location to smoke. To our left was the patio area of the venue where earlier they were making overpriced tacos, now just filled with what I assume to be college students. To our right was the street where we parked.
“So where do you wanna smoke?”
Always a daunting question for me because like how should I know? The answer I wanna say is—
—but that’s not always the appropriate move.
“I mean we can smoke in my car”
“Eh I don’t know, you cool with that?”
“Yeah, I don’t really mind”
Ugh..I always feel so weird about smoking in cars. Way too many bad experiences and too many of those experiences happened on college campuses. It basically a known facts the campus police and local police are preying on college students. Rightfully so, they do stupid shit..a lot..so any reasonable “crime stopper” would just wait around for some one to inevitably to screw up. However, for some reason in this moment I just took him up on it, probably because I just wanted a fix so bad that I was willing to go just about anywhere.
I got in the passenger side and Bryan into the drivers seat. I pulled the pre-roll out of the container while Bryan began to roll up some real weed. I examined the pre-roll and passed it to Bryan
“What do you think?”
Bryan took a sniff
“I mean it kinda smells like real weed.”
I grabbed it back and took a smell for myself. He was right, it did have a faint weed smell but I wasn’t anything that would make me say “Oh this is definitely some weed.” I felt around my pants and Bryan’s car.
“How old is your car?”
“Oh nah, never mind. I was hoping you had one of those cigarette lighters in your car”
“My car does, it’s a ‘96. Crazy to think that back then smoking was so essential to life that cars had lighters in them.”
“Yea this car still has an ashtray in it”
“That’s crazy, but no lighter, I guess they figured smoking was so bad that they wouldn’t promote it but they’d facilitate it.”
Bryan handed me a lighter and I lit the joint. It burned pretty normal…smelled pretty normal but after a couple pulls something was a little off—but not like in a bad way, just like in a different way. It felt really light almost like it was holding something back.
“How is it?”
“It’s cool, I mean it’s definitely not mid or anything, but it’s just cool.”
I passed it to Bryan and he came to a similar assessment, but don’t be fooled. After about 5 more hits between the both of us there was a slight buzz that overcame us.
“Ok, this fake weed kinda hitting tho. Not like the real stuff but I could totally see if I smoke this whole thing by myself, I’d be pretty lit.”
We sat there, smoking what would be the future of the weed business. Soon we’d all be buying from the local mom and pop dispensaries where you’ll be schooled on the science and weed and its effects by some 19 year old girl who’s majoring in psychology—and she’ll be giving out that fire. A profession and activity that just a couple years ago would be looked down upon now just a side vendor at club on a college campus—that’s America.
While sitting there Bryan would start to explain to me his goal and ideas within his videography field.
“I be thinking of everyday stuff like this”
He pointed to an air freshener in his car. A “BBL” branded air freshener was the idea he was proposing. Although his brand is focused around directing and video related things, he told me that he doesn’t just want to be known for that. He wants the BBL brand to be the main source to help him help his family. And that was his main inspiration, making sure his family doesn’t have to work.
Listening to him talk about his familial motivations, it made me ask myself why was I doing any of this. I had plenty of ideas and visions to also share but I couldn’t think of a motivation outside of myself. I sure as hell wasn’t doing it for no family sake or anything like that. Why was I doing any of this? What was the story in all of this? Maybe, I’m still lost.
“Damn, it’s turning into a whole fucking hot box in here!”
“Yea, we should probably air it out in here.”
“You think we should walk around get the smell off our clothes?”
In Bryan asking that question, a sense of liberation came over me. In that moment, I remembered when I was in college, the paranoia that would encompass me anytime I had to walk in any public setting high. I was always anxious that some goody two shoe narc was gonna go tell some RA that the smelled weed. That would then cause police to come harass us until they got some sort of incriminating evidence to at least get you a honor code violation. (True story). There were always someone looking to get you in trouble about something in college it seemed like, but I didn’t go to this school nor was I in college, so who cares!
“Nah fuck it, let’s just go in.”
I walked with a bounce in my step. I was reminded of what Jelani said earlier when we were walking around; if i could tell myself 5 years ago what I’m doing right now I’d be content. Here I was about to bypassing security, reeking of a mix of weed and fake weed, to walk backstage to congregate with my rapper friend.
