Rebirth of the love
How poet, rapper and activist Andru Defeye survived himself
A decade ago, Andru Defeye woke up in his bathroom covered in blood and surrounded by empty liquor bottles. He was surprised he woke up at all. It had been a long, awful night—heavy binge drinking and an attempt to take his own life.
“I had slit up both wrists. It wasn’t attention cuts. It was, ’I don’t want to be here cuts,’” the local poet, rapper and activist says now.
Today, Defeye is on the other side of that experience. On March 3, he’s set to release his first record in a decade, Ultraviolet, which documents his journey over the past 10 years.
But first back to that night: He’d recently moved to Sacramento and was a mess. Tangled in a toxic romantic relationship, Defeye had just quit a musical career that had yielded a couple albums and a relentless touring schedule. He says a producer, whom he considered a friend, took money from him on their last record.
“It ruined a lot of the fun of making an album,” Defeye says. “I resigned myself to the fact that I would never do another rap album.”
Even before he quit, he’d been masking childhood traumas with drugs and alcohol, but his self-destructive behavior worsened after the producer’s betrayal, Defeye says. On top of that, his partner got so fed up she left, telling him that she didn’t want to watch him kill himself.
“At the time I was hopeless and felt powerless,” Defeye says. “I imagine there was a power to feeling in control of death. I felt like I would go out on my own terms, numb.”
Surviving that awful night marked the beginning of his new life. On his first day of sobriety, he started at the community-based non-profit Sol Collective, where he still works. Now, he writes grant applications and mentors kids. Over the years, he’s also become active in Sacramento’s music and politics, pushing to make busking legal, for instance. He’s also worked to bolster the voices of artists, especially people of color.
Local emcee Radioactive calls Defeye “The Oracle” for the experience and insight he brings.
“Community cred is important, and that is not something [he] needs to acquire,” Radioactive says. “[He’s] who I ask when I want to validate anyone’s street and community cred in Sacramento.”
Now, Defeye is finding his own validation.
After a decade of only releasing a song here or there, he recorded Ultraviolet with The Philharmonik. “I feel like for a long time I didn’t have shit to say,” Defeye says. “I don’t want to waste people’s time.”
Five years ago, he nearly released a record, Villain, that he recorded as he and several poets and emcees were forming ZFG, a collective of artists who felt ignored by other local rappers and snubbed by the venues that weren’t open to hip-hop out of fear of violence—despite its positive messages. So ZFG worked to create its own guerrilla arts scene that others wanted to join.
All that tension and frustration got channeled into Villain, but when the time came to release it, Defeye realized he didn’t want to put its vibe out into the world.
“I was like ’Yo, this isn’t the energy that the city needs,’” he says.
Making Ultraviolet was also very therapeutic, but in a more personal way, as Defeye digested everything he’d accomplished in the past decade. As much as Villain was about outward frustration, Ultraviolet was about inward growth.
“I woke up one day and realized that I talked a lot about self-love and realized I didn’t [love myself],” Defeye says. “I loved what other people loved about me.”
Defeye wrote most of the songs for Ultraviolet on a Thanksgiving weekend trip to Pismo Beach with his family. ZFG had been adding more members, busy with art and activism projects. But he’d burned out, over-extending himself in other people’s projects. He was also going through the loss of some friends and family members.
The songs came out of him almost like his future self was speaking to him. “I’d been knowing deep down that I needed to take some time for some heavy healing, but I hadn’t really acknowledged it yet,” Defeye says. “These songs became my own soundtrack to personal growth and the commitment to it.”
On his return to Sacramento, he sat down with the ZFG crew and told them he needed to step back for a while. He was scared they’d be disappointed, instead they supported him.
“A lot of people were like it’s OK to take care of you and to feed your soul,” Defeye says.
One aspect of self-care he came to understand was that it was OK for him to be selfish and release his own music, not just lift everyone else up around him.
Still, he had doubts whether the new album would be healing for others, too.
Those in the arts community, however, recognize its value. Local poet “-i-” (pronounced “eye”), for example, says the first time she heard his song “Water or Gasoline” she was really struck by the lyrics: “You’re on fire, do you want water or gasoline?”
For Defeye, the song touches on his role as a public artist who faced having people running up to him with “buckets of water or gasoline”—with unclear intentions of whether they were opportunistic or actually cared about him as a person.
Poet “-i-” took away her own powerful message from the song. “I realized that my problem was that I was saying I wanted to change while also complaining about the changes happening. I sat in the car and I said, ’I want to be gasoline!’” she says. “I told him, ’You do realize you’re not the only one going through this, right?’”
This kind of encouragement was just what Defeye needed to finally put the album out into the world.
“I get up and look in the mirror, and I’m like, ’You’re so dope,’ and I really feel that way,” Defeye says. “That’s what I want to give to people. That’s the medicine. I get excited for life. I get excited for every day magic. And it’s all because of that work.”