De’Wayne: “I Just Want People To Feel True Freedom, And Not Be Scared”

Talking lyrical activism, self-belief and a fearless approach to creativity with recent Hopeless Records signing De’Wayne…

De’Wayne: “I Just Want People To Feel True Freedom, And Not Be Scared”
Header photo:
Lizzie Steimer
Live photo:
Andy Ford

There’s an effortlessly positive vibe about De’Wayne that would make him a great motivational speaker. In fact, mid-way through our 40-minute chat with the 25-year-old at his home in Los Angeles, Kerrang! informs him that we reckon we could go and bench-press a car once we’re finished speaking.

He bursts out with uncontrollable laughter.

“That’s my energy!” he agrees. “I’m hyped up right now. I love that.”

It’s still early in the morning, but the Houston, Texas native is already on a mission – just like he is every single day. Fresh from a run and sipping orange juice, De’Wayne vaguely explains that he spent the previous day on a “crazy journey”, and right now he is putting his “brain back together” ahead of a venture to the studio later to see what comes of this mysterious trip.

“It was a fun time,” he grins. “I’ve been working super-hard, and I feel the most clear I’ve ever felt about what I want to do, what I want to say, and my direction. This whole time has kind of been beautiful and painful. Dealing with everything that’s going on now, combined with trying to make really good songs, has been really powerful for me.”

Though he doesn’t necessarily know how healthy it is for him in the long run, De’Wayne says he’s often creatively motivated by negativity – of which there’s clearly been plenty in 2020. A recent example is his vital breakout single National Anthem, written the year prior and released this June via his new partnership with Hopeless Records during the height of the Black Lives Matter protests. It not only paints a picture of De’Wayne’s own experiences as a black man living in the States, but it also crucially shows him to be one of rock’s most important, exciting young voices.

“National Anthem represents the America I have always experienced,” he said in a statement. “I wrote this song in 2019 and performed it out all over the country on tour last year. I watched beautiful, mixed crowds made up of so many different types of people rage to this in unity. I had planned on releasing this at a future date, but I’m taking the most recent – and recurring – event as a sign that the world needs this fucking right now.”

And there’s even more to come, too, as the genre-blending music lover continues to build on the successes that he’s worked so hard to achieve – from signing with Hopeless, to touring with labelmates (and actual mates) Waterparks on the band’s FANDOM Tour both in the U.S. and UK, to gearing up to release his debut album. Get ready, then, to meet the unstoppable force that is De’Wayne…

When you’re writing music right now, is your focus on the racial issues in America, or do you have other things you’re wanting to address?
“There’s so many things. Being black, I have to say something about how we live and how we are and what happens to us, and what it’s been like since I was born. Being from Texas I’ll speak on that naturally; it’s nothing that I even have to force to come out of me. And with stuff going on today, it’s just on my mind every second. But there’s other things that are that I’m digging into, too – like the potential of falling in love, or just wanting to do more, and write these songs that mean something to more people than just myself. I’m super into writing political songs, but I also want to say something that everyone can dig and feel, you know? Just growing up and figuring out what you really want to do in life… I don’t know, it’s all a journey for me. Whatever you experience in life, I think I’m just kind of understanding that and writing about those things – whatever that means to me.”

What is your goal with lyrics? Do you hope to be changing people’s mindsets, or is it more about just getting stuff off your own chest?
“Definitely both. I’ve never been the one to just… I can’t just write something that sounds good; I’ve never been able to do that. I’ve always had to say something that provokes an emotion – out of me or the listener. I definitely want them to hear it and to go forward and to feel free. It’s about: ‘We don’t have to stay where we are if we don’t want to be there.’ There are so many more ideas and boundaries that we should cross, and I want to give that message. That really inspires me. I just want people to feel true freedom, and not be scared. Whenever that message comes across to me, that’s always the most fucking beautiful thing I can say. Because we can get stuck, you know, and we can be scared. I’ve met kids now that are like, ‘Thank you for this; we need this because nobody else is saying this.’ And I’m like, ‘I got you.’ I wanna have their backs.

