Devontée is on set for a promotional photo shoot for his latest body of work With, Love. He’s on a California rooftop looking out at the late October sunset. His view includes the Roosevelt Hotel on Hollywood Boulevard, the Capitol Records building and lots and lots of palm trees.
“It’s just a vibe, you know,” says the 26-year-old hip-hop artist and producer who hails from Toronto. “It’s just really exciting for me to do this and be in this moment.”
This moment has been a long time in the making for Devontée. He’s been rapping “for real for real” since he was 13, so half his young life. He first arrived on Toronto’s music scene as D-Bonez before opting to switch his performing name to his birth name. Five years ago, he started to buzz with his single “Bare Tings”. His reference to his crew as his “WOEs” – which started out meaning We Over Everything and evolved into Working on Excellence, he explains – caught on. So much so, it led to Drake popularizing the term on “Know Yourself” off If You’re Reading This You’re Late (2015) with the catchy line, “Running through the 6ix with my woes, you know how that shit go.”
The WOE mantra, in its Working on Excellence iteration, is central to Devontée’s career. It’s the name of his independent label, WOE Records, an accompanying clothing line, WOEdrobe, and the underlying mission behind his many efforts to give back to young people coming up behind him.
“I wanted people to understand how to get over everything essentially,” Devontée says. “And the only way to do that is by working on excellence … I have big plans, I want to be able to make WOE centres, like YMCA centres.”
Devontée splits his time between Toronto and Los Angeles. He has influential familial ties – his cousin is actress, celebrity chef and cookbook author Ayesha Curry, who also happens to be married to NBA superstar Stephen Curry. He had his entire Head Gone project mixed and mastered at the home of another NBA superstar, Kevin Durrant. He’s had musical collaborations with Kardinal Offishall and Joey Bada$$. And no matter how ‘Hollywood’ his experiences may seem, he remains grounded, taking time out to set mentor high school students in song writing, run summer basketball camps and shout out fellow Toronto artists doing big things on his social media accounts.
Working on excellence is a good look for him. He’s just beginning to reap the benefits.
You dropped the songs to your latest release With, Love one at a time, a week apart, before releasing the entire body of work. Why did you do it that way?
I can’t say for everybody, but there are a majority of people who, they don’t have time, or they don’t have the attention span, to listen to a full body of work unless they’re very invested into the artist or they’re invested into the music, so I feel right now I just want to grow with the fan base that I have already. I want to grow them, really let them in on my life. I put out in 2015, District Vibe, and then it took me a year and a half to put out another project and then I just felt like it was too long. I felt like when I put out a project, from the first song to the last song, each song wouldn’t be appreciated the same as the first song. Why would I just continue doing that if they are listening to it but it’s not being appreciated as much? I wanted to give them a direct approach, one song a week. I feel like that’s enough for someone to listen to and look forward to and grow with me as I unravel my heartbreak story.
There are some love songs that I’m more happy, but most of them are from the perspective of loss.
With, Love is part of a trilogy. Talk a little about that and how this latest project fits in.
With Head Gone it was really focused on my perspectives from being human and being in the flesh, so having natural instincts, having lust, temptation, having different wants and wants in life, from my perspective as a 24, 25-year-old and what I learned prior to that growing up in Toronto, also travelling the world and interacting with different people. How I can relate to different people, but telling my story. Then the Sun of Dawn was similar, but the polar opposite, so my perspective and my relationship on my spiritual level with God and how I view it and how I felt through my normal life how God affected me. With, Love I guess would be the love, the trilogy would make a human with the heart, spirit and mind so this would be from the love and going through the perspective of heartbreak in a sense. There are some love songs that I’m more happy, but most of them are from the perspective of loss. I guess loss to gain. Thinking is loss and learning is gain.
Would you say these are based on your experience or other people’s experience?
It’s a balance. The majority of it is from my perspective of how I see things so whether it’s things I’ve actually personally been through or people around me, my friends or my community, what I see and what I experience from my end. I try not to ever really talk about it … I try to keep it as real and authentic as possible to how I feel.
