No one expected him to get into Stanford. No one expected him to be a musician. No one expected him to come back from the depths when he fell from grace. But Son Kuma, whose intoxicating, silvery smooth hip-hop is winning serious attention, has always been a story of mind over matter.
1. Your life so far is like the best movie we’ve ever seen. You were counted out by family and friends – you counted yourself out for a while too – but here you are.
Well, the music saved me.
2. OK, let’s start at the beginning. Born in South LA. Your parents were very young – it wasn’t easy. And you kind of coasted in school until ninth grade, getting Cs and Ds. But then, a crazy thing happened, right?
A teacher took a bunch of us to see Stephen Hawking – it was one of his last lectures. – and he just blew my mind. Suddenly, I was all about astrophysics. “What was I made of?” “What is the Earth?” I started reading physics books – I never liked reading before that – and I looked up top colleges for physics. They were Stanford, UC Berkley, Cal Tech, MIT, and I thought, “Damn, I better get my shit together.” So I just started grinding. Tenth grade, I took four APs, including physics, chemistry, and calculus.
Believe me, no one thought I was going to get into Stanford. I had just started grinding really – everyone else had been grinding a long time, you know? Fast forward to when the final decisions came out. I just went crazy. I was like, “There’s no way!”
3. Were you serious about music at that point?
My grandparents really wanted me to get into the arts at a young age, so they would take me to concerts, taiko drums especially, Japanese taiko drums – my grandpa married a Japanese woman after my grandma.
At 13, I got a guitar for Christmas. I loved rock back then. I loved the catchy melodies and the very fast paced stuff that makes you want to bop your head. I learned how to play Blink 182 and Greenday, but I never thought that I could be a rock star, because there aren’t a lot of black rock stars out there, at least when I was younger. There was this one rock band at my high school, so I started showing them the songs I was creating. They were like, “Oh, these are really cool! Can we have these songs?” And I said sure. That’s kind of how I got into music to begin with.
Then, my freshman year at Stanford, I was hanging out with a lot of friends who were very artsy, and they loved music, and we would freestyle a lot. And they were always like, “Damn, you’re actually pretty good at this. You should write some of these freestyles down and make songs with them.” I would say, “Eh, maybe.”
But that summer, while I had an internship at SLAC, I actually wrote a whole album.
4. But something not-so-good happened that summer too.
Yeah, I had met a girl; she didn’t go to Stanford but lived nearby. It was a very toxic relationship. I started doing drugs and got addicted to Adderall. I loved the way it made me feel. But then I also started using it to write music, and it really messed me up. When the quarter started again, I was on a serious spiral down. It was a combination of everything: me doing drugs, the girl breaking up with me, moving into a frat. I just spiraled. My health was really bad, I stopped going to class, and I was extremely depressed. Stanford noticed right away because my grades just dropped, like dropped, all the way to the point where I was only passing one class out of my four classes. They said, “Yo, take a year off. Come back so you can be better,” and they suspended me for a year.
5. Did you go home?
My mom wouldn’t let me. She was very disappointed. I had to live with my grandparents in Palm Springs, in the middle of the desert. They’re pretty old and watched TV all day. I didn’t really have anyone to talk to, I didn’t have any friends. I was super depressed and going through withdrawal because I couldn’t get drugs anymore. And it was probably one of the most difficult times in my life. I was drinking heavily, I started stealing alcohol from my grandparents.
Then one day I thought, “Fuck, I’m so bored, I’m going to just learn how to produce.” I downloaded Logic and lots of samples, and I started teaching myself how to produce music from scratch, and when I started to get better, I was like, “Okay, I made a couple of beats, let me try rapping on these beats.” I bought a microphone, and made the song, “Drink This.” Afterward, I showed it to some of my friends back at Stanford, and they were like, “Oh my God, this is levels above all of the stuff you made before. You should finish this.” And that became my new drug -- music. I didn’t even think about the other stuff anymore.
I started grinding. I got a job, I started taking classes at a community college, to show Stanford I was serious, that I wanted to get my degree. And I was working on this mixtape about what I had gone through, with the girl and with the drugs. My thinking was, when I put this out, I’m going to let go of everything that happened in the past, and when I go back to Stanford, I’m going to be good.
And that’s what I did. I went back to Stanford that winter, and I felt like a whole new person. I was back on top of my grind, I was doing well in school again. I switched from a physics major to computer science at this point because physics was just getting too hard. And I felt really good. Really relieved.
6. Then your music hit?
It was so crazy. My music just starts taking off. Spotify, the algorithms, start finding it, and some curators found it and put it up on playlists, and just out of nowhere I just had people listening to my music and hitting me up on Instagram, saying, “Yo, I discovered this song on like Discover Weekly, how are you not blown up yet?” Interns at record labels were hitting me up. The next thing I knew, people on campus were hitting me up: “Yo, come do a show at this party!” And it just kept slowly but surely building. I became one of the biggest rappers on campus because my music was catchy and easy to play at parties. Some people at school probably didn’t even realize that the person who made those songs was right in class with them.
7. Has it been straight up ever since?
No, because this is where I made my bad mistake. My confidence was getting way up to the point where I was like, “I’m so good now, dadadada…” I started talking to the girl again. She had listened to my whole mixtape, and she loved the fact that part of it was about her. All the problems started again – but this time it didn’t mess me up to the point where I got in trouble. Instead, it was content for my music. It got me working again. The result was Sativa, which I released in July.
So now I’m in LA – Stanford allows you to take up to two years off and then come back – and I’m going to take a year off to work on a new album. I’m going to put my time and my heart into it. I’m going to talk about things I’ve never talked about before, some of the things from earlier in my life. I want to find a way to paint a picture of who I am with a more polished project.
8. What do you want people to feel when they hear your music?
I want them to feel like they’re more in control than they think they are, about their emotions, and maybe even about the things that happen to them. A lot of people -- and I was like this too when I was younger – they feel, “Ugh, why is this happening to me? Oh, woe is me. This is terrible, the world hates me.”
When that was me, I never took accountability for anything I did, or thought that maybe, possibly, even the slightest amount, I added to those negative things that were happening to me. I also never took any accountability for the positive things that were happening to me. But my life, it’s taught me we can really mold and fold our world, like origami. That’s why my whole first album, my first project, was called “Origami.” The concept is that we’re free to really create our own world, our own future, and our own destiny.
9. Do you think you’ll go back to Stanford?
Eventually. I think it matters. It matters to my family. They’re like, “You need to have that degree, you need to represent for us,” and they’re right. Going back would make my whole family happy and it would make me happy.
10. What do you think the chances are of you becoming a professional musician?
I kind of see my life going in two ways. Either I become an engineer and live a semi-normal life where I’ll do my job and have a family, and that doesn’t sound terrible at all to me, especially from where I come from. But right now, there’s just something so fun about the idea of not knowing if music is going to work but chasing it anyway. It adds so much positivity to my life, so much confidence to my life. Each time I get one step closer, I’m like, “Wow, our minds are so powerful, we can really do it if we really put our mind to it and work hard, you know?”
Check out Son Kuma on Quadio!