Rapper 21 Savage is helping Atlanta youth learn financial literacy ‘I didn’t really learn about that type of stuff until I got older’

ATLANTA — In the midst of his annual back-to-school drive on Sunday, rapper 21 Savage was in awe at the 2,500 kids who showed up for free haircuts/hairstyles, shoes, school uniforms, backpacks and school supplies.

The turnout wasn’t a shock, as he’s experienced that same energy for the past four years in which he has hosted “Issa Back 2 School Drive” for the kids who live in the Glenwood Road neighborhood where he grew up in Atlanta.

“Doing this every year feels good,” 21 Savage told The Undefeated.

This year, in partnership with Amazon Music and Momma Flystyle, the outdoor event also offered free health screenings, mobile video game arcades, resources on mental health awareness and insurance, tips on eco-friendly sustainability efforts, local vendors, hot dogs, ice cream and fun park activities.

On Aug. 4, Rapper 21 Savage hosted his annual “Issa Back 2 School Drive” for the kids in the Glenwood Road neighborhood where he grew up in Atlanta, Georgia.

Prince Williams/Getty Images

But his giving spans far beyond his school drive.

21 Savage’s passion is in educating youth from underserved communities about the power of the dollar and the value of hard work. The throaty Grammy nominee’s nonprofit organization, Leading by Example Foundation, launched its Bank Account campaign, named after his double-platinum single, to teach young people about financial health and wellness.

“A lot of kids don’t know what to do when they get older,” 21 Savage said. “Financial literacy is an important tool they need to get through life successfully.”

A successful trap music artist known for his grim lyrics depicting poverty, street life and post-traumatic stress, 21 Savage said his efforts to promote youth and economic development are deeply rooted in his own lack of exposure and access to commerce as a kid.

“I didn’t really learn about that type of stuff until I got older and became an artist and entertainer,” he said.

The 26-year-old chart-topping performer, born Shéyaa Bin Abraham-Joseph, has a job program, and he offers monthly financial literacy webinars for youth.

He partnered with education-themed nonprofits JUMA Ventures and Get Schooled to offer summer employment to 60 Atlanta-area high school and college students. Their duties include light custodial and concessions jobs.

“We want to work with these young people particularly to give them opportunities,” said Robert Lewis Jr., JUMA’s Atlanta site manager. “You want to give these young folks help. They may have had issues with the law or go to a nontraditional school, and we want to give them a job. It gives them a sense of dignity when they’re working.”

“This is monumental,” said Courage Higdon, a 22-year-old Georgia Southern University student and program participant. “The program keeps us focused. It’s more than a job — it teaches us actual life skills that we can use in other places in our lives. They help us become more financially literate. As an African American community, we need to get better at it.”

The Savage Mode rapper presented JUMA with a $15,000 check to help 150 young people open their own bank accounts.

“21 Savage tries to tell us that he wants us to bring everybody around this neighborhood together to support black-owned businesses and black people in the community,” said participant Khaleege Watts, 20.

21 Savage is set to spend a day shadowing the student participants later this year.

The “No Heart” and “A Lot” rapper hosted his monthly webinars on Get Schooled’s website, where he concentrated on teaching money management habits, budgeting/saving, investments and distinguishing between credit and debit.

But his passion for giving to youth doesn’t stop there.

When he released his sophomore LP I Am > I Was in December 2018, he gifted $16,000 in Amazon gift cards to youngsters who attended the album’s companion interactive Motel 21 activation in Decatur, Georgia. He also visited several colleges and STEM schools in metro Atlanta, along with U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), to lead 21st Century Banking Workshops, cross-topic fireside chats featuring discussions on financial capabilities, career opportunities in the music business, gang violence and gun control.

“21 Savage is putting action behind his money,” Lewis said. “He actually tells people how to start their business and how to save money. He’s turned his life around and is a great spokesperson for young people. Young people were glad that JUMA partnered with 21 Savage because they said he speaks for them.”

