After the polar vortex UMass Amherst seemed to be submerged in for the past month, the ice on the steps at the Integrative Learning Center was slowly melting as rapper Christopher Franklin, who goes by “Chris Focus,” and I sat among a multitude of sunshine deprived students, all basking in the fleeting moments of heat before Gaia remembered it was winter.
We spoke of his music and how trifling finding balance as an artist in college can be. As I photographed Chris on the steps, it felt less like an interview and more like catching up with an old friend. An old friend I had never met before. The ease and comfort in which Chris brings to everyone he communicates with, translates to his music and is the reason why he hasn’t let any obstacle stop him yet.
Chris is a 21-year-old student in his junior year at UMass. He is studying journalism and lived in western Massachusetts his entire life, surrounded by mountains and old people for as long as he can remember. Yet, this student life is merely half of what Chris is submerged in, for when the sun goes down and classes are over, Chris steps out of the shadows and towards the microphone. In a world swallowed by stress and worries, the main goal for Chris is to overpower the negativity through his music, even if it’s for a few short moments. Since performing his first live show last summer at the night club, Sonia, in Cambridge, Mass., he’s performed eight other shows. Chris is taking New England by storm — and it is merely the beginning.
What originally peaked your interest in making music?
Chris: Honestly when I was in high school, there was a group of kids who graduated but there was this one kid, Luiego. He always looked out for me, and I was like “oh I could do this someday,” and he was like “Yeah maybe.” Eventually I started doing it [making music] and he just kind of influenced me. I also played drums my whole life so I fell in love with rhythm. But I think it was when I was listening to “Tha Carter IV” when I was really like “oh okay this is something I wanna try.
What was the music scene like where you grew up?
Chris: I’m from Shutesbury, I went to school in Amherst. Shutesbury is like this little town about eight miles out of Amherst. It’s in the middle of a mountain, there’s about a thousand people in it total. Everybody’s over the age of 60, it’s pretty lit. Zero music scene, I think if I become famous I’ll be the first person to ever rap in Shutesbury period so that’ll be cool.
Aside from Lil Wayne, who else has influenced you in terms of artists?
Chris: I mean my favorite artist of all time is J. Cole, just how he carries himself to the music he puts out is nothing but the highest quality. He’s probably like my biggest influence right now. I know that everybody’s influenced by Drake, but I really love Drake, Joey Bada$$ as well. They’re like my top three right now.
Who are some of the people you believe to be making the biggest waves in music right now, or some of the artists doing something different within the industry?
Chris: I mean J. Cole, but I don’t think anybody’s doing anything different. Everyone’s just trying to get noticed on social media and do the craziest, loudest thing, which is ridiculous that that’s where the music industry is at right now. But in terms of real art I’d say J. Cole, just because he’s pushing subject material, and he’s doing it without a major label backing. He’s doing it with the label he created, Dreamville, and he’s signing artists that aren’t the most popular, they’re not the littest, they’re the people pushing the message that his dream coincides with.
What made you want to go into journalism?
Chris: I really like to write things for people to read, whether it’s music or just me putting my ideas out there. I feel like communicating is the way we are going to advance as a society, so I just want to be a part of that.
How has being a student here at UMass affected you in terms of being an artist, as well as a student?
Chris: That’s actually been the biggest problem – ‘cus even though like comparatively to anyone popping I have zilch in terms of a following- you really, really, have to work at it regardless. It’s pretty much a full time job so it really doesn’t leave any time for school. What I did the past two semesters is I dropped to part time so that I could balance it a little easier. I don’t want to leave school ‘cus I don’t want to be like one of those SoundCloud rappers that’s like “yeah I’m going all the way, we out here,” but at the same time I feel like I have a lot of talent and it deserves a shot. So I’m going part time and I also have a job full time, it’s just about balancing everything, and part time has been the way I’ve been able to do that.
Where do you see yourself ideally after graduation?
Chris: Hopefully not homeless [laughs], I probably want to move to New Orleans or New York, somewhere where there’s a bit more of an established scene than Amherst. Amherst is very much a college community, so people are already invested in what they themselves care about, and there’s not a lot of energy for even students to re-invest in something else, like an artist. The adults all work at a college, so they’re not too interested in listening to a popping rapper. So I’ll probably move someplace where there’s a scene. I might also just stay here, because I’ve been creating some kinds of cool waves in the area. In the local scene I’m pretty well recognized, I kind of put it on the map, so I don’t know, I’m just not sure. Those are probably my two ideas.
So no matter what you’re still going to pursue music?
Chris: Yeah, definitely. I’ll probably do it till I’m 28, and if I’m still broke, I’ll get a real person job, and get the white house with the picket fence.
