HoustAtlantaBirmingham: Sage Williams Wants to Pioneer Alabama’s Rap Scene

Finger-licking barbecue and “Roll tide!”-chanting sports fanatics overshadow any hip-hop presence in Alabama, but 19-year-old Sage Williams knows that within his state is a hidden hip-hop scene.

The rapper was formerly a member of AliveSinceForever, the once-was collective led by Kevin Abstract, but has since drifted from the gang to develop his own voice. Now, he calls Birmingham home, and he hopes to lay the groundwork for his city’s surfacing hip-hop movement.

Williams’s last full-length release, XVII, dropped in 2012, which packaged his seventeen-year-old perspectives on love, self-doubt, and personal growth. In the past month, he’s given us a string of releases that give us a taste of his matured mindset, and his most recent single, “Homecoming,” offers a conceptual reflection on high school romance. He’s currently gearing up to debut his forthcoming album, Lost, later this year, which he says will be propped by his opinions on race and politics.

Read my conversation with Williams below, in which the budding rapper told me about when he first discovered Kanye, his thoughts on ghostwriting in hip-hop, and how he hopes to bring Birmingham sound to the forefront.

What’s the hip-hop scene like in Birmingham?
Nonexistent. That’s the beautiful thing about Birmingham: a lot of people don’t know it, but it’s a really vibrant and cultural city. It’s kind of like a low-key hipster city. If you’re any kind of band, it’s a great city to be in, but there’s no rap scene. I know that there’s an audience for it, so our whole mission is to create that—to be the pioneers of Birmingham hip-hop.

How long have you been making music?
I’ve been singing and recording since I was four on my Fischer Price tape recorder. I was cool. I started taking it seriously when I was nine. I was sitting in the car with my cousin, and my mom went out to do something, and while we were waiting for her to get back, “Slow Jamz” by Kanye West came on the radio. it was the first time I had ever heard Kanye West in my life, and my cousin was like, “This is Kanye West. He has an album coming out called College Dropout. Get that.” When I heard that song, I was like, Whatever this is, I want to do this. And it’s been that way for ten years.

How have you seen yourself grow artistically?
A lot. I’ve very recently reached that peak of expression where I’m able to get things out in a very clear and concise way. I’m getting very particular about the way things roll out; I put a lot of thought into the art now, and I have a whole concept set up before I release something. I’m really understanding more about what is means to make something meaningful. Before, I could just rap, and that’s what I think kept me going the whole time. No matter what you say about my music, you can’t say I can’t rap.

What kind of impression are you trying to make?
At least with this project, Lost, there’s definitely a big black thing involved. There’s definitely a political charge, but I don’t want to brand myself as that only. I want to represent someone who speaks out on things that need to be spoken out on—someone who promotes positivity. I want to be an advocate for what’s best. At the end of the day, I want to have a positive influence, but at the same time, I also don’t want people to forget that I make my music for me. If I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t put it out.

Let’s talk about “Homecoming.” Tell me about what you were thinking about when you wrote that song and what it means to you.
It’s about a girl. It’s actually kind of about two different girls… but we’ll leave that where it is. Essentially there was this girl I was really into my senior year, when I was in Miami. I was really into her but she was not really into me, she had a lot of drama going on. I was talking to my dad about the situation, because my dad and I are really close, and he was like, “Listen son. You can’t save all these [girls.] You can’t run around with a cape on; some [girls] just don’t want to be saved!”

You were tweeting the other day about your feelings on ghostwriting in hip-hop. Do you want to elaborate on those opinions?
The conversation was sparked from a discussion on the TL about Amber Rose being ashamed of Kanye because Travi$ Scott wrote some of his verses or something like that. Number one, why is she saying people help Kanye write his music? Like, this is something that has been known since day one, like literally since “Jesus Walks.” Everybody knows that. Kanye’s not the best writer but it’s about his performance. Number two, I didn’t say hip-hop, because while it is included in this, and it’s the most visible, the same thing happens in R&B. I think it’s just a black music thing in general, where people are like, “Oh, Beyonce doesn’t write her own songs, so how could she win a Grammy over Beck when Beck writes their own songs”? Everybody knows the Beyonce album had more impact than the Beck album did, and it very clearly deserved the title of Album of the Year. Album of the Year isn’t the best album of the year; it’s the biggest album of the year, honestly. Not even just in terms of record sales, but influence in total. Why is there this stigma versus Beyonce, but nobody ever is like, “Yo, man, Kelly Clarkson doesn’t write her own songs, so she’s trash.” In hip-hop, I feel like there’s a stigma because people think that all you’re doing is talking on a beat and that there’s no effort that goes through your performance like in singing, but there is. There’s a way to rap correctly. You can’t just talk into the microphone; you have to have some kind of delivery. Regardless of that, people think that if you have all this that you don’t have to deal with, then you at least have to write your own lyrics. I don’t feel like that should be a necessary thing, because it’s like treating rap like it’s this baby version of real music. There’s just as much creativity, if not more.

What song have you made that you’re most proud of?
Off of the album, I have this song called “Forever 18” that I did, and I can’t stop listening to the rough version I have right now. It’s about my girlfriend, so it’s an act of love in that respect, and it’s six minutes long. It’s a jam. You gotta understand: sometimes, when you’re an artist, you have those “jam” moments, when you’re like, “Yeah I just made a jam.”

What are some of your immediate goals as well as your longterm aspirations?
I was about to be corny and be like, “I wanna put Birmingham on the map,” but like I really do, just in a less corny way. I want to make Birmingham known as part of the South and let people know that the whole South is musically talented; it’s not just Atlanta. I also want to go on tour within the year. I want to win a Grammy too, but that’s long term.

If you could tour with someone right now, who would it be?
Logically, if I were to go on a tour right now it would probably be with Brockhampton. It would be kind of a mini reunion of ASF [AliveSinceForever], which sadly is no more.

Are you working on anything now?
There’s a strong possibility that I’ll be starting a mixtape series after Lost comes out, so look out for that.

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