21 Savage was arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement earlier this year on Super Bowl Sunday for overstaying in the United States on a visa that expired in 2006. The MTV Video Music Award winner, who was born in the U.K. and came to the U.S. with his mother at age 7, was detained for nine days and is still awaiting a deportation hearing. The former troubled teen and high school dropout donated $25,000 to the Southern Poverty Law Center, an advocacy group that assisted with his naturalization issues, in June.

“A lot of people need help that’s in bad situations,” 21 Savage said. “They don’t have the funds to get legal representation, so I just made the donation. The organization does the work for free anyway, so I just thought it was necessary to contribute.”

Alona Stays, 21, received a $1,000 mini-grant from 21 Savage to invest in production equipment for her home studio. The YouTuber and aspiring filmmaker echoes her peers, calling the rapper’s philanthropic gifts and outreach efforts “amazing.”

“Not a lot of artists like him are doing something,” Stays said. “It’s a blessing for him to do this for us, and I’m very grateful. This plays a big role in anybody’s life. People like 21 Savage [are] trying to make things better. It’s not all about guns and drugs; it’s about the community and these kids.”

Run-DMC and Aerosmith’s ‘Walk This Way’ turns 33 this July 4. The changes it made are still reverberating through the music industry. With ‘Old Town Road’ topping the charts, an author reflects on how old rockers and young rappers came together to make an earlier hit

Right now, Lil Nas X rules the top of the Billboard charts with his trap/country hit “Old Town Road.” There was some initial disagreement over what genre the song belonged to, and then he released a remix stamped with the country imprimatur of a Billy Ray Cyrus feature. The remix has paid off for both artists, with Cyrus enjoying a warm reception at the recent BET Awards, where he performed live with Lil Nas X. Their unexpected collaboration, along with the hit that resulted, is reminiscent of an earlier pairing that disrupted the music industry and American culture: Aerosmith and Run-DMC’s “Walk This Way,” which debuted on July 4, 1986.

I spoke to Geoff Edgers about his book Walk This Way: Run-DMC, Aerosmith, and the Song That Changed American Music Forever. Just like everything else in America, music is infused with racial politics. It shows up in who gets credit and compensation for their art, how the work is considered and awarded by professional organizations, whose music gets played on which radio station, even how individual songs are categorized by genre. The entire notion of “crossing over” describes music that breaks down the boundaries of our still-segregated ears. Edgers’ book examines how one of the most famous rock/hip-hop mashups got made, the repercussions of its commercial success, and what it told us about race and music in America.

The interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

You have this mashup of two groups that are opposite in a lot of ways. One is older white rockers, and the other black kids who are cultural upstarts. I started thinking of Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus, where again, there’s an aging white artist who’s lending some of his own juice to legitimize the younger one.

It’s a good comparison in some ways. It’s complicated because of how screwy the Billboard charts are and the fact that that song was huge without the Billboard charts putting it on country.

There is something to be said for the fact that Aerosmith for Run-DMC, they were a tool to get on the radio. That was about it. I mean, the song itself was not something they [Run-DMC] loved then or love now, particularly. But it did do exactly that. They simply wouldn’t have gotten on the radio or on MTV without those two scraggly white guys.

You could write a whole book just on artists who’ve had songs blow up that they actually didn’t care for very much.

So much of what does well isn’t our best. And so much of what is our best doesn’t necessarily do well. The reality is ‘Walk This Way’ is a good song, the Run-DMC version is good, but it’s not the best Run-DMC song even on Raising Hell. But it is the most important song on Raising Hell. And it’s got to be the most important song in their catalog.

But that creates a problem for you as a group because you want to be known by your best, and you also don’t want to share the spotlight. So both Aerosmith and Run-DMC, I don’t think, have ever been totally at peace with that version of that song.

Given that we live in the age of the evaporating attention span, were you worried about writing a book about one song?