Chris: I’ve been working on music since I was 18, taking it really seriously since I was twenty. I feel like if you’ve been working at something everyday, every night for 10 years, and you are at the same place you were 10 years ago, it’s not bringing you any money, or advancing you in terms of who you are as a person, and your life, then you should find another way to make your life fulfilling. That means this is not your path, so maybe if I’m at 28 and I still like it, I still love it, I’m still fulfilled by it, I’ll keep doing it. But as of right now, if in ten years time this goes nowhere, I think it’d be irresponsible of me to keep doing it.
Are there specific people you have worked with that have helped you further your music – other artists, producers?
Chris: Yeah, so I do this whole music s*** with my best friend Riley, we’ve been best friends since we were in kindergarten. He’s a producer, so he makes pretty much any beat I’ve worked on. He masters my work, he engineers it, he does all that. He’s also a rapper, he’s pretty good, we’ve just been creating together. This past year I’ve worked with a lot of Boston artists, I worked with this one named meetVoutside and that was pretty cool. It was a good experience just to try to expand into the city, we’ve got a couple shows out of that. I’ve been trying to branch out in Massachusetts, and New England to get my name out there, I’m hoping to work with this artist from New York called Justin Sterling – technically he’s from Arizona- and that’s hopefully how I’ll branch into the New York scene, but yeah just working with various artists.
You’ve performed at a few live shows, how has the feedback and experience from a live audience been?
Chris: The first one was so f****** bad I wanted to quit oh my goodness. It was at Sonia Middle East – a nightclub in Boston, so there were a lot of people there and I just was not ready for that. Before I went out there I thought I was the coolest person ever, and then these other people went before me – who were way better live performers than I was at the time and I knew that, so I got super nervous. Then, my microphone stopped working, and just a lot of technical difficulties mixed with nerves just made it terrible. People were looking at me like when is he getting off stage, but after that I rehearsed for hours and hours and hours, and after that we’ve had people jumping, we’ve had people screaming. I signed a bra which was weird – that was a weird experience for me I’ve gotta say. But the response has been really good. Every single show I’ve done has resulted in me getting another show, so people seemed to be impressed by it. The live performances are what keeps me going, it’s my favorite part of it, seeing people move, dance, bringing someone happiness based off of something I created – that’s why I do it. Just to see that happen, like sometimes I’ll watch videos of it just cus like thats f****** cool, So yeah, I’d say they’re going good so far.
You are part of Rosebud Creatives record label, can you tell us a little more about this?
Chris: So that happened my show after Once Ballroom, one of the people who founded Rosebud Creatives, Nehemiah- he’s really good friends with Dezmond who went to UMass and is also a founder of Rosebud Creatives- he reached out to me after my set and was like “that was f****** incredible, we want you to be a part of Rosebud.” After that I was talking to Dezmond on Instagram, we’ve been friends since college started, always just talking about music but never anything serious serious. He said “we definitely want you to be a part of this [Rosebud].” I feel like their vision as a record label is really authentic, it’s not about popularity, it’s not about being lit, it’s about creating real art. So I’m like yeah, this is a group of real people who just love to create, so I’m really happy to be a part of Rosebud Creatives.
You recently released “No Cap” with Z.Cole, what has been your favorite song that you have made so far?
Chris: My favorite music that I’ve made isn’t out yet, I’ve made about 74 songs in the flash drive. My goal is to drop one song every week for the rest of 2019, so my favorite song is in there. But out of the released songs my favorite one is either “Ooh” or “Used to.” “Used to” because that’s what gets the biggest crowd response, so I just have a lot of love for it. I also made it with someone I really like – meetVoutside- from Boston. He just has a super genuine energy. When I met him I didn’t know a lot about how to be an artist, how to carry myself. He taught me a lot about the energy you’ve gotta have, being authentic, a lot of the love I have for that song is more personal rather than just how it sounds.“Ooh” I just f*ck with how it sounds.
What would you say you want people to take away from your music the most?
Chris: That’s such a good question, I don’t know if I have the answer to it because that’s something I think about a lot. It’s like, as an artist I feel like you have to know what you’re doing, And there’s a point where I struggle as an artist and it’s like “okay but what do I want to be about?” Like when you think of Chris Focus what do you think of? And right now I just hope if you go to a Chris Focus show you leave happier than when you came in, like I don’t want you to think about your life struggles, your stresses. I want you to leave feeling like you just had a break from reality. So I guess it’s just about bringing people the feeling of happiness. There’s no personal message because everyone takes from music what they will based on their personal situation.
Keep your eyes peeled for Chris’ new songs dropping weekly.
Email Astghik at [email protected], or follow her on Twitter @astghikjourn.