SPOTLIGHT I MUSIC


INTERVIEW by PICASSO MOORE
PHOTOGRAPHY by LAQUANN DAWSON

Before I begin, I’d like to state that this profile will be atypical. It will contain no lazily strung together quotes, or stats about the subject’s following on social media. Nor will it bare mention of his place at the center of an intersectional identity. At no point will it delve into his work in activism, his position as a fixture of the New York performance art scene, his skill as a lyricist and producer, or his propensity to eat a stage. I will not compliment him, compare him to other artists, urge you to buy his record, or otherwise blow smoke. This profile will be atypical. Now that I’ve given those givens, let’s begin.

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“I think more than anything it’s an artist’s burning desire to ‘make’, you know? Like, if you’re not creating and producing something, it feels like the world’s going to end. That’s what I had to reconcile for myself… I don’t want to do anything else other than make visual works and preformative works,” says DonChristian. It’s this passion he speaks of which has garnished the quickly rising rapper’s career with a cherry on top of Bushwick street cred, and a Betty Crocker bevy of international stans… New York gallery gurls, millennial debutants, and 9,000 hyperreal followers on IG who have found something delicious, light, airy, and chocolatey, about the rapper’s unapologetically black, and rainbow-sprinkled, queer musical works.

It’s the way he lives; the things he puts his energy into: from lecturing Rhode Scholars at Oxford on American criminal justice reform to teaching at the The Hetrick-Martin Institute (an LGBTQIA+ high school in Midtown Manhattan), he brings it all to his performances and gives the music, no matter how heightened and dramatized—community roots, and a worldly perspective and message. His connection to the granular gives texture to his lyrics and allows the soundscapes he creates to become the soundtracks to our black queer lives. He’s excellent—something his straight white counterparts sometimes are but don’t have to be. If you haven’t already, you have to plug into the black queer matrix that is “Where There’s Smoke.” Take the red pill and see how deep, how honest, and how beautiful DonChristian’s world is.

Okay before you say it, shhhh! Remember when you were young and your parents told you to bite your tongue when grown folks were talking? Same here. When a writer is contradicting themself… shhh! In my defense. It wasn't a lie. Not really. I set out to write a profile different from any other and I’m aware I did all the things I just said I wasn't going to do, but it’s not my fault. All of it turned out to be true. In an age where a publicist would have bribed a journalist with a Kim K “vampire” facial and a steak dinner at Pennsylvania 6 to write such hyperbole, DonChristian actually earns the accolades. No strings, publicists, or steak dinners attached. Talent granted, Don stands out because he is real. A feat seemingly insurmountable by the bulk of today’s social creatives.

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Case and point: The Name. To be stylized as DonChristian. A month after our conversation on the set of his photo shoot for The Tenth, I posted a screenshot of the corner of an early draft of this piece to my Instagram story and he hit my DMs. “... there’s no space between Don and Christian. Just a capital ‘C’...”, he wrote. The note wasn't taken on the chin because it wasn't cunty. It wasn’t even really a note. It was a nugget of information that gave: This is how I present my work and self to the world. Please be aware. Even if it had been more of a critique it would have been softened because he didn't leave it there. “How are you?!” read the next message. The usual pleasantries were followed by a brief exchange about the transformative power of Hudson, New York, and then floating the idea of seeing each other soon. That’s real.

Don steps beyond crafting a narrative. He leaps past all the posteuring, management, and calculations. He checks in, he shows up, and as anyone who's seen him perform or listened to his new album knows, he shows out.

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I was lucky enough to see the inaugural performance of DonChrisitan’s new album “Where There’s Smoke” on the rooftop of the New Museum. He has a rare talent for nurturing the intimacy of a small venue while making you feel like you’re in a stadium. Even more impressive, and arguably valuable, he can make an evening of brushing shoulders with “influencers” and people who “work in fashion” bearable. No surprise, when he finished his set the crowd demanded an encore.

But the question still remains: Who is DonChristian? Every millennial seems to be 8 things. We are, after all, the multi-hyphenate generation. Maybe it’s because we’re unsure of what we want or maybe it’s because we’ve been taught we deserve it all, but we’ve got side gigs on all sides and horizons as big as our iPhone screens. Well, DonChristian is certainly a skilled maker of music and “Where There’s Smoke” a delicious meal made with love. After the screechy EDM of 2012 died off, contemporary music production was left with a void. Where, sonically, do we go from here? seemed to be the question on the mind of every music critic and record label A&R executive. The answer was provided by Diplo and a string of his knockoffs who upon “discovering” tropical house music began to produce pseudo-R&B songs for everyone with more than 10,000 instagram followers. Trap claps and breathing has been the name of the game since late 2014, but DonChristian’s “Where There’s Smoke” shakes the plateau and bends genres like sultry (actual) electro R&B with trip hop and cinematic backing. Its production is razor sharp, its lyrics are cunning, and his vocals are full-bodied and ripe with urgency. Exploring the changes in one's life and psyche through song can only prompt more change, and over the three years he spent making the album, he and his work certainly did.

