In this four-part series, I interview different New York City musicians who have been living the grind for years. I want to know how much they put into their craft to get where they are now, how they survive the day-to-day, and why they feel like all the hustle is really worth it in the end.
In part four (see parts one, two, and three), the final installment, we examine how musicians find the time and satisfaction to do what they love, even when they have to make sacrifices for other work on the side. Dwayne's story, below, shows us that in the end, we can all be satisfied if we mold our lives in such a way that we have room to accommodate that thing that makes us most excited to get up in the morning and to aim for something bigger than ourselves.
Dwayne goes by Deascent on stage. He was born in the Bronx and aside from a short stint in Harlem as a baby, has lived there his whole life until a recent move to Brooklyn. He is a vocalist who performs mostly hip hop and often solo, but also too sometimes with bands that play anything from rock to hip hop to soul.
Different from the other interviewees in this series, Dwayne is a born-and-raised New Yorker. He didn't make a pilgrimage to get to the big city, but rather was shaped by it his whole life and intends to give a little back and shape the city a bit himself.
Dwayne has been rapping since he was about 8 and started recording music in high school when he was about 14 or 15. "What drew me to music," Dwayne explains, "was the fact that my uncle was an emcee and my dad was a DJ, and seeing them made me want to [make music] too." In fact, Dwayne has been around music his whole life. He grew up singing in a gospel choir, participated in school plays based around music, and even the movies he used to watch tended to contain a lot of music, "and that just drew me in," he says.
Credit: Kelsey Fox
When I asked him where his rapping really got its start, "this is terrible to say," he said, before giving me an honest recounting of his experience as a kid with a need to fit in, "I used to take my uncle's lyrics and would go to school and start rapping them," he explained. "There were kids at school rapping and I wanted to fit in with them."
His craft evolved from this rather dubious start and Dwayne honed his skills relatively quickly and found he had a natural aptitude for rapping. "Though originally it was just me taking his stuff and going and spitting it, I realized I had to write my own stuff. I don't know necessarily how I developed the ability to write; it just happened. I was just putting sentences together and it turned out to be a rhyme," Dwayne explained with a laugh.
Today in New York, he is still making use of those skills. He lives in Brooklyn with his girlfriend and his roommate, and, unsurprisingly, he admits that music doesn't pay the rent, but he has hopes and adds, "hopefully that will change soon."
So to make ends meet, Dwayne works a nine-to-five in an office that he admits pays him "a fairly decent salary." He explains that "it helps with music as well, because I can come out of pocket to pay for things like studio time, photo shoots, and video production and not live hand-to-mouth because it pays so well." He is quick to clarify, "I'm not a millionaire, but getting from point A to point B and aspiring to be an artist and not having to live check-to-check is a pretty sweet situation to be in right now."
Dwayne isn't as financially burdened by his music as the other artists in this series. Since his voice is his instrument, he doesn't have expensive guitars or bulky drums or expensive keyboards to drain his bank accounts. Of course, there's no substitute for time put into your craft, no matter what you perform. Dwayne explains, "I can't tell you how much time I've put into it, because I don't think there's a round number I could give—we're just going to say 'a lot.'" Being a New Yorker, Dwayne doesn't have to travel much either, so his expenses there are cut down a bit too. "A lot of the venues that the bands and I perform in are located between Brooklyn and Manhattan, so traveling isn't that bad." He does still have some equipment and studio costs. Certain things, like a freestyle, he explains, can be dashed off at a friend's house, but hourly studio sessions for high-quality recordings can be extremely expensive.
Credit: Kelsey Fox
Pay is a lot different when you're a solo act. Dwayne can get $100 to $200 a show when he performs by himself, or sometimes he gets a percentage of ticket sales, but when he performs with groups, he doesn't make as much because that same amount gets split up among the band. In fact, in the latter situation, sometimes Dwayne doesn't bring home any cash at all, explaining he'll use his portion to help cover "expenses like the rehearsal space" or to give a bit (along with the rest of the band) to a group member who had to travel from out of state to get to the performance.
All of this taken into account, Dwayne describes playing music in New York to be "frustrating yet rewarding." He explains that "everybody here is pretty much pursuing the same thing and you realize that when you go to a lot of these shows and see so many acts, it can be overwhelming because you feel like it's going to be harder for the right people to get to you, because they have to sift through so many other individuals to hear what you are offering." It's also not for anyone who's not ready to hold on and work hard and work quickly. "It keeps you on your grind because NYC is really fast paced and keeping on the hustle and bustle will really motivate you if you're really about pursuing whatever it is you're trying to pursue." Dwayne explains that if you want to succeed, you have to "be able to make the most out of any opportunity you get or that you create for yourself."
Dwayne has had a personal experience just like that. He says opportunities come at you sometimes that grow "like the snowball effect." He looks back on one such experience, saying, "I remember one day, I was just performing at this party in Brooklyn and then the next week I'm at the Viacom Building at the BET office shooting something. Anything can happen in an instance, but you've got to be ready. You've got to keep working and pretty much just make sure you're on point to the point that when the next opportunity rolls around, you don't have to think twice; you just jump on it."
Click here to see Deascent's performance on BET. Credit: BET video
Dwayne plans to continue to mount the stage as Deacent and deliver his craft to audiences every chance he gets. He says he continues to perform, despite having a day job that pays the bills, simply because he loves it. His job gives him lots of opportunities he says he wouldn't have had without it, and perhaps many people would put art on the back burner while they focus on a job with stability and predictability, but while Dwayne doesn't take this work for granted, he still has goals he's striving for in the music world.
"My goal ultimately is to push the culture forward," says Dwayne, because he believes when it comes to hip hop, some people have a hard time remembering that it's something born from "poverty and very, very strenuous circumstances and [means] so much to a generation of people who at one point didn't have anything." Dwayne says that growing up surrounded by hip hop gave him an identity. "If it hadn't been for hip hop, I don't know what type of person I would have been. It's just given me so many different opportunities to do so many things and meet so many people and I want somebody else to have that same experience as well." But more than that, Dwayne has big plans for his craft. "I also want to use it as a stepping stone to enrich the community I come from because hip hop was born in the Bronx," and noting that the Bronx is the poorest congressional district in America, he continues that "it's a little bit disappointing because we helped birth this thing called hip hop and we don't have anything to really show for it, so I want to be able to give back and help enrich people's lives who come from where I come from." This doesn't mean only music , though. Dwayne wants to contribute to "different programs and activities and help [people] find their niche." He says finds this especially important "because there are a lot of people who are out there who may be in pursuit of something and have this untapped potential that they may not even realize because they don't have the opportunities or the platforms to display it, so that ultimately would be something that I would hope my music could facilitate."
So where this artists finds satisfaction is clear: in doing what he can to contribute to the people and the place that shaped him. Whether your a musician or an accountant, that message can ring true in your life. Work not just for yourself, not just to pay the bills, but to bring about positivity, change, and encouragement to others. Whatever your work, whatever your passion, you will never lose your drive if you're always pushing for something bigger than yourself.
That push can be for something big, huge, and unforgettable, but it's ok to take pride in the less bodacious pursuits out there as well. Dwayne has aspirations both huge and humble. In the end, he says, "I want to leave a legacy that stretches beyond music, but if not, I'm just happy to provide music that can inspire people to chase their dreams at the end of the day."