Masego is full of stories. The freshest of them sit at the top of the mind and the tip of the tongue. Others are deep-seated anecdotes, forming only after an inquisitive prompt or a moment of brief reflection. Like that time he made an impromptu nine-hour drive up from Virginia to New York to network with Twitter friends and wound up sleeping in Central Park in lieu of a hotel room. Or the times his creative nature got him fired from practical jobs: Dairy Queen for juggling the ice cream, Best Buy for playing his own music in the store and a government gig for excessively printing out pictures of cars (“I was an automation clerk. That’s a fancy name for filer, but if you tell any shorty you’re an automation clerk, the number’s yours”).
Sometimes these tales are told under the guise of “Uncle Sego,” the wise, croaky, playful voice stitched into the witty interludes of Pink Polo EP, his jovial eight-track project with Dallas producer, Medasin. But most times, they're told through the voice of Micah Davis, a 22-year-old self-taught saxophonist, pianist, singer and producer here to give an old soul sound a fresh new take in today's hip-hop music climate.
At first glance, Sego’s presence tells it all. Amid the naked branches and wooden benches of Williamsburg’s comfort food eatery, Peter’s Since 1969, he’s an immediate source of vibrancy and color. The complexity of his personality shines through to his threads. His slim frame is outfitted by a busy Hawaiian shirt, baby blue ‘ball shorts, black Nike Huaraches, patterned robe like Joseph's Coat of Many Colors (open your Bible!), wooden bead necklace, gold hoop earring and a high-top twist-out ‘fro worthy of its own YouTube channel. He towers well over six feet, but his demeanor is gentle and youthful, with broad smiles distributed heartily and often (he can count on one hand how many times he's been really angry).
Much like his sartorial selects, Masego’s music has an essence as spirited as the gaudy, thrift store brand of shirts he fancies. Pink Polo started off as a sunny assemblage of tunes born from a string of jam sessions with friends. It only took two weeks to package up and finalize the project before posting it on SoundCloud—the EP finally joined Spotify, Apple Music and iTunes’ rosters one year later—where its bolstering popularity translated to more than one million plays. What made the EP such a playlist mainstay was its departure from the sonic landscape of radio and club regulars without trying too hard to be "anti" or different.
“With Pink Polo, I wanted something I could listen to when I was doing different activities during the summer and also bring a message in it,” the indie darling says of his tape. He’s not talking weighty, morally-based declarations or anything like that. Despite Masego’s religious upbringing—his dad is a military pastor and his mom is the Minister of Music at their church—his music is far from preachy. It’s just the stuff he genuinely feels.
“She don’t play and she my type, she got brains and the tatas, she’s that lady/She’s gon dance, ain’t gon touch her phone, she gon’ live this moment,” he sings on the lush and melodic “Girls That Dance,” Pink Polo’s shining star of a lead single. When he made the song and video for it, his main objective was to get people to drop their phones and pesky SnapChat habits to have a good time IRL.
Moments of frustration manifest into sarcastic banter and a showcase of his Twitter-described jazzy "rapper persona." On “Throwin’ Shade,” he mocks and admonishes future music collaborators for adopting Drake’s emotive rap shtick. “I wanted to beat that out of peoples’ heads. Just because Drake works, doesn’t mean you can be Drake as well," he says, a tinge of irritation hovering beneath his laugh. Then there are the wordless wonders like “Sunday Vibes,” “TrapScat” and JR Jarris’ “Love Be Like,” where slick scatting, harmonious ad-libs, nostalgic boom-bap and funky elevator-esque music you’d actually want to miss your floor for do all the talking. At its core, Masego’s music is the kind of delight you want to soundtrack your morning drive to work at the beginning of the week and line-dance to at the end of it.
His audible treats pulled a host of new listeners into his orbit, including burgeoning DMV rap-singer and 2015 XXL Freshman, GoldLink. For those unfamiliar with Masego’s karaoke Vine chronicles, GoldLink’s sophomore project became a stage for Masego's smooth suede and charismatic rasp carrying the chorus of “Late Night,” an album gem originally meant for him.
“The way the producing world works, everybody’s like, ‘Yo, look who I’m working with right now,’ and it got to Goldlink’s ear,” he explains of being featured on And After That We Didn't Talk. “He was like, ‘I really want that for my project.’ We’re battling back and forth but I was like, you’re kind of popping more than me right now. This might be a good look for me. So I let him have the song.” A full solo version of the song will likely be on Masego’s forthcoming album, but in the interim, the exposure pointed hip-hop heads to a new low-key favorite and potential hook-man.
His sound can only be mentioned in the same sentence as the Bronx-born genre by association. Yes, he raps and yes, at times there’s heavy bass and booming drum kicks powering his production. But if we want to talk specifics here, TrapHouseJazz (which doubles as the name of his backing band) is the sub-genre he created for himself by fusing the feel-good genres across generations. “It’s really something that made me feel like I belong to something,” he says. “I like my drums to hit, saxophone is just a smooth instrument and the energy of house is synthesizers, which isn’t really embraced in Virginia.”
