Blue and beautiful, not a single cloud could be found in the sky as a sign indicated our entrance into Chattanooga; scenery fitting of a Thomas Cole landscape painting or a Ryan McGinley photograph. The sun glowed from above, a radiant yellow that beamed uninterrupted, unchallenged, unrivaled. This very sun would go unnoticed on an ordinary day, any other Thursday the ball of fire right below the heavens would simply be a symbol of one of life’s most consistent patterns. The sun did as the sun has always done, but while driving through downtown Chattanooga, I couldn’t help but think of Isaiah Rashad's lyric, “I think the sunshine should feel how I feel, how I feel." I wondered if he saw himself in that very sky?
It was the day Rashad was coming home to perform where he was born and raised—what better way to be welcomed than by a gorgeous afternoon? Tonight he would be the highest star, the apple of all eyes, a sun too bright to be eclipsed by clouds, and the weather was a symbolic representation of Chattanooga’s son returning home.
Isaiah’s homecoming was my first time back in his Tennessee hometown since a fifth-grade field trip. Memories of my adolescent aquarium adventure had been long forgotten, but after my first bite of Champy’s fried chicken and a satisfying sip of Miller High Life, I knew this would be a far more memorable trip.
I loved the calm, patient Southern spirit that soaks into your skin the minute you slow down and take a deep breath. No one seemed to be in a rush, no one moved with a sense of urgency―even during rush hour, the roads were without rage. It wasn’t until arriving at the venue did I begin to feel that tonight wasn’t just another ordinary stop on the Lil Sunny Tour.
“Y'all ready to turn up for Zaywop!?” an enthusiastic voice questioned as he strolled through the crowd toward the venue’s entrance. His face wore a grin, the kind of drunken expression displayed when excitement and intoxication are in perfect harmony. As he opened the door into the Revelry Room another car drove by playing The Sun’s Tirade at an unruly, peace-disturbing volume. It was the third, or possibly the fourth vehicle to speed through playing Rashad’s long-awaited sequel to Cilvia Demo. Everyone from the jolly drivers to the drunk walkers were in high spirits, happily entering the venue. I watched them with the eyes of an outsider, witnessing firsthand the elation of a hometown celebrating an offspring's return.
Four days earlier, I was at Zay's Atlanta show, where the line resembled a large leviathan that coiled around the building. Rain fell hard, causing the crowd to become anxious and impatient. I couldn’t blame them for wanting to rush inside. Chattanooga was different, the natives lingered outside. Music was played loudly, weed was passed, beer was shared―all that happened outside foretold a crowd who was ready to celebrate.
When opening act Tut took his first steps onto the stage he was welcomed to warm applause and loving cheers; Chattanooga showed love to their very own preacher’s son. Tut is another homegrown artist making a return visit, and there are high hopes that he’ll be the next emcee to prosper in a major way. On stage, he reminds me of Curren$y―easy-going and nonchalant but precise, his carefree spirit never creeping into carelessness. Seeing Tut live was a good reminder to revisit his Preacher’s Son mixtape that was released in 2015; the kind of Southern rap that feels like old Cadillacs, smoky jazz clubs, and AriZona Iced Tea on your grandmother’s porch during the hottest summer months.
There’s an interesting contrast between Tut and Maryland’s Jay IDK, the only other opener who took the stage. Jay has a commanding presence, from the way he comes out with a mask on to how he demands the crowd to chant his name. Jay has the charisma of an Army general; the crowd stayed mostly transfixed throughout his entire performance. He has found comfort onstage, he has made music that translates well in a performative setting, and will only get better from here. Each time our paths cross, his star quality shines a bit brighter.
As Jay closed out his set, I maneuvered into the center of the room, where you find the fans who aren’t too cool and aren't too rambunctious. Chattanooga was still calm, but the whispers broke out into yells as Isaiah’s DJ Chris Calor walked out onstage. There was very little build up—Kendrick’s “m.A.A.d city” to get the energy to roof-scorching levels. Before we knew it, Isaiah was on stage reciting the lyrics to “Smile”―an interesting intro since the loosie didn’t find a home on either one of his albums.
