Picture via Rudy Melchiorre
In high school, it shouldn’t be common for students to die every school year. But throughout his teenage years, Baton Rouge rapper Wakai rarely questioned this anomaly, assuming it was just a part of everyday life rather than a disastrous reflection of the poverty and crime in Louisiana. Those early exposures to death might have sent the now 22-year-old rapper on a downward spiral, but at the time, the constantly killed teenagers around him seemed normal. It wasn’t until he got older that Wakai began to revisit those moments to understand how the grief had manifested within him.
Naturally, mortality is a recurring theme in Wakai’s music, even if the production might mislead you. march beats To a black boy are feathery and serene, often accompanied by angelic strings and rubbery drums that can easily cause you to ignore topics of childhood trauma. “Silhouette” is the most direct allusion to everyone Wakai has lost over the years. His refrain is “to smoke just to face the realization of death”, a reference to the mother and brother of one of his closest friends who died in a car accident before he could have 19 years old. “We are not even 25 years old”. Wakai laments. “None of us. We were exposed to all of this from a very young age. Now we smoke just thinking about it.
Despite the often dark subject matter, Wakai’s raps are smooth and quiet. On “Testify,” Wakai raps “gunshot, death in the heart, I saw it all” as if he could never process his grief normally again. The conflict in Wakai’s voice is no different than that of other Baton Rouge rappers like Youngboy Never Broke Again and Kevin Gates, though he carries his emotional weight through a more delicate musical palette – closer to Isaiah Rashad as Louisiana trap.
Wakai wasn’t always as balanced as it is now. He had reached his breaking point shortly before a trip to Los Angeles, when he noticed he had developed a habit of picking on friends and family for no reason. Admitting that he may have an anger problem stemming from unresolved trauma, Wakai turned to meditation and honest reflection to deal with issues he had either overlooked or exaggerated.
Growing up, Wakai’s parents tried to shield him from the harsh realities of Baton Rouge. They knew that at some point he would have to experience the city on his own. His parents raised him just outside of Baton Rouge between Prairieville and Gonzales. Buit Wakai saw the town evolve from vast green fields filled with cattle and horses to a much denser, almost gentrified community that erected new condos and Starbucks.
Even on the outskirts of Baton Rouge, Wakai still saw the deceptively diverse people the city produced. Wakai grew up around scholars – his mother is a chemist – but he also grew up around people involved in gang life. His uncle was convicted and is currently serving life in prison, which was not always talked about at home.
Baton Rouge’s poverty rate hovers around 25%, significantly higher than the national average of 11%. Wakai noted that the widespread poverty in the city stems from the lack of career opportunities. People generally remained stuck in government jobs or manual jobs in manufacturing plants with poor working conditions; there was rarely an in-between. Those looking for an alternative had few options: they could try their luck and start their lives over in another city or stay in Baton Rouge and get what Wakai calls “street” work. Wakai did both.
Wakai felt like he had exhausted his options in Baton Rouge. There were a finite number of places to perform and a limited number of people to connect with – the feeling of stagnation began to overwhelm him. Wakai knew he needed to expand his resources, but didn’t feel compelled to move to New York or Los Angeles to do so, so he settled at Loyola University in New Orleans, a small school in liberal arts that attracted students from all over. the country. Wakai had never been exposed to so many different cultures at once; Baton Rouge was largely divided into a binary black and white population. Understandably, Trump supporters who lambasted anyone who disagreed with them make up a large percentage of Baton Rouge. Wakai had been the target of racist comments in the past and simply attributed it to living in the South. New Orleans was looser, more relaxed. Wakai had his first jaw-dropping moment when he noticed people drinking and smoking weed in public. Back home, he had been arrested by the police for possession of weed and had never been able to understand the endless controversy that surrounded him.
When Wakai returned home to do To a black boy, the disconnection has widened. He stayed with his grandmother in Walker, Louisiana, just east of Baton Rouge. The racial divide in Walker was more intense than he had noticed in him. He rode the streets and saw children, black and white, riding bikes down the street with large Trump posters taped to neighbors’ lawns.
Stepping closer to his dream of full transparency, Wakai’s freshly released EP Flashbacks finds him retaining his ability to let off steam. Although less conceptual than To a black boy, it’s just as introspective. The title track is a smoky ode to his high school days when he longed to leave Baton Rouge — “I was smothered, I felt trapped,” he raps. It’s a hint of an ever-evolving Wakai whose drive to heal itself drives its artistry.
Wakai’s next project, potentially titled Some people scream, some people cry and some people talk aims to decipher the different ways in which people grieve and cope. He suggested that the project be separated into three sections, each named after a third of the album’s title, where he would disclose his own coping mechanisms and how they contrasted with those of those close to him. “It’s okay to rap your feelings and talk about them,” Wakai said. “You can’t be so dependent on music alone. You can’t just let the music heal you […]. You have to let yourself be healed. – Louis Pavlakos