Hakim Callwood works to reclaim his joy with ‘Today Is Beautiful’

The artist swaps his paintbrush for a microphone on his debut rap album, which he’ll premier during a listening party at the Oracle tonight (Friday, June 7).
Hakim Callwood
Hakim CallwoodTariq Tarey

Hakim Callwood has long embraced art as a stabilizing force, turning to a brush and a canvas in those moments when life’s myriad pressures threatened to overwhelm. But in recent years, as painting has shifted from a pastime into a full-fledged career, Callwood has started to find less escape in the form.

“Sometimes you go through tough moments, and there are things that remind you of those. And that’s how painting is for me sometimes,” said Callwood, who began to connect art with the challenging financial and business realities that tend to go hand in hand with any career. “I’ve been painting for a living for so long. It used to be what I did to express myself and get out of bad times, and now sometimes it kind of depresses me because the visual art can remind me of those rougher times. … And it’s not fair to the art, but it becomes linked to the politics you see in any industry. … And that can kind of muddy things a bit.”

And so, in the hopes of finding a means of expression in which he could again find release, Callwood turned to music, describing himself as “too naive about it to be jaded in any way.” It helps, of course, that he’s always had an interest in hip-hop, freestyling and goofing on made-up songs alongside his friends, including the rapper OG Vern. At the height of the pandemic, Callwood even taught himself guitar, occasionally playing alongside a few other musician colleagues, though nothing more came of these loose jam sessions. “We wrote a song or two, but never recorded anything seriously,” he said. “And then that kind of faded away.”

But last year, in October or November, Callwood attended a concert with Vern and the Columbus DJ and producer Jay Vega, at which point he asked Vega if he could rap for him. “And I just auditioned on the spot, which he did not think was necessary at all,” Callwood said, and laughed. “And from there, we started talking more about making music.”

The two approached recording casually, with Callwood amassing four or five songs before he even revealed to those closest to him that he was working on an album. At times, the urge to write would strike seemingly from nowhere, and the artist learned to embrace the magic of these moments. At one point, Callwood messaged Vega while on a trip to Japan, asking the producer to send him a beat, which he deployed in a track on which he rapped about gazing out from the 33rd floor of a hotel in Shibuya, a ward in Tokyo.

Growing up, Callwood said he was drawn toward rappers with big voices and even bigger personalities, such as Ludacris and Lil Wayne, later gravitating toward artists who explored more inward worlds, including Kid Cudi and early Kanye West. On his debut LP, Today Is Beautiful, which he’ll celebrate with a listening party at the Oracle tonight (Friday, June 7), Callwood walks a line between these two poles, employing his gruff, textured cadence in service of slice of life songs that explore relationship ups and downs and the travails of day-to-day life on Columbus.

“[The songs are] about what I be up to, how I feel, maybe something vague about a friendship or a relationship,” said Callwood, who tasked Vega with creating beats that captured this relatively chilled out vibe, ideal for summer backyard hangs or early evening car rides around the city (possibly in a Honda Civic, a make and model Callwood has owned twice and raps about on the album-closing “Forever”). “The original motivation for this tape was just to give it to like 10 or 20 of my friends. And we’ve moved past that, but I think that idea is still the core of it. … It’s low-key, and the kind of music you can vibe out to. It’s not trying to break boundaries. It’s not trying to be lyrical. And it’s not trying actively not to be lyrical. It’s almost more like a freestyle.”

Coming into the project, Callwood was initially gripped by nerves, explaining this is a not uncommon tendency in spite of the public confidence he projects in his many artistic pursuits, which range from painting outsized murals to stand-up comedy. “People think I’m not scared to do anything, but I’m scared of everything, especially heights and bears,” he said. “Putting out a music project, and even sending it to you to talk about, it’s nerve-wracking. … But I keep doing the things I’m scared of doing, and I keep doing it publicly, too.”

Privately, though, the music has had an even greater impact, creating a space into which Callwood could step that exists outside of the emotional pressures that began to compound in recent years, the artist reeling from a number of deaths and a deep-seated depression that settled into their wake. Though Callwood has generally presented an optimistic outward self, he even paused his daily Facebook posts reminding everyone that “it’s a beautiful day to be alive,” a practice he described as an aspirational mantra, a way to manifest this sunlit reality.

“And I gotta be honest, every day isn’t good for me. I lost a couple of people in my family, and I lost some friends recently, and that sent me into a mad depression. And I couldn’t get up there and lie, because it didn’t feel like today was beautiful,” he said. “But with the music, it gave me a way to say things that I couldn’t say at the time in person. If you put it to a beat and you loop it and you make a melody out of it, all of a sudden, I could express to you the exact emotion that I feel.”

Having this new outlet has also allowed Callwood to begin to reexamine his relationship to art, setting him on a path that he hopes in time will allow him to reclaim the sense of joy he used to get from painting.

“I let myself get too jaded. … I keep watching this interview of me talking about art from four or five years ago, and it’s so different from how I feel about it now. It’s like, dang, how am I letting all of that joy, all of that wonder slip away?” he said. “And I think it’s going to take a little time to get it back. But I’m aware of it now, and I’m working to fix it.”

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