Rap for a Reason: A Conversation with Shadower

Shadower is a Nashville-based rapper who released his single "Bully Me" last Tuesday.  All proceeds from the single will go to charity.
Shadower is a Nashville-based hip-hop artist who released his single “Bully Me” last Tuesday. All proceeds from the single will go to charity.

It’s safe to say that regardless of whether or not you think Kendrick Lamar got robbed at the Grammys, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis accounted for a significant shift in the scope of issues dealt with in mainstream rap music.  Into a culture dominated by the elegant hedonism of Kanye West and Jay-Z was infused a dose of reality–“fifty dollars for a t-shirt” (or, as famously offered by Yeezy, $120) is beyond the fiscal considerations of most Americans and shouldn’t be a standard to which ordinary folks are held.  The challenges that The Heist issued to the industry’s status quo opened up lines of dialogue that had been confined to the independent outskirts for much of the past decade, particularly regarding the materialistic, misogynistic, and heteronormative culture that has dominated mainstream rap.

In this rapidly changing paradigm, any social issue can be captured and crystallized into a song with the potential to move millions of affected listeners and inspire the unaffected to take corrective action.  With his new single “Bully Me,” Nashville hip-hop artist Shadower attempts to take the serious issue of childhood and adolescent bullying and preach empathy as the cure.

When I first heard about Shadower’s song, I envisioned something like this:

Here, South Park is poking fun at both Kony 2012 and an anti-bullying music video made at a Texas high school, and the song’s message is clearly ironic.  But after listening to Shadower’s song, I found that it took a very different perspective: that of the victim.  And yet it’s not a dirge about the toilet bowl of low self-esteem into which the victim’s head is repeatedly dunked–it’s a message about the commonalities shared between the victim and the perpetrator.

I got the chance to talk with Shadower about “Bully Me,” which is available on Soundcloud, iTunes, Amazon, and a few other online sources.  100% of the net sales from the single will benefit an anti-bullying charity.  We also discussed a number of other things, such as what motivates him to make music, the story of his career thus far, and Hood Light Records, the label he founded.

ZB: You started rapping in sixth grade, freestyling on the school bus.  That’s a great origin story.

S: (laughs) Yeah.

ZB: So how do you find you’re able to express yourself differently through rap than through mere speech?

S: I think for musicians in general, the thing with music and poetry is that they’re forms of expression, and hip-hop is a merger of the two.  Unlike other genres, you really get to say a whole lot.  I don’t think there’s any other genre where you’re gonna have as many lyrics.  Hip-hop has evolved for me as a craft, but it’s always been about expressing myself and my ideas, and I feel like some of the things I think and feel I can’t fully articulate outside of music.  It feels like a safe place where I can express how I feel about different situations, or my own life.

ZB: It’s truly amazing how the presence of a beat can totally change the mood of the situation.

S: Well it started out without beats, just us standing in a circle and freestyling.  It was about us building each other up.

ZB: And we can really see that in your music, starting with your first mixtape, An Overcomer’s Mixtape (released in 2010).  Were you in Richmond at that time?

S: That mixtape was mostly recorded in Virginia, in the Richmond area, but I actually released that mixtape in DC.  I lived there for five years before coming to Nashville, and that’s where I really started my music career, started releasing music.  I had a variety of songs written and recorded, but I had a lot of other priorities so I couldn’t really dedicate my energy to music.  After school, when I moved to DC, I finally got to that place where I could prioritize music.

ZB: Why the change to Nashville?

S: Nashville actually happened kind of randomly, really.  My girlfriend moved down here so I had been before, but I ended up having to move out of my place in DC and kind of picked Nashville on a whim.  The music scene here really didn’t factor into my motivation to move, but in moving down here, I started getting into the whole Nashville thing.

ZB: I think it’s safe to say that the Nashville music scene is dominated by country and americana/folk rock.  How have you found the city’s hip-hop scene?

S: To be fair, I haven’t really gotten that engaged in the hip-hop scene, but there’s definitely a hip-hop scene in Nashville.  I don’t know how much they all talk and work together, but I think Nashville is a great music community.  I have a lot of music friends, but there are only a couple of hip-hop friends.  So yeah, it’s definitely here, but it’s not like there are five or so major label names or anything.  As far as the whole country thing, I’ve found it pretty cool, because I’ve gotten the chance to perform in some mixed-genre shows.  At first I was intimidated, because country is so different from hip-hop and I wasn’t sure how I would be received.  But it’s been received really well.  I think that country is so saturated here that when people hear something different, it stands out to them.  So I’d say it’s definitely been a benefit.

ZB: I agree with you that country music is saturated here: there’s so much of it!  With you thereby standing out, how have you begun to establish yourself in the Nashville music scene?

S: Well, I’ve been doing shows, and my label’s been trying to build a brand in Nashville.  Just making friends, all your friends are in the industry, and they pick your music up and check it out.  It’s my friends and my network here–it’s been much more that than me trying to be the Nashville up-and-coming artist.

ZB: So is this support from your friends and network allowing you to spend more time on the craft of rap itself?

S: A lot of times with the friends, it’s not so much my friends trying to market my music.  It’s them seeing what I’ve got going on and then us wanting to collaborate on something.  But it’s still the label where all the key motion takes place, and as an artist, I’m not separate from that process.  The label lets me spend some more time on my music, but when you’re independent, you have to work really really hard because it’s all hands on deck.

ZB: It seems like the label at least allows you to spend a little more time coming up with ideas for songs.  Now let’s get a little philosophical.  From listening to your mixtape, it seems like a lot of your ideas have to do with overcoming; what in life needs to be overcome?

