By Ahriel Nari
Every now and then, an artist comes along that restores your faith in music. Chicago rapper/singer Ausar is the artist who did just that with his impressive EP Flight of the Honeybee. With cosigns from Lupe Fiasco, Smino, Rakim, and 9th Wonder, Ausar has captured the ears and hearts of many through his lyrical skill. I got a chance to chat with Ausar about developing the concept for the EP, the Chicago music scene, and gaining Wyclef Jean as a mentor. Check out our conversation below.
You fell in love with music at a very young age and you drew inspiration from gospel. Were you raised in the church?
I was SUPER raised in the church. I was that kid who was in service two to three times a week. My mom led the choir. I was in CHURCH!
How do you think that experience and gospel in general have shaped you as an artist?
When I set out to make music, the thing that I’m looking for the most is to leave people feeling something. Gospel has influenced me because if I don’t feel it in my soul when I’m writing or listening to music, it don’t really move me.
You went to University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign where you were a chemistry turned community health major. How did you end up studying that?
Coming into college, I wanted to do chemical engineering, but I didn’t get accepted into the program. The way University of Illinois works is they’ll place you into a chemistry program. Depending on how you do, they’ll place you into the chemical engineering program. I quickly realized how ill-equipped I was. I was struggling through it but was still having a good time! I was having fun up until I got to physics. Once I got to physics I was like, “Ok. Not fun anymore”! A lot of people in my family have delved into the vein of community health and health administration. So, that’s always been something I know a lot about. One thing that was big in me changing my major is I started taking my music more seriously. I wanted my degree but I needed to pick a major that allowed me to succeed, get my degree, and continue to do what I want to do in music. So, community health made sense for me.
What was the final straw where you were like, “Ok, I’m just going to switch over to music?”
After my freshman year, I did a performance with an organization on campus called W.O.R.D. (Writers Organizing Realistic Dialect). A lot of people in the organization were like “Yo, you should probably take music more seriously”. This is gonna sound really bad but it’s very seldom that I find something that intrinsically motivates me to do everything on my own. I knew it was time for me to switch when I put together my first EP and I literally had tunnel vision. I’m talking like friends ain’t hear from me because I was so focused. I organized my own show all by myself and got everything prepared without any help. That’s when I knew.
Who are your musical influences?Growing up when I just listened to gospel music, exclusively. I listened to a lot of Marvin Sapp, Mary Mary, Israel Houghton, The Clark Sisters, etc. My older brother, Nicholas, was the first person who kind of taught me hip-hop when I started delving into other forms of music. At that point, I was listening to a lot of Kanye West, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Lupe Fiasco, and Common, who’s my favorite rapper. Then, my Dad gave me my first mp3 player which had Lauryn Hill, D’Angelo, and De La Soul and that opened up another lane for me. Those are my pockets.
You always say that you “just wanna change lives.” In what way do you want to change lives and how do you plan on going about achieving that?
I want to change lives in whatever ways I can. I just want to use whatever platform I have to make a difference and to make life easier for the people around us, whether that be through accessibility, resources or just letting people know that they’re not alone through my music. I would like to be an example. I don’t really think anyone can truly be a role model but everyone can be an example of what to do and what not to do. So, I just want to be as positive of an example as I can.
I saw that you did work with international students because Ausar loves the kids! What was that like?It’s been cool! What really stuck with me more than anything is how selfless you have to be in roles like this. I think in a lot of unintentional ways, I came into the experience being kind of selfish. Watching how other staff members worked with the students just made me realize how you have to put your ego aside. You have to realize that at the end of the day, the things you’re doing are not for you. These are some of the most important years of the kids’ lives. This is when they build their habits and start building the mindset that they carry with them for the rest of their lives. You get a paycheck but at the end of the day it’s about making this experience the best for the kids.
Let’s talk about your last EP Flight of the Honeybee! It was one of the best conceptual projects I’ve heard in a very long time. How did you come up with this concept of bees?
