A teen and his dad came from Oregon for the Navy Blue show happening on June 28th in the Bay Area. In hand, they have a box full of every single vinyl and CD that Navy Blue has made or featured on, two Sharpie pens for him to sign with. It was the concluding show of the nine-city tour, and the entire venue poured out onto Mission Street, braving the frigid San Francisco weather.
Inside the dark Brick & Mortar, Sage Elsesser appears as Navy Blue the still, smart, and genuinely introspective rapper who connects with his fans—Tuesday night soon turned into an early Wednesday morning. We revisited the studio where I interviewed Ovrkast and Demahjiae for the cover of issue two.
So much has changed for everyone since then. The walls that were once tagged all over are now painted plain white, Demahjiae is at the desk working on a beat that Navy Blue, wearing a grey Stone Island sweater and commenting on the wear and tear of his new Walabees, was writing to as I entered the small space. On the couch, there was a sleeping Kelly Moonstone in hopes of waking up in a rapping mood. The three people in the room soon turned into four. There was a noticeable difference between this night seeing Navy Blue perform versus the last time he was here, touring with Wiki.
“I just probably trust what I’m doing is impactful more,” he said.
This rang true tonight, after the show the line almost went down the block of fans sharing their experiences with his music, and what he has helped them through in their lives. And this has never been an intentional decision on behalf of Navy Blue, he makes music that is fitting for the moment.
On Ways of Knowing, which was released back in March, we see much more of his personal life in the music. From the cover art, being a baby picture of him and his late grandfather, the song and the music video of “Pillars,” which featured his grandmother and talked about their relationship, to the voicemail his mother left him on “Shadow’s Sheild,” this album takes a glance into his childhood home. However, it wasn’t a body of work he was making to purposefully place his family into, it just happened that way.
The process of creating this album began well before the pandemic. However, only three or four out of the original thirteen songs remained on the final product from the initial recordings which had undergone reworking. While working on the album, Navy Blue noticed that his grandfather was his main inspiration. When making songs like “Pillars” or reflecting on his relationship with his 94-year-old grandmother he taps into the way his grandfather loved her.
“Being that she was his inspiration, a lot of the time I look at her in that way,” he said. “I look at her not as my grandmother sometimes, just as a person.”
He’s simply a family man, and using music as a way to celebrate his lineage is a plus. “I love my family, and it feels cool to honor my family because they make me who I am,” he said. “I get to in turn honor myself and my experiences, which is nice.” As we were able to dive deeper into his life outside of music through the album, it is not an extraordinary occurrence. It’s regular.
Delivering music like this to fans, it can feel like something deeper than it is. So much of today’s society and art can be truly individualistic and surface level, when we receive a body of work like Ways of Knowing, it can leave us asking what it was like to get so personal. I mean I did, but speaking with Navy Blue, he explained that it was never that serious, it’s natural for him, like breathing.
“It’s weird,” he said. “It’s not that special to me, but it is special, but it’s not that special to me because it is what it is.”
All of his behaviors and experiences that come with the music are like second nature. Stepping back from the artist, he starts looking at Navy Blue from Sage’s perspective as the listener, he acknowledges the work he is doing is special. At the show in between songs, he warned the fans, “Don’t take this for granted I don’t think you’ll ever hear anybody rap like that.”
“Selfishly put, it’s for me,” he said honestly. “It’s for me until I give it to y’all.”
If he weren’t the person making the music, an outsider looking in like most of us, he would be a fan of himself. His music resonates with his fans so profoundly that the dad standing there with records spilling out of his arms understood why his son was such a big fan after seeing the show.
The fan’s understanding of the music means so much. Ways of Knowing and the rest of his work features tales of his life and relationships with his family and people around him. However, his family hears the work at the same time the rest of us do. Having shared experiences with people or someone who has watched you go through a phase in life with them to ultimately show them the body of work about those life instances can be difficult. Those people mentioned in the song understand what came before and what happened after the moment that inspired the song. Whereas fans only get the song. So when playing and performing the same music for people who don’t have first-hand experience of going through shared trials and tribulations, it can be a simple task.
Like the song, “To Fall In Love,” expressing the tales and the ups and downs of your first love is a moment we all know, but when it leaves our minds or the group chat, it takes on a new life. Budgie, who also executive-produced the entire album, showed Navy Blue the beat that featured a sample from a cover of a 1965 Barbara Mason song. When he heard it, he was drawn to it immediately.