“And I’m not even being preachy; I speak on politics from a view of what I know as a black man. And if you don’t want to hear it, you just don’t listen to it. I’m just just writing these songs to say way more, and give people a sense of hope. It’s just calling it out and being like, ‘This is how I feel about what’s going on.’ There will be more songs coming on the record have a different vibe to that. But I have to say what I feel and I’m not ashamed of that – at all.”

National Anthem isn’t your first time addressing the Black Lives Matter movement – you spoke about it back in 2017, with activism in the lyrics on your Don’t Be Afraid EP. In those couple of years, have you seen any positive changes?
“Man, I feel like I was a kid then. That’s crazy. You know, I’m such an optimist, but I don’t know if I’ve seen actual change. I push for it, and I feel like things are changing on a small fucking scale, but the same things are still happening, and we’re still having the same arguments. The tone of everything is not changing. I just hope for the younger generation that we can actually make a change and push forward, and actually see all people as equal. Man, I want to say things have changed, the same things are still happening that they were three years ago, 30 years ago, 60 years ago…”

You’ve used the word “fearless” before about being in the studio and creating music. What was the first song you ever wrote like, and do you think you’ve always had that nature about you?
“Yeah, 100 per cent. I remember in maybe ninth grade, being 14 and writing issues that I was having my parents. I was completely fearless about it; I didn’t care. It was like 20 people listening back then, and I would say how I felt about what was going on at home. And I’m completely the same way now. Stepping into the studio and making songs with hard guitars and having these melodies over them… if I wasn’t fearless about it, I couldn’t do it. I get in there and make whatever I wanna make, and I think that’s the most fearless and free thing you can do. Just get in there with abandonment and go off (laughs): speak on exactly what I want to speak on and say the things that I want to say. It’s the only way I can be true.”

With more eyes than ever on you now, are you still finding that to be the case?
“Yeah, I like it a lot! I mean, I want to make good songs regardless, and if no-one listens at all, I would still want to be writing really good songs. But the fact that maybe people are starting to listen, and I can see that, it feels good. And it makes me feel like maybe I’m not so crazy, you know, being that kid who was writing those songs! I’m like, ‘Damn, maybe I can do something here.’ And then that makes me think that I’ve got to push harder; it motivates me to to be better. I want to continue to grow and get better. So consistently, having those eyes makes me feel like, ‘Man, I gotta show up now!’ And I want to, because we need it, the kids need it, and the fucking world needs it, you know?”

Growing up, who or what was your first musical love? Were you more into hip-hop and then rock came later? Or vice-versa?
“I was super into hip-hop, gospel music and R&B. But I didn’t really have any taste until I came to LA about four and a half years ago – until then, I was just listening to what I heard. I didn’t get into rock music until I was about 19, 20. It took a minute (laughs). When I came to LA, I went to the college of alternative music in my Hollywood apartment, and I searched until I couldn’t anymore. I fell deeply in love, and I’m such a nerd that I studied it, and then I came out with these songs. It just felt more like myself.”

So Los Angeles really shaped you?
“It completely transformed who I am. It’s like I grew up here. I had identity and I was De’Wayne in Houston, but I was of the south and of my family and their teachings. It was beautiful, but it was all I knew. You get married at 18 and have kids and all that, and that’s dope, but even as a kid I always knew I wanted to do more than just that. When I came here, I went to the school of being broke (laughs), and also the school of alternative music. I lived in it. It kills a lot of people, though; it breaks a lot of them down – I’ve seen it. I came here with a friend who left eight months after we arrived. And I had to do four years of being completely out of my mind. I’m thankful that I came here and it hasn’t killed me yet! It’s been really helpful for me.”

