Text and photos By Gaby Deimeke

“Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. My name is Cellus Hamilton from Atlanta, and if you like what I’m doing and want to support my mission and my vision, any donation is appreciated.”

This is the introduction I received from NYC-based rapper, Cellus Hamilton, on the southbound A train two years ago in New York City. I typically roll my eyes and do my best to ignore subway performers as I’m commuting to work, but something about the sincerity in his voice made me sit up and listen.

His acapella rap lasted only a few minutes between the express stop at 125th street and 59th, but it was the lyrics that kept the train car captivated. He talked about music of his parents’ generation, how it’s changed and why music is important. He spit, “Real music made all the difference… it’s notes and rhythms combined with a man’s past.”

Hip hop has been in his blood since Cellus was born. His mom was a hip hop artist back in the ‘80s. “I grew up in a home that appreciated all hip hop culture. I picked it up from my mom and then found my own way to the stage when one day she gave me the microphone and said, ‘Come on stage with me and be my hype man and perform my song with me.’ I fell in love with the stage immediately and I’ve been doing it ever since.”

Cellus started rapping on the subway in 2016. He moved to New York from Atlanta to chase his dream of music, and he quickly realized he needed money. “I got on the train out of desperation really because I was just hungry that day.” He still raps on the subway, but nowadays the strategy is to build his network and create new fans rather than just for money.

Since then, his career has grown and his sound evolved. His hit single in 2017, titled Mojo, starts, “Loop this beat and act like you gone listen.” Cellus has a way of insisting that the world listens. Year after year, he drops new songs and new albums, with seemingly infinite inspiration to talk about everything from his life, the state of music, and the world around him with impressive lyricism.

“Much of my creation process is due to what’s happening around me and my season of life, so for example I made the wedding album when that was the season I was in. So I’m able to constantly put music out because I try to constantly stimulate myself with new environments and new things that I’m learning. I try to always be a student of life. And if I feel like I’m in a season that doesn’t really have that, I try to create that for myself. Artists should always try to grow and evolve. The artists that last the longest are always transitioning and bringing their fans along on the ride with them.” Cellus says to me over speakerphone in the car.

He and his wife Denya were on the way to Long Island to record a music video for a song off Washing Her Feet, which is the 2019 album he refers to as the “wedding album” since it was inspired by their marriage. The video is for a song called Beautiful One which starts with Cellus cleanly rapping to a soft track, “How beautiful behind your veil, this might as well be fairy tale, your lips are like a scarlet cord, your fragrance my new favorite smell.”

Cellus’ wife Denya is a huge supporter of his music, and is always helping out with music video shoots, social media, and hyping up his shows.

“Marriage has impacted my music a lot, because now I have an up-close and personal critic to let me know before I put something out if it’s going to be a hit or not, and also if I should expand it or add to it. But I also have someone who honestly inspires a lot of my content now, because before they were created from a single man’s point of view and now they’re created from a lens of a married man’s point of view.”

He continues, “A concrete example of that is when I was single, I wasn’t as sensitive about how some of the common everyday language that hip hip used was actually offensive to women. But now having a wife that I love and care for, I’ve realized how much hip hop culture has been misogynistic, and how much of that I don’t want to perpetuate realizing now how much that can hurt women and my wife particularly.”

This June, Cellus released Same War, a single he worked on with Chicago based musician Brittney Carter.

Same War is one of my favorite songs that I’ve released in a long time, because I’m a huge fan of jazzy and smooth hip hop. It has an underground feel but also stylistic in the fact that it’s connected to jazz. I haven’t gotten a chance to make a lot of music like that. And Brittney Carter is a friend I’ve known for about seven years, and we’ve long talked about collaborating, but we had never found the right time or the right type of song until (Same War), so I’m really excited about it.”

Cellus has been spending this unexpected time of seclusion reflecting on his music. “Quarantine has been a season of nostalgia for me as well. I’ve gone back and looked at music videos and songs I made when I was eight years old.”

He’s also been transcribing the lyrics of his entire discography into text, and he said with over 100 songs, “it took about nine full days.”

“Doing that made me realize that I really love a lot of my writing that’s on my first debut album called The Most Beautiful that I released in 2014. There’s a song on there called King of the Deck. I literally described a deck of cards and related that to me being a pawn in the music industry using this whole metaphor of a deck of cards.”

The first verse of King of the Deck throws out some clever metaphors: You never know royalty til you forced a deal / Every king is subject to the spade for real / I was just a jack trying to find a ten but reneged / cause the joker wasn’t trying to place a bid / Like an initial on my paper / I’m less than but I stand for someone greater.

“Quarantine has given me a chance to figure out what exactly that inspires me the most, because I’ve realized that most of my inspiration comes from conversation, so since we’re in social distancing and social isolation, I have to get creative about filling my days with people that inspire me. So that’s been getting back in touch with friends I used to make music with when I was young, finding creative ways to interact with people online. Putting conversation intentionally in my space during quarantine has been my journey right now.”

Cellus has also been rethinking the future of what music could look like in the new age of digital concerts, socially distanced shows, and virtual content.

“Quarantine has me thinking about how we experience live music because I’m a performer at heart. I actually think songs are going to feel when I perform them before I finish them. I’m writing thinking about how songs will be communicated in live performance and on stage. Quarantine has made me think about how to create some sort of live concert experience via social media, so actually working with some creatives and exploring past an Instagram live stream and how we can make video content.”

Cellus’ songs are modern day love songs, hope songs, and life songs. In his own words, or lyrics, rather, “This was fun, just to prove myself to them, beautifully crafted poetry over some killer drums.”