You are never too old. Don’t quit. No matter how old, or how far in your career, if you have the relationships, the talent, the access and the resources to continue to create, keep creating. I’ve been in the business for over 3 decades and still tour, make albums and create daily. I wrote a book about navigating the music business and in the time that I’ve been in the business, the one thing that has been consistent is that those who kept going, at some point realized some modicum of success. Now, therein lies the rub, because you have to understand what success means for you. Success is relative and you may want to discover what success means for you as you continue your journey.
As a part of our series about “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became An Artist” I had the pleasure of interviewing KOKAYI.
Grammy-nominated multidisciplinary, artist, producer, photographer, author and preeminent improvisational vocalist. Creator of HUBRI$ and Blackness and the Infinite Potential Well exploring black masculinity and black trauma through various mediums, mitigated through the lens of the African diaspora and the black American experience. Author of You Are Ketchup and other fly music tales (Backbeat Books/Globe Pequot) a memoir/how to guide to navigating the ever changing landscape of the music business.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I grew up understanding that there were two worlds; I was born and raised in DC but remember having a visceral reaction to living in Germany for 5 years between the ages of 5 and 10 and the indelible impression of the world being this big place, then returning to an uber black city in an uber black neighborhood, and to people that didn’t necessarily share this global outlook. But I’m 10 with a global view and a cultural perspective that lead to the need to acclimate to my surroundings in order to survive. I learned to code switch before it was a thing, in order to survive in an ever-changing environment. My love for music came from being surrounded by both the indigenous music of DC, go-go, whilst being ensconced in a cornucopia of sounds and rhythms from Afro-Cuban Jazz to post punk, punk rock and hip hop under the same roof. Hip hop culture is what ultimately shaped my ethos and bought me to this current creative space.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
I’m from a family of academia, post-graduate degrees and the focus on higher learning and solid careers. In high school, my future rap partner and I battled our classmates in the hallways for respect. I graduated high school and left all dreams of music there in those halls and went to study electrical engineering at University of Maryland. In my freshman year of college, I met a dude in the Radio Television program, he was a DJ and burgeoning producer we talked music every day, and eventually we started hanging out after classes and I started rhyming more and recording music. I remember heading to my 7:30am calculus class one day and watching a kid having what looked like a full nervous breakdown in front of the building, papers everywhere, hollering at no one, it was nuts. I decided that day, that it wouldn’t be me. After that moment my focus was on figuring out a way to do something closer to what I loved and not what people thought I should do.
Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
I’ve had the good fortune of experiencing a number of intimate moments with who’s in music and art. Given that this person’s transition has impacted a number of folks, I feel it’s an interesting story as it starts at the onset of a career rather than at its apex. Having gotten my start rhyming and eventually being discovered in ciphers on DC’s Black Broadway, U street we were always surrounded by students who attended Howard university as the proximity to the spaces we occupied were close to the campus. So of course you see familiar faces of students who were into poetry, singing, emceeing, art, etc. One of the other emcees from the cipher ended up being cast in a play written by a theater student from Howard, eventually there was conflict in my friends schedule and they needed a new person in that role. The role in question was the head emcee, who the main protagonist would battle as part of their coming-of-age story. The play was called A Rhyme Deferred was directed by Khamilah Forbes who is now the Executive Producer at the Apollo and that play was written and starred a young Chadwick Boseman. Chad and I and Logan Coles his longtime friend and writing partner and also a Rhyme Deferred alum, kept up over the years and I last saw Chad after his film 21 Bridges was released and he came back to Howard to premier the film.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I’m working on some firsts. This will be my first time writing and producing the music for a musical about an iconic political figure, that I can’t reveal at this time. It will be also my first role as music supervisor for two video games and a VR game with company Untitled Interactive as well as starting research for a follow up book to You Are Ketchup that will focus on mental health and possible a sci/fi murder mystery that I dreamt and journaled about.
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories? I’ve worked with Arthur Jafa on his exhibit with Jason Moran, Melvin Gibbs, Steve Coleman, and others which was crazy because he contacted me two days before the show, I flew to London, listened to the premise, participated in the piece and flew back home, AJ is a genius and he dropped so many gems on me about what it is to work as a creative and how to be open to the changes and pivots that come your way. There was also the time when I was producing music for Vinia Monica and she had to leave our session to record with Yassin Bey (Mos Def). We get to Chung King, I believe, and people were in the control room playing beats, Mos and Vinia were about to record, I left the main room and went into the space that had a grand piano and sat and started messing around with chords, head down, eyes closed and then I hear a bass chime in and start comping what implying, I didn’t even look up, just kept playing and at the end, I opened my eyes and it was Mos, we nodded and said “nice chords” then he and Vinia went in the vocal booth and recorded “Climb” Again an instance where the energy was in a certain place and letting that energy happen was more important than making a fuss about the who and focusing on the creation.