The song is so simple, from the production resembling sounds heard on a Caribbean island to the subject matter of the song. It feels lighter, and the whole beginning of the album feels more delicate than usual for Navy Blue’s catalog. Though the songs feel lighter and more delicate in subject matter, as he puts it, they are still “perfectly extreme.”
It’s a song about his first true love, and it feels like waking up next to the person you love, it feels like sun on your skin. Traditional love songs are cheesy and pleading, but recording “To Fall In Love” he never got that feeling. Genuine love never feels corny. “To reflect on that time in my life, that was a lot of pain there, but that experience made me who I am in many aspects,” Navy Blue said.
“I feel like I have an infinite well of experience to draw from,” he said. “Even though it might be the same experiences, as you grow up, and evolve and mature, you see your experiences differently.”
The amalgamation of life’s moments makes us who we are and putting that on a platform where everyone can get a glimpse into it is a challenge within itself. So much of this album is Navy Blue sharing with us the moments that heavily impacted his life.
Sharing the music with family or people close to you opens the artist up to a different kind of criticism that doesn’t come from behind a screen or words in a publication. And coming from a family full of artists is a different beast. His parents are musicians, his mom constantly sang and hummed through the house, and his dad is a percussionist. “It was always music being played,” he said, removing his chain. “I didn’t really grow up in one of those households where it was one kind of sound.”
The sounds of his house present themselves through live performances of his music. His grandfather would listen to artists like Nat King Cole, his mom would play things like Pharoah Sanders, Joni Mitchell and Jazz Big Bands from Mali. Navy Blue came from a house of freedom. His dad would be playing music with his friends constantly, there was an ability to let all the sounds they had in their heads come out through the music. There was barely any radio, except for in the mornings when they were going to school.
“It allows me, when I make music, to experiment,” he said.
He has had the building blocks of his familial structure and liberation through music. Living at home he learned how to tote the line between having the framework and the free ability to make music. Today as he becomes his own artist, he loves the structure of songs, his process is very loose; he never restarts a song once he begins writing. He just goes, and the method of doing so is pretty poetic. “Structure is good, but it is also nice to have the healthy, harmonious balance of structure and freedom,” he said.
Kelly is still snoring softly on the couch, and Demahjiae just paused the beat — Navy Blue, is thinking about the way separating from his childhood Los Angeles upbringing and making the move to New York in his adulthood impacted his sound. Making the transition to being a fully independent person is an inevitable step of life moving to New York and making what he calls “Navy Blue music,” it finally felt like he had ownership over what he was making.
As he goes on in his career, one day he hopes to “branch out” of the house that is Navy Blue and eventually become Sage as an artist. Navy Blue came from a place of survival, and after numerous bodies of work, he feels like he is finally surviving off his work. At this point, he’s moving on to the next chapter. The journey will always continue and he is always trying to get freer in his projects.
When he is asked about the kind of music that he makes, he likes saying conscious rap, he said jokingly. Yet these people are not sitting around wearing Common hats and argyle sweater vests, this music is coming from a place of consciousness, but in a different way. These are the same people singing Sexyy Red’s “Skee Yee” all night.
This shows the duality of man. You can be a person who loves Jazz and loves pouring your brains and emotions out over chopped soul samples but also loves the ratchet sounds of the Sexyy Princess of St. Louis. Alongside that, as an artist, he is making music that puts what it is like being a Black person in America at the center and at so many of the shows like this I’ve been to, it is hard to neglect the fact that I am often the minority in a crowd where an artist is explaining an experience I identify with.
At the show, he was making sure that his white fans were cognisant of the space that they were in. In the notes I wrote from the show, I mentioned how he was voicing how he was tired of white people, and they didn’t mind it. All experiences are felt differently by everyone. As an artist, it is honorable that all kinds of people can come together over what he is saying in his songs. Having a vast spectrum of people who can see themselves in your work is a mission as an artist.
“I think it’s important to find the humor in taking little jabs in making white people uncomfortable,” he said. “Don’t just look at me singing the song. I’m the one that should be self-conscious up here, I’m the one bearing my soul, and you’re watching me be vulnerable and doing the acts that should be uncomfortable. Yet, you feel uncomfortable, then it’s fun to watch them get comfortable.”
He compares it to being a basketball coach. It isn’t always a comfortable experience being coached. It can be mean, but afterward, you realize that it is needed. Earlier in his music, he was clear about the resentment that comes with navigating life as a Black man, now having the clarity of being 26, some of it has dissipated, at least in the music. When starting his music career, it was easy to express the disdain he had for the world through his music, with no direction. It was a natural feeling to point the finger at the things that make you feel uneasy.