I’ve had people criticize the book for the long title that they feel is hyperbole. And people will tweet like, ‘This whole book about one song?’ But it’s not really a book about one song; it’s about a lot of different things. Part of it is about rewriting history the way it should be, and not the way the winners wrote it. I don’t have anything against Rick Rubin, but I do think Larry Smith has been forgotten when the guy was basically the Phil Spector of hip-hop. I also think that getting Sha-Rock and Grandmaster Caz and Run-DMC the proper credit they deserve, it’s not out there. The false story that’s been out there is that this famous rock band, Aerosmith, helped a bunch of fledgling rappers build a career. And that just couldn’t be further from the truth.

In fact, if I did that book over, it would be longer. It would be more about that song. I feel like maybe I’ve gotten to think that MTV and radio was more racist than I did when I was putting the book together. And I might have explored that more. But I just felt like I wanted to tell the facts — like, all the reporting — and get that out.

Your book provides a different understanding of ‘Walk This Way.’ You say that the stakes were superlow for Run-DMC. They weren’t walking into a recording session thinking, ‘This is going to put us on some sort of rocket ship.’ They’re annoyed.

It’s a weird split between, on one hand, these guys don’t even know if this song’s going to come out. The producers don’t even know. But then, on the other side, Spin magazine is in the studio that one day, and TV news is there, so somebody knew something was going down that could be important. You know, Run and Darryl rapped terribly that day. I watched that footage that I was able to get from Viacom that hadn’t been released. They weren’t taking it seriously. They weren’t doing a good job. And they had to come later and lay down their vocals again because they didn’t do it right.

You mentioned thinking that your reporting led you to conclude that MTV and radio were a lot more racist than you had originally thought. What the folks from MTV are saying or not saying feels very common. ‘Well, you know, it’s about format.’ No one is being overtly racist, but no one’s thinking about who is excluded by decisions to focus on pop and ignore rap.

I got a little tangled up in the Michael Jackson myth, the story that MTV wouldn’t play Michael Jackson, which I think my reporting shows is not true. But what I didn’t think about enough, or what I’ve come to think about as I put the book together, I decided that it’s true that MTV played African American artists. And it’s true that they would define what African American artists they could play based on the ‘rock’ format or ‘pop’ format. They’d play Lionel Richie. Or Tina Turner. Or Michael Jackson. And their defense was, ‘We’re not racist, we’re not breaking the format.’

Well, the fact is, breaking the format, playing hip-hop, would have been the idea of playing, essentially, an art form built out of African American communities. So if you say you’re going to cut that off completely, that, to me, is getting you into that racist territory.

I guess they weren’t playing, like, Barbra Streisand or Anne Murray because they didn’t fit the format. I’m not sure there were oppressed 55-year-old white singers in Canada who felt like they hadn’t been given a chance, you know? Gordon Lightfoot wasn’t like, ‘God, they’re persecuting me for being Canadian.’ But, I mean, you could make an argument, seriously, that what The Fat Boys and Kurtis Blow and Run-DMC, what they were doing was really important, and the idea that it was cut off from a huge segment of popular culture was criminal.

Run-DMC at the Fresh Fest tour.

Brian Rasic/Getty Images

Why did it take so long to get Run to talk to you?

I could get Darryl [McDaniels] on the phone right now. I assume that [Run] didn’t see the benefit. I assume he also finds it tiring to talk about what he thinks is going to be the same thing over and over again. And it just took forever. I’d talked to all the famous people in the book multiple times by the time I got to him.

What I will say is that he was extremely generous, and I think he was surprised when I brought him this footage he hadn’t seen of the session and let him narrate it. Once he saw that, he was like, ‘Wow, this is amazing stuff,’ and he wanted a copy of it.

What’s your favorite song on Raising Hell?

Probably ‘It’s Tricky.’ Maybe ‘My Adidas,’ you know, maybe. I was 15 when that album came out — that’s when you make your connection to real music. As much as I like something that will come out now and I’ll go, ‘Oh, that’s good,’ I mean I’m an old man. I can’t feel the visceral connection to anything the way I did from 1982 to 1989, I just can’t.

