As one of music’s rapidly rising rock stars, Raury holds purpose high above popularity and commercial success.
Raury Tullis simply cannot sit still. The hot Manchester, Tenn. sun has long dipped out of the sky and the singer-rapper hybrid with a penchant for sun hats and patterned blouses is seated inside one of Bonnaroo’s artist tents, catching a quick bite to eat and some limited downtime. An hour and a half before this post-performance breather, he was commanding a crowd of old and new faces at the renowned music fest’s intimate Who Stage, leading them in song, dance, hugs and jubilant water fights. Now, he’s deep in thought, quietly sounding off about post high school thrills, debt being the new slavery and everything in between, while fiddling with anything near his hands.
He pushes and pulls a decorative candle near the edge of the table away from him in between sentences, hovering his face over the flame to feel its warmth even though he insists he isn’t cold. Every now and then, he idly taps at his iPhone sitting beside the centerpiece. The water bottle his manager, Junia, just brought over keeps getting reassigned a new position on the table. This fidgetiness isn’t strange, though. He’s still a normal (and newly minted) 19-year-old who will inevitably get distracted from time to time. However, this restlessness coupled with a handful of physical attributes—a broad and widely shared picture day grin, inkless brown skin and little sprouts of chin hair that he can’t stop stroking as he speaks—are the only indicators of his young age. Everything else about him feels years ahead.
Last June, Raury (who goes by his first name, professionally) was walking away from Tucker High School with a crisp diploma in hand and no crystal clear way to navigate his way through adult life. A year and a well-received debut mixtape later, a lot has changed. Indigo Child—a rich, 13-track stew of alt-R&B, folk, rock and intense phone call recordings—propelled him from an easygoing under-the-radar Stone Mountain, Ga. teen to the millennial generation’s new international musical darling. Though not one to rigidly classify his own sound, Raury has a knack for penning wide, sweeping anthems about love, earthly purpose, belonging and being influenced by whispers from both sides of the moral spectrum. His soothing, even-tempered voice and gently punctuated rap stanzas often float over swelling, chanty choruses, striking tribal drums and bewitching guitar sections. Kid Cudi and Andre 3000 comparisons have fluttered up in conversations surrounding the artist who sees himself as a bridge-builder between Atlanta’s punk kids, hipsters and hip-hop heads of every color.
So far, he’s already been co-signed by Pharrell, Kanye West, Miguel and OutKast (especially his spirit animal, Three Stacks, who was stageside at his second annual concert namesake, Raurfest). He has also worked with the likes of SBTRKT and Chance The Rapper, scored placements at notable fests like Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza and AfroPunk, and has a slew of European shows under his belt. All before he’s old enough to legally buy his own beer.
“It is stressful. It’s terrifying,” he says of the roller coaster ride bordering high school adolescence and music biz adulthood. “It’s fun and it’s the best thing ever. There’s nothing that has been so scary, yet assuring at the same time. Saddening and dangerous at the same time.”
People really need to come to grips with the idea that music has such a giant effect on the population and the youth that’s listening to it.
As soon as the “fame” bug bit him—Raury says meeting Trey Songz at 14 confirmed his ability to pursue music—he dove straight into his craft, dropping sports and other hobbies in pursuit of his visceral goals confirmed. Now, unlike the rest of his college syllabi-sorting graduating class, he’s been back and forth between the road and the studio, figuring out how to use his God-given gift to be a beacon for something bigger than himself. Instead of pumping out music that fuels discontent with real life (“We live in a system that’s completely dependent upon our unhappiness with where we are in life and how much money we have”), he’s crafting tunes that teach self-love and self-acceptance.
“The sh** that’s on the radio is fueling self-hatred,” he says. “There’s so much music about self-glorification and then it makes us selfish. It makes us see each other as competition.” As an alternative to self-deprecating tunes and pompous pop cuts, his material seeks to challenge the mind. It’s purposeful. Insightful, even. New songs like “Fly” and “Devil’s Whisper” draw attention to struggle, history, justice and politics, things Generation X doesn’t think Generation Z is paying attention to.
Raury’s tone seldom tip-toes into aggressive territory, but in rare form, he uses the snarling “Odyssey”—an unreleased reflection that might end up on his forthcoming project—to lament the trappings of modern day socioeconomics:
We got nothing, so this how I live/Thank to my loans I made throughout college
Graduate in debt because of the interest problem/By the time I pay it off I got kids ready for college
Living without profit/Working like a slave for a man who’s named Bobby
And Bobby went to Yale cause he’s children of children children of children of children children who daddy help build the building
“I think what happened with me is way beyond me or how talented I was or how hard I worked,” he says of this newfound influential space. His platform may be a small one for now, but it’s one he feels obligated to utilize. “How things played out with me and the success I reached was of a higher thing. When you’re given the gift to create or inspire other people, you are the instrument of the most high.”
Part of that gift, he feels, is keeping his Indigo children’s eyes wide open.
. . .