S: I think a lot of things.  I’m definitely a person of faith, so I think the biggest thing is just spiritual things that need to be overcome.  There are spiritual things that are always trying to bring you down.  And I think the closer you try to get to God, the more you have to deal with that.

ZB: So the closer you get to God, the more spiritual things try to bring you down?

S: Yeah.  If you’re not trying to get close to God, you don’t have to have negative spiritual influences in your life because you’re already far from God.  Satan doesn’t have to come in and separate you from God.  I’ve found in my life that when you try to get yourself or other people close to God, there are a lot of spiritual attacks.  Lots of prayer and surrounding yourself with good friends can get you through that.  And then of course there’s a lot of life struggles as well, that I’ve gone through or other people’s stories that I need to tell.  It really varies; struggles can come in all types of forms.  Spiritual, physical, psychological, feeling lonely, bad relationships, you know.  Being vulnerable about those struggles and being honest–that’s how you can reach people.

ZB: Yeah, absolutely.  With that in mind, let’s talk about “Bully Me.”  It just came out recently, right?

S: Yeah, this past Tuesday.  It’s available on all the online retailers.

Shadower formed his own label, Hoodlight Records.
Shadower performing at the Rutledge this past December.

ZB: What inspired you to write the song?

S: I’ve been seeing a lot of stuff recently on TV, dealing with bullying, and I was thinking about the state of bullies today and what it’s been like for the past fifteen years.  I was in high school or middle school when Columbine happened; that was crazy!  That was like a paradigm shift for how to deal with people that mess with you at school, and that caused a lot of problems.  Since then there’s been a lot of other unfortunate incidents, like the Virginia Tech thing when I was in college in Virginia.  So I just felt really inspired and wanted to put some words out there in a positive way.  Bullying is something that needs to be stood up to, it’s not acceptable, but the victims need to be self-controlled and understand the best way to deal with that.  I think the song was just trying to share the perspective of someone who’s being bullied and try to share that story with the bully, to try to get them to empathize.  I’m trying to say that they probably have a lot more in common than they think.  People are never as different as you think, and if people realized that more, there wouldn’t be as much fighting.

ZB: For sure.  I liked the second verse especially, where you go into more detail about how the bully and the victim have things in common.  What did you do next, after writing it?

S: Well, I already had the beat made (by DJ Tank), and I wrote it inspired by the beat.  Really, at that point, it was just recording the song in the studio, tweaking things in the production to make everything match up well given the lyrics I wrote, all that.  Then I sent it off to my mixing engineer and we spent some time going through the mix to see exactly how we wanted it.  And after that, once it was exactly how we wanted it, we sent it over to mastering, and that’s the shortest and final step.  Everything was really great and there were no revisions at mastering, so I was able to release it the next day.

ZB: It’s always nice when things go well.

S: Yeah, but’s that not to say there weren’t challenges.

ZB: What were some of those challenges?

S: Well, this is the first song I’ve written and recorded in two years.  The biggest thing is finding the right production, and once you’ve got that you know you can do everything else.  But after that, writing the song was the hardest part.  It took me a lot longer than I expected, I suffered through writers block a few times.  I don’t just write down any idea I get, what rhymes.  When you’re trying to convey a very specific idea and perspective, but you also want it to sound rhythmic and have good rhyming patterns, that’s tough.  But after that everything was downhill.

ZB: I think it’s really cool that you’re donating all of the net sales of this single to charity.  What charity have you selected?

S: We’re still trying to decide what charity to donate to.  But just to be clear, all the net sales, after recouping the cost of the song, everything after that goes to charity.

ZB: Was that your decision?

S: Yeah.  The unique thing about my record label is that all of the proceeds of our sales go to charity.  That’s just part of the model and that’s something I really believe in, to build giving into the music-making model.

ZB: That’s a really interesting concept behind a business. Are you guys run as a non-profit?

S: No.  Technically it’s a for-profit social enterprise.  It’s built into the business model that we give proceeds of our sales.

ZB: I’m just wondering how a record label that gives all its sales to charity is sustainable.

S: That’s a good question.  There are other revenue streams that lead to profit.  We’ve got a publishing subsidiary, so we get performance royalties, and that has nothing to do with the actual record sale.  And when artists on the label perform shows, the label gets a portion of the merchandise and ticket sales.

ZB: So a 360 deal?

S: Well, yeah.  The label is a great format for independent artists.  It manages things like merchandise, and although the artist can manage their own merchandise, the label has best practices in place, so they’ll sell more and help the artist reach greater heights.

ZB: Wow.  So then is founding Hood Light Records the reason that you weren’t releasing as much music?

S: Yeah.  I founded it about five years ago.  Part of the reason I wasn’t releasing as much music is that we were focusing on trying to close some deals and building the brand of the label up.  At first there was more focus on myself as an artist, but I spent a lot of that time on the label up until recently.

ZB: Well, I think it’s great that you’ve returned to the rap game.  One last question.  If you could consolidate your message into one overarching theme or sentence that you want to convey to your listeners, what would that be?

S: That’s a tough one.  I think that the biggest message is just to love other people, man.  If I had to put it in one word, I’d say love.  I’m just putting the world in my perspective and trying to show listeners how I got through things in my life, but also encouraging them to do the same and to help other people through their struggles.  It’s all about sharing my perspective on life.

ZB: All you need is love, said John Lennon.  Thank you so much for sitting down with me and best of luck with “Bully Me,” Shadower.

S: Thanks for having me!

You can keep up with Shadower by following him on social media at @shadowermusic.