The beauty of the internet is that songs that simply linger on SoundCloud can still make it to the stage and every word is known. Frenzy. An intoxicating passion filled the room as song after song reminded us why we were here. Onstage, the way Isaiah's lyrics are delivered are passionate, he understands how to project and really engage the crowd. There’s no theatrics, just a man with a microphone tellings the stories from his life.
Seeing Isaiah live made me realize how his hiatus between Cilvia Demo and The Sun’s Tirade meant his music was heard mostly in intimate settings—thunderous bangers are meant for plenty of company, but personal records like “Heavenly Father” really work best when you're alone. I never expected to hear a crowd of people sing in unison, “And I been losing more than just my mind, gathering what's left of self-respect.” It’s hard enough to recite your demons into a microphone, but to perform them for hordes of people, night in and night, out must also lay heavy on the soul.
There were joyous moments, like rapping “Damn, that Vince Vaughn is a funny cat" together during “Soliloquy,” but it was hard not to just fall silent and watch the man pour out his truth while confessing how he saw his son but missed his daughter during “Dressed Like Rappers.” To see Isaiah live is like witnessing a man speak his gospel, reading straight from the book of Zaywop.
My trip to Chattanooga was inspired by the feeling that an artist returning to their hometown must inspire a single moment of magic; something that wouldn’t happen anywhere else on a tour. I didn’t know when it would happen or what it would be, but I believed it would occur. In Atlanta—and I imagine on all the other tour stops—Zay performed an a cappella version of “Rope.” It's another rather personal song, but also a crowd pleaser. The music stops, he begins singing “Then my daddy call me yesterday,” and all the air is sucked from the room.
As the hoarse words were sung into the mic, the passion in his voice shook all who spectated.
It was the same song, but the way the words were delivered cut deeper.
He sang while staring directly at his father who was in the crowd as if they were the only two people in the entire building. “I love you, I love you, I love you.”
Every time "I love you" was belted out, a new wave of chills was sent down my spine. It was like being baptized in an ocean of his emotions, and each one was heavier than the last.
Onstage, Isaiah testified, and we all watched without uttering a single sound. I looked to the left, I looked to the right, and the same men I was previously jumping around with were frozen as if we were locked into a staring contest with Medusa.
The show, of course, continued―the fun was brought back in full force once all The House members came out to perform “Park.” The mob of men would stay on stage and turn up until the last song. The show ended how it began, with a song from Kendrick. The sounds of "Alright" echoed through the venue right before Isaiah left the stage. Even after the crowd begged for one more song, the rapper never returned.
I believe that even if the show abruptly ended after that final “I love you,” my soul would’ve been content. In an age where everything feels fake and curated, that raw moment between father and son was real and pure. Real is what people love about Isaiah―he is no different than the rest of us in our mid-twenties trying to figure it all out. Fighting with our vices, wrestling with our demons, confronting our past, celebrating the present, and hoping for the brightest future.
I would later see Isaiah's father backstage―a tiny, older man who reminded me of all the jazz musicians who dedicated their lives to a life on the road; life with their instrument. During our brief exchange, he admitted to being proud of his son, as I imagine any father would. He seemed to be a nice man, very gracious, but I couldn’t help but hear the lyrics to “Hereditary” as he spoke. It's the power of music.
In addition to his father, family was all around backstage―his mother, stepfather, cousins, friends, peers―and at the very center was the rising rap star, their lil' sun. I couldn't help but wonder about when Kanye leaves the stage in Chicago—what does his backstage look like? To be at home, what could be better than performing for a sold-out crowd and seeing people you've known all your life stare at you with pride in their eyes? The look they gave Zay is one that you only see at college graduations, family reunions and NBA drafts.
Home is where your heart is filled to its fullest because it is where love overflows. Home is where your scars burn because wounds heal but the memories never fade.
Memories were made that night in Revelry Room, the kind that will be talked about until his next return. The best thing an artist can do is leave you wanting more, and more is what Chattanooga asked for.
“I love you,” Isaiah said to his father, and “I love you,” is what Chattanooga said back. Not in the heat of the moment, but in the way that they arrived and in the way that they left.
No matter where Isaiah goes from here, love is waiting for him back at home.
By Yoh, aka Yohattanooga, aka @Yoh31.
Photo Credit: Colby Clark