As a military kid, he was born in the Waterhouse district of Kingston, Jamaica (he didn’t stay long enough to carry the natural lilt of patois), then lived in Utah for a bit until the final move at eight years old to Newport News, Virginia, the place he officially calls home. His neighborhood was a stuffily quiet area housing both posh governors and misguided gangs. “Yeah, I was in a gang for a little bit,” Masego says to everyone’s surprise, including his own. He explained Newport News’ complicated relationship with crime, citing the source as a need to hold up to “tougher” cities like Compton. “Like why?” he continues. “I smile too much to be in a gang. I don't got that ‘hit somebody’ vibe.” Regardless of the scene surrounding his mailing address, he did most of his living across the water in Virginia Beach with fellow creatives and in Norfolk, where he attended Old Dominion University before eventually chucking the deuces. It’s here that he built upon the foundation of his multi-hyphenate artistic movement.
Like a stereotypical pastor’s kid, he was involved in the church music ministry, picking up the drums just by watching the seniors before moving to the piano, saxophone and a host of here-and-there instruments like the guitar, trumpet, violin, bass and marimba. The sax, his live performance selling point, didn’t fully come into play until a pretty young thing caught his eye in middle school. After overhearing some girls talk about jazz musicians, he begged Mama Masego to get him a saxophone to woo his crush. It worked out for a little bit, he says, but the girl came and went, leaving room for the sax to become his main love.
In school, he’d get kicked out of his music classes for refusing to play the “corny” amateur songs being taught. “I'm in the hallway continuing with [the saxophone], so I leveled up super fast,” he quips. “Everybody else is Hot Cross Buns-ing it and I was playing stuff off the radio.” This self-teaching process and "YouTube University" paired with shed jam sessions with local VA artists helped develop and sharpen his skills, and he's still not done learning.
His smooth, instrument-like vocals developed a few years later at the end of high school, when he learned he didn’t need a voice like Jennifer Hudson’s to make people feel good. “I started to realize that you don’t have to be a certain type of singer,” he says. “You know Chance [The Rapper], he’s not a singer, but he’s speaking in tone. There’s a lane that you can carve for yourself.”
Three hours after lightly noshing on a chicken leg at Peter’s, Masego is across the East River in Webster Hall's greenroom, trying to get it together before his midnight House Party performance. To be quite frank, he’s a little tired having been up since before 6 a.m. and this is very much not his scene.
He neither smokes nor drinks, and to put things in perspective, his mom was bothered that the final version of GoldLink’s “Late Night” wound up with cuss words on it, even though he didn't say any of them. The same type of music and party scene he avoids getting sucked into now surrounds him on all sides. The greenroom is far from silent; at least 16 people mill about loudly as the bass of Bobby Shmurda’s “Hot N***a,” YG’s “My N***a” and “Grindin” by fellow Virginians The Clipse rattle the walls.
Just outside the door, sexually frustrated 19-year-olds dry hump each other in sync, pressed up against the same stage he’ll occupy in half an hour. A mob of shirtless guys on the stage act out their low budget rapper music video fantasies, throwing their bodies in dabs and disarray and mumble-mouthing the lyrics no one actually knows to Desiigner’s “Panda.” Amid the chaos, a disconnected and silent Masego sits in a chair off to the side with his head down and body propped on his knees, trying to block it all out and meditate (“I had to cast the devil out real quick,” he later jokes).
But something happens when he finally hits the stage. The moment he starts tinkering with his trusty Loop Station, a key part of his musical formula, firing off fragmented melodies into the mic and strapping his sax onto the lanyard around his neck, no one would guess how out of his element he felt prior to.
Sego has a way of roping in a crowd with his musical handiwork and his energy, no matter how new they are, distracted they may be, or different they are from him. He impresses them with songs from scratch that, with a little bit of polishing, could easily have a home on a new EP. Engages them with sing-alongs and call-and-response (“Sing, you drunk people!” he commands). Bonds with them by bending down into the front row for photos and in-song banter. Entertains them with scripted and unscripted jokes and shuffle dances. What he gives to them, they give right back. “Tennis match,” he likes to call it. He’s more than thrilled to be up there, sharing the music he loves to make and getting high off his own supply. “I don’t want to Kanye it, but I listen to myself a lot,” he says. “I’m hype about it.”
Polaroid moments like this in Masego’s life are happening in abundance. Last month, he got to make it rain Masego Money into a crowd of new fans at Fader Fort and six other SXSW shows. DJ Jazzy Jeff flew him out to his annual retreat where he brings young and established musicians together for conversation, mentoring and the creation of music. A revamp of his resource-swapping mobile app, Network by Masego, should drop any day now (“I’m all about using your leverage. What can I do for you that makes what you’re doing for me not hurt you?”). Next week, he’s headed to Indio to play his first Coachella-related show. And he got to shake hands with a TDE trailblazer who, to some, has already reached OG status. “That n***a’s like Tupac to me,” he says of Kendrick Lamar, face lighting up like a Broadway placard. “A person like Kendrick takes a ‘Really? Why’d you do this with the whole jazz thing?’ [moment] when you’re on this super high level, but it opens the door for an Anderson .Paak to be accepted. And it opens the door for other artists like myself to do more music.”
Masego is in a sweet spot right now and he knows it. “Full circle: 2014 I go from playing on the street to getting invited to play on stage, now 2016 I’m headlining,” he recently said of his upswing to his 11,000+ Twitter followers. He drops little bits of his excitement like this on social media often. There's nothing about him to hide. He's not one of the new crop of artists cloaked behind an obnoxious smog of faux mystique. No stern poker faces for pictures. No one word answers. No monotone. No monochromatic pictures or carefully curated Instagram collages. Just gratefulness and enthusiasm for the process, flexed cheek muscles from a fun life well lived and all kinds of good music to show for it. What can be better than that?
Video Credit: Jason Chandler