It's been an extraordinary year for Ezra Letra. When I met the rapper/photographer/author/poet at Cafe Passe last week for an interview, it was hardly surprising that he was memorizing lines for his first acting role in the play "Octagon," which opens Friday, Dec.13 in The Temple Lounge at the Arizona Theatre Company.
In the past 12 months, he's issued two incredible records—"The Nobody" in January and "Time Bomb First Aid Kit" in September, and has seen his literature published in "Trouble in the Heartland: Crime Fiction Based on the Works of Bruce Springsteen" (Gutter Books), among almost 30 other writers with Springsteen's blessings.
Letra, born Allan Holguin, is currently working on a new album of music.
Let's talk about your background a little bit—I think it informs a lot of your art.
I'm 27 years old. I was born in Queens, New York. I came out here to Arizona in 2008 to finish my bachelor's at the U of A. I was studying English literature and creative writing, with a focus in poetry. I kind of had an inkling when I moved out here that I was gonna be an artist—I wanted the credentials that I needed and learned what I needed to learn about. I graduated in 2010.
When did you start making music?
2009, a year after I came here. Which is interesting because I was in New York for 21 years and didn't do any music—I mean, I absorbed that—but coming out here, I was reinventing myself. Nobody knew me; I built up the courage. I went through this transformation—leaving home gave me a sense of confidence. In my teen years I was very shy, quiet and reserved. But being away from my parents and being independent gave me courage. I've been an artist only in Arizona, really.
Was there a catalyst or a single event that took place here where you realized that this was something you were gonna pursue?
It was a creative writing workshop that I took, and the poetry classes, where I saw that people were kind of digging what I was doing and encouraging me to perform. While I was at the U of A, I had to go read in front of all these people, which is something I'd never done and people really responded positively. It was a boost for me to keep trying. Before that, I was so shy...I'd just write in my journals.
How did you transition from reciting your poetry to making hip-hop music? Was it gradual?
It was really gradual. I'd write these poems and try to rap over beats—I was writing rhyming poetry so it kind of sounded like raps and I never rapped before, so at the time I was just finding my voice, finding my presence on the mic. I worked really hard.
Music was always huge for me when I was growing up. I'm Colombian so it was either Spanish music at home or hip-hop that my older brother listened to. In the neighborhood in Queens, hip-hop was the soundtrack of our youth...we were really biased, so everything was New York hip-hop, and that had its own flavor and style. When I came out here, I discovered what they called "backpack" hip-hop—it was more emotional, more heartfelt stuff. That didn't have the tough-guy persona (associated with the New York style) that maybe had intimidated me. I discovered Atmosphere, Living Legends...I found myself going with that boom-bap sound I grew up on, but with backpack content—introspection and showing vulnerability. And I found strength in that: These guys were not afraid to say what they felt, to say they got their heart broken, or that they're broke. They're not trying to present this image that I can't relate to. It changed my perception of what hip-hop was.
It took until this year for me to (make music to my liking). When I made "The Nobody" I felt really confident. I had mixed in music that I had heard as a child—I catered it to me. It was the first time that it was like, "This is who I am."
You moved from Tucson to Phoenix in 2013. What happened during that period that led to you writing "The Nobody" EP?
(About a year before that) my girlfriend got pregnant. She's from New York too so we both decided to go back there and be with our families. I had a college degree; I was feeling confident that I'd find work out there. I couldn't find anything—no interviews, nothing.
My son was born in April 2013, and come August, I still didn't have a job and I had to do something about it. I made a rash decision and came back to Tucson to get a job. I was homeless (part of the time)—sleeping in my car certain nights. Sometimes I'd stay on friends' couches. But my main motivation was getting some money and stability for my son and so I could be with my son. ... At the time, people were telling me that I'm talented and going places, but here I am without a job and broke. My college degree doesn't seem to mean anything and I'm miserable. It was a do or die situation, and I decided to just "do." I tried to switch the whole narrative of feeling like a nobody—we're all nobodies—into a positive and that led to a lot of other things.
I wrote the song "The Nobody" at River and Swan, at that Quik-Trip (when I was staying in my car) out of this moment of deep frustration and that was the definitive moment for me. I reinvented myself; I changed my name to Ezra Letra and everything changed. I then wrote all of the other songs.
I finally landed a job at Intel in Phoenix while I was in Tucson and lived with Beatsmith Medore up there while I got my money together—he did all the beats on my project and we had known each other for a long time before that. I still had my recording equipment that I brought from New York when I finally got my job and my own place, and I recorded my whole project there. I finished it around the holidays in November and December last year and then went and got my girlfriend and my son. (Note: the family returned to live in Tucson recently.)
I'm always talking about "the muses."' In everything I do, I hear voices in my head and the art that I produce...sometimes I just feel like it's a spiritual possession. If I don't do it, I feel like...I feel anxious. For the longest time, I fought it, but now I trust it. I go with it. Things started going well when I listened. I don't really do anything except create or spend time with my family.
So you have this music that came from a very dark place, but you seem to be extremely positive now—and I've noticed that in conversations we've had before. How did that come about?
Well, it was so dark, that place, that there was light on the other side. I kind of broke away from that. "The Nobody" was the end of that. I learned to trust and love. There's so many things (going on) to make you sad or angry and I'd rather just (be the opposite of that). ... I feel like love is the only truth, and that's the truth I've accepted.