“They bout to be like ‘Oh these niggas is gassed up’ hahaha”
In reality, no one probably cared. However, for once it didn’t feel I cared if anyone cared.
I stood there in the audience, in my own world of sorts. One of my favorite things to do when I’m in public or crowded places is to deliberately put my phone in my pocket. It’s one of the things I typically do as a way to stay connected to the physical world in front of me. Often times it can be depressing to look up and see how many people are looking down. I digress.
I was there in my own world, vibing to the music. Nowadays, every show I go to is an opportunity to get some work or to network, so very rarely do I actually get to just enjoy being an audience member. I was standing with Jelani and Jamila, while Bryan stayed back at the bar. Jelani turned to me..
“How was the fake weed?”
“Shit was low-key talking about something. It wasn’t the real thing but it did more than I expected”
“Maybe you can eat now.”
Before I could reply, Jelani and Jamila had to check the time. Jelani’s set was coming up next and he was still the clothes he had on the drive.
“I’m finna go to the car and change real quick.”
While Jelani went to go change, I started to really examine some of the acts that were going on before Jelani. At this moment, the person on stage was an artist that went by the name Charles Infamous. He kinda reminded me of your average white guy rapper….and her kinda rapped like your average white rapper. I mean I couldn’t be too surprised considering UGA is kinda white. He hit a couple of those flows where he raps really fast and the crowd ate that up. That is one of the greatest tricks to make people think you’re really “rapping” but don’t be fooled. I’m sure Charles had some bars in there but it just wasn’t coming through. He then went on to mention that he had some sort of connection to rapper Logic and that when it made sense. Don’t get me wrong, I love Logic, one of the first people I knew who was listening to him back in the mixtape, but I can say he does teeter into that world of “I rap fast so therefore I’m going hard” so I could see how that connection was made. Charles also had kind of nerdy white guy aesthetic that I’m not sure was intentional or not. Despite all of that, Charles did his thing on the stage. He started off nervous but he came more alive as he got into his set.
Next on the stage was this rapper from Athens, who I had actually met over a year ago at Lotus Rosary show in Atlanta, Trvy. Trvy was an artist that does that thing where they look like they’re gonna sound one way and then you’re completely amazed when they sound another. Trvy from the eye test did not like look like someone who took rap seriously. He’s a heavy set guy who dress for comfort rather than style—which is something I’ll always admire. He didn’t really fit the look of someone performing tonight as he just had a t-shirt and basketball shorts. Prior to his performance, I had been seeing him walking through and each time there was different drink in his hand. At one point, Im sure I heard him mention to the other performers
“I’m fucked up right now bro!”
So I was really interested to see how he was gonna handle this set. The lights go low, the fog begins to rise and Trvy comes out puts on performance where he’s giving 110%. He’s actually saying the lyrics over his backing vocals, if there were any—and he’s not just saying these lyrics, he’s passionately projecting his voice and not losing a single breath. He jumping, moving around, engaging the crowd, he’s fucking killing this. It had been some time since that Lotus Rosary show so it was great to be reminded on why Trvy stuck out to me.
Half way through Trvy’s first song, Jelani come back from the car. He brushed passed me as he went to the green room area to the left off the stage. Before Jamila walked by, I reminded her to hand me the camera to record some of Jelani’s set..as promised. I stood there for a few minutes by myself again in the crowd before I had the idea to get footage of the backstage preparations and maybe catch some cool interactions with Jelani and other performers. Turns out it was just a bunch of waiting. I came to the back to see a room as silent as it could be for a room that shared a wall with a concert. It had been a long day for all of us and it still wasn’t quite over yet. I looked at Jelani as he yawned and it reminded me of how tired I was becoming from this trip. With only a few minutes before Jelani’s set, the guy who had been operating as the host of the show came through to the back to take stage after Trvy’s performance. He seemed like an older guy that didn’t really seem like this generation of music was really for him but yet he dressed as if he was. I don’t remember why he stood out to me so much in this way but he just felt so out of place. Jelani looks to the host
“Good job out there, and I appreciate you bruh”
“Thank you man, appreciate it, how do you say your name again?”
