Taken from the 2014 Autumn issue of Dazed & Confused:
It’s a stuffy evening in the Peach State of Georgia and genreless songwriter Raury is getting ready to perform in a midtown clothing store in Atlanta. The 18-year-old has already been given the seal of approval from megastars including Lorde and Pharrell thanks to his #AntiTour, a wild series of guerilla gigs performed in parking lots outside shows by Childish Gambino and Tyler the Creator. Most of them ended with him fleeing from the cops. André 3000 was so impressed with the young ATLien that he booked Raury to open at Outkast’s homecoming show in September. “I’ve got a lot to prove,” he confides in a backstage corridor, speaking in a soft southern drawl. He has a point: tonight is only his second ever official performance.
“Goddamn, that crowd!” gasps one member of his crew, glancing out into the shop which is decked out with astro turf and Gatorade-dressed-as-punch for the predominantly underage audience. Backstage, Raury is surrounded by a forcefield of friends and collaborators. He strokes Godric, a yapping golden shepherd puppy that he recently got with his friend Piper, an aspiring illustrator with electric green hair. His BFF Adia is also hanging out, floral chest tattoos proudly on display. They met at a high school music club he founded, now she plays backup in his band. There’s also Chet and Betts DeHart, the 18-year-old twins behind Atlanta’s hippie-prep clothing line Lucid FC, who appeared in the video for Raury’s exultant debut single “God’s Whisper”, a strange collision of stadium folk and astral gospel which flooded the international music press when it was released in March. This June, local alt weekly Creative Loafing ran the rising star’s first cover story. The headline: “What’s the Big Deal About Raury?”
It’s stage time: lights dim and Adia chicken-necks into view with come-at-me arms, voguing toward the mic as Piper practically explodes with laughter. All eyes scan for Raury, who enters clutching Godric overhead, splitting the crowd like Moses. His presence is bigger than the room, but then so are the songs. Behind him, a four-piece band zing out solos the size of Texas as a moshpit of sorts starts to form on the plastic grass.
Raury’s set is nothing if not unpredictable. Alongside originals like “Friend”, a huge soul anthem that finds redemption in interconnectivity, he covers “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and emo-pop’s All-American Rejects. At first this seems insane, but it kind of makes sense. Like fellow wunderkinds such as King Krule and Grimes – all raised on iPod-and-interneteclecticism – Raury seems authentically genre-blind. Dirty South hip hop, 90s grunge, Albanian death jazz – who’s keeping tabs? “Going through customs in London,” he tells us post-performance, “the guy says, ‘You’re a rapper I take it?’ I’m like, ‘No dude, I’m a yodeller. I yodel.’”
During our weekend together, the charismatic teenager conducts conversations like hired string quartets. “When I say I wouldn’t be where I am today without an artist like Cudi,it shows I’m human, it shows vulnerability,” he states in the dressing room after the show, cocking his signature sunhat. He says the multi-talented Kid Cudi “opened a major door for me – same for Earl (Sweatshirt), same for Lorde. We’re pioneers for this generation. I broke through the glass ceiling. Everyone’s looking for the crack, like ‘What the fuck?’ And that allows people to chase their dreams as hard as I do.”
In Atlanta it’s standard for new artists to bombard local DJs, rush the strip joints and graduate to radio. It’s a unique microcosm that’s proved instrumental in the city’s changing identity: Future and Gucci Mane are among the many rappers that have come up through ATL’s strip-club circuit. But Raury’s rise swerved the traditional route. “Everyone thinks that trap and club music is what Atlanta’s about,” he says. “But it lacks originality. When you go to the shows, all this 808-driven music is so familiar. It’s underwhelming to the ears of the Atlanta people.” The video for “God’s Whisper” couldn’t be further away from the gangs ‘n’ guns that run through the music of local heroes Young Thug and Jeezy, as it cinematically depicts the contagious energy of one of Raury’s downtown bonfire parties. It was a new vision of Atlanta youth that caught the attention of André 3000, who discovered Raury via his niece Malia. “There were bloggers in New York waiting for the music, because they knew me,” Raury says of the buildup. “I knew a reaction was inevitable when I released it.” This June, he hosted Raurfest, a fancy debut concert doubling as his 18th birthday party. His savvy self-promotion ensured that tickets sold out quickly. Suddenly, the self-empowering chorus of “God’s Whisper” (“I am the saviour”) seemed prescient. That night Raury led 200 fans through dusky Atlanta streets to a downtown afterparty. “Did I freak? Naw, man,” he says, smiling. “People have been following me for years.”