If you hadn’t grown up in Texas, would your music or what you’re into be different?
“I think it’s been very influential, more just of the soul of it: what I put into my work and my music, and how I love so deeply these ideas that I have; I want to nourish them. And I think that all comes from my family. And understanding how to move in a room that doesn’t necessarily understand you. I was always weird in high school, which was in a very suburban area. But then coming here has been like, ‘Fuck yeah, I’ve been like this for years!’ I can just work on my art, and work on what I want to say and how I want to present it. Texas has helped me a lot and I love it.”

How would you describe your career journey to getting signed to Hopeless?
“It’s been insane! Coming here, my journey was tough. I’m happy that it’s happened, but I came to LA at 19 and I had to work two jobs until a year and a half ago, you know? I was working at these very shitty jobs and being the one at the job like, ‘Hey, guys, I do music!’ (Laughs) It was good for me, but that was my life for four years: just working and trying to do music. I was living with friends who were doing music all the time and their careers would go crazy, and so I was like, ‘Oh, I guess that’s what can happen to you if you can do music for 24 hours a day.’ I’ve had that for the past year now, but it’s been very tough, very real, but something I would never change. It was hard. It was consistent working nine-to-five daily while trying to really have this attitude that I have now being like, ‘I think I can change things and I can bring something to the table!’ It was a lot of that… so I had to push through, and it was fucking tough.”

Have you always had that self-belief?
“Yeah, that’s what I’m saying. I’d be at work like, ‘Yo, I think I just wrote this song that’s gonna get me out of here!’ I always believed in myself. I think that comes from Texas, growing up religious and having this faith. And I do have faith in a higher power, but I legit have faith in myself, too. I always believed, man – I never had a doubt. It was like, ‘If I get the chance, I’m gonna really go for it.’ That’s why signing to Hopeless has been sick, and actually having this backing now. Like, I’m in the race now! It might sound insane, because I had no reason to believe to be honest – other than myself. But now I may have a chance, and I want to compete at the highest level.”

Did you have any reservations about signing to a label predominantly known for pop-punk when you’re more hip-hop based and are mashing together multiple genres?
“I didn’t, because up until then, labels were still looking at me like I was a I was a maniac – like it couldn’t be possible, honestly, for me to be doing punk music and shit, and making rock that’s tasteful. It just didn’t make sense to them. Hopeless came around and were like, ‘Yo, we fuck with this.’ And me being who I am, I was like, ‘Let’s fucking go! This is where I can beat my drum and get this shit started.’ Awsten [Knight, Waterparks frontman] is my best friend, and we live right by each other – I called him last night when I was on my journey (laughs). [And when I got the call from the label] I was like, ‘What’s Hopeless like? Talk to me!’ He was like, ‘I love it; they do a good fucking job.’ And that was all I needed. We were on the FANDOM Tour and they were able to see me live, and they were the first ones to be like, ‘What’s up?’ I was like, ‘Let’s fucking go!’”

Has Awsten given you any other advice?
“Oh, for real. Awsten has given me advice that will last my whole life. Truly. He took me on tour for two years because he believed in me. I will talk about Awsten for an hour if you let me (laughs). He gives me dating advice, music advice… I mean, I sent Awsten every song on my record that I just made that I’m fucking stoked about; he was damn-near the executive producer, you know? He helps me out with everything, and he’s given me grand advice. He’s the king of making you watch scary movies, and he’s also the king of giving great advice (laughs). He’s an all-around great fucking person.”

Ultimately, why do you think people should check out De’Wayne?
“I think they need it. There’s a turn happening in alternative music and rock music right now that's so beautiful and so fresh. It may not look the way people have always envisioned it, but trust me, they should listen. I think they probably prefer really good songs, and if they take a listen to what's happening right now in this world of new wave, punk, whatever you want to call it, it’s a really good thing. I think they should definitely understand that there’s a big shift going on right now, and we’re a part of it. I hope they will be, too.”

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