De'Wayne Jackson takes risks in life and music, blends genres on debut EP 'Don't Be Afraid'
De'Wayne Jackson walked into AOL.com's offices with a full, curly afro, a Morrissey t-shirt and a big, glowing smile on his face. Fresh off a homecoming show in his hometown of Spring, Texas, the 22-year-old singer and rapper says he's smiling because it's his first time ever in New York City. It's something Jackson has looked forward to for a long time and one of the biggest payoffs he's had since dropping everything to move to Los Angeles and pursue music.
It's in LA where Jackson was exposed to alt-rock, a musical leap from the gospel and rap he knew in Spring, that would inform his debut EP "Don't Be Afraid." The projectis an eclectic mix of soulful crooning and acoustic guitar melodies with upbeat rapping and hip-hop drums.
"Don't Be Afraid" is not only a testament to Jackson's musical capabilities but his emotional aptitude as well. Jackson channeled the pains of working two jobs and knowing very few people when he first moved to LA. The song "Coming Back Home" speaks on the importance of taking risks in order to excel, something he does well on the entire EP, and touches on racial inequality as well. The project reveals a pleasantly surprising level of introspection from someone Jackson's age. We spoke to this up-and-comoing music star about the emotions of headlining a show in his hometown for the first time, how to move to LA with nothing and find success, and asked him to break down his new EP.
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What was growing up in your hometown like and how did it influence your musical sensibilities?
I'm originally from Spring, Texas. Growing up with my family of eight brothers and sisters and a religious background, my parents were very hardworking. Spring is more of a smaller city. It was really a good place for my family to build us up and just show us the right way to be the best humans we can be. They always pushed us to work hard. That was it, man. I just come from a family that just wanted something in life. I also wanted a little bit of a different vibe, so I took a different route with the music thing. But the main thing I took from my family was just to work hard and go for it, just be the best I can be. Music was something that came to me when I was like 14 and just connected to me. It was amazing.
What was that first musical moment you remember?
When I was younger, definitely like J. Cole and Kendrick. I remember being a freshman in high school, walking around, listening to this one Tyler, the Creator song, "Bastard" or something like that. That was the space I was in, just walking around with a hoodie on, no friends. I was like, "This is how I feel right now."
What was the trigger moment that made you want to pursue music as a career?
Around that time, I had a couple of friends that were trying to get us to start a little group. I begged my family for a mic, and that was it. We set it up in my room, and I knew that's what I wanted to do. I kind of stopped focusing on everything else. I just wanted to do music. This was it. I knew I wasn't going to college. I knew that at 14 or 15.
Did the music of Texas or nearby Houston influence your sound?
To be honest, not really. I always loved the music that they make there, but I just always wanted to go that way instead of the way of Houston. But I love it. My dad played it for me. Everybody did. I just wasn't living that lifestyle. It was about cars. You know, I never came down in a Cadillac, not once in my life. So, my approach to music was a little bit different. But I love the culture.
What pushed you to leave home for LA?
One day I was just like, "I have to leave." I remember driving around. I was working for Sherwin-Williams, and I called my friend. I was like, "Yo, we gotta go to LA." I called up Sherwin-Williams in LA, and I made it happen for myself. I was like, "Hey, guys. I work here in Houston. I'm trying to come to LA." I made it happen in like a day. It was that quick. I did that to tell my mom. I had to come at her like, "Hey mom, I have this setup." That was the only setup I had. I was like, "I know a couple of people," and I didn't, but it ended up working out for me.
Were you doing shows already in Texas before then?
I've been doing shows since I was 16 in this place called Warehouse Live, where it started. I opened up for everybody that came through the city. It was rough. It was real. Sometimes, I would have to sell tickets. Sometimes, you would have to pay to play. I've been there. I've been there when it was zero people there, when it was five, when it was hundreds. From when I was younger, I've been trying to get to this moment, to be here. That's why I'm super happy.
How was returning to Warehouse Live for your recent homecoming show?
