Fun fact: The quietest table available at SoHo’s Mercer Kitchen during New York Fashion Week is also the darkest and coldest. I learn this the hard way while waiting to meet up with Rome Fortune the morning after his appearance as both model and performer in the infamous VFiles show. But when the 6’5” Atlanta rapper arrives, however, he’s got a bright enough smile and blue enough beard to compensate for the lack of light and heat in the upscale restaurant.
“I haven’t believed in any project as much as I’ve believed in this,” he says of his debut album Jerome Raheem Fortune. His eagerness is obvious—even as he’s recovering from breaking the cardinal sin of mixing too much light and dark liquor the night before. “I don’t mean ‘believe in it’ in terms of it going multiplatinum or whatever. Impact, you know what I mean? I don’t care if I impact a hundred fans if it helps them go to school every day, or not quit their job, or whatever they can relate to.”
It’s an extremely humble estimate of how many people could be inspired by the work, which is comprised of 11 tracks that pair dreamy, danceable beats with lyrics that tell the ironic misfortunes of a man whose last name would suggest a life without struggle. This is no pity party, however; for every sympathy-rousing moment, Fortune reassures listeners with an optimism that could only be developed after having gone through some shit. “Move from the past ‘cause it pushes you forward,” he sings in opening track “All the Way,” revealing one of the album’s recurring messages, that brooding on the past is futile. Then there’s “Love”—a single that’s already a proven favorite among fans—which assures his three- and seven-year-old sons that every milestone he’s missed because of his career has been a sacrifice to better their lives.
“I was making music for so long that I wanted people to actually know who I am,” says Fortune. “Like, okay, I got people who like my music, but this is who I am.” Surely, Jerome Raheem Fortune gives insight as to who he is, as a person, artist, and motivational speaker of sorts. Read all about the man behind the blue beard (and stream his album!) below.
Your album is pretty personal. What made you decide to open up like that?
Well actually, we already had an album mixed and matched a year ago. I was on tour with Iamsu! and all the shows were so turnt up and crazy. But then kids would be coming up to me after the show like, 'Why didn't you perform this song? Why didn't you perform this song?' And those were my most personal songs, you know what I'm saying? The other album was super-fun, so we scrapped it because I really wanted to tell people my story.
It definitely shows your evolution as an artist. I saw people in the YouTube comments for the “Dance” video saying Fool’s Gold Records is making you do electronic shit. But it still sounds true to your previous work.
I want to show people it’s okay to evolve. I started out in a trailer. I was in the hood every day. I was in the studio every day. For all these people, it's okay to evolve. People just see you as one thing and they want you to stay that way. But we’re humans as artists, too, so we’ve got to grow as humans. We can't just stop it at the art, you know?
How did growing up in Atlanta influence that evolution for you?
There’s a super-close proximity in Atlanta. Everybody knows where everybody is going so it's kind of a friendly competition. On top of that, everyone’s like, 'I’m not trying to do what they doing so I'm gonna do my own thing.' So that made me wanna have like a jazz background. I just wanted to infuse everything because I love trap and jazz, and I like indie music. I try regurgitate it without making it sound forced.
Mainstream media tends to focus on the trap scene in Atlanta, though, like in that Noisey documentary. What’s the relationship like between the trap and “non-trap” artists?
A lot of those dudes that are into trap love what people like me are doing. So I was happy when Noisey was trying to spotlight Atlanta but you gotta show [both sides]. There’s a full spectrum of shit going on; it’s not like there’s one thing that keeps the Atlanta scene moving. That's what I was pissed at because if you go to any hood in Atlanta, they’re wearing the skinny jeans, they’ve got colored hair. There's a lot of dope artists coming out of Atlanta.
Word. You mentioned jazz as one of your influences—I’m assuming that comes from your grandfather [Richard Adderley, a jazz musician who’s played with Miles Davis.] Was there a lot of jazz being played in your house growing up?
Yeah, my grandfather, he listens to a bunch of jazz. My mom is like old-school R&B and Erykah Badu and like Ice Cube. My uncles—I was with them a lot because my mom worked a lot when I was younger—they played a lot of Busta Rhymes, Wu-Tang.
Are they from up north?
Yeah, I'm the only one from the South. My whole family is from New York, Philly, Jersey. So I was hearing all of this stuff and my grandma never turned the radio off in our house. Like, ever. The only thing that changed was the volume. It was always old-school R&B. Then when I was in high school, we moved from Decatur and I was meeting a lot of white kids who are into indie rock and stuff like that. It was just everything, really. I would get into modes where I would like binge on one type of music. Like in high school, I really liked battle rap so I’d listen to Papoose.
I only recently realized that people outside of New York actually know who he is.
Oh yeah, “Alphabetical Slaughter”?
Can’t forget the “Touch It” remix. Speaking of which, I’ve read that DMX influenced you, too. How did you get introduced to his music?
I went to stay with my dad for one summer and he had DMX CDs. He knew how to ride the beat really, really good but then be unorthodox with his offbeat, onbeat. And he’d be super-personal but still make you rock to it. Super-intense, but still be emotional. As a kid, Jay Z, to me, was the coolest and Busta was super-animated, but DMX? I was just amazed, man. He’s one of the greatest.
Did you hear what happened to him the other day, about him being found unconscious? It’s so sad. He’s been going through shit since his childhood.