He repeated the name over to himself a couple times just be sure he remembered it before he went onto the stage.
I can hear Trvy thank the crowd and applause as he begins to the come the stage door past the host. Trvy, with no word, grabs the closest chair and collapses. He sprawls his hands and legs out as he points his head towards the ceiling. He’s breathing profusely and has sweated through his shirt so much it’s essentially a different color. Jelani, Jamila and I all make eye contact as the room is silent except for Trvy’s; heavy breathing. Understandably he’s tired from putting on an energetic performance but this seemed worrying. The silence stayed this way for a solid minute, up until moments before Jelani’s name was called in stage. Trvy then arose like a patient on the operating table being hit with a defibrillator.
“Aye man kill that shit bro!”
After Jelani’s performance, we regrouped back in the green room area. At some point, Trvy came back to the room and him Jelani got to talking that typical buddy buddy rapper stuff. Not in the “I’m only being nice so you can leave me alone type vibe” but more of “we both go through the same bullshit so let’s not pretend” type of buddy buddy stuff. I’ve always enjoyed the mundane of the lives people find exciting because in those moments you see how similar everyone is. We all can’t stand parts of jobs. I would hear Jelani and Trvy bonding over the idea
“I hate rappers..”
As the conversations went on, either due to the growing comfort or blood alcohol levels, Trvy began to monologue, in a sense, but in doing so revealed a lot in terms his journey and his passion for his music career. He would remark about how crazy it was to perform at the venue were in when at one point this establishment was run by people who did not want hip hop acts.
“They didn’t want us here, they didn’t book us, so we threw house parties, till those got out of control, then they started booking us, then they banned us, now we run this shit”
As Trvy went on and on with his partially alcohol inspired diatribe, I did start to appreciate how much work he has put in as I started to see him the same way I viewed Jelani. He was no different than Tyler who I spoke to earlier in the day. He’s really like me as well, he’s just a guy doing what he feels he had to live his dream. He went on talking, just full of information and stories..
“I’ve been building my fan base between Atlanta and Athens for years, it’s a short drive for this shit….Working in studios all around Atlanta, just trying to figure it out”
He even went on to mention that during his time studio hopping across the city, he ended being in Tree Sound Studio during the recording of “Revenge of the Dreamers 3,” an album by the J. Cole led collective, Dreamville. This album was heavily regarded as during the recording process Dreamville publicly invited a variety of artists, ranging from established like T.I and Vince Staples to more up-coming talent at the time like Baby Tate and Buddy to help produce the album.
“Working in the Dreamville sessions, if i was more confident I could’ve been on a song….me and my guy, Michael Aristolte were studio workers and didn’t know how to approach”
Everyone at this point was enamored by Trvy’s stories because now they’re starting to hit close to home. Meanwhile, Bryan’s still high as shit staring into the abyss. I think that fake weed might be doing it for him.
We were all standing right by the exit. The night had been a relative success, and all the other performers were exchanging information. On one side of the the room, I Bryan chopping it back up with the Hirbo Energy Drink owners. They really managed to sell Bryan on this idea of sponsorships. Directly in front of me Jelani was talking to one of the performers that night, Kamari. I couldn’t tell you what they were talking about because what was really catching my attention was standing next to Jelani and Kamari and that was Jamila having a very…intimate conversation with Kamari’s girlfriend. When I say intimate, I don’t mean they were being like emotionally vulnerable or anything like that. I’m really just giving a round about way of saying she was hitting on Jamila, hard. Almost to the point where if a guy was acting this obvious the bouncer would’ve been on this.
“Wow! You’re just so beautiful. And your hair! It’s just so…ugh!” she says while caressing Jamila face.
Initially, I just chalked up to girls being girls. Let be honest, girls are pretty gay and they don’t run away from that. They never shy away from being complimentary toward each other but because of that sometimes the line can get blurred between “this girl thinks i’m cute” to “this girl is trying to take me home.
“Let me get your information, we need to link up sometime. You know so you can teach me how to do my hair like yours!”
“Yes girl! I got you.”
While standing by the car, getting ready to head back to the Jelani would remark
“Yea that girl was definitely tryna smash”
“I know right! I thought that’s was so wild!”