James Harden is ‘strictly music’ Houston’s in-house DJ TGray spins the beats for Harden and team before each home game

HOUSTON – Just like clockwork, DJ TGray knows when Houston Rockets guard James Harden typically runs on to the Toyota Center floor before tipoff to get his shots up. And even if the Rockets’ house deejay is in the middle of playing a song, within about 10 seconds he will mix in a hip-hop banger definitely beloved by the NBA All-Star to help get him ready.

“I know the clock,” said Teryl Gray, 41, who goes by DJ TGray. “About 10 minutes before the doors open, he will come out to shoot around and warm up. There are different tempos for him. Sometimes I keep it around 90 bpm [beats per minute]. We’ll go trap music to 70 bpm and lower than that. You kind of have to feel him out. And I’ve been doing it for so long, you get a good vibe for people and who they are every day of the week.

“I switch songs as soon as he comes out. It might be within 10 seconds. Sometimes I get lucky and it’s around the time of the chorus. I say, ‘Right on time.’ I can blend in some party jams.”

The sixth-year Rockets guard is a hip-hop head who enjoys hearing his favorite songs when he does his pregame shooting routine. Gray said some of Harden’s friends regularly give him the Rockets star’s current playlist and text him when a new song comes out that he loves. Gray says Harden adores his native Los Angeles’ hip-hop and loves Southern rap, too.

While there are challenges in finding some of the underground rap songs Harden likes and bleeping out the curse words, Gray can usually find it and clean it up. For example, one of Harden’s favorite old songs played pregame during the playoffs last year was, “I Don’t Stress,” a 2005 song Los Angeles rapper Nipsey Hussle that is laced with bleeps for curse words. But it’s hard to stump a deejay who has been spinning since age 10 and first spun at a Houston club at age 15. Gray is also a member of numerous record pools and often hears songs three months before they come out.

“I know his boys. And his boys will come by or they will text message, ‘You got this?’ ” Gray said. “Or, ‘Can you clean this [expletive-laced rap] song up?’ He is from L.A., so it’s a lot of hip-hop stuff. A lot of Nipsey Hussle. Some mixtape dudes that most mainstream dudes have not heard of, Bino Rideaux, 03 Greedo. All these other people out there. YG. And even here locally with Travis Scott as well as Huncho Jack, also known as Quavo.”

Harden and the Rockets host the Warriors in Game 5 of the tied best-of-seven Western Conference finals on Thursday night. The leading candidate for the 2018 NBA MVP award is averaging 29.5 points per game in these West finals. The winner in this key contest will be one will away from the 2018 NBA Finals.

So, what hip-hop songs will Gray spin Thursday night to get Harden’s juices flowing as he gets his pregame shooting routine in?

James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets moves to the music during warm ups before playing the Cleveland Cavaliers at Toyota Center on March 12, 2017 in Houston, Texas.

Bob Levey/Getty Images

“ ’Grindin All My Life,’ by Nipsey Hussle. ‘Shoot’ by BlocBoy JB. The new Drake record and the new Travis Scott song with Kanye West and Lil Uzi Vert. It’s called ‘Watch,’ ” Gray said.

So, does Harden like anything other than hip-hop playing when he shoots pregame?

“Never. Never. I did see him rocking out to an old record I played with Field Mob featuring Ciara. He heard me playing that and looked up and said, ‘Yeah.’ You must’ve been in middle school when it played,” Gray said.

Gray has been working with the Rockets’ game-night crew since the Toyota Center opened in 2001. Initially, the Houston native was the public-address announcer yelling out names such as Yao Ming, Stevie Francis and Tracy McGrady before moving over to his familiar DJ role. Gray is also a DJ for the Major League Soccer Houston Dynamo and Houston KRIV-Fox 26.

Gray said he plays music to please all fans at Rockets games.

“My job is to make sure that everyone here is happy from the players to the people in the top to the oldest fan in here. I try to find that happy balance of playing Nipsey Hussle and KC and The Sunshine Band,” Gray said.

But there is an exception to the music rule for DJ TGray, and that is when Harden arrives on the floor for pregame shots. Gray said he has talked to Harden several times, and the subject is always hip-hop music.