“When I was beginning this I was thinking this was going to be my means of crossing over or breaking out—whatever that means or looks like. But I had this idea that it was going to appeal on a more mainstream level, and then I totally shed that. By the time it came out, I’d shed any desire or preoccupation with that.”

You see what I mean? Real? Had that hypothetical publicist who holds the key to land of facials and A1 sauce been sitting there during our interview they would have snatched the recorder and deleted that. An artist who is honest about the desire to have crossover appeal? Unacceptable! And even worse—an artist who is honest about the fact that his process led him away from commercialization? Off with his head! DonChristian’s seemingly innate desire to exercise autonomy over his craft is rare and his candor appreciated. If you haven't gotten it yet, Don isn't typical.
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He’s vocal on social media, from trans justice to conviction age reform, but goes beyond a hashtag or a parroted sound bite from a pundit.

“My dad was stuck on Rikers the year I was born. When I started working here, he told me to sign his name somewhere, forgetting the superstition that if you sign your name on a prison wall, you’ll eventually be back to see it. I’ve signed my own name on four walls now, and when I told him I was going back, he said ‘damn, you cursed?’ I think I’ll be going to Rikers for as long as they keep bussing young brown and black kids there… raiding Harlem, East New York, The South Bronx, in big sweeps seasonally, as they do, for minor offenses, if not wrongful arrest. Whole economies are tied to those people, they so refer to as “packages,” and all of us living in NYC are implicated in said economies. I wish y’all could see what we’re all a part of.”

@pause100 (October 24, IG)


His presence online seems just as nuanced and varied as the work he produces, but to be clear though, he “never did” [consider himself an activist] he professes he’s only just “starting to understand that [he does] occupy that space.”

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On the intro to “Where There’s Smoke” DonChristian raps “I discern, I reveal, I affirm,” so it should come as no surprise that being measured and purposeful in his day-to-day life is paramount. “I feel like there’s an activist mindset in being generous and kind, and displaying reciprocity amongst those you love and people you don’t know. In this day and age, it’s not always “the frontlines”; it’s being on the frontline of your community. It’s being on your block… seeing that the oldies and the babies on your block are good. Being on the frontline is making sure your health and well-being are stable before you go out into the workforce and putting any of your shit on to [others. I find that to be radical.”

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Radical, indeed. Radical would also be not to ask a queer rapper about the challenges that being queer present in Hip Hop. It would be a sign of progress if a marginalized person were not responsible for explaining the nuance and depth of their marginalization. Think of what it would be if I rounded out this profile without pressing the button. Without asking a question that we all already know the answer to: is Hip Hop queerphobic. That would be subversive, no, elevated, no, atypical.

I made the decision not to ask Don the question that wins the Queer People’s Choice Award for “Most Non-Anything Question” out of fear that it would be too typical. But perhaps that was misguided. When I mentioned that I was debating asking “the question” at all, he pushes back: “No, I think it’s an important question to ask, for the fact that I think there is still so much gesturing and posturing away from it. It really blows my mind. If you think about the tenets of Hip Hop and what it was birthed from, queer people have been a part of it since the beginning.”

Like I said, DonChristian earns it. He earns it on his album with lyrics that are deeply personal but still lend themselves to be owned by the listener, he earns it at his live shows with visuals that look like someone else's fever dream, but feel like your own memory. He earns it as he uses this space (one he could have used solely for promoting his album), to touch on the plight of one of his black queer artistic contemporaries.

“There would be no Hip Hop without queerness… But we’re still seeing the marginalization of queer bodies and queer expression in Hip Hop. I want to see so many more people thriving and not just living paycheck to paycheck. We’re the impetus for so much: style, language, movement, sounds. Why aren’t we seeing Big Freedia everywhere when we’re hearing her voice everywhere? Not enough people know what her face looks like, you know? So, I’ll always be ready to talk about that. I’m not going to push away from it but at the same time it’s like, we should be over this.”

It’s that. That passion, that texture, that spark that makes DonChristian atypical. That, and the fact that there’s no space between the Don and Christian. Just a capital “C.” It’s what made this journalist put so much weight behind our brief Yo Gotti-esque exchange. It’s what will make you join the ranks of his fans, no, stans (there is a difference you know), and it’s what will make you fall in love with “Where There’s Smoke.”

So, who is DonChristian? A dexterous producer, a slick lyricist, a unique performer, an honest conversationalist, an activist, and a person who cares about how you and I and we are. He’s a person who released an album you ought to be streaming, someone you just might see some of yourself in. He’s a person who is clear on who is in control of the way he presents his work and self to the world. But more importantly, he’s real. DonChristian is entirely atypical because he’s a social creative, who despite the side gigs on all sides and the horizons as big as his iPhone screen, consistently shows up, checks in, and shows out.

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Get "Where There's Smoke" on Spotify NOW.