ty dolla $ign talks mass incarceration and voter registration on the 'campaign' trail
The enigmatic R&B Renaissance man is giving new meaning to the phrase 'political party.'
Photography Eric Chakeen
It's mid-afternoon on St. Mark's Place when Ty Dolla $ign emerges from a basement studio. He stretches in the sunlight, preparing to cruise to his next destination, a Spanish food spot on the Lower East Side. A voice rings out and snaps the sleepy street to attention: "Oh, SHIT! That's Ty Dolla $ign!" The eagle-eyed fan weaves through traffic to take his own photo with the singer-producer, who smiles earnestly and obliges without hesitation. Ty offers his thanks for the barrage of praise in a near-whisper; the fan is too excited to remember he's still yelling.
Ty began his career as something of a ladies' man — an architect of lush R&B cuts and infectious club anthems whose jade-green eyes are reason enough not to leave your date unattended around him. Together with Golden State collaborators YG and DJ Mustard, Ty rose from Southern California to the top of national charts, where he's stayed thanks largely to his ear for orchestral melodies and seriously winning hooks. But following the release of Free TC, his outstanding debut full-length released last November, Ty's becoming more of a people's man, well beyond the warmth he extends to admirers who risk hospital visits for selfies.
The album is dedicated to his brother, Gabriel "TC" Griffin, a member of the Schoolyard Crips who is presently serving a life sentence for a crime Ty believes he did not commit. A portion of Free TC's sales was used to pay for Griffin's legal defense and to help others navigate the criminal justice system. His forthcoming record, Campaign, sees the R&B alchemist double down on this social justice focus — engaging with issues like mass incarceration and the upcoming Presidential bid. "I said at the beginning it's the soundtrack for the summer, but it's become the soundtrack to the 2016 elections," Ty says.
The project's first single — its positively massive titular track — features Ty's Purple Reign tourmate and collaborator, ruling auto-tune auteur Future. Ty cites the darkwave ATLien's prolific run of releases as an inspiration to switch up his own sound. "I feel like the game has changed, and kids get over shit really fast. Even though my music is not the kind you get over fast — you can listen to it and hear things you didn't hear the first or second time because I layer it with many different textures — I just knew I had to come with a whole new sound." He meant it. Last month, Ty followed the brash turn-up anthem with something far more emotional, "No Justice." A deeply personal tribute to the black lives lost to police brutality and systems of violence, the heartbreaking and evocative track features a contribution from TC himself. "Speaking about injustice — how we can be thrown away and forgotten about if we don't stand up for this shit... it's here at home for me," Ty explains. "There's been no justice for these situations, no convictions. But I believe by talking about it — by spreading these issues through music to my fans — we can put a stop to it. We see what's going on and I believe in us."
Ty sees the project sitting between "Campaign" and "No Justice." Campaign doesn't entirely eschew lush, cinematic club bangers for polemical activist tracks, as YG didn't abandon swaggering, opulent bounce to make a potent Trump protest on his unabashedly political album Still Brazy. "There's definitely the party, but there's definitely real life. You can party all night and wake up to some bullshit," Ty explains. In addition to big ticket features from the likes of Meek Mill, Travis Scott, and Wiz Khalifa, he's also woven frank interviews throughout the record. "I've got Will.I.Am, YG, Vic Mensa, Minister Louis Farrakhan. I asked them what they think about the election, and their thoughts about what's going on in life. They gave their dollars — I won't call them two cents," Ty explains.
Though he speaks with realism about the shortcomings of both candidates, Ty leant his support to the Democratic National Convention when he headlined Rock the Vote's Truth to Power concert last month in Philadelphia. That same day, fellow hip-hop heavyweight Pusha T shared an Instagram image of himself FaceTiming with Clinton, who's enlisted him to help spearhead voter registration initiatives in the run up to November. Ty and Push have teamed up to co-headline the Schools Not Prisons tour, which touches down in six California cities as a part of the Californians for Safety and Justice's public education campaign.
Mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex are nationwide issues, but are particularly thorny in California, where prison overcrowding is considered "exceptional." In 2014, his home state's voters approved Proposition 47, a ballot initiative that sought to reduce a series of nonviolent crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, and realign sentencing at these inhumanely packed facilities. Two years later, the state's prison population has plunged, but per-inmate costs have tripled (and as the LA Times reports, the money is not being spent on the education services that voters demanded).
Schools Not Prisons challenges this discrepancy, and Ty is fully behind it. "It's simple: put the money into schools and not prisons. We'll get way further if we educate people and not lock them up," Ty urges. "We're going in to talk to and perform for inmates — to to get them motivated to educate themselves. It's something that needs to be talked about, and I'm happy to be part of it."
Text Emily Manning
Photography Eric Chakeen