My eyes would stare in fixation at the door that stood before me. There would be days I wouldn’t see the starving faces customers entering the restaurant, where I didn’t see the joyous merriment that transpired at their dining tables, nor the misery in the eyes my co-workers―I only saw the door that was my exit to freedom and my entrance into prison. My vision was limited only to the obstacle that separated me from my dream; I didn’t know what would happen once I finally got through the door, but I believed in the greener pastures that awaited me on the other side. Nirvana was just a doorknob away.
Kanye’s “Spaceship” was more than just a song; it captured my perception being an artist in a non-creative workspace. Kanye’s angst was my angst, his passion was my passion, and if his spaceship took him from The Gap, I believed mine would take me from Olive Garden. His entire career has been a testament on how artistic forward-thinking can move mountains, demolish doors, and nuke normalcy. On the other side the spectrum was Phonte’s “The Good Fight,” a song that doesn’t value a dream over a job, but rather the importance working for the sake your livelihood. Phonte has always been honest and unmerciful, a voice that would rather sing realism than sell a fantasy to listeners.
I carry the hook from Little Brother’s “Dreams” in my heart like an ancient African proverb: “Momma I got dreams, but dreams don’t keep the lights on.” It’s true, dreams don’t keep the lights on, but if you can turn that dream into something real then the opportunities are endless.
In 2016, Phonte isn’t worried about keeping the lights on. He has reached a point in his career where money is a thought, but no longer a worry. It’s an excellent position to be in for a rapper who released his first album as a member Little Brother over 13 years ago. He recalled during our phone call the moment he decided to quit his job and pursue music as a career:
What makes all that Phonte has accomplished is his career so impressive is how he’s done so without sacrificing his artistic integrity. In this business, artists conform; maybe it’s for money, maybe it’s for fame, but there have been countless individuals that have gone against who they are for the sake a moment. Moments they will look back on and cringe, and hate what they created.
“You never want to make an artistic decision out desperation,” is a quote from our conversation that will likely stick with me for the rest my life. He elaborated further on the importance making music that you’re proud , music that you won’t mind living with for the duration your career. Being able to make music at 22 that you can listen to at 32 without being embarrassed is a form success that all artists should strive for.
Accomplishing your dream is romanticized like the rainbow that comes after the rainfall. I used to think this way, but in reality, you deal with an even heavier downpour before the gray skies depart. No matter what your dream may be, it’s still, essentially, work, and work isn’t always a pleasure. The moment rap became work for Phonte is when Little Brother signed to Atlantic Records for their sophomore album.
“Anytime you turn something you’re passionate about into an obligation, you're going to meet it with some kind resentment,” he tells me; a very true observation on the change that occurs when your passion becomes your livelihood. The way Phonte breaks it down is by comparing the transition into music as a career to leaving your wife for your mistress, and how the dynamics those two relationships changing will have unforeseen results that will affect your life.
If your mistress was your escape from your wife, what happens when you need to escape your mistress? If music is what helped to deal with the bullshit in life, what happens once music is the reason for all your stress?
Life is long. It’s hard to see a future at 50 when you’re living out your early 20s. Tomorrow may not be promised, but there’s also no telling the impact that tomorrow will have on the person you are today. We are on a long journey to old age—more a gift than a curse—but life has a way throwing you through loops just to see if you can handle the changes.
Phonte has aged gracefully in this youthful genre, and he’s one artist who wears his maturity like a piece proud cloth. Both Charity Starts At Home and the recently released Tigallerro, a collaborative album with Eric Roberson, are albums from a seasoned emcee who knows exactly the kind music he wants to make, without being tempted by today’s hottest trend. You can hear a life experience in his music; the way he approaches topics love and life is much different than some his contemporaries, and I’d rather have that voice at times to soak in the same wisdom you would receive from like an intelligent uncle. Hip-Hop and rap need that voice.
Talking with Phonte, you get the same wit and wisdom that made him such a refreshing rapper when Little Brother first appeared. We talked about biters in hip-hop, ageism, raising kids during the social media era, and police brutality in America. I could honestly fill pages with quotable gems and jewels.
The most important things he told me during our conversation, though, were his views on success:
He’s right. Music is not going to save your life. It can be fulfilling, and it can be rewarding, but it won’t take your soul completely out the furnace. I see it in many artists—I see it in myself—the aches and pains that come with losing a sense self because work.
Chase your dreams, conquer your goals, but don’t be defined by your work. Don’t be defined by your career. Phonte is living pro that you can figure it out later on in life. Just have the courage to turn the doorknob if you really want to see what’s on the other side.