By Patrick James
It's Friday evening at L.A.'s Grammy Museum, whose walls are hung with iconic rock photographs and shelved with pop artifacts. On stage in the museum's Clive Davis Theater is another Clive — Aden — a young rapper from South Central Los Angeles. He bounces back and forth between his bass and guitar players like a court jester schooled on the flow of early Eminem. But seeing as he's dressed in a plaid, grunge-era Baja pullover and black jeans, he looks a bit more like Frank Ocean. His band, called The Strangers, plays without a drummer, which could be distracting, except that Aden punctuates every line with such force that the absence of traditional percussion is moot. “Nothing is impossible,” he sings.
He cites as influences everyone from classic MCs to contemporary pop-punkers, and connects the dots between disparate genres while boasting of the unlikely feats he's capable of: “I can get struck by lightning, turn day to night and increase the peace by fighting.”
The song, “Mr. Impossible,” which appears on Aden's recently self-released Safety Pins EP, is clever and catchy, and captures his personality. Onstage he alternates between untamed bravado and unbridled vulnerability; offstage he maintains a guarded front, occasionally tugging at the piercing in his lip. He declines to give his age but is likely in his mid-20s.
Aden is aware that the chance for success in hip-hop is slim for anyone. But he has pretty unshakable confidence. He's earned a slot here tonight in the finale of the Be Heard Artist Showcase, a competition series designed to highlight local performers. It's put on by Mercado La Paloma, an economic-development project of the Esperanza Community Housing Corporation, and it attracts an eclectic group of civic-minded artists. It's the most recent chapter of a dizzying personal story.
Aden's parents emigrated from Belize before he was born, but by the time he was 2, his dad had moved back to Central America. Aden can't recall a time when they lived together as a family. Today, his mother, brother and sister live in Watts — he says they grew up all around east South Central, starting around Vernon and moving regularly, each time a bit farther south. He's a bit of a nomad himself; at the time of our interview he was staying with friends at a Spanish-style house in Los Feliz.
Itinerant or not, Aden wants to make changes to his life and his family's. Growing up, he says, he was routinely picked on, made to feel like a loser at school because of his bargain-store clothes. He was disengaged and causing trouble until he attended a meeting for a program called South Central Youth Empowered Through Action, which is designed to give kids the tools they need to get to college.
“It opened up my eyes,” Aden says.
One of the first experiences he had with the after-school program was a field trip. “You're in South L.A. and they take you to Beverly Hills, 20 minutes away. Before then, my friends had never been that way.”
Aden was immediately aware of the discrepancies. “On every corner we got a liquor store; they have grocery stores. We got fast food restaurants; they got nice dining restaurants. We got checks cashed; they got banks. Our public schools have prison gates, literally. And we went to Beverly Hills High School, which is a part of LAUSD as well, and it's like the nicest thing ever.”
Aden acquired the tool kit to thrive as a student and became an activist for educational equality. He protested with groups outside the district office and journeyed to Sacramento to advocate for schools. He transferred high schools and then attended college, though he won't say where. In any case, he dropped out after two years to return to L.A. and begin recording songs in earnest.
Aden hasn't gathered a lot of press, but a podcaster named Carl Kozlowski is so excited about him that he wrote the L.A. Weekly repeatedly, demanding that we write about Aden. He, like others, has been swept up in Aden's passion.
“If I'm not [making music] for my life, then I have no life,” Aden says. “This is the only thing I have to live for.”
Back at the showcase, he performs his newest song, “I'm Sick,” which he wrote and recorded using his phone's modest My Piano app. It's his most raw, vulnerable, compelling song to date. The lyrics read like a litany of his greatest fears — “My life is such a shame / Because I look into my past and everything is all the same / But I'm still not giving up. / I still hold that when I'm gone you will remember me / You'll keep me in your memories.”
In the moment, the performance feels like a triumph over those fears.