It’s our first interview at an Ale House in Miami and Arsi tells me that his life is slowing down somewhat (though it often feels like time’s evaporating, too; that the days, for all their tedium, are gone too quickly), given that he’s got a new job teaching a SAT prep class, a job which he enjoys but that calls for an hour-long commute in both directions and, consequently, a proper sleep regimen that sort of interferes with his creative routines, such as they are, and but that his life seems slowed, as well, on account of having separated recently from his girlfriend of three years while she pursues her master’s degree in Chicago. There’s a bit more structure than there’s been in the past. Solitude; things are quieter. And so when I ask him about the contrast between one persona and the next, namely the Sedate Arsi v. Boisterous Speakea5y situation, he tells me that while he does go out now and then to take part in the sort of lifestyle he writes and raps about, what matters to him more than anything right now is his work, fine-tuning these songs he’s about to release and, more so, working on a debut album called Circles, which he’s been laboring over for about a year now, and of which he speaks with the sort of eager reverence of a new father, saying that the album has given him a feeling of purpose at a time when he needs it, that it feels bigger (the album does) than he is, and that honestly the whole thing has made him just a way-more-careful person for fear of fucking his life up or dying before he can finish it.
The latter concern being way more poignant than he lets on outside of the music.
And while he’s very sincere and persuasive in all of his talk about taking things slowly, and leading this life of like monastic introspection and egregious caution, it turns out, when he picks me up one morning to attend the aforementioned photo shoot he’s doing in Wynwood, that Arsi’s confidence as a driver is evidently so through-the-roof as to vanquish all mortal concerns. We rarely move below 50 mph. I don’t wanna ask him to slow down because I’m afraid it’ll make me sound like I’m afraid but when we hit the Palmetto Expressway going north and the speedometer begins its unflinching ascent I start vying for control of my sphincter because it’s raining, and the surrounding cars’ tires are casting up this road-obscuring mist as they cut through puddles, and so I just ask him, instead, to play some music, please, his own music perhaps, which I haven’t heard yet.
So he plays it. We listen to pretty much the entire set of songs he’s got slated for release. He chimes in occasionally with commentary about one thing or another, clears up some of the references, enumerates upon the sorts of technical feats that sound simple and obvious but turn out to be enormously complex. There’s a lot of this.
Domingo Castillo lives with his girlfriend in an efficiency by Florida International University and while he isn’t exactly a manager, per se, he’s got a bevy of professional experience, a degree in criminal justice, and what seems like a pretty thorough feel for the music industry. Fast-talking, opinionated, assertive and versed in an impossible array of subjects, relentlessly vulgar, confident, and carrying into conversation a perspective on life that’s been thoroughly tempered by 28 years of oscillation between mountainous highs (financial, professional, philosophical) and cavernous lows. Tall and broad-shouldered in his t-shirt and shorts, he greets me with a handshake, mistakes me for somebody else, apologizes for the mistake, and then goes graciously into the backseat, allowing me the front.
It’s quiet in the car at first, none of us really accustomed to such an encounter, until Domingo mentions his past as a bar tender and I make a remark about how often I heckle bar tenders for stories. “Bar tenders and paramedics all seem to have the greatest stories.”
Domingo then breaks into a story not about his experience as a bar tender but about a friend of his who’s an EMT and who, on one of his first calls, arrived at an accident scene where he approached one of the cars involved. He asked the young woman in the driver’s seat, who gave him some dazed look through the shattered window’s frame, if she was OK, if she could move or not, whereupon the young woman parted her lips as though to respond but only spilled from her mouth and into her cleavage a torrent of blood, lips moving wordlessly around the stream, before her head dipped down and she died. “Internal bleeding,” Domingo says. “I guess. Ahdunno. But no,” he says, pace unchanged, “you wanna know which bar I worked at first?”
Tracking the correlations that carry Domingo from one topic to the next quickly proves futile.