“He’s on it. James is a very keen dude,” Grey said. “It’s very welcomed in music. He’s younger than me, a lot younger than me, and there is some older stuff that he is very knowledgeable of. I’m very appreciative of that …

“He asks, ‘You got the new … ?’ It’s all strictly music. No hoops. None of that stuff, which I appreciate.”

Superproducer Zaytoven’s gospel truth about trap music: It needs to be ‘spontaneous and unorthodox’ He’s a man of faith, plays the organ and the keytar — and creates huge hits with stars like Gucci Mane, Nicki Minaj and the Migos

It’s an unlikely one, but the combination of church music and trap music has been a flourishing formula for Xavier Dotson, known in music circles as Atlanta superproducer Zaytoven. Since the mid-2000s, he’s been the visionary behind tracks for artists such as Gucci Mane, Future and the Migos, and he is widely regarded as one of the founding fathers of trap music.

Yet it’s hard not to hear the influence of his Christian upbringing on his sound. Zaytoven, the son of a pastor and choir director, moved to the South after being born in Germany and growing up in California’s Bay Area. And when he’s not working a studio soundboard, he’s been, for 11 years and counting, on a sanctuary organ as lead musician for two different churches. “Every time that man touch the piano, I hear church. I hear God. Worship,” says fellow producer Cassius Jay in the latest installment of Red Bull Music’s The Note documentary series. It follows Zaytoven’s journey from a home studio to the realm of musical genius, just as the man of faith is set to release his debut album, Trap Holizay, on May 25.

Before the release of the 17-minute short film, which he scored himself, The Undefeated spoke to Zaytoven about his relationship with Gucci Mane, the first time he met the Migos, LeBron James’ future and more.


Growing up, what did church mean to you?

Everything. Growing up in church, as far as my sound, that’s where all my music comes from. The riffs, how to stay on rhythm, how to improvise. It’s also where I learned how to decipher right from wrong, how to do things and how to treat people.

Do you have a favorite gospel song?

That’s all I listened to growing up. I can more so name some of my artists, like Commissioned, The Winans, Deitrick Haddon, Travis Greene, Tasha Cobbs.

Of the many instruments you play, which was the hardest to master?

I really only play the drums, keyboard and organ. I’ve played a little bit of guitar, but I’ve never mastered it. I started on the drums as youngster, but the keyboard really just kind of kept my attention.

“Spontaneous and unorthodox, that’s what trap music should be. When we’re talking about hustlin’ music, it shouldn’t be all the way well thought out.”

Early in 2017, you played a keytar at the Migos’ first show after the drop of Culture. How did you pick that up?

That was one of the first times I played the keytar. It’s the same thing as a keyboard, but me holding it around my shoulder. So I’m like, ‘I’m finna do this!’ We never practiced with it — none of that. I bought the keytar and had used it once before with Gucci Mane on Jimmy Kimmel. I felt this is something I could do with artists. It was a way I could perform and not just be in the background.

The new documentary touches on the studio where you got your start, “Mama’s Basement.” How did you come up with the name?

Because that’s exactly what it was [laughs]. It was my mom’s basement. That’s where we were recording all the music, where all the artists were coming. When you see the footage in the documentary, you’re gonna see how valuable that basement was. The music that’s popping right now — all that stems from that basement and what we were creating down there that long ago.

Who’s the biggest artist that came through that basement?

Nicki Minaj was there on a daily basis … just like Gucci. I don’t have the studio there anymore, but it’s definitely legendary.

What’s the one piece of studio equipment you couldn’t live without?

MPC [music production controller].

Who’s the voice on your “Zaytoven” drop — and how’d you come up with it?

That’s my daughter, Olivia. She’s 8 years old now, but she might have been 4 when I had her do that. I had a drop before that said ‘Zaytoven,’ and it was kind of electronic. I’d used it on my early records. The Gucci stuff, like the Hard to Kill album. But once new producers started coming in and using new tags, I was like, ‘Hold on … I wanna make a new one.’ That’s when I had my daughter go in, and it worked so perfectly.

