Balancing books and beats: UNC students make music between classes

By Moses Musilu

Late Tuesday night, Wesley Simmons sits alone at his desk, under a dimmed blue lamp, buried in his laptop.

With a few more taps on the keyboard, the Charlotte native finally finishes his assignment for class and closes his laptop to check the time on his clock: 1 a.m.

Slowly he collects the books and notes spread across the desk, neatly separates what he needs for class and puts it in his book bag. Picking up the clock, he adjusts the alarm for 9 a.m. the next day, and turns off the light in his room.

But instead of getting in his bed, he goes back to his desk and increases the brightness on his lamp. He pulls out his headphones, pen and notebook and begins to write. Countless songs and poems consume the pages, dating back to when he was in eighth grade.

For Simmons, it’s the perfect time to make what he loves: Music.

And there are times when you’d find him wide awake until 5 a.m. deep in his notebook.

“Most of my writing comes between that time,” he said. “That’s when it starts to click for me. There’s nothing else I have to think about. Being up that late doesn’t feel like I’m forcing myself to do it.

“During the day, I’m always thinking what I have to do, whether that’s class or meetings. But at the end of the day, it’s just me and what I want to do with my time. That’s music.”

“The College Dropout” or “Graduation”?

With a growing hip-hop community, students find themselves trying to balance the books with their music. For some, the weight is too much. Raekwon Williams, a 22-year-old rapper from Raleigh, North Carolina, dropped out of UNC-Greensboro his sophomore year to pursue a music career.

“I felt that school was distracting me to the point where I wasn’t putting my all into my music,” Williams said. “I wanted to devote everything I had to it. So now I’m here.”

Williams wasn’t the first to drop out in search of musical fame. Successful hip-hop artists such as Common, Sean Combs (P. Diddy) and Kanye West dropped out of college to pursue a career in music. Kanye West’s journey led to his record-breaking “The College Dropout” album.

Dropping out of school isn’t a decision that’s encouraged by most. In an interview, Kanye West told high school students to stay in school for the opportunities it provides and that his road to success was harder because of his decision to leave school.

Simmons goes by the name “Wes” in his music. Influenced by his parents, Simmons enrolled in UNC-Chapel Hill as an exercise sports science major in hopes of one day becoming a doctor.

But his desire of becoming a doctor slowly faded away, and by sophomore year he knew he wanted to turn his musical hobby into a profession. School seemed to be a waste of time.

“I began to realize I didn’t like school in high school,” Simmons said. “But once I got to college and had all the freedom, it solidified it. My mindset became more independent. Back at home, we’re so influenced by our parents, but they’re not living your life. You have to do what’s right for you.”

Simmons came to the realization when he was walking through campus on a Wednesday night. Every Wednesday, there would be a group of students freestyling in front of the Student Stores. He was impressed, but knew he could do better. After making friends in the group, he was introduced to other artists who showed him where he could record and make music.

But for Simmons, balancing music and school has always been a problem.

“Unfortunately, a lot of times, one or the other suffers,” he said. “If I have an exam one week, my writing suffers. Sometimes I get carried away in my writing and a test suffers.”

Amara Orji, another hopeful artist attending UNC-CH, agreed that although balancing music and college is difficult, it’s better to have a degree in case it doesn’t work out.

“Having a music career would be amazing,” he said. “But I know that there are millions of aspiring artists who work and try just as hard and don’t make it. Staying in school, I’ll always have something to fall back on.

“Also, my parents might kill me if I dropped out,” he quickly added.

Orji, who also studied exercise sports science, goes by the name “N19E.” It took him until his senior year at UNC-CH to realize he wanted to become a rapper, but he says his late revelation was probably for the best.

“I wouldn’t have dropped out but I might have started to question whether the work I was doing was worth it,” Orji said.

“I might not be famous, but I’m still an artist.”

Now on the verge of finishing his senior year, dropping out of college to pursue stardom was never a serious thought that crossed 22-year-old Simmons’ mind. He said when he starts something, he wants to finish it.

And it’s always good to have a backup plan.

Simmons said some people forget some famous artists weren’t discovered until they were older. He sees no reason to rush to stardom and is embracing his music journey.

“If Kendrick Lamar called me up, told me to fly out to California right now and sign me to a record deal, of course I’ll drop everything and go,” he said. “But that hasn’t happened, and I know what I learn from the connections and people I’ve met here are going to help me change the world through music.”

And if he doesn’t make it?

“Then I don’t make it,” Simmons said “I might not be famous, but I’m still an artist. I’ll still be able to make an impact on some people’s lives. It just won’t be as many.”

Simmons plans on becoming a teacher after graduation through Teach for America. He said teaching is what he wants to do through his music, so it made sense to become a teacher because of the major impact they have on people.

Simmons wants to change the world through his music the way Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West have by relating to a lot of people.

“Whether it was love or the struggle of growing up in bad environments, people used their music to help themselves in good and hard times,” he said. “I want people to have my body of art and transform the people who hear it like they did. I want it to be something they can carry in their lives forever.”

Simmons has released two albums in the past year on his SoundCloud page and will soon release music videos. He performs at local open mic nights around Chapel Hill with other hip-hop artists from UNC-CH whenever he has the chance.

“I performed at a show with 30 people the other day, and compared to Kendrick, of course that’s nothing,” he said. “But, that meant the world to me. I enjoyed everyone in there, and I know this is just the beginning. You have to crawl before you can walk.”

Edited by Ana Irizarry