Sarob described the process of recording 2019 album Fear & Impermanence as an isolating, intense process – one that left him questioning the cost of a life in music and if the pursuit was something for which he even had a passion.
“It was a very emotionally hard process. And once I finished and put it out there, I was like, ‘I’m giving people a lot,’” Sarob, born Robert Tate III, said by phone from Chicago in late January. “And, sure, it’s cool. And I get to be onstage and do this, this and this. But one, how much does it really impact people? And two, I’m a super private person, and it’s hard for me to keep doing that. … That’s something I even talked about on the first song off the album (“Viper”). This has cost me relationships. This has cost me peace of mind. And, at the end of the day, I was like, ‘Who is this for?’”
These anxieties manifested at the tail end of a busy year for the musician, who, in addition to his solo record, also teamed with friends Trek Manifest, Joey Aich, Dom Deshawn, Snow and Soop in Carried By 6, which released its self-titled, instant-classic debut in March 2019. So, when the coronavirus pandemic surfaced just a few months into 2020, Sarob embraced the shutdown as a chance to step back from music and to interrogate his priorities, quietly moving from Columbus to Chicago, believing the distance necessary in creating the space he needed to evolve.
Sarob said his friends regularly describe him as “a stove toucher,” in that he displays an unrelenting need to get out and experience things firsthand. “And because of that, I feel like I can be in this endless pursuit of [asking], ‘Who am I? What can I become?’” said the singer and rapper, who shared that these feelings only intensified in the early months of COVID, with the increasing weight of life beginning to make music feel like a comparatively frivolous pursuit. “And I started to ask why I was making music. Why does this matter? There are so many bigger things going on now. Who am I to ask people to pay attention to me at a time like this? It just felt selfish. It felt like I wasn’t being cognizant, like I wasn’t being a real participant in the world if I was just getting on Instagram like, ‘Hey, I dropped a new song.’”
And so, for a time, he didn’t, making a conscious decision to step back from the spotlight to prioritize his career and to focus more intently on personal growth. The sparse few tracks that did surface – including “Pleasures U Like,” from October 2020 – were created and released in a more outward, communal spirit, with proceeds from “Pleasures” benefiting the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio. “If I was going to put something out,” Sarob said, “I was only going to do it in a way that empowered or impacted people. And that was the only way I could rationalize putting out music, or that I could rationalize being Sarob.”
Regardless, the musician remained in close contact with his Carried By 6 mates, trading daily messages in an ongoing group text chain, where, in between jokes, the likes of Joey Aich and Dom Deshawn would occasionally share the sketches of songs on which they were working, believing it only a matter of time until Sarob returned to making music. “These are their words, not mine, but they’re always like, ‘Rob, you are too gifted. Like, you are one of those guys! Why would you not let the world see that?’” Sarob said, and laughed. “They’ve always been skeptical of me saying I don’t want to make music.”
In late November, Deshawn shared with the thread an early version of new song “Ocean Tears,” a soulful, soft-lit track on which the rapper relayed his efforts to find internal peace amid external turmoil, and the essential role his pen played in that process. “And I sent it to them, like, ‘Yo, this is literally just a demo, but I want y’all to hear it to see what y’all think about it,” Deshawn said by phone in late January. “And Rob (Sarob) hit me back. And he was like, ‘Yo, I know you totally didn’t ask, but would you mind if I did something over this?”
A few days later, Sarob returned the track to Deshawn, complete with a verse on which he unpacked recent years, including his decision to step back from music, his struggles with careerism, and his hope that he might one day rediscover the passions that first led him to step to the mic. “My brothers want me rapping, but my heart’s not in it/Sister want me singing, but my heart’s not in it,” Sarob raps in a melodic cadence, his voice gliding over the beat as smoothly as rainwater on a windshield. “Scribble bars for scrimmage but these songs hard to finish/Take a little pause hoping that I’ll replenish/Yearning that I had when pen was appendage.”
Collectively, the two rappers illustrate the full spectrum of issues that can corrupt the creative process, with Deshawn homing in on external factors (political malfeasance, the endless struggle for human rights) and Sarob centering the inner world, relaying the self-doubts and shifting priorities that can erode one’s passions over time.
“I was willing to give up financial security. I was willing to give up relationships. I was willing to give up all of these things so that I could make my art,” Sarob said. “And, as I’ve matured, these are things I don’t want to give up anymore. I can’t do it. Especially relationships. They’re more important than money, than everything.”
In recent years away, Sarob also came to realize his true passion rested not in telling his own story, but in helping others to do the same – an awakening that led him to take a more active behind-the-scenes role in organizations such as We Amplify Voices and TEDx Chicago. This in addition to his day job in communications, which involves working with nonprofits to help them better convey their own narratives. “I’ve transitioned to other forms of expression where I’m behind the scenes, and I’ve learned that’s so much easier for me,” he said.
Even the decision to record a verse for “Ocean Tears,” Sarob said, was more about uplifting and supporting the work of a friend. “I couldn’t have done it myself. I couldn’t have put a song out … and stepped on that metaphorical stage like, ‘Hey, look at me. I have something to say, and I hope it means something to you,’ because I just don’t have that in my heart right now,” he said. “But Dom and I, we’re friends, and this struck at the right time. It felt safe, where it didn’t have to be just me out there.”
As for what this release means for Sarob’s future within music, that remains an open question. Deshawn, for one, wondered if again dipping his toe in the waters might reignite earlier passions, leading the musician to dive headlong back into his creative pursuits, while Sarob has adopted more of a wait and see approach.
“I don’t want to give you that cliche [answer], like, ‘I’m taking it one day at a time,’” Sarob said. “But I’ve always had a very hard time being present. Either I’m thinking about a story from the past, or I’m anxious about what could happen in the future. So, it’s been really helpful for me to just try and be present and not to plan too much. I have a lot of songs, and I have albums where maybe one day if I feel good about them, something will come out. … But the spirit just hasn’t compelled me, and there are still other things now that I think matter a little bit more.”