The big debut

Housing-insecure youth rock the main stage under a local record label

Nathaniel Simmons, aka J. Curly, performs at Ace of Spades for Creation District Records’ album release show on July 14.

Nathaniel Simmons, aka J. Curly, performs at Ace of Spades for Creation District Records’ album release show on July 14.

Photos by Ashley Hayes-Stone

Learn more about Creation District Records at

The final rehearsal kicks off with a deep breath.

“I want you to close your eyes to imagine one moment in the show,” Grace Loescher gently instructs the artists for a group meditation.

They sit in a classroom narrowed by paintings, musical instruments and computer monitors on a Friday afternoon. But in their minds, it’s Sunday night, and they’re at Ace of Spades—backstage getting pumped in the green room, by the merch table signing autographs, alone onstage for the first time, looking out at the crowd.

“I want you to imagine that moment going perfectly. Going exactly as you dreamed it, exactly as you deserve it,” continues Loescher, director of The Creation District. “I want us to put that right in front of our foreheads, and we’re going to keep that picture with us throughout the whole show. … Things are going to go wrong. Little things. Big things. But that picture is what is actually going on for each of us.”

All in their late teens or 20s, the Creation District crew opens their eyes, returning to the classroom inside Wind Youth Services, a safe space for young adults experiencing homelessness in Sacramento. They ease back to reality, where after seven months of recording and rehearsing, these 10 artists will each get five minutes to perform to about 1,000 people, in between performances by indie pop duo So Much Light and the folk-rap band Hobo Johnson & the LoveMakers.

The annual show on July 14 at Ace of Spades marked the release of the second album under a fledgling record label by the Creation District, a program under the nonprofit Waking the Village that provides free art supplies, classes and studio time with top-notch recording gear.

For some of the 10 musicians featured on the album, their fellow artists are the only family they have, and the art is their life.

“Really rocky home lives, your siblings or parents in and out of jail, people who you’re close to passing away. … Not having a super stable life and being an amazing music star is hard,” Loescher told SN&R.

Down and out

Like high school before the bell rings, the classroom roars as the group scoots their chairs toward a small stage, sharing laughter and amping up. It’s time to run through the songs.

There are rappers King Shadow, J. Curly, LaRay, OG Playa and Dacce; singers Diamond and J. Deville; and dancer Mezzy, who was slated to open the set. Singer Lil Babby Ke and rapper Goddess of Darkness couldn’t make the rehearsal.

“Curly,” who is Nathaniel Simmons, 20, was homeless when he heard about the Creation District’s free studio time. His tune, “We Could Be Anything,” is a rhyme about overcoming adversity, spat over wah-ed synth and lo-fi rhythm.

A rapper since he was 7, Simmons said he wants to top the charts like Eminem, faster than Eminem. He lived in 15 different foster homes from age 4 to 9. After moving to Missouri for a year, he returned to Sacramento in 2018, separating from his ex-girlfriend and newborn.

“I love my boy to death, and hopefully he’ll grow up to see his dad a talented man,” Simmons said.

He recently reunited with his biological parents, and his father was at the show. “I’m scared,” Simmons said. “But I’m also exhilarated.”

“Shadow,” real name Esteban Galvan, 18, said he left home straight out of high school.

Creation District Director Grace Loescher leads a production meeting ahead of the show.

“I wasn’t in a safe environment to be in, living with my dad and stepmom,” he said. “I couldn’t be myself around them. I would just lock myself in my room all day.”

Galvan said his father pressured him to give up music. He wrote his song, “A Girl Named Tess,” while hospitalized in January after he overdosed on Benadryl, he said.

“I just thought that [my parents] would see, and start taking me seriously,” Galvan said. “I gave up and decided to take the whole bottle. The doctors said I could have been in a coma.”

In his sweetly morose rap ballad with whistles and keys, Galvan expresses remorse to a girl he says he pushed away during that time. He says hearing the final recorded song helped him realize he’s at a turning point.

“I was able to tell my story in front of people,” he said. “Like OK, this happened, and now I’m trying to find a different road and not get stuck in the same place for a long time.”

Loescher, who manages the label, founded Creation District Records in 2015 after realizing that many of the regulars were musicians. So Much Light frontman Damien Verrett and Hobo Johnson, real name Frank Lopes, helped Loescher get the label running, and the three sometimes recorded in a pop-up studio out of a van or set up in the bathrooms of shelters.

Creation District Records held its first showcase last year at Harlow’s Restaurant and Nightclub. This year, Verrett produced songs and taught music classes, while Lopes donated instruments and soundgear and helped secure Ace of Spades. A world-touring artist who recently signed with Warner Brothers Records, he also drew a dedicated fan-base to the show.

The musicians, themselves, were involved in the entire process, including the album cover and merchandise designs.

“The resiliency of continuing to create in the face of wild difficulty and injustices reminds me that I can do that each day, too,” says Loescher, a spoken word artist who runs the Speak Out! Sacramento open-mic at Shine Café. “And when things are hard, they can do it, I can do it, we can all do it and keep moving and creating.”

‘Life is short’

“OG Playa” needed a cigarette. Up the stairs and past the open door to the stage, house music blared for a crowd that earlier wrapped around the block on R Street outside Ace of Spades. It was five minutes until show time.

“You know, I got my family here, my friends,” he said. “It’s nerve-wracking, I’m not gonna lie. I’m gonna pull through, though. Life is short, and I gotta live my life. It’s my motivation, my drive.”

He wasn’t alone. Earlier, one artist almost dropped out, but the group cheered them into submission. Everyone was on board now.

With Loescher emceeing and Verrett DJ’ing, the set kicked off with a twitch-hop dance routine from Mezzy, punctuated by heavy bass and an animatronic voice droning the word “Focus.”

LaRay glided through his song, “Middle Child,” wooing the crowd with brash confidence. J. Deville brought idyllic vibes for a hopeful reunion with his oldies R&B tune, “I’ll Be Missing You,” sometimes hitting off-key, but winning an applause by the end. OG Playa closed the set with a banger, “Turn It,” LaRay providing backup.

For the most part, the crowd of about 900 got it. It wasn’t a typical show with a professional instrumentalist or singer. Part of the ride was watching in suspense, hoping for a clean delivery.

The night grossed around $10,000, with $2,000 given directly to the artists, Loescher said.

The day after the show, Loescher said she was still riding a high. Her team, for a moment, were rock stars.

“I thought it was so fucking cool, finally, that these amazing young adults got to have—even just for a night—the quality of life they deserve.”