Where do you draw inspiration from? Can you share a story about that?
I draw most of my inspiration from life, family and personal cultural experiences. I have found that throughout the creative process, the most meaningful and honest work I have created has been from real life experiences and sadly personal trauma all focused through my own cultural perspective as an African American man living in America. Given the climate in this country and actually throughout the world when it comes to the characterization of black people from America, we often times find ourselves having to process our emotions and actions through a biased lens based on how society views us as well as how we view ourselves, how we have to warn our children as we were warned about police, to mind their business and to in essence shrink ourselves. In order to navigate this life, I started therapy about 5 years ago to help process my own trauma, anger issues and emotional instabilities. Prior to starting therapy, I would process all of my thought through my music, finding the writing and performance of my sentiments cathartic in nature. At one point I was ready to quit performing and being an artist and a conversation with my then 6-year-old son changed my life, his optimism and honest response to my question about gifts for Christmas yielded an album title and prompt to create a record about the feelings that I was having at that exact moment.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I believe that I have used my successes to be able to help others to achieve the same successes. Just as I have used my failures as lessons to keep others from making similar mistakes.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Your neighbors grass is always greenerAs I’ve moved through the business of music, I’ve witnessed so many artists compare themselves against other artists who seemingly have more. I know artists that started at the same time try and emulate the other artist because they seemed more successful, yet the choices they made were counter to their personal brand. Had they focused on their own brand and music they would have been far happier. Yes, that grass is greener but more than likely it’s twice as hard to mow.
- Keep creating and you can keep finding partners to support your creativity. At the onset of my career, I wasn’t concerned about record deals until we received a record deal, the down side of getting a record deal is that if you don’t bring in a certain amount of money you can be dropped from that label. Eventually we were dropped from our first deal, but we had decided to keep making as much music outside of the studio as possible, in doing so we were able to secure a second deal with a major label. I held strong to this belief and continued to create as much as I could, in maintaining a consistent regimen not only did I hone my process but I was able to create several deals and place that music in different space that wanted music.
- Never sign any contract that says “jointly and severally liable” or “in perpetuity” without owning the majority of the IP. I’m allergic to these terms. I signed a contract in 1997 that contained these terms, to date I still receive a bill from Sony regarding recoupable dollars owed. The first term jointly and severally liable means, together or apart, as we were a three person group they contend that whomever they find is responsible for the full amount of the advance owed and
- Contracts are made to be negotiated. When you move from doing something that you only dreamt about to doing to actually doing the things, especially if that typing can be crazy lucrative, the pressure on you is unconscionable. Depending on how you were raised and socialized; if you had means and access, the playing fields of dreams turning into a business are vastly different. At the onset of my career I believed that whatever was on paper was exactly what the label/producer/agent needed, without negotiation. Fear and a scarcity mindset put me at the behest of those whom I viewed had the ability to turn my dreams into a reality. Once I learned that I had the ability to negotiate terms, learned to say no, moved away from a scarcity mindset and was unafraid of “losing” anything, I found that those on the opposite side of the negotiation were more amenable to my terms. Once you learn to walk away, you can make better decisions.
- You are never too old. Don’t quit. No matter how old, or how far in your career, if you have the relationships, the talent, the access and the resources to continue to create, keep creating. I’ve been in the business for over 3 decades and still tour, make albums and create daily. I wrote a book about navigating the music business and in the time that I’ve been in the business, the one thing that has been consistent is that those who kept going, at some point realized some modicum of success. Now, therein lies the rub, because you have to understand what success means for you. Success is relative and you may want to discover what success means for you as you continue your journey.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
If I could inspire a movement, it would be a movement of empathy . I believe that if we could share the feelings of others then we would be less likely as a society to do harm, in any form, to others. If we participate as a society in encouraging this practice the quality of life for all would change for the better.
We have been blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she just might see this.
I’d love to have a sit down with Robert Smith, his work as an investor and philanthropist working at these intersections that are often times incredibly exclusive, I’d like to speak with him about his journey and what lessons he gleaned along his path.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
Readers can follow me everywhere @kokayi
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
Kokayi: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became An Artist was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.