ARTICLE MARCUS HOLMLUND
PHOTOGRAPHY HANNIBAL MATTHEWS
HIS FIRST ALBUM HIT NUMBER ONE ON THE R&B CHARTS UPON ARRIVAL, BUT NO MATTER HOW HIGH HIS STAR RISES, AUGUST ALSINA IS DETERMINED TO BE THE VOICE OF THE UNDERDOG
“I really don’t know how it happened… It just did. And here I am,” 21-year-old NOLA-bred August Alsina casually tells me of his quick-fire rise to superstardom. Just a few short years ago—as the R&B newcomer details in his Rick Ross-assisted track “Benediction”—he was homeless, dealing with the murder of his older brother, and “sleeping on the floor at the corner store.” Now, after his debut album, Testimony has literally topped the charts (reaching number one on both R&B and R&B/Hip-hop in the U.S.), he’s still feeling the pains of his past while he ushers in the burdens of his present-day visibility.
Alsina and I are seated in the lobby of the Viceroy in Manhattan two months after Testimony’s official release (April 15th, 2014), his expression pensive. “I’ve been at the bottom all my life, so, I don’t really know how to accept success just yet. It’s a different feeling every day. Sometimes I feel like, Damn, I’m really here. The next day, I feel like I’m not doing enough.”
He says of his first Def Jam check, “I used it to put gas in my car. I ate off it. I still buy my own clothes. I have mouths to feed.” So say, too, his “SELF” and “MADE” tattoos, positioned beside each temple. “All I know how to do is grind, hustle, and pray. That’s what my past set me up for.” And the singer-songwriter, whose upbringing is his first album’s central theme, isn’t afraid to bring listeners close to his struggles. There’s a real presence of pain, even when he’s serenading, or dropping a bass-heavy club track. Hip-hop/Soul hasn’t felt this real since Mary J. Blige’s 1992 debut. The comparison especially makes sense aesthetically: he says his first “A-ha” music moment came while watching Lauryn Hill’s tear-jerking rendition of “His Eye Is On The Sparrow” in 1993’s Sister Act 2.
Trying to keep his music the main focus for his listeners can, as all pop-stars know, prove often more difficult than gaining notoriety in the first place. “I think sometimes people see me as not grateful, but it’s not that at all; I’m just learning all of this.” Of maintaining an image, Alsina says he’s still figuring it out. “It’s all very new. I’m thankful, but at the same time I don’t always get to live in the moment as much as I’d like to. I don’t have time for it to register, which can be good because I never get complacent. My music is like therapy for me, but a lot of times the business takes its toll on you and it becomes its own stressor. It’s almost like I was born again and I have to figure out life like it just started… It’s my new life. And sometimes you fuck up.”
With a North American summer tour and more single releases in the works, he’s not afraid of much going forward. “I’ve been so low for so long that right now, there’s nothing anyone can do to me that’d be worse than dying. It sounds harsh, but, because of what I’ve been through, it’s always been a reality for me. The only real fear I have now is myself fucking my own shit up because I know where I come from. I know my attitude and I would hate to be the one to blow this,” he explains. So far, so good. 2013’s “I Luv This Shit” (featuring Trinidad James) is almost at 20 million views on YouTube and nominated for several BET Awards, and still Alsina is a kind of humble you can’t fake. “I’ve never allowed anyone to rob me of my honesty. You can see that even going back to my YouTube videos. At the end of it all, I’m the only motherfucker up on that stage. And that’s another reason I think people are connecting so hard to these records. My music represents the struggle and doing it on your own. The way I see it is if I continue being real, it will resonate no matter what the trend. There will always be more poor folks than rich ones and as long as I’m uplifting them with things they can relate to, I’ll be their voice.”