INTERVIEW: The balaclava-wearing rapper-slash-singer, RMR, talks to us about his journey from obscurity to viral fame, and reveals the depth of his person.
It’s fair to say that 2020 has been full of unexpected events, such as the death of Kobe Bryant, COVID-19, and the world finally recognizing that Black Lives Matter is more than a hashtag, it’s a human rights movement. And yet another unexpected event happened at the end of February when a soft-voiced crooner wearing a ski mask and a Yves Saint Laurent bulletproof vest went viral for covering “Bless the Broken Road” by Rascal Flatts.
To this day, there is not much known about RMR (pronounced “Rumor”), including what he looks like underneath the balaclava. He considers himself to be a citizen of the world, meaning he doesn’t necessarily adhere to one certain ideology or culture but chooses to be a student of humanity who’s constantly learning and exposing himself to new things.
Having gone viral right before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world, RMR was instantaneously referred to as an "artist of the pandemic". But, over a video call from Toronto to L.A., RMR makes one thing clear: he’s a vision of what the future could look like.
“I only know Zoom calls, I've never done a performance [and] I haven’t had a proper setting to go and meet fans. It’s just been different,” he says. Except for flying down to Minneapolis with his team to partake in recent protests where some fans recognize him (and his ski mask), RMR’s career thus far has been frozen to a virtual reality.
Image provided by Warner Records
“I try to stay safe because I understand that other people [have] immune deficiencies, so I don’t go out as much. If I’m asymptomatic, I won’t know I have it and I don’t wanna spread it,” he thoughtfully states. “I try to stay safe because I understand what other people are going through, and that’s what my music is too. It’s parallel with that because it’s all about change and about something different.”
RMR doesn’t define himself as a country singer, a country rapper, or a trap singer either, but rather an artist whose music centers itself around “opening up that third eye and heightening your consciousness.”
“Not to sound arrogant, but I see myself as what a lot of people are going towards and be the blueprint of what the future could look like. Rest in peace XXXTENTACION, he did it and he did it at a really good level. I just want my complete sound to help people grow,” RMR says. “It’s not just about genre-bending [music], it’s about educating people and helping them not to be ignorant in a subconscious way. [If] you subconsciously listen to one of my records like “Welfare” and like it, you’ll start digging in and will go and find more artists like that, then you find a friend like that and he or she comes from a whole different world than you, and then you’re growing. It’s just little steps in growing and putting yourself in somebody else’s shoes and understanding them.”
RMR mentions that the idea of genre-bending music has been around since Aerosmith and Run-DMC in the 80s, as well as artists like Nelly in the late 90s and early 00s. Looking at his own music, he notes that you’re either going to like it, gravitate towards it or “aren’t really messing with it”, but you will always grow from it. And at its core, RMR’s debut label EP Drug Dealing Is a Lost Art embodies that train of thought.
Before even pressing play on the EP’s first single, RMR points out that its title and cover art are already communicating a message. Fixed with a 1979 photo of the late Felix Mitchell and friends, someone RMR describes as a former Bay Area "entrepreneur” (and state-described 'drug lord’ whose criminal record was overturned after his death in 1986), a million stories unfold.
“A lot of things aren’t taboo no more — drug dealing isn't as taboo as it used to be,” he says. “We’re getting so immune and conditioned to so many different things these days. Like, look at Generation X, they were in their parents' basements smoking [while] millennials are like ‘Okay, weed is legal, we don’t care’. What’s Generation Z gonna do?”
RMR admires the differences between age generations while insisting that our future rests on individual growth both old and new. Enter famed Virginia producer Timbaland who alongside Swizz Beatz has kept the world entertained via their Verzuz battles all quarantine long. RMR mentions his favorite battles thus far have been “Nelly vs. Ludacris and Lil Jon vs. T-Pain” before humbling speaking about his interactions with the famed veteran.
“He reached out on Instagram and we flew down there and as soon as we flew down there, on the first day, he was like “Oh you wearing a mask?” and I was like “Big dog Timbo, yeah!”. We chopped it up a little bit [and] he gave me some game, and then we went into the studio. He put on “I’m Not Over You” and I just started going in,” he says.
“I don’t really like surface-level records when it’s the time for it, like a party, but I like depth and putting substance in my records. When I was writing it, originally I was like ‘it’s about a girl’ and then thought ‘Nah, that makes no sense, let me try to dig deep and have people relate to my stuff’. Like, who can relate to this? Who’s vulnerable right now who can relate to this record? A lot of the people who are vulnerable, they get it without me having to say it. And then that same night, I cooked up another record with him real quick, like 30 minutes. I promised him 16 records and told him to hold me to that,” RMR concludes.
Throughout Drug Dealing Is a Lost Art, RMR carefully crafts a story of starting at rock bottom, reaching goals and also falling victim to some of those outcomes. He also makes it known that most of the songs, while personal, also come from a space of manifestation.
“It’s like, what is your vice?”, he asks. “You try to keep walking away from it but it keeps bringing you back in and you’re not over it. It’s like, “Welfare” you came up, “Nouveau Riche” you’re almost plateauing, and then it brings you back down with “I'm Not Over You” because now you’re having withdrawals and all that. You’re still trying to keep your success, but you know you gotta drop some habits.”
Virtues, values, and vices tend to be a delicate balancing act: sometimes they define who you are, sometimes they pull you under, and sometimes they urge you to educate others who have walked a different life than you. Living in a world where Black music, specifically rap music, is consumed more and more by white fans, RMR recognizes his role in educating the newest generation of listeners that beyond the stage, he is a Black man.
“I’m not just an entertainer. Maybe we can break through by saying they’re not just a sports person, they’re just not an artist, they’re not just an actor, he’s actually somebody - but that also goes to the artist. As an artist, it’s [our] responsibility to set that bar. Maybe some artists are like ‘I’m just rapping to get out the hood’, and I don’t blame that because everybody got their own reasons for doing stuff. But, when they’re doing that and get to that certain point, it’s about education and putting something out there for the fans so they can relate to you on a certain level. [They can] know your background and put themselves in your shoes,” he says.
“If you’re coming from a very urban neighborhood, instead of glorifying that, they should be like ‘Okay we came from here, my school wasn’t funded because of so and so, so I had to drop out’“ [or] ‘The teachers weren’t teaching me shit because they weren’t getting funded, they didn’t get paid well and they just came to school to yell at some kids’”. If you just put that stuff in there, maybe one out of 100 kids or one out of 1000 kids who were at their show may actually look into it and do the research to relate to you. If you change one mind, one person, that’s enough.”
Although RMR considers humanity to be “one straw away from breaking the camel’s back”, he still carries the hope that change is coming. Referring to his off-stage reality, he says he uses his time to vote and do research so that he doesn’t fall victim to “false prophets”, but also encourages everyone to converse without bias.
“Everybody has good in them and you just gotta find a way to tap into them or relate to find out what caused that hurt or caused that evil. Get everybody to talk to somebody,” he says passionately.
Though usually there’s no truth to a rumor, when it comes to RMR, it becomes clear that truth is all there is.