When Arsi stops to pick up a t-shirt at Mall of the Americas I go with Domingo for a beer at the mall’s farther end. He tells me, along the way, about how he used to frequent this mall when he was growing up. “Little Dominican kid didn’t speak a licka English,” and how, while he was here at the mall, he would go and hang out at this arcade here – right up here, by the exit – and he’d watch these tournaments wherein like the best players from miles and miles would meet up and compete against each other in Street Fighter or Pac-Man or Donkey Kong and there was this one kid, he remembers, had blisters all over his hands, fuckin second degree burns and shit, on account of he was standing at the machine in one of these Street Fighter tournaments for like hours hours hours and he was sweeping his hands over the button panel so fast and so long he had to go to the hospital and but tells me also that he himself, Domingo himself, he used to play Counterstrike professionally – “remember Counterstrike? I used to fuck people up in Counterstrike” – and he’d go to tournaments and shit, play for money, it was great. He was great. Tells me then about a friend of his who bought one of those old-fashioned arcade games for $1,000 and had to do some repairs on it. Had to take the whole thing apart.
“You know how those old arcade machines work?”
He tells me how they work.
Domingo will stop now and then, self-conscious, and ask how long he’s been talking, or what we were originally discussing. Tells me, at one point, that “the brakes on this thing are broken,” pointing at his jaw, acknowledging that he talks a lot and is perfectly amenable to being hushed. It prompts us, on more than one occasion that day, to talk about talking. About how rappers speak of themselves and each other.
Arsi mentions at Ale House one night that “rappers are more competitive than probably anyone else in music. Constantly taking shots at the people above and deflecting shots from people below.” He suggests that, for example, while nay two country music celebrities might be openly competitive in that they’re constant rivals in the arena of sales, or awards, they generally don’t call each other out in their songs or talk shit about each other in public. Hence, he says, the importance of safeguarding a persona. It’s part of the craft. The persona is sculpted as much by the people you call out, the people you associate with or emulate, as it is by the content of your actual work. Your talent. So Arsi, as Speakea5y, does this. Calls people out, offers praise. Sometimes blatantly, sometimes now. There isn’t very much of it, since his motives aren’t to perpetuate this sort of thing but rather to demonstrate some of the sincerity he’d like to see more of in rap, but there’s a good deal of boasting and shit-talking that, while not entirely insincere, is in there in the music because it’s what he feels the genre demands. Whole songs, in fact, written and produced from a sense that they need to be there.
Domingo touches upon this at one point. Addresses the issue of artists who are unwilling to compromise on anything and who want to just pursue their craft how they want to pursue it, to never make a concession on anything, without giving serious thought to the fact that, as the artist, you’re gonna want people to buy this stuff, to like it and find it fun, which means you have to make it familiar. Or parts of it, at least. That people don’t take easily to new things.
Those songs that he felt needed to be there, one about Miami and one about picking up a woman at a club, are products more of the persona, Speakea5y, than of the artist, and might in that sense be called more commercial than the other stuff. The tracks that’re maybe more artful or considered, “Poof” in particular, are basically all about uncertainty, doubt, introspection, the evasiveness of meaning; full of questions and conflicting points, philosophical quandaries, epiphanies and pledges. Puns, too. Jokes, word games. The aforementioned insults and praises. A layering of meanings that unveil themselves over several plays.
When asked if rap is the best medium for his talent he says with conviction that it is. Skilled as he is with words, devoted as he is to shaping verse, he’s quick to say that rap is all about the beat and that the words serve only as a supplement to that beat, are forever a secondary concern, but clarifies that this is not to demean the significance of what’s spoken, or to undermine the capacity of those lyrics to move or inspire their audience.
There’s this stigma around rap, he says, whereby people think that its artistic potential begins and ends with the sort of stuff they hear in clubs, or on the radio, and that when listeners go around being exposed only to the sort of rap whose lyrics are simple, or repetitive, or that are so consumed by the beat that they seem to actually discourage attentive listening, well, the audience isn’t gonna listen. Or they’ll listen with half an ear while bobing their head. Says that you can write the most brilliant, revelatory, insightful lyrics, stuff that might qualify as poetry anywhere else, but that if you then set those lyrics to a beat they’re likely to be ignored. Dismissed as something less than art. That the public doesn’t esteem rap in the way that it esteems jazz or other genres.
And that this is bullshit, basically.
