Features, Print August 3, 2020

Can We Just Live? Devin Tremell Speaks Out with Hip Hop as a Tool of Influence

by Dan England

Devin Tremell insisted to the crowd of hundreds looking up at him from the Lincoln Park gazebo that he was just a regular Black dude. But he did have a history of civic engagement.

A few years ago, he attended the first meetings hosted by the City of Greeley to gather input on a plan to rebuild the city’s woeful skate parks. He was so excited about the new plan that he kept it pinned to his fridge for two years before the concrete paradise opened this winter in Centennial Park. Tremell now calls it the coolest place in Greeley.

UNC student, activist and Northern Colorado-based rapper Devin Tremell. Photo by Woody Myers

Still, Tremell remained quiet otherwise, even when a white supremacist shot and killed nine Black churchgoers during a Bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 2015. He was quiet too, when Walter Scott, an unarmed black man, was killed by police officers after he was stopped for a burned-out brake light that same year. 

Both those incidents took place in Charleston, S.C., where Tremell grew up. Tremell had his own bad experiences with the police, mostly what he considered harassment for being Black, including a time when officers shook him down in front of his friends while skating at Centennial because they suspected him of stealing backpacks at the University of Northern Colorado, where he attended classes. He was a suspect, he said, because he was Black.

He was 16, he said, when he got his first patdown, in front of a Walgreens with his friends, during a skating trip.

Flip through the entire August issue at BandWagMag.com or head to a BandWagon Box in Old Town Fort Collins and the Downtown Plaza in Greeley.

Instead of someone else’s backpack, Tremell shouldered a lot of anger from those instances, which clashed with the smiles he preferred to flash at people. But he considered himself lucky. He could let out that anger through hip-hop, a channel through which he could be himself.

“I don’t know where I’d be if rap music wasn’t acting as an outlet for me,” Tremell said.

Hip-hop, however, wasn’t enough in 2015. The horror stayed with him, even as he tried to rap it out. He extinguished the flame only by promising himself that when the time came, he would do something.

“I felt like I didn’t do anything,” Tremell said. “I told myself that if this was to ever happen again, I couldn’t sit by anymore.”

And then George Floyd said, over and over, that he couldn’t breathe, triggering a movement the world hasn’t seen in decades. As Juneteenth, the day slaves were all made truly free approached, and with the smoke still clearing from the nationwide response to Floyd’s death, Tremell knew the time was now.

Can’t Stop (Won’t Stop) The Hip Hop

Tremell on stage at The Moxi Theater. All photos by Woody Myers.

Tremell studied communications and business at UNC, but his goal, maybe his dream, was to be a hip-hop artist. He recorded his first song when he was 15 on a crappy laptop, using an instrumental track from the rapper Murs and the mic from his earbuds. He later attended a hip-hop boot camp organized by Murs, an intense test highlighted by a nightly, unforgiving audience who booed you off the stage if you sucked – the kind displayed in Eminem’s 8 Mile. Tremell wasn’t great, but he also wasn’t booed off. He’s still proud of that.  

He moved to Greeley to attend UNC and spent four years in a group before becoming a solo artist. He was good enough to book gigs at places such as the Moxi and perform well at open mic nights, either as his own man or with other artists from Greeley’s Soul Sessions Studio

Before COVID-19, he made a 50/50 living off his music and carpentry, but it’s been tougher, as it has been for nearly all musicians. He has a year left on his degree, which got too expensive to finish, but he’s grateful to have a trade to support himself and his music. 

Tremell’s father, who grew up in Los Angeles, serenaded him as a baby with activist hip-hop common in the early 90s by groups such as N.W.A., Ice T and Public Enemy. 

“My Dad sounds exactly like Ice Cube,” Tremell said and laughed. “It’s hilarious. Same register and everything.”

Those influences surfaced in Tremell’s music, but only occasionally, as hip-hop grew more commercial and focused more on partying, sex and relationships. Tremell liked to consider himself a mix of the two, perhaps someone like Kendrick Lamar, who would be the first pop music artist to win the Pulitzer Prize. Lamar could write a banger, but he also wrote some of the most powerful socially conscious lyrics ever recorded. Tremell came from an underground atmosphere, where edgy ideas were celebrated and partying was encouraged but not considered a lifestyle.