He’s got demons on him, man. When you listen to the music, you can hear that. But that's what made me feel like I knew him.
What other artists did you feel like you connected to in that way?
André 3000. Yo, I'm trying to get people to get him to hear my album. I think he would fuck with it so much. He knows what’s hip in Atlanta so I feel like I'm on his radar to some level. Like I said, Atlanta is so small that no matter if you're at the top of the food chain or you coming up, it's very easy to connect people.
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Honestly, I feel like your fans could make it happen. Okay, let’s talk about this album! You have a pretty strong fanbase—was there pressure to live up to their expectations while you were making it?No, because my fans are my family. I text my fans. I have this app where I can text my fans. Yo, I’m sending them files, links, and snippets from the album and they tweet about it. That’s one thing that I'm not worried about because I didn’t make this album for everybody. Those people that I said were coming up to me and saying, 'Why didn’t you perform this song? Every day I would drive to school and I’d be like, man, I want to fucking quit school, but then I’ll play this.' That is what matters. That’s who the album needed to be for because that is the shit that I love making. I know this album is going to be good. I don’t even care about numbers. My fans, that’s all that I care about. I know what they need. I know what they want. I talk to them. I know what they want with music. This is for them.
There were a couple of themes that really stood out to me. The first is sacrifice: “Love” is probably the most obvious one, talking about how you’re signed and things are better in some respects, as far as your career. But it also means that you have less time with your family. How have you been dealing with that?I know as my sons get older, the time will be way more important than the material. So I just try to go home as much as possible. It’s really, really hard because I spend day and night in the studio not talking to nobody, but I know it's for the greater good. I'm being selfish with my time right now because it's gonna provide for everybody in the long run. But on the other end of that, they might feel like I don’t care, so I’m just trying to show my kids I'm here. I'm FaceTiming them, I'm pulling up on them at school if they acting up. The most important thing to me is making sure I'm coming back home as frequently as possible.
What was it like explaining your career to them?My older son, he already knows. He calls me 'Daddy Rock Star,' he’s 'Medium Rock Star,' and my youngest son is 'Baby Rock Star.' Let me show you this. [Plays audio from his phone of oldest son rapping.]
He’s already rapping! That’s so cute.That’s my dude, man. Everything I do, he tries to do. I'm walking around the house with no shirt on, he’ll be walking around—I’m like, you gonna catch a cold! Put a shirt on!
I’m sure you feel guilty a lot, though, because you’ve missed out on milestones in their lives.I always just try to tell myself, 'These little things might feel like big things that you're missing out, but you're there for the really key parts.' The things that I remember about my parents from my childhood that actually stuck with me until my adulthood wasn't them being there for my first steps, it was my mom being around when I was going through things. So sometimes I feel guilty but then I go, nope, you're doing the right thing.
A couple of your songs mention moving on from the past and looking toward the future. I really admire that mindset. Would you say that coming from a rougher past actually makes it easier to be optimistic?I definitely think so. Just because you know what it's like to do without. I’m so blessed right now, man. How can I be mad at some [past] shit? Let's get it. Move forward.
How important is religion to you? There're some references to God in “What Can You Do” and “Past Future.”I didn’t grow up in church but there was a period of maybe like five or six years when my mom was like, really religious. I was, too, but I would see how people that go to church govern themselves. It’s supposed to be a holy place but they were treating it like it's any other place on the street. That made me feel like I wanted to be more so spiritual, and not put a name on what this is. I personally believe there's a higher power, I don't think this shit just came out of nowhere. But I don’t want to be like, his name is this and he did this. I give respect and thanks to people. I don’t try to complicate stuff... I gotta get some nail polish remover. They had me wearing nail polish for the show yesterday but I kept touching stuff and they had to do it over. They were [directing] models and pointed at me. I’m like, I'm an artist but it’s all good. It was fun.
Do you want to move into fashion?I would love to. I always wanted to do something in fashion, like modeling. I did that. I don’t know so much with design because I'm not impatient but my brain goes like this [waves hands around.] With music, if I'm producing I’ll start on this one, and then go back to another. Music is easy. I don’t know if it would be that way with clothes or fashion. Maybe I could do collabs or something.
Would you say it’s easier to be accepted in fashion or hip-hop?I would say hip-hop or music, but there are just so many stigmas that shouldn’t be there. There's probably mad gay rappers right now but none of them are out because this is rap, this is macho. Have you heard of Kevin Abstract? He’s dope. I just found out he’s openly gay. When I found that out I was so happy. I'm not gay but I feel like we just really need that, people being comfortable. [Your sexuality] shouldn’t dictate whether your music is quality or not. We’re evolving slowly but surely.
Last thing: There was one line that really resonated with me, from “Paid Back Loans:” “The thing that got you things is the thing within you.” It’s simple, but it stood out. What was your thinking there?It’s kind of like how we were talking about sacrificing all that shit. You work. You work. You work. You need to realize, you can work to get to the next level, but don’t work for the material things. You possess these things because of this thing that is intangible. Whatever this is that draws people to you, that is not money. That’s in here [points to chest.] Don’t forget that when all of the material stuff starts coming. I’ve seen friends of mine become big and get leverage, and they change so quick. I'm like, 'Damn, how did you—just last week we were just talking about how this shit ain’t gonna change us.' Constantly remind yourself that all of this shit can be taken. Don’t base your worth on these things that you get. The work is here.