Raury Tullis was born in the suburb of Stone Mountain, East Atlanta, and grew up in the heyday of Michaels' Jordan and Jackson. Named after “some cowboy actor”, Raury was the youngest of three siblings and barely knew his dad. At three he wrote his first song, “Oh Little Fishy”, about a near-death experience in a swimming pool. By eleven he’d hit on his first lifehack – free YouTube guitar tutorials – which helped him pass weekday evenings while his mom Rosalyn ground out a living. Sometimes big bro Rodney would freestyle against him, but it wasn’t until injury jeopardised a promising stint with Tucker High’s varsity football team that Raury finally abandoned the sports field for music. He attended a CocaCola - sponsored summer camp called C5 that sends gifted extroverts around rural America on group hikes. He still wears the sunhat as a homage to the experience. Finding himself a natural leader, Raury stood against Tucker High’s sportsintensive programme by founding a renegade creative arts group, and was also called to direct a Drake-themed talent show. Thanks to some inspired promotion (for a month, a flyer with the principal’s face superimposed onto the cover of Nothing Was the Same decorated the halls), the event hauled in thousands from a $100 budget.
On a subway to Little Five Points, the hipster hub in downtown Atlanta where Raury hangs with his friends, he shares the sacrifices that he’s making in his rise to acclaim. Recently he’s halved his weed intake and, save for two monthly cheat days, quit “alcohol, chicken and orgies” at his management’s behest. It’s quite a turnaround from dealing pot to school friends for pocket money, which he was doing until recently. “I wanted money without having to bother my mom,” he explains. “Let her relax, not work and enjoy life. One time I was about to sell weed to some guy and he tried to run. Later we go to a party and he’s there. We get into a fight and one of his friends hits me on the head with a revolver.” He lifts his sunhat, indicating the scar. “That was the wildest situation. Another friend snuck into my house to steal weed. At that point I just thought: enough.”
Next year, he wants to launch a new camping experience featuring nightly concerts. It’s stage one of a business plan that he hopes will one day see his dreams of “Atlanta’s Fifth Avenue” become a reality. “I’d like to get Atlanta up to speed,” he explains. “but I don’t wanna become some capitalist dickhead. If I do it, I wanna do it right. Make sure shit gets recycled, (monitor) where materials come from.”
The title of his current EP Indigo Child takes its name from a theory that posits advanced empathy, tolerance and self-knowledge as by-products of our internet age. Raury’s music leads by example, applying an effortless genre fusion to songs that tackle personal and social conflict. “In London we had to get a white person to hail a taxi because they weren’t stopping,” he says, “but I don’t care to hold onto that. People around home are very cool and open-minded. And there’s so many gay people in Georgia. My sister Calvis is a lesbian. If I’m somewhere with her and her friends some people make ignorant jokes, but it’s rare.”
As the birthplace of Martin Luther King Jr. and incubator of the civil rights movement, Atlanta has more than a history of absorbing different cultures. It’s this real-world diversity as well as that of the internet’s stream that spurs Raury’s sound. In a little big city where everybody knows everybody, Raury delivers his own interconnected message like a small-town hero. The goal is global dominance, but he keeps one eye on the village.
Before we leave, Raury’s set on showing us the Junkman’s Daughter, a bizarre Little Five superstore that offers “everything from colour contacts to assless chaps.” It doesn’t disappoint. Inside, a man with neon-blue pupils and a top hat inspects a $1,500 bark puzzle of Johnny Cash. On the bookshelf, a tome called The Young Male Figure sits beside World of Warcraft strategy guides and a history of North American steam. We move a human-sized Jolly Green Giant and pull up chairs. It’s like sitting in the wreckage of a week-long Tumblr binge. We talk about the recent swing towards political conservatism.
Does this gel with his notion of “indigo children”? Raury pauses. “Some adults see what I see and don’t like it. So they instil these values in their children, build a culture around that. They had their time to rule but now they’re being trumped by something bigger.” He leans back, looking comfortable. “We’re entering into an era where the better demographic of mankind is going to increase.”
Something in his manner is convincing. Outside it’s 30 degrees and there seems to be a lateafternoon buzz, but maybe we’ve just been touched by Raury’s infectious optimism. He spots friends and managers, Justice and Sean, pulling over in a white Honda, blasting Chance the Rapper’s “Cocoa Butter Kisses”. The track melts in the air, bass trembling in the brilliant heat. With a trace of relief Raury swaggers over, pointing into the windscreen. “These fucking douchebags!” he yells, one hand atop his sunhat, and Atlanta’s little big star bundles himself into the back seat.
Photographic assistants Jordan Zuppa, Victor Protasio; Production Stephanie Porto; Special thanks Justice Baiden, Sean McNichol and Rosalyn Tullis