by M. Anthony Davis
Many of us may be familiar with Isiah Brown from his days playing basketball at Lakeside High School. In 2016, during Brown’s senior year, he became the Metro League all-time scoring leader. In that same year he averaged 33 points per game, was named Gatorade Player of the Year in the state of Washington, was the News Tribune Player of the Year, the Associated Press Class 3A Player of the Year, and the recipient of a number of additional awards that I won’t list here. But here is something about Brown that you probably didn’t know: He is one of the most talented rappers in our city, and he’s been working on his craft under the radar for about five years now.
“We were taking a theater class, and our teacher let us go into the studio and [still] gave us credit for being in class,” Brown says of his first experiences recording music while he was a junior at Lakeside. “So that was really how it all started, with us on Soundcloud at first just kind of messing around, because we were in [the studio] so much.”
Brown, AKA Zay Wonder, was born in Anchorage, Alaska and moved to Seattle when he was 12. The perspective he gained in his transition from pre-teen into early adulthood gave him a unique view of the city that translates into his music. Brown originally lived in the South End. He attend Dimmit Middle School in Skyway. He and his family then moved to the Eastside before settling in North Seattle where he attended Lakeside High. Brown says these experiences benefited him and gave him a unique story. One specific benefit Brown got from attending Lakeside was access to a recording studio that has a special connection to our region’s history.
“The crazy part is,” Brown says of the studio, “It’s behind this computer lab. And we always used to say it was good mojo to be in there. Bill Gates and Paul Allen and those guys, they created Microsoft in that computer lab. There’s no way we can go in there and make something that isn’t legendary. So I did my whole first album there.”
Brown’s early releases were raw but inspiring. In September of 2016, after his last high school summer, he released Nineteen. As the title suggests, he was 19 when he released this project, and the worldview of a 19-year-old hoop phenom transitioning from high school into the new world of college was on full display. There were no gritty tales of street life or gang-banging — instead we heard slick prophecies of future success laced with confident adolescent tales of a life that revolved around young love, friendship, and adventure. One thing that really jumps out are the constant references to the Eastside and the North End. On one track, Brown boasts about exploits on Sand Point Way. While this isn’t typical material for rappers in Seattle, the honesty is quite refreshing — he speaks his truth and vividly paints the world as he experiences it, taking listeners on a journey that differs from his peers.
“I’ve had a unique experience, you know — I’m from a different part of the city,” Brown says. “It’s benefited me because I’ve gotten to see a lot of different things, be in a lot of different places, and have a lot of experiences that I don’t think anybody else can really talk about. That’s not a story that they’ve heard before, whether it’s the part of the city or where we hang out at or where we eat at — it’s just different. It’s a different storyline.”
This storyline that makes Brown stand out was almost responsible for him not making music. Brown grew up listening to artists like Jay-Z and Lil Wayne and says he never saw himself in those artists. Even though he already had a love for music, he couldn’t see himself rapping like the artists he listened to because his story was so different. It wasn’t until Brown discovered Drake that he heard a different narrative in hip hop, and that’s when he decided to make music that told stories true to himself. And while you can certainly hear the Drake influences in his flow, the stories of himself are slices of Seattle cut from neighborhoods rarely associated with Blackness. Yet his life experience is extremely Black and filled with all the existential angst you’d expect from a 23-year-old growing up in the age of the internet.
On Dread or Relief, one of the three tracks Brown has released in 2020, he raps, “Lately I only feel dread or relief, weight on my shoulder making it hard to compete, sit at the house picturing all these incredible feats, trying to retain the feeling that this shit is meant to be.” For the kids who grew up with social media being available all of their lives, they become adults unable to stop comparing themselves to the perceived success of peers. Brown, for example, is a Division 1 basketball player who also has incredible promise as an artist, yet he still struggles with the same internal dilemmas that plague young adults in our society. The way he crafts these feelings into images in his music is impressive, and his ability to go from the flat matter-of-fact delivery here and seamlessly shift into vocal harmony on Change your Life is impressive. His comfort and dexterity as an emcee, similar to Drake, allows him to create music with universal appeal.
My favorite track of the three Brown released this year is Black Flags. I was surprised when I learned how fast he created it — getting the beat one morning and releasing the song the very next day. The track showed his growth as an artist from the days of Nineteen — when his focus was hanging out with friends and trying to talk to girls — to his 23-year-old existence living during COVID-19 and social unrest.
Here, he raps, “Lately I’ve been in a mood, blame it on the current times, murder on my phone again, bet you they won’t do no time.” He goes on to describe people posting pictures showing off the cars they drive and how these posts are right next to posts of death and murder. I’m old enough to remember the days before Black death was streamed into our pockets for instant consumption, but Brown represents a generation that has had this access for the duration of their teenage and young adult lives. The way he points to the absurdity of death posts naturally coexisting right next to posts flexing cars and outfits is a poignant reminder of the era of instant gratification and the normalization of Black death. These are topics Brown hadn’t covered in his early releases, but as he comes into his own as an artist he demonstrates an ability to evolve and expand the subject matter of his content.
As a young artist, Brown is already putting together a catalogue that shows self-awareness, maturity, and a keen eye for picking production that supports his stories. He is a major college basketball player, a successful student who is close to completing a Master’s degree, and so far he’s done a great job of balancing multiple promising careers. As an artist, he meshes his distinctive perspective with impressive storytelling and a handful of friends who produce beats that tie it all together. If you haven’t heard of Zay Wonder before — now you have. I suggest you start listening, because this gifted young artist is poised to make a big splash in the music industry.
You can find music by Zay Wonder here:
M. Anthony Davis (Mike Davis) is a local journalist covering arts, culture, and sports.
Featured image courtesy of the artist.
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