[Meet the Story Teller] He's Not Your Average. Meet T-Stylez: The Rapper Defying Labels, Keeping it Real and Doing it His Way
[I am many things, but first and foremost, I am a story teller and my heart always feels an immediate connection to others who bear the weight and know the freedom of that title. I want to share these people and their stories with you all, because my voice isn't the only one that matters. This is the first in what I hope will be a long series of storyteller profiles/features on this blog. Enjoy!]
I first encountered T-Stylez on a Thursday evening at a hip hop show. (I only found out later that the show, aptly called 5ive for the number of artists in the lineup, was put on by T-Stylez himself.) I arrived (late of course) to a jam packed room at the Restaurant, a venue in Toronto’s Kensington Market. It was standing room only and boiling hot as the crowd bobbed and swayed to the sounds of local artists. Staasia Daniels crooned smooth and sexy R&B and EverythingOshaun hyped the crowd with his cocky style and hard-hitting beats.
Then T-Stylez took the stage. Sporting a white t-shirt, a baseball cap and an unassuming manner, he thanked the audience for coming out and invited us to get comfortable—he was welcoming us into his “living room” for a little entertainment. He definitely delivered. The whole room got involved with his performance as we sang the hook to “Cup Slow.” He wowed us with “Love and Basketball” as he dropped the names of NBA teams effortlessly into a story of young romance. He delivered songs chockful of storytelling and wordplay with an easy flow and incredible stage presence. I was so impressed, I was determined to interview him.
I got my chance a few weeks later when we met up at the Toronto Reference Library. He was as warm and pleasant in person as he was on stage, though far taller than I’d realized. If he were your average rapper, he’d have a larger than life persona to match his height, but T-Stylez is not your typical hip hop artist. Unlike a lot of rappers who found hip hop in the streets, Stylez got his musical start in the church.
His mentor and childhood youth pastor, Stephan (aka Roc), hosted Jam Sessions during Friday night youth groups and gave the kids 16 bars each, an opportunity T-Stylez jumped on. He enthusiastically credits Stephan with making his career happen. T-Stylez progressed from hype man to writing and performing a verse on one of Stephan’s songs. And it didn’t stop there. “[Stephan] was like, ‘Ok, you still do the third verse for me but I’ll give you a song. Write a song, and I’ll take a song out of my set.’ And it was him,” T-Stylez explained.
The memory of that experience never left him. Neither has his faith. His four albums feature themes of redemption and the internal battle to do the right thing. Swearing and misogyny are nowhere to be found. It’s a striking contrast to rap music’s usual subject matter of money, violence and debauchery. T-Stylez is perfectly aware of the conflicting moralities. It’s why his stage name has a deeper meaning: Saving the Yolk with Love Emotion and Zeal.
“I want to touch the core of you through the expressions of my love, my emotion and zeal, which is just my tenacious desire to accomplish that. Not being super preachy, because I can’t do that. If I wanted to do that, I would have gone to convent or been a theologian. But I tell stories from a perspective that I grew up with, a Christian perspective that is part of who I am. So my stories are coloured with that, but I’m no minister.”
It’s his status as a storyteller that made him stick to rap regardless of the conflict. Despite the recent rise of mediocre lyricists, rap has always been strongly rooted in the words and the writing. And when you listen to T’Stylez’s music, despite the thrilling beats and flawless production, it’s the lyrics and stories that give you pause. He put it very simply: “Rap was the easiest medium at the time that I was doing it because rap requires you to write so [many] lines...I just tell stories through what I’m good at. I think I’m a good rapper so I tell stories that way.”
That’s not to say he hasn’t had his share of challenges with walking that line. His third album, entitled Element 13, is a collection of songs he wrote in an effort to produce a single that would impress a man in the music business who came bearing promises of management, connections and deals. T-Stylez recalled feeling like he’d stumbled into darker territory, writing songs that were more aligned with the self-serving, bottle-popping, club-hopping themes of traditional hip hop. “Because I felt that’s where I needed to pull from to make him a single,” T-Stylez explained. “Because those are the singles that are out.” In the end, the man was fraudulent, and his promises were false, but the lesson T-Stylez learned about not sacrificing his authenticity for the sake of someone else was very real.
There have been plenty he’s had to take a stance against. He lost a girlfriend to the music because she couldn’t handle the fact that he’d address the moral issues of his peers in his lyrics. And despite getting his start in the church, he’s met a lot of resistance from Christians who are upset that he doesn’t quote more scripture or teach strict messages of right or wrong. But he stays true to his message and faithful to the reality of his audience.
“Most artists are like, ‘This is morality. This is where we are, come.’ But I think there’s a huge set of people fighting for morality and that’s what I’m focusing on. The truth is, I think the most powerful Christian message is love which is like ‘Hey, you are human, you are flawed; I just want to help you through that.’”
I was curious to know whether T-Stylez faced any backlash from the hip hop community for having his faith so entrenched in his music. But he says, “I can rap with most people in terms of the punch lines. So nobody comes to me and says, “Oh, he can’t rap.” And then in terms of performance, with hip hop, I perform, I entertain, so no one ever gets mad at the entertainer.” Judging from the reception at his show back in March, the support of the four other artists who took the stage with him that night, and the features from local artists that grace his albums, he’s not lying.
In the end, for T-Stylez, it’s the stories that matter. He’s not trying to convert anyone, nor is he trying to live up to the labels and expectations of hip hop. His goal is just to have his name be synonymous with great story telling. When I asked him what he wants people to think when they hear his name, he said, “I’d love for it to be T-Stylez is an artist or a great storyteller, so that no matter what I touch or am a part of, you know the story is going to be worth your time.”
What’s up next for him? His fifth album will be released this year on June 6th at the second installment of 5ive, an event he plans to host every few months. Also in the works is a feature length film, written and directed himself and set to hit the film festival circuit next year. He’s got his eyes set on a very particular goal: “I want to be the first artist to win a Grammy and an Oscar for creation components. I’d love to win album of the year, film of the year, single of the year and best screenplay. I’m a story teller, so I think you should want to win the story teller awards.”
I couldn’t agree more.