My birthday was two days ago, and it was my first headline show in Houston at Warehouse Live in the big room. I used to perform in a smaller room. It was amazing.
How did it feel to come back full circle like that?
I cried on stage. It was amazing. My parents were there, my eight brothers and sisters, my friends from school. It was cool. It was a really good moment, honestly.
What was moving across the country on such a whim like?
I drove 24 hours. I had a homie that I came to LA with. He didn't stay too long, but we drove to LA. We drove one day. I remember sleeping in a rich neighborhood in our car, and people were coming up to the window like, "Hey, what are you guys doing here?" We were like, "Well, we just came here." It's cool though, we made it work.
What did you do on your first day there?
I didn't know anybody. Man, just trying to find somewhere to live -- we stayed in hotels for a couple of weeks. Then, we found an apartment in the middle of Hollywood. Then, I worked for four months. I didn't make any music. Then, I met the guys who would be my team at a party. And that was it. They gave me a place to record and to get my life together. I had nothing going on. It was a bad place.
How did you wind up at that party?
I had a friend I met named Brooklyn. She was going to a party, and she was like, "You should come out." I never go out. I had work the next morning. It was New Year's Eve, and I went out. I met my managers there, and that was it. I think about if I hadn't gone there -- what would have happened. I'd probably be back in Texas.
What do you think caught your future managers' attention?
I had a flat top at the time. I had a suit on at the time, and nobody had on a suit. People were dressed casually, which they should have been. They were like, "What's going on?" I was like, "I make music. I have SoundCloud link." I just needed somebody to listen and give me a chance. That's all I ever wanted. It wasn't about knowing about what they did or knowing what was going on. I just needed somebody to give me an opportunity, and I was ready to work.
How did things change from that day on?
I actually made music. We made music, and they gave us some time to get ready and perfect my craft. We just built it together, started making videos, started getting better songs. I have a good team around us. That was pretty much it.
How has living in LA changed your music?
They way LA changed me is when I was alone, I got to listen to other music that really influenced me instead of what my parents were listening to or what I was jamming to while I was in Texas. It just showed me how I was. I grew up as a person in LA, and I kind of found out who I was as a man in LA. I didn't know who I was before that, so everything I kind of soaked up and just put into my music. The emotions that I had working two jobs, the emotions that I had listening to that music, meeting new people and being away from home -- it's just a lot of motivation for music. LA just gave me a chance to grow up, to become who I wanted to be. I didn't know who I was before that. I still don't, but I have a better outlook on who I am.
What is the meaning behind the title of your 'Don't Be Afraid' EP?
It's just how it sounds. Growing up in Spring, people did what the normal thing is -- you go to school, you go to college, you get married, and that's it. I never wanted that. I wanted to leave, and I wanted to chase a dream. I know we only live one time, and that's what the EP is about. Don't be afraid because a lot of people are. Fear can take you out. Not take you out, but have you more over here than what you want to do, have you like, "I'm scared of failing." I wasn't at all.
Is your track "Truth Is" about a specific relationship of yours?
Of course. I can only make music about stories that I live. I can't really do anything else. I was with that girl for seven years. It was about the only girlfriend I've ever had at the time.
Has she heard the song and how did she react to it?
Of course, she did. She got in my head about it. I had to tell her it was a story about us, and she didn't really get it at first. I broke it down to her. I had to let it out because I learned how to love from that relationship. I didn't know how to love before that. Not like how to love a girl, but I knew nothing about being in a relationship. That's kind of what it taught me, and I just let her know that. Even though you don't like me, telling our story to the world is something important because we all deal with love. We all deal with relationships. I think a lot of people can understand love and just dealing with another person. I think that's something that we all want. She understands now. It wasn't great at first. I don't think anybody wants their story out unless they're an artist, but it is what is. I cannot tell lies.
On "Watching You," you sing about a devil in disguise who can't be trusted, who is that?