But so getting back to the mall: Arsi buys his shirt, joins us for a beer, and on our way to Wynwood they talk in the car, he and Domingo, about his persona, Speakea5y. Agreeing that all success in rap is a matter of smoke and mirrors with the audience, about blurring the lines between your persona and self, convincing them that what you’re doing is new even if it isn’t.
“It’s about having good-ass smoke,” says Domingo, “and good-ass mirrors.”
Domingo’s never had experience managing talent before but he’s studying up on it, reading about marketing strategies and negotiations, the delicate diplomacy of trying to marry the musician’s interests with the demands of the market to which they belong.
And for all that he’s said so far, for all the trivia he’s espoused about music and business and nutrition and bar tending and video gaming and human anatomy and electrical engineering and women (“I’m fulla facts”), Domingo doesn’t really start talking until we meet with the photographer in front of the Gregg Sheinbaum Fine Art museum in Wynwood and from there go across the street into an empty corner lot where the grass is thin, and patched with yellow, and the wall of one building is latticed with runny red paint, fashioned like a chain-link fence, the other building painted black. There’s one squat single tree offering a glimpse of shade against that black wall. It’s in this lot that Arsi wants to quickly take the first few photos (he’s got the photographer for a half hour today and a half hour next week).
Soon as the photographer joins us, Domingo goes quiet. He stands there holding Arsi’s shirt on its hanger, the hanger held up casually at his side in a way that would probably look servile were it not for the shifty-eyed, brow-pinched, shoulder-tensed posture that affords Domingo, in equal measure and all at once, the look of butler and bouncer alike.
He walks beside me, the two of us a few paces behind Arsi and Alee Gleiberman, the photographer, another friend from high school. When the shoot begins, with Arsi posing against the red wall, Domingo and I go to sit against the adjacent black one, beside the little tree. Domingo hangs Arsi’s other t-shirt on one of the tree’s branches. He claps his hands on his hips with a sort of Fred Sanford satisfaction and watches for a moment as it hangs there. “This is nature’s closet.”
Domingo graduated in 2009 with a bachelor’s in criminal justice (“Nobody goes for a master’s in criminal justice. It’s like, ‘What’re you tryna be? Supercop?’”) and worked thereafter at a legals processing firm. Then another one, a rival of the first. Then he got laid off from the second one when he had to spend eight months recovering from a basketball injury (torn ACL, MCL, LCL, PCL, and meniscus). Then he moved to California for a while, where he worked selling solar panels, made some money and came back to Miami to help a friend open a pizza parlor. Didn’t work out. He met Arsi just a few months ago, the two of them working as servers in the same restaurant.
“I guess I’m trying to find myself. Professionally. All I know is I wanna do something where I’m happy. And at this point I basically have to find something I’m happy with because I know now that, if I’m not happy where I’m working, I’ll sabotage myself in order to get out. I’m thinking at this point that I’ll never stay with a regular job. Ever. Sit at a desk, same challenges every day, over and over again…” he shakes his head. “This all stopped being about money a while ago.”
With the first round of photos finished, Domingo and Arsi walk off together to find the next location, the next work of graffiti to use as a backdrop, while I look over Alee’s shoulder as she scrolls through the 100+ pictures she’s taken in these ten or fifteen minutes. We walk on together at Arsi’s heel, she and I, talking. Her camera looks forbiddingly expensive but she’s holding it casually, a tight grip at the end of a precariously limp-looking wrist. Isn’t even wearing the strap around her neck. Her eyes on the pavement as she walks and talks and she wields her camera as more an appendage than a tool. I ask if she has a preference as to the sorts of events she shoots, if photographers in general maybe tend to have a universal preference, and she says that no, everybody’s different, but that for her it’s weddings and engagements. By far. I ask about bar mitzvahs, sweet sixteens, things of the like and she says that she hasn’t shot those events yet and that while she isn’t averse to them, per se, she does feel, frankly, that she’s pretty much found her niche. That she doesn’t see herself straying. The thing that makes photographing weddings and engagements so enjoyable, she says, is how much the client appreciates not only the photographer and her craft but also the product of that craft. That the photos she’s taking at these weddings, or directly before these weddings, are things that the buyers keep and cherish for the rest of their lives and she says that the atmosphere at these shoots is celebratory, convivial, gracious. Contagiously so. That the hosts are solicitous, offering champagne and food, are sociable, friendly. Whereas with a teenager, or a kid’s party, she suspects there might be some element of drudgery on the kid’s behalf. That the kid’ll probably wanna enjoy their party or whatever and that if they’re distracted all through the shoot, eager to get it over with, they might be less than cooperative.
