How Maryland Rapper Al Maralen Balances College & Music - DJBooth

Letter to the Editor: "It Gets Harder to Hide Who You Are"

Maryland Rapper Al Maralen proves that being an artist and full-time student is doable.
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Dear Z,

First, I would like to thank you for reading this letter. My name is Al Maralen. I'm an eccentric rap artist from Maryland and I’m here to change the stigma of what it means to be a dreamer.

As a kid, I wrote anything creative that came to mind: stories, poems for girls in my classes, jokes, sketches, new languages...and music. I still remember writing in my third-grade journal that I wanted to be a rapper and a comedian and be on ComicView while releasing videos on 106 & Park. I basically wanted to be Donald Glover and Jamie Foxx before I knew who either of them was. It was just something about words that always struck me.

I grew up in Columbia, Maryland, where rapping is something you do only if you’re bored or in high school or both. I would hear “being a rapper is played out,” “get a real job,” “it’s not realistic,” “you not poor though,” and so on. It didn’t help that the rappers from my area had the music ability of a toaster and rapped about gang banging in a rich neighborhood. It hurt to hear people belittle the craft I loved so much.

I would hide all of my rhymes, songs, and performances from my parents and peers in fear of scrutiny. It’s natural for humans to want to belong, so I made sure I didn’t stand out too much. I played sports, joined organizations, and excelled at academics.

You’re probably wondering, “Who’d you perform for if you didn’t tell nobody?” I would only perform at places where I thought none of my peers would be. I learned over time, though, that it gets hard to hide who you are.

I remember doing a show at a coffee shop outside of my community of Oakland Mills the night before a Friday night soccer game. I didn’t tell any of my teammates, but when I walked into the shop, my whole team came through to support me. I didn’t know how they found out, but it was amazing. The more songs I made, the more shows I did, and the more I randomly freestyled in school, the more people eventually caught on and liked it. I didn’t expect it, but I knew it was a good sign.

College was never really on my mind, and when I did play with the idea of going, two years sounded like a good bid before leaving. I knew that there would be a continuation of roadblocks to eventually earning a degree, but arguing with an African father about not going to college is an extreme sport. After plenty of debate, my parents convinced (forced) me to attend college at the University of Maryland. “You are an artist, so remember what you’re here for and don’t lose focus,” my younger brother said.

Doing music and school full-time has been very stressful, but it’s definitely doable. I’m a junior now, but it took me until the second half of my sophomore year to understand that I’m running a business. I wake up two hours before my classes every day to send emails and write music. In addition to recording and finding time to perform, I also manage my social media, my marketing, and my music income. It’s frustrating, but it’s invaluable to know how to do something before you let someone else handle it.

I knew school would take up most of my time, but why not take advantage of all its resources? I have my campus radio show, “Frieda Geeks,” I rent out all the production equipment to make music videos, and I perform at on-campus events. And if that wasn't already enough, I also took on a multi-year marketing internship with Comcast during the summer months. 

My new mixtape, Universe of Maralen, is a culmination of all this entire experience. The beautiful and the bad; compromising my craft, adulting, and isolation along with progression, family, and still doing what I love. This is everything that I have experienced as a rapper... who is also a son, a brother, a student and an intern. 

All the criticisms, late nights, exams, internships, and shady people that have fucked me over or never believed in me cannot overshadow my decision to live life and use it as a source of inspiration for my music.

If the third grade me saw me today, I think he’d be proud.

‘Til Everything is Everything,

Al Maralen

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