Like any truly great emcee, Wayne Watts is a man of letters.
Though not in the stuffy, antiquated sense of a bespectacled professor speaking in Shakespearean soliloquies, Watts is a man who is always thinking about words. He consumes them en masse from authors Ta-Nehisi Coates, Jason Reynolds and N.K. Jemisin, and from his favorite rappers — Jay-Z, The Notorious B.I.G. and Lupe Fiasco. He carefully selects them from daily interactions with friends, colleagues and family, from newspaper articles and novels.
“I pick up different phrases that I hear in the world that resonate with me,” Watts tells BandWagon.
Ultimately, the power of Watts’ dedication to words lies in the myriad of ways in which he employs them. In addition to performing, Watts is also an educator and activist.
In 2018, Watts co-founded The Dream Create Inspire Tour with his partner Destiny Hardney. The couple rallied videographers, sound engineers, educators and artists for a nine city tour in 2019. Along the way, Watts conducted songwriting workshops, collaborated with local musicians and hosted open mics.
“The intention has always been to create an incubator to give disenfranchised creators a platform,” he said.
Just months after the tour ended, Watts and Hardney welcomed “the legendary Iya’Jade Ali Watts” into the world; their first child.
“It was right before everything changed for the worse,” he said.
After a year of success in expanding his vision, community and family, 2020 hit Watts hard. The pandemic shuttered the Denver venues in which he once performed, and The Dream Create Inspire Tour was forced into a virtual existence. A seemingly endless string of police brutality incidents against black Americans dominated the news cycle.
“In 2020, a lot of my music and a lot of my performances were marked around a death,” he said.
During this chaotic time, Watts turned to a daily meditation ritual to ground himself and clear his head. Every morning he would return to the same words. Words that were meant to focus his energy towards love and connectivity.
“They’re filled up with a lot of manifestations and affirmations,” he said. “I treat my mantras like songs.”
It was through this process that Watts found the inspiration for one of the first songs on Homegold | 001, one of three mixtapes that he released in 2020. “Life Ain’t Sweet” begins with a mantra.
“Breathe in life, breathe out love,” Watts sings in unison with Brionne Aigne, the exceptionally talented vocalist featured throughout the release.
After a few repetitions, Aigne and keyboardist Ronneka Cox improvise over soulful changes while Watts embarks on a stream-of-consciousness flow.
“Just as important as having knowledge is feeling empowered,” he raps.
This is what Watts wants you to know. In the most trying of times, it’s especially important to connect with that which feeds your confidence, joy and love.
“It was written after watching endless police brutality incidents,” he said. “I wanted to make music for revolutionaries to decompress to. While you’re fighting these things it’s really essential to remember to breathe.”
It’s not that Watts is advocating for a particular kind of resistance against systemic racism. Instead, he is advocating for a specific mindset from which to practice resistance.
“If you meditated and thought it through, then that’s the best you could do at that time,” he said. “And I’m not just speaking to somebody else. I’m talking to myself.”
In November, Hardney and Watts collected footage and music from black artists and musicians to create a “visual mixtape.” The resulting 20-minute video was projected onto the 325-foot Daniels and Fisher Tower in Denver, the intention being to create a virtual performance that defied racism by honoring individuality.
“Resistance isn’t monolithic, just like black experiences aren’t monolithic,” Watts said. “Resistance can come from anger, but resistance can also come from joy. Black joy is a devastating blow to white supremacy.”
In the subsequent Homegold mixtapes, released in August and November of 2020, Watts practices what he preaches. The songs convey a sense of intimacy and roughness — at times they’re almost conversational — although the flow is undeniable. Watts, a charmingly positive person conversationally, allows himself to experience sorrow and anger on tape.
“I done felt joy and pain and thrill right here,” he raps on “I ain’t calling for no good news, yo” from Home Gold |002. And later, “In the city where they want us really all to get killed right here.”
According to Watts, he owes at least some of this authenticity to the person he has been spending most of his time with during the pandemic: his daughter.
“Seeing how fast a kid can go from crying to laughing has been a constant reminder to honor your emotion,” he said. “If you gotta cry: cry. If you gotta be mad: be mad. If you want to smile: don’t hold it in.”