De’Wayne is beaming as he calls from North Hollywood on a recent Tuesday. “I’m an excited-ass homie,” he tells MTV News. “I’m making music and I’m talking to you and people are actually starting to listen.” Despite 2020’s ever-darkening cloud of gloom, the 25-year-old artist has plenty to be excited about. Shortly after he finished a European tour with pop trio Waterparks earlier this year, the entire world shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic, and De’Wayne went from bouncy club shows to homebound days. But he also received some unexpected good news.
Simultaneously, De’Wayne — whose alternative music veers from the “Black Skinhead”-style rumble of new single “National Anthem” to palm-muted power chords and industrial elements — got signed to California indie label Hopeless Records, the current home of pop-punk stalwarts like Taking Back Sunday, Sum 41, and New Found Glory. “My life went from, like, not being able to afford food and not thinking I wanted to record an album [to] … I was like, oh, it’s time to go now,” he says. “But then the world came to a full stop. But then I was able to make a record, so it’s been kind of fucking insane, bro.”
Over the phone, De’Wayne carries the palpable energy of both “National Anthem” (with its lyrical nod to The 1975) and his equally eclectic sartorial style, which overflows with feathery jackets and uncanny echoes of Jimi Hendrix. He celebrates every part of his journey so far, leaving Texas for Los Angeles, and working two jobs to support himself as he honed his sound and figured out his vision.
“I understood that I didn’t rap about cars, I didn’t rap about money, I didn’t rap about women, so I wasn’t going to be this artist in Houston at the time. I always just kind of had this alternative upbringing,” he says. Below, he details his musical beginnings, the evolution of his own sound and his fanbase (which he dubbed the Circle), and his aspirations of becoming an “underground art-rock star.”
MTV News: I imagine that’s got to be a weird mix of emotions, to finish strong on tour and to get signed, but then also to realize things are coming to a standstill elsewhere in the world because of COVID-19 and mass protests for racial justice.
De’Wayne: Oh literally, bro. I’ve been Black for 24 years. I’ve been trying to have these conversations with people. That’s the thing that was so beautiful about performing “National Anthem” on tour. My fans don’t look like me at this moment. You know what I’m saying? It’s like young, white women from, like, 12 to 30, and I’m making them question their privilege and have these conversations and want to be like, “I need to talk to my parents about this stuff.” People really want to see change. I hope we just keep this up. So that’s been even heavier than the pandemic, to be all the way honest with you. But working through both, man, yeah.
MTV News: When you released “National Anthem,” you said you were originally not going to put it out when you did. But then you obviously bumped it up. Can you explain why?
De’Wayne: Just, I guess, the understanding that, “Let’s have the conversation now like we were having it on tour. Let’s put out a song.” Also just to be like, all right, I’m a Black man in alternative music. I wanted to let people know, if they didn’t know, this is my flag in the ground for us. This is where I stand with this shit. If you’re not with it, totally fine. But if you’re about it and you’re about being an ally and you’re about supporting this, you need to get down with this now. It felt more urgent. I kind of feel like my whole project right now kind of feels urgent.
MTV News: You mentioned being a Black artist in an alternative space. We’re about the same age, and not to ask you about stuff that happened so long ago, but I do feel like in the alternative space 25 years ago—
De’Wayne: No, let’s talk about it, please.
MTV News: Like 25 years ago, that was a very white space, and it continues to be a white space, although now more Black artists are either more visible in the alternative space or they have taken alternative elements and really mixed them into genres that wouldn’t necessarily be considered alternative. I was curious about your perspective on that. Did you look to anybody in particular as you were figuring out your path?
De’Wayne: Bro, the thing about it being in the past, how you were saying 25 years, you could go back further, of course. Those people were looked at like aliens. It was like, yo, this is not your thing. You can’t even do this. We can’t even fathom you being this thing because we have you in this small-ass box, right? My parents were very gospel and religious. My stepdad was a preacher and my dad would even preach sometimes, but the next day he would be, like, smoking weed and fuckin’ with girls. You know what I’m saying? So I had this alternative bringing up. When I came to L.A., I felt like I could just expand myself. It was where I truly grew up.
It was one of those moments where you’re in your small studio apartment and [Nirvana’s] Nevermind was a recommendation. I had never heard it. I’m not ashamed to say that. I had never really sat with rock music until I came to L.A. But, man, once I heard that shit, I was like this, I don’t know if I want to do this, but my energy — I’m just as rock and roll, whatever the fuck that means, as any of these kids. That was just my energy. But when I heard it, man, I was like, oh yeah, this is what I want to do. Once I heard that sound and that angst, it just connected with me way more than a song that my parents showed me or something I heard at church or something I had experienced back home.
MTV News: You quote The 1975’s “Love It If We Made It” on “National Anthem,” singing, “Hate that melanin but love selling it / Even Matt Healy let y’all know.” Do you know if Matty has heard the song?
De’Wayne: Yo, Patrick, I gotta tell you, one of my friends asked me that. I get embarrassed about that because, you know what I’m saying? I gotta say no, but then I gotta say I hope he does eventually. He inspires me just as much as anyone who I’ve ever known in my life. They’re called a rock band because they look the part. But are they really a rock band? Like what do they even do? I think that shit is gorgeous, man. So I hope he hears it one day. I think, man, he wears dresses; I’m all about dresses, man. He wears makeup and glitter; I got dressed up in glitter right now. I’m feeling mad beautiful for this interview. So he inspires me, man. Shout out to that guy.
MTV News: Your Instagram page is full of incredible looks. I mean, you’ve got these jackets, man. What are your style inspirations?
De’Wayne: I just love to feel beautiful. You know what I’m saying? I love to feel sexy. Sometimes the less clothes for me, the better. Just whatever makes me feel good. Like if I put it on and I feel hot, I’m just like, yep, this is it. That can be a dress sometimes, or that can be an army-looking jacket or some weird pants. I’ve been wearing these Juicy [Couture] pants lately, like some velour joints that I cannot take off because it makes me feel good. You gotta be radical with your dressing and be over the top, but anything that I see in an artist or inspiration. If they’re free with it, that’s what inspires me. So I try to choose clothes that make me feel as liberated as hell.
MTV News: Both the video and the lyrics for “Top Man” point to your path in music. You talk about being in L.A. and striving to be on top. In the video for that song, an audience member, when you’re on stage, literally throws a bottle at your head.
De’Wayne: Yo, yes.
MTV News: Did you ever have to endure anything that brutal during your come-up? How ripped from your life is that?
De’Wayne: That brutal, no. I hadn’t dealt with anything like that, but I’ve definitely been at shows as a kid… being in Texas and being six of, like, seven artists [on a bill] as a kid was pretty tough for me. But once I started to tour with these bands, it was more just the parents who were just — they would be staring at you. You know, I dance on stage and I’ll be grinding on stage. I would see parents covering their kids’ eyes. It was never anything weird. I always had a Trump moment too. During the last tour, I would kind of go off on just how I felt on what was going on at the moment and I would see parents kind of cutting up. After the show, it was always respect, it was always love, and people appreciated my opinions, and I appreciated theirs, too. So it was never, like, bad. I just kind of wanted to be hit by a brick and see if I can deal with that, in the video, and make it look cool.