What did you enjoy most about recording With, Love?
I would say my evolution and growing and getting better at my structuring of songs, my writing, my melodies, and I would also say it helped me through my personal heartbreak. It helped me have a better perspective and a better outlet to deal with my emotions, to get my emotions out so I don’t have them hinder me and I can keep moving.
I really genuinely feel anybody around me that I know, I want to see them be the best version of themselves. That’s just kinda what I believe in…
I noticed on your social media, particularly your Twitter, you show a lot of love to artists coming out of Toronto. Why do you make it a point to show love instead of just promoting your own stuff?
Generally that’s just who I am as a person. I just love to show love. It just motivates me and makes me happy. I really genuinely feel anybody around me that I know, I want to see them be the best version of themselves. That’s just kinda what I believe in and who I am. That’s just why I created the whole Working on Excellence WOE thing. That’s just a saying to capture how I feel. I just want everyone to be the best that they can be. I just think it’s awesome, like if I know somebody different that somebody doesn’t know, artist or whatever field they are in, if I could be able to connect them and help them both just grow and have a win-win outcome like that, it just makes me feel happy.
You’re in Los Angeles right now and I know you go back and forth from Toronto to there a lot. Some people believe that in order to make it, if you’re from Toronto, you have to leave the city. What do you think about that?
I don’t think there’s a certain way, one way, to do it. Realistically we live in the future, so we have technology, like social media, that potentially you could just do something in your bathroom and that somehow could get seen by the world and you wouldn’t need to go anywhere else outside your bathroom. But for me, I have at my hands an opportunity in my career path that I just had to travel to where my heart felt, I know the industry is here, and there’s opportunities, there’s different opportunities. Sometimes there’s opportunities you wait for in life and sometimes you go and take them. I’m just trying to do everything in my power that would prepare me in the way I want to go. This was my first time leaving Toronto for six months, which is very rare for me. I did spend the whole summer in Toronto and spring pretty much because there is so much opportunity there too, but I just gotta keep it moving.
What’s your favourite interaction with a fan or a young person you mentored?
This guy in Denver, Colorado named Cameron, he reached out to me Twitter. I tweeted that I need a Netflix password and he gave me his. The next you know I had a stopover in Denver and I hit him up on Twitter because I was thankful for that. Then he came to pick me up at the airport, we chilled out for a bit. I gave him my WOE hat, an exclusive WOE hat. The next thing you know he was so motivated by that that he quit his job and started doing photography and directing and videography full-time. He planned this show to be my first ever headline show in America. He actually set it up in Denver, Colorado. That is a real representation of just a little thing of meeting him in Denver and giving him a WOE hat and pushing the WOE movement onto to him and seeing how he would take it and use it for himself to better himself.
I’m just trying to stay focused on just bettering myself and being an inspiration to others.
What’s something you’ve learned from Ayesha and Steph?
When I’m there they’re never not working. Unless they’re putting the kids to sleep. It made me realize … If I want my life to be at a caliber of success that they are at I have to be working at a caliber they work at so you know whether it be her filming for her shows or Steph at the gym working on his basketball, or whatever it may be, I have to be doing the same in my field. That’s only one thing. I always keep God first. They’re big believers in faith, you know, as well as me.
There are a lot of people trying to find their place in hip-hop music. What is your ultimate goal with what you’re doing and where do you want to go with your music?
I want to be the best artist, producer, writer, performer that I can be. So I want to challenge myself to break all barriers that I can. I have goals to be on some magazine covers, to be performing on all the major festivals, to headline major festivals, sell out arenas, definitely ACC (Air Canada Centre). Grammys, stuff like that, like all those accolades come with the work I feel like. Of course I would love to have a Grammy, but my goal is just to be the best me I could be. I’m not really worried about anybody else because nobody thinks like I do. I don’t think like anybody else. So I’m just trying to stay focused on just bettering myself and being an inspiration to others.
First and third photo, Ⓒ Jack Flawless Photography + Urbanology Magazine
Second photo supplied courtesy of Devontée