Having also been witness to the whole ordeal I said.
“Damn, it must be really annoying sometimes to be an attractive girl. Like, it’s bad enough you gotta deal with forceful guys but you also gotta deal with the forceful women too.”
We all laughed and joked about the situation as the group, Jelani, Jamila, and Bryan, all stood outside the venue having one last meeting before the long drive back to the city. From where we were we’re standing we could still see and hear inside the performances. We could see our guy Tyler, rocking the stage. It was actually kind of funny to me, to see this artist who most would label as “unknown”, having this energetic crowd response that would rival most signed artist shows.
“Wow, look at that. That shit really fye. He like a real life hometown hero.”
“You know he’s from Gwinnett?”
We all walk back to our cars as we get ready to make the trek back to Atlanta. Bryan daps up everyone and makes his walk back to his car. As he walked down the hill and we entered the car, Bryan turned back around
“Y’all drive safe.”
That statement would go on to resonate more than it should. Apparently at some point in his drive home, Bryan would get pulled over and of course his car had a smell of weed, both natural and unnatural. Bryan would spend the night at the station.
We were finally on the way back home after a relatively successful performance. We got to do something that a lot of aspiring artists fail to do, for multiple reasons, and that’s expanding your fan base. On top of all of that, it felt good to be in this position and I understood a little bit of the thrill that comes from this independent artist grind. As we’re pulling to get into the highway, I try to find my comfortable position to sleep during this ride, I hear a grinding noise from the car.
“Ok, just turn the car off for a second” Jelani instructed Jamila.
Oh shit, my worst nightmare, being stranded in the middle of the sticks at night, coming to fruition.
“Yea, I can see the smoke coming out, just pull over here real quick.”
At this point, I was legit worried. All those trips to Georgia Southern left me with enough experiences to not want to have to deal with car troubles in the country. Jamila restarted the car and they ran the same test we did before we pulled out their complex earlier that day. Eventually the car was good enough and we got back on the road. I asked
“So what was the wrong”
Once again, like the lady at the fake weed stand, Jelani explained it to me but it was such a foreign idea to me with so much jargon about engines, belts, whips, bells and whistles and who knows. I interrupted Jelani
“Actually, I don’t know why I asked, you might as well be speaking another language to me.”
I was so tired and coming down that I just couldn’t be asked to retain that kind of information at the time and Hirbo energy wasn’t really doing anything for me at the moment. But credits to Jelani for still being a man’s man, knowing about cars and stuff.
“Yea when you deal with a lot of car problems you just learn some of this shit”
As we started to cruise down the highway back home, Jelani connected his phone to the aux.
“My Goodies by Ciara” I shouted
“Haha, hell nah.”
“Haha thats funny as hell ”
“haha” I was half joking.
Instead, the day of Jelani’s show coincided with the day Destroy Lonely released his album, If Looks Could Kill, so they decided to throw that on and critique it the whole ride. To their credit, it’s the perfect music to keep you awake for an hour and a half drive back. However, I’ve not shied away from my displeasure and disdain towards this genre of rap. The whole Homixide, Post-WLR Carti, sound is just not for me. Apart me feels a cruel irony in that I was huge Carti fan boy in 2015 and I credit my efforts of putting people on to him as part of his rise to prominence—but now that same prominence and influence has allowed him to change the direction of hip hop to something I don’t care for. So this is what I had to listen the entire ride back. Relaxing.
After what felt like forever, we finally pulled back into their complex. My ears were still ringing from Lonely being played of full blast the whole ride, I was beyond ready to just go to bed. I figured after such an eventful day that the closing would be just as grand, but it was rather anticlimactic. We just shook hands and said I’d see you later in the day. As they walked off, into the safety of their apartment, I was thankful. I was thankful to be in a position to know some people as interesting and dedicated as these two.
Before I got home, remembering I didn’t have anything to roll with at home, I stopped at gas station. I sat in the car, rejoicing in just being back in Atlanta. Going back through all the events and people I came across today, I just needed some normalcy. I closed my eyes to take a deep breath and opened them and took in the scenery. I made eye contact man twerking on the hood of his car as a guy with huge extendo clip on his pistol hanging out his pocket.
“Man, it’s good be back.”