“I invited the Migos over to the house. A couple weeks later, you got ‘Versace,’ one of the biggest songs out that year.”

There are often debates surrounding the origin of trap music. What are your thoughts on how it began?

I heard of trap music before I started doing it, with T.I.’s Trap Muzik and Young Jeezy’s Trap or Die. I think the debate is about different styles of trap. If you listen to trap music today, it’s the sound I created with Gucci Mane. Not saying that we started it, but what we were doing was different than what T.I. and Jeezy were doing. Jeezy was doing trap music, and it sounded real theatrical. It was serious; it sounded like a movie almost. T.I.’s trap was just great-quality rap music, talking about trappin’. When me and Gucci were doing it, it was unpolished and edgy. A lot of that is because I really didn’t know what I was doing. The beats would have 808s that were too loud and overlapping, the keyboard might be too low, he might be off the beat or say something you can’t understand. That was the form of trap music that became popular and lasted so long because it was spontaneous and unorthodox. To me, that’s what trap music should be. When we’re talking about hustlin’ music, it shouldn’t be all the way well thought out. Everything we did was on the fly. The beats were made in 10 minutes, the song was made in 10 minutes.

Speaking of Gucci, at what point did you realize he was special?

Almost from the first time I met him, when he came down to my studio trying to write a song for his nephew. Some people got an ‘it’ factor. You feel like, ‘Man, that dude right there is a star.’ And he wasn’t even rapping at the time. It ended up working out — going from him writing a song for his lil’ nephew to him recording, to me and him recording every day, to we got a song on the radio, to we got mixtapes out. And now, it’s years down the road and the sound we created is still dominant.

How did you cross paths with the Migos?

I first saw Quavo rapping on the internet. It was just him in a room with the ceiling fan going. I don’t know why it caught my attention, but I was like, ‘Man, this guy right here is a star.’ Then a rapper by the name of Yung L.A., who used to come to my house all the time, said, ‘Zay, there’s these lil’ young dudes rapping on your beat, saying, ‘Bando’ … they going so crazy.’ I respected Yung L.A.’s opinion so much I immediately went to look up the song. They did a little video for “Bando,” and once I saw them I knew for a fact that they were finna blow up. I started calling around and asking different people who they were. It just so happened that I went to a show with OJ Da Juiceman, and Quavo steps on my foot — as he’s walking out of VIP, and I’m walking in. I’m looking for him, and [the Migos] were looking for me. I invited them over to the house. A couple weeks later, you got “Versace,” one of the biggest songs out that year.

What’s the best destination in the world your music has taken you?

I did a show in Paris last year, and it was the craziest. They were so geeked up I was there, I couldn’t even believe it. It was freezing cold outside and they were taking their shirts off, surfing through the crowd. I never thought somewhere that far out really knew about me and my music.

“I’d definitely have to say LeBron is the best player in the game.”

Any stamp you’d like to add to your passport?

I’m doing my first tour now, so wherever a show takes me, I’m willing to go and ready to go. But I do wanna go back to Germany. I was born there.

Do you have any memories of living in Germany, and how did you end up in Atlanta?

I was a baby. I don’t remember nothing. The reason I moved from there to California to Atlanta is my dad was in the military.

Which athlete do you think is your biggest fan?

Man, I wish I knew! So I could get his phone number and call him (laughs).

Who’s your favorite athlete right now?

I’d definitely have to say LeBron [James] is the best player in the game.

Where do you think LeBron will play next season?

I’ve been so busy, I haven’t been keeping up. I haven’t watched one game of football or basketball the whole year. I gotta get back locked in. I’m still a Golden State fan because I represent the Bay Area. But it’s hard to say. I’m not sure where LeBron will be next year.

Super Bowl LIII next year is in Atlanta. How lit will that weekend be?

The city is going to be on fire. I think that’s the best place to have it. Atlanta finna be so turnt up. It’s gonna be bananas.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.