“When we were putting songs out, the ones that did well had that element of my personal, real Black experience in Charlestown,” Tremell said. “When you’re a Black male, they don’t want you to talk about your concerns. You just need to push it down. Rap was a way to find myself.”

His latest song is a good example, a fun tune with a slight, socially conscious message called “Sunlight.” One line, “I’ve been waiting for the sunshine to come in, and I’ve been praying for the safety of my cousins,” reflects both his own concern for himself and his family and the experiences of being a black man in Trump’s America. He has two little cousins, little brown kids, he calls them, in Charlestown, who are seven years younger than him.

“I remember the struggles I was going through at 17 in that city,” Tremell said. “Not just with the police, but with the black community as well. It’s a dangerous area, and you never know what will happen. It’s a genuine fear I have that something would happen to them out of their control. These aren’t car accidents. It’s the [racially biased] things that would happen in these kind of areas.”

Hearing A Call (Receiving An Answer)

Tremell speaks before a Juneteenth Black Lives Matter march in Greeley. All photos by Woody Myers.

Tremell thought he was following through with his promise to speak out when he traveled to Denver, witnessing the riots and participating in the more peaceful protests that followed. He never destroyed any property, he said, although he silently gave a “hell yeah” to the people who did. He understood their anger. He felt it himself. He wanted to break something too. But that’s not him.

“I was there for the transition of peace, and that felt very powerful,” he said. So powerful, in fact, that he thought about Greeley. Denver is fine, he thought to himself. That city seems to get it now. He began to wonder about the place he now calls home. He wanted to do something, and he thought Juneteenth was a good day to do it because of what it represented: It’s the day that ended slavery in Texas, two-and-a-half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

Tremell at the helm of a Greeley Black Lives Matter march.

“The message had to reach all the nooks and crannies of the country,” Tremell said. “Greeley is this conservative area, kind of out of the way, and it needs to reach there too. This is a problem across the board.”

On Juneteenth, June 19, Tremell walked around the parking lot of the University Center, UNC’s student center, and greeted the protestors as they showed up. His would be the third protest in Greeley that month, and he drew a smaller crowd than the others, but even so, a couple hundred showed to march down 11th Avenue to Lincoln Park. He wanted to meet all of them before they began.

“It felt good,” he said. “I was surprised at the amount of people who felt the same way I did. I see more of that coming out. This is a moment of bringing people out of their chairs for the first time.”

Tremell said before, during and after the march to the cheering crowd that he was just a guy from Greeley. He didn’t want to absorb the cheers. He wanted to spread them around. 

“I wanted to be a real person because I wanted to show we all have the power to make things happen fairly easily,” Tremell said. “You can take a stance with a little bit of effort.”

Indeed, once he decided to host a protest, Tremell made a couple phone calls, one to the city for use of the gazebo and one to the police as a courtesy, and he created a Facebook post.

“The rest was such a beautiful thing,” he said. “I reached out to like 30 people. Everyone else probably told everyone else.”

The march, he said, makes him more inclined to create more songs with more social awareness. “Sometimes, I just want to make a bop,” Tremell said. “That’s all well and good, but do Black artists really need to do more of that? No. We should use our hip-hop as an influence. It should be a tool. There’s not many of us. The more of us who can come together, the better.”

Tremell speaks at Lincoln Park on Juneteenth 2020. Photo by Woody Myers.

Tremell doesn’t know what will come out of this time. There are as many discouraging moments as there are glorious ones: There’s a Black Lives Matter sticker on his huge water bottle he attaches to his keys, and an older man recently grabbed him, surprisingly hard, and asked him, “Don’t All Lives Matter?” Tremell rolled his eyes and explained that he wasn’t saying they didn’t.

So, yes, Devin Tremell is still angry, even as he finds himself smiling as much as he ever has. All of this emotion goes into his voice as both a “regular Black dude” and a promising young musician, with his answer to a final question for this interview sounding like a future song:

“Can I live? Can I not worry every day about what could happen to me as a Black man? Can I not worry about the police or anyone else all the time? That’s just what all this is about. That’s it. Can I just live? Can we live?”