“Times are too serious to make music about nothing.” Raury’s new on-stage mantra is a truth he recently borrowed from Indian singer Sid Sriram’s Twitter timeline. For some reason, it stuck with him. Now, he’s preaching it to a teeny-bopper crowd at New York’s Highline Ballroom just five days after gunman Dylann Roof left nine innocent black worshippers dead on the floor of a Charleston AME church. This is the second time he has used the phrase live after his Bonnaroo debut, and according to him, it won’t be the last. It might be a reach to consider Raury a conscious artist like Common, Lupe Fiasco and Mos Def have been infamously and eternally dubbed, but he is a responsible one.
“People really need to come to grips with the idea that music has such a giant effect on the population and the youth that’s listening to it and growing up on it,” he says. “It becomes who they are. There’s so many things out there that aren’t productive to that person’s mind, body and soul that they are feeding that music to.”
Raury doesn’t consider himself a hip-hop artist, per se. However, he will always be immersed in the hip-hop world because “hip-hop isn’t just rap, it’s art created from black people.” Therefore, worldly musical tastes aside, his passions and life perspectives will always be viewed through a brown tinted lens, deeply rooted in the betterment of a community wounded, killed and oppressed by neighbors in their own country.
The answer, he says, is the black community making it its business to be totally self-sufficient within the next 20 years. “We’re mad at [white people], but we’re depending on their systems,” he begins. “Their police systems, their this, their that. F**k that. We need to grow into our things. It may come across as if I’m pointing the finger at us, but no. I’m just saying, moving forward, we should really look out for each other.”
Ever since his freebie project reached the ears of the masses, he’s built up a strong following of fans black, white and other who see themselves differently from the generation before them. Rebellious. Strong-minded. Independent. Free. Intelligent. Purposeful. Tenacious. Woke. Raury and several of his 25-and-under creative peers have established themselves as being wiser than some of their musical predecessors and radio-frequented contemporaries.
“There’s been so much selfish and lost content. Content that keeps you sleep. Now, it’s at the tipping point and kids like me and Chance [the Rapper], are getting back to soul food and encouraging positive and dope music at the same time,” he says, perking up. “We’re getting back to that era where it’s cool to be a good person.”
Even the elders have peeped game. “Our young people represent the best and strongest in our generation that we’ve ever had. They’re not the wisest, but they are the best because they are fearless,” Minister Louis Farrakhan said during a lengthy sit-down on The Breakfast Club earlier this summer. It was one of the many truths he expressed about Raury’s generation of future leaders. That is, alongside what he feels is wrong about today’s society. Raury watched the entire conversation, agreeing with a large chunk of Farrakhan’s theories. “They’re poisoning us from so many angles—in our music, in our education, and in our youth,” Raury says of the content and lifestyles listeners are being force-fed. “We need to start with protecting our youth and feeding our youth positive, good material that will make them better versions of themselves.”
His intelligence stems from self-awareness, wide-eyed observation and life lessons a DeKalb County classroom couldn’t teach him. In high school, he says, he was taught math, science and history—white history. “They don’t teach us the things nor give us the tools to learn what our great grandparents that were enslaved didn’t know to teach us,” he says. “That’s why I feel we’ve been uprooted and there’s no pedigree of knowledge being passed down.” There’s a lot going on in that mind of Raury’s.
During this conversation, he doesn’t pause much when he delivers his answers. He smiles often and speaks slowly, deeply, thoughtfully. It’s all stuff that already crossed his mind many times before this moment, an indication that during his hectic schedule, he makes time for things that are important. The things that feed him. Raury’s iPhone—which houses a delicate four-leaf clover he found earlier in the day in its case—buzzes naggingly in front of him on the table. Without a trace of rudeness or a break in focus from the question he’s being asked, he quickly peeks at it, turns it off and pushes the phone farther away from him. “I have alarms throughout my day for warm-up vocals, or meditate at this time,” he explains. “It has to be there for me to keep it together with all this stuff going on. I’ve learned how to take care of myself and be responsible for myself while I’m doing these shows so I can feel amazing and deliver it the best way.” It’s a heavy load to carry for a teenager who willingly traded in the plotted out college pipeline for the uncharted territory that is being an artist. Sure, there will be leisurely moments and friends and travel and money and clout, but it’s bigger than that. There’s more to being an artist than basking in the thrills.
His purpose on this earth and in this industry extends far beyond getting paid to make people sing and dance along. More than anything, Raury wants to make his hometown better and be a vessel for a myriad of things. For change. For justice. For intelligence. For unity. For impact. It’s a lofty goal for a kid who hasn’t even finished his second decade, but he’s optimistic he can be (and more importantly, remain) that one. “I know Chance and Vic [Mensa] and all these guys come out of Chicago where there’s a lot of violence, so they have much bigger fish to fry. But, we’re all here to fight different battles and work light in the places that we’re from,” he says, looking down at the candle cupped between his palms, the flickering light casting the shadowy spots off his face. His eyes close and his face brightens, and it’s almost as if you can feel the same warmth—and belief in his cause—that he can. —Stacy-Ann Ellis (@stassi_x)