It started with the intro track “Flight of the Honeybee”. The instrumental reminded me of the classical piece “Flight of the Bumblebee”. So, I just decided to run with that concept. I was able to draw a lot of parallels right off the bat – something as simple as creating a buzz to what bees mean to society. Bees have a lot to offer but they’re often stigmatized and shown in a negative light. They’re undervalued. When I got done with the intro track, I just felt that there was so much more I could dive into with that concept and that turned into “Honey” and “Stinger”. At first, “Bee Sides Freestyle” and “Hive” weren’t even for the project. I had written “Bee Sides” to another beat. Then my homie Nico sent me another beat and I thought that the verses went better with it. What’s crazy about “Hive” is the first half of that song was written in 2017. It was a throwaway from my album. In late 2019, Ro Marsalis, my producer and a dope artist, was like, “What are you doing with this?” I was like “I don’t know”. So, he was like “Alright, I’m gonna flip it and put another beat at the end. Do what you do.” So, it was done and I put it in the vault. Fast forward, I needed an outro for Flight of the Honeybee. I listened to “Hive” and I felt like it tied everything together so unintentionally. It’s crazy how God’s timing works. We threw it on the EP and it worked. We picked out snippets and there’s a funny story about the talking points if you want to hear it….
OF COURSE, I WANNA HEAR IT!
Originally the only track that had a snippet was “Stinger”. After we were done with the project we were like “Ok, we should probably add more of these” to just continue to tell the story, you know? We searched high and low for snippets and nothing was quite right. Ro was like “Let’s see if dude where we got that original sample from has anymore videos.” Turns out he had like 20 videos. We went through one video that was like 20 minutes long and found all the rest of the snippets from the EP.
You collaborated with Ro Marsalis and Aaron Deux on Flight of the Honeybee. How did you decided you wanted to have them on the project?
Well, Ro is on everything. Ro is my producer, he’s my engineer – he’s been a mentor to me. He’s been around since I started music. Aaron – that’s actually a funny story. Aaron produced “Honey” and he didn’t want to send me that beat. He was like, “I want the beat. So, if you’re gonna use it, you have to let me get a verse off.” He came through and he delivered! That verse is probably my favorite verse on the project, honestly.
There’s a lot of talent in the Chicago music scene that the masses aren’t hip to. Who amongst the Chicago scene do you feel like we need to know?
Ro Marsalis, Aaron Deux, Isaiah G, Brittney Carter, Femdot, Josi Green, Nuworld Kayo….I don’t want to miss anyone but I’m just going to leave it at that.
So, what’s your favorite song from the EP?
It changes all the time. I don’t really have a concrete answer. You could probably go to four different interviews and I’ve given a different answer every time. Today, my favorite is “Bee Sides Freestyle”. That’s just the energy I’m feeling today. I got out of a writing slump yesterday. I’m feeling motivated.
What makes Flight of the Honeybee even doper is the live EP from Audiotree! The live performance was fire and the band snapped! How did you link up with the live band?
Those are my people. We all went to University of Illinois. They were in the music department and my homie Landon put me in contact with them. Without spoiling too much, my album that I plan on dropping by the end of this year will have their footprint all over it.
What has been the highlight of your music career so far?
Gaining Wyclef Jean as a mentor. If it had been just a one-off thing where we worked together on a track and to perform with him, that would have been cool. But having somebody who is as successful and highly regarded as he is to see value in what I’m doing and to take time out of his day to truly be a mentor, share knowledge, and give back – it’s really motivating.
How did you meet Wyclef Jean?
University of Illinois. It’s interesting because a lot of people think you shouldn’t go to school or college because you want to be a rapper but that’s where you connect. If I never went to University of Illinois, I would’ve never met Wyclef Jean. I would’ve never met Ro Marsalis. I never would have gone to SXSW. I probably never would’ve started rapping for real, I would have probably just stayed producing. I would’ve never met half the people I know in the Chicago music scene had it not been for University of Illinois. But I got lost from the original question. So, I got free tickets to go to a show. At the show, Wyclef Jean was like, “Who wants to freestyle”? I was hesitant to raise my hand but the homies pushed me to do it. It was like four or five people to get up on stage. So, I spit my verse. The crowd rocked with it. Wyclef rocked with it. So, he asked me to give my information to his person in the back because he liked what he heard and wanted to work on a project together.
You were also featured on the Netflix show Rhythm & Flow! Tell me about that.
When the show first announced it was happening like twenty people sent me the link like, “Yo, you need to audition for this.” So, I applied. The application process took about a month to get to the point where y’all saw me on the show. So, we get there and I was the first person to audition from Chicago. I was really nervous. What you all didn’t see was me getting up there and not giving them any background story as to who I was at all. It was cool though.
What did you learn from the experience?
Don’t ask permission, just ask forgiveness and leave it all on the table. A lot of times, you get in your own way by overthinking and being nervous. If you’re in a specific place, you’re there for a reason. So, be authentically you.
Flight of the Honeybee is available on all streaming platforms!
Follow Ausar on social media (@AusarMusic)