The uneasy feeling has since diminished, at the show it was like Navy Blue was soaring on stage, commanding the attention of everyone in the room. Hands were up in the air, people were dancing, a pregnant girl and her boyfriend were appreciating the show with his hand on her belly, and the night was as full as the actual space. He reached the point of being secure in what he was doing through practice.
“That makes it all so much easier,” he said. “And I’m a lot more kind to myself.”
His security within his music and himself comes from the constant practice of prayer and meditation that he did at every stop of the tour before going into the performance of “Code of Honor.” All of the practices are solely for him and his well-being before it makes its way to us at a show. “I meditate because I need to meditate at that point in the set,” he said. “Before I do ‘Code of Honor,’ it’s the one song where I have this freedom to get angry a little bit, I can grit my teeth, and it allows me to do that safely.”
The three-minute meditation was welcomed by fans, honoring the practice and centering themselves in the space alongside Navy Blue. They even shushed some people at the bar who were not observing the moment of peace. The meditation before “Code of Honor” allows him to reset himself after doing the more emotional songs coming from Ways of Knowing, it welcomes calm in the rage. From this, he accepts himself in all ways of being.
This is not only a way of preparing himself and centering himself in being in the moment, but it is also a form of protection, which he learned from his mom. She came to one of his earlier shows and saw her son getting annoyed and frustrated with the crowd. “‘You just expounded your life experience and crammed it into two minutes and forty-five seconds,’” he said, reminiscing on his mom’s words.
Most fans, shit, all fans are outsiders looking into a stranger’s window when it comes to art and music, especially. For musicians like Navy Blue, who are the orators of their own story on top of beats, it can be challenging to remove the lived experiences from the art as we can as fans. In his life, what he is talking about is a linear experience. He knows what came before and how that impacted him after. Whereas, we can take part in the music as if it is a movie. However, his techniques of prayer and meditation help him through his life experiences as an artist and help him see it from a fan’s vantage point.
“I’m learning to have a lot more patience and compassion, and for me, prayer makes that a lot easier,” he says. “The main thing I pray for, I say, ‘God allow me to be reasonable and compassionate with myself and others.’”
He’s been able to show compassion and reason at the shows with the people who are going out of their way to see him showcase his work, but he also does this with the people accompanying him at shows. This tour featured Zeroh and Kelly Moonstone, some of the same artists who were featured on the album.
Kelly was brought alongside Navy Blue and Zeroh on her first tour ever and they went from Texas to London and then California for the entire month of June. Navy Blue got to spend a lot of time traveling thanks to his career as a pro skater with Supreme, Fucking Awesome, and Converse. So to give people the same ability to experience the world doing the thing they love is a blessing they can all share.
“It’s cool to be able to take Demahjiae on the last year, and Kelly bring on this one,” he said. “Even though it’s quick stops, its cool to hear her be like ‘Wow, we’re in Amsterdam.’”
The tour is an essential part of the album cycle, much like doing press. But for Navy Blue, it is the least of his worries. For him, going outside after being on stage, receiving love, and hearing anecdotes from fans feels genuine. That’s why he does it all.
“I love touring, but the prize of touring is my people,” he said.
As time goes by, Kelly wakes from her slumber for a moment, Navy Blue says that he is too tired to try and rap, She goes back to sleep, and we return to the conversation. When reflecting on his sound throughout his career, he recognizes that for a long time, his work was coming out of a place of rigidity. Now, he’s loosening up, realizing there’s not one way to do things.
He’s learning to experiment, things don’t have to be the same as it was when recorded. “I get to do cool things where it feels like theater or something,” he said. This night alone, the show was longer than expected, and no one minded. He was on stage with his friends telling jokes, singing Sexyy Red, and telling the stories behind the songs on the album. The night was as fun as it was emotional. “I’m tapping into how I feel and presenting it a different way. That’s been really fun to do.”
Shows add a layered experience to the songs that we already love. Beyond listening to the music through the headphones like most of us have been doing since the album dropped back in March, now we visualize all of the emotional parts that went into the music, only things you can receive from the artist in a live setting.
“I’m just not afraid of how I sound. If my voice cracks, or if I’m getting into it. I love that,” he says thinking about his performance journey. “A lot of the time when I record, my tone starts to go up like this and at the end of it, I’m here. I like that, and I think that’s the way it’s meant to be. Regardless of how it sounds, I’m not really thinking about that,” he said. “It’s about how it feels. If it feels right, then it’s probably going to sound right. It has no choice but to sound right because it’s right. That’s the main thing.”