Which, for all his youth, isn’t the case with Arsi. He complies with her few directives, hears and considers suggestions, asks for opinions. Seems actually to bear something of that newlyweds’ aforementioned respect for the photographer and for her craft and skill and but also, it would seem, an honest respect for the fact that Alee, like Arsi and myself and even Domingo, are all of us amateurs with varying degrees of confidence in our respective talents and who are probably constantly aware – dauntingly and at times miserably aware – of how competitive are the fields in which we aspire to establish ourselves. I can’t attest to whether Alee feels the sense of solidarity and of shared humility and eagerness and troubled dedication as I suspect the three of us are experiencing, nor do I feel comfortable asking, but the feeling is here, I think, rampant among this migratory quartet, scouting under stormclouds the most artful walls of Wynwood, and looking, undoubtedly, very much like children.
But so the photo shoot continues and I’m again standing to the side of things with Domingo, idling beside an auto shop, and he tells me that his financial situation has always been up and down and that he got through college with a lot of help from Bright Futures, among other things, and he speaks then with conviction about the politics of Bright Futures, and of similar scholarships, and of how he believes that such bundles of money should be granted only to students who not only want to go to college but also want to learn, who like to learn, and that he knew dudes in college who got Bright Futures and didn’t really need it, or deserve it, while at the same time he knew kids who were smart, driven, but who couldn’t go to school or couldn’t take all the classes they needed because they didn’t get the scholarship, or because the scholarship wasn’t enough. Says there’s something infuriating about seeing people get great things who don’t deserve great things, and vice-versa. Says that it’s like George Bush, y’know, Bush Jr. He says with a cringe, “I voted for Bush back in ’04, honestly, because I was used to the name,” and but tells me that if you’re gonna talk about people getting short-changed you have to mention John McCain, “John Motherfucking McCain,” on whom he elaborates for a bit, talking in particular about McCain’s bravery as a young man and contrasting that bravery to characteristics of Domingo’s own younger self, whom he insists was an asshole. Domingo speculates that if he had a time machine and if the scientist who gave him that time machine was like, “You can only use this shit once,” that he might use it for the sole purpose of going back and slapping his eighteen-year-old self in the face and saying, “Look at what you did to me.”
We start talking then about time travel, a subject on which we’re mutually oblivious but discuss with no less fervor, eventually changing the subject once we’ve confused each other.
Alee and Arsi take their final photos in front of another museum. We’re starting to feel rain.
The photo shoot ends. Arsi and Domingo study the last ream of photos. Arsi has a curious favorite. “I don’t know if this is lame,” he says to Domingo, “or fucking awesome.” Domingo looks, makes a face like it’s something in between.
Arsi pays Alee half of her rate, holding the other half until she can come to his house on some subsequent Wednesday and do candids of him in the studio.
In the car, Arsi’s thrilled. Says that the shoot turned out well. Feels that he got his money’s worth, which is a particularly good thing because Arsi’s basically funding this whole project out of his own pocket.
“My attitude,” he tells me while discussing the upcoming cost of a twelve-hour recording session, “is to spare no expense. To do everything right, not cut any corners.” This, he says, is because he knows that now is the only time to do this. He’s young and he’s got the energy for it, the freedom, and if he doesn’t go all into it now that he’ll get comfortable, will end up securing for himself a lifestyle that he doesn’t really want, and that the years will trickle past until it’s too late. And there’s the urgency, too, of trying to accomplish something substantial before he dies.
Already, six years after graduation, one of our high school classmates has died in a boating accident, another of an overdose, a third of a jet ski accident and a fourth from cancer. A student one year younger, an athlete known schoolwide, was killed in a car accident as soon as he got to college and another, older than us by a year, in that same aforementioned boating accident.
The subject of these deaths arises routinely when we run into classmates we haven’t seen in a while. At supermarkets, malls, bars. We’ll run into somebody from that same graduating class and no matter how tenuous the relationship was, however peripherally you knew each other, what happens is you talk first about yourselves, about the things you’ve been up to, and then you talk about those who have died. It seems at times as though this acute and constant awareness of mortality is our class’s unifying characteristic.