It's just about people that you meet, people that don't want to see you win, people that try to down you, even from growing up to being an adult. In school, I was always trying to tell people I was doing music. I've been trying to tell people I had this big dream of doing something, and they were just like, "Whatever." Once you get to a certain point or people start seeing your name around, they want to say hi and things like that. It was an angry song I feel like, but it was a true emotion that I had.
How did those people treat you differently when your name started to bubble up?
People want to get involved when they see something, so I welcome it. But it's just got to be in the right matter. That's all.
On "Coming Back Home," you sing about being upset over something on the news, was that a specific event or topic?
As a young black person growing up in America, we see the same things on the news every other day. So, it was more to that. I think it was everything at the time. Being on my phone and hearing the beat, that song came out of that. I didn't write anything down. It's what I felt at the time. There was a lot of things going on at the time, and there still is.
Do you feel artists have an obligation to cover political issues like that?
They don't, but I feel like some of them should if they have a voice. For people that make a ton of music or the people that make that type of music, the kids are listening to that and doing that. To the people that can speak to the generation with a more powerful message, if we tell the kids to do that, they'll listen as well. I want to be on that side.
In what ways did you try to push your music forward on your new EP?
I just wanted to become a better storyteller. I'm really big on stories. I wanted to make sure my lyrics were better and the beats. I feel like the beats really elevated the music that I was making. I just wanted it all to come together and just elevate every time. That's the only way I want to make it. So, hopefully next time, we make something that can be even better. We'll just keep going from there.
How did you link up with the EP's producer, Andre Paxton?
I think we linked up through our managers. We just found him. He had a link that he sent, and we gave it a chance. I thought it was dope. Once we got in, it was a great vibe. It really was. We just created what we felt. It was amazing.
There's a lot of acoustic and rock influences on the EP, how did that come to be?
I'm influenced by a lot of '90s rock and '90s emo. I love that stuff. I love the way they tell stories. That definitely influenced what I do now. Radiohead's the favorite for sure. The Smiths I love. Nirvana. I love Sunny Day Real Estate. Some new stuff, James Blake. Those are my favorites. Sometimes, I just listen to that. Morrissey. I really love it. I love hip-hop too. It's just when I heard rock, I had never heard it in that way before. This is really how I feel. I didn't grow up on it. I grew up on soul and gospel and Texas rap. So, when I heard these different stories, I was like, "Oh man."
Did you sing in church?
Choir. I feel like it helps a lot. I've been singing since I was probably 10 or maybe younger. I sang until I was like 17. My mom had us there a lot! That was like the fun thing to do at church for me.
Who did you meet coming up in Texas?
Everyone back home I got to meet. Pusha T, Cyhi the Prynce, Dizzy Wright. I opened up for Dizzy back home, and I see Dizzy Wright all the time in LA. That's cool. I met the The Internet back home, and I have an obsession with some of the artists in The Internet. Other than that, it's been just me. I'm really into working. I'm not really too much into meeting people and caring about that stuff. It's cool, but I guess I just want to create good music by myself and become great at what I do.
Have you had an "I've made it" moment yet?
Being here is really cool for me. I didn't think I would be in New York if it wasn't for the places that I've been. So, that's amazing for me. I just went back home and had my first headline show there. That was amazing. I had a headline show in LA and it was packed out. Those moments mean the world to me. To even put my EP out meant the world to me. So, I really appreciate any time, any seconds people give to my music. It means a lot.
What can we expect from you in the next year?
More shows. Hopefully, some festivals. New videos. New music for sure.
Do you have a favorite song on the EP?
"Coming Back Home." The last song just speaks to my soul. Every time I hear it, I'm like, "Okay. I like that one." I like all of them, but I feel like I captured some real stuff on there. There's something about the vibes on that song that I really dig. I talk about running away from home. When people hear that part, they're like, "What do you mean by run away?" I just ran away from what people thought you were supposed to do. It's not like I literally ran, but I ran away from my demons. I ran away from failure. I ran away from being scared. I ran from it, not knowing what was going to come about, but I still ran. I knew I could do this. For some reason, I don't know why. That song just takes me back to that moment.
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