Just a matter of temperament, I guess, whether it motivates or depresses you.
Both Arsi and Domingo are excitable when the shoot is over, espousing ideas and telling jokes all through our drive to a bar on 8th street, on through lunch and drinks. Arsi’s talking with an enthusiasm I haven’t seen before and lapsing occasionally into some buoyant-seeming introspection while Domingo, for about fifteen minutes in the car, tells a story about a night he spent tending the needs of a weeping prostitute who’s pimp had beaten her up for tardiness. Domingo talks, actually, more or less without cease.
- Domingo on turning 30: “I can’t use my age as an excuse anymore. I’m gonna have responsibilities and shit. I can’t be 30-years-old and slapping $2,000 into some stripper’s lap. I’m not Joe Pesci.”
- Domingo on Native American women: “Native American women have asses, though. It’s like their ancestors did their squats for em.”
- Domingo upon the three of us meeting a 50-year-old bodybuilder: “Bro, I think we just met the Stairmaster.”
- Domingo on helicopters: “They’re the cornflakes of the vehicle world. They fucking made that shit by accident.”
- On cocktails: “I got this friend, we were at a bar, he wanted to try some weird-ass drink and I’m like, ‘Why’re you gonna try that?’ He says, ‘Oh, I wanna experiment.’ I said, ‘Y’know who does experiments? Scientists. Are you a fucking scientist? No.’”
Domingo goes seamlessly between rising from his stool to demonstrate, in the middle of the bar, the torsional intricacies of Bruce Lee’s one-inch punch (“The power comes from your feet, from how you twist”) to discussing Arsi’s future and his own with a straight face, with conviction and solemnity. He takes their whole enterprise way more seriously than he might appear to in casual conversation. Same with Arsi. An hour of chatting can easily be passed without a single mention of music or of marketing or anything else having to do with the project, with their goal, and when the subject does get broached (as it often does that day) it’s explored with humor and with confidence and with optimism and casual tones. They never voice doubt. They’ll address with candor their doubts concerning everything else: family stuff, work stuff, romantic stuff. Not that they aren’t confident in these other arenas. They are. How they come across is as two people so aware of the odds against them that it doesn’t need to be discussed; who have thought so much about failure as to be able now to ignore it, or to at least give a convincing impression of people who can look away from it, focus on other things, because in enterprises such as these, wherein commercial success is predicated on the million-to-one alignment of so many factors, the the concept of failure – commercial or artistic – is probably never actually removed from a person’s mind so much as made quiet after a while, or banal, or just less interesting or worthwhile than thoughts of, if not success, the road toward success. Because how, after all, are thoughts of success all that different from thoughts of failure? Nightmares about failure can be just as motivating or paralyzing or distorting as daydreams of success, with their respective spells of dread and reverie.
How Arsi appears to see this project is as a pursuit whose purpose and virtue and value are the pursuit itself. The outcome, commercially, is up in the air. But when it comes to reward and the sort of spiritual satiety that comes from knowing you pursued what you wanted and pursued it aggressively, exhaustively – that sort of reward seems to be here already. IT comes in the shape of a belief in the work, a loyalty to the work, that is honest and personal and little to do with the opinions of others. It isn’t something to be celebrated, this fulfillment, only sustained. Working for the love of the work. It sounds cliché, I know, and the sorts of sacrifices entailed in such a pursuit probably make it seems like something that can only be sustained in one’s twenties, odds being what they are. That the feasibility of success passes with time and takes with it (along with God knows how much money and how many opportunities) the most formative, energetic, and able-bodied years of your life. But whatever Arsi’s chances are for success, whatever the extent of his talent, he’s given purpose by his pursuit. And in that sense we could maybe argue that the goal’s been reached. In a way.
Alexander Sorondo is the founding editor of View from the Bar. His fiction has appeared in Jai-Alai and First Inkling Magazine.
Alee Gleiberman is a Miami-based photographer. See her work and get in touch with her on her website.
Special thanks to Arsi Ahmed and Domingo Castillo for their participation and candor.