When rum.gold hops on to our Zoom call, there’s a phrase glowing in pink neon letters behind him: “I have better dreams when I can’t sleep.” He is seated at a gorgeous round table, framed by what appears to be a Dracaena plant and a Bird of Paradise. This backdrop isn’t lifted from some Instagrammable pop-up installation; it’s rum.gold’s own apartment, in Brooklyn.
rum.gold’s flair for curation isn’t surprising given the intricate melody lines in the music he makes, which evokes so much emotion it almost feels liturgical. But as he tells it, he’s just always wanted to carve out a place that feels like home.
“When I was growing up, whenever I was arguing with my cousin, aunt, or grandmother, I heard, “Blood is thicker than water,” he tells me. It wasn’t until he was an adult that he realized the saying was a truncated version of “The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb,” meaning that sometimes the bonds we forge of our own volition are stronger than the ones we have with our relatives.
“It affirmed these things I was feeling about my chosen family,” he said. “Feeling closer to these people who weren’t necessarily ‘of the womb.’”
rum.gold grew up spending time between the homes of different family members. Accordingly, on Thicker Than Water, released independently last month, he explores the competing definitions of family and belonging he’s experienced throughout his life, ranging from his biological family to the friends he summoned as a second family. On songs like “Follow the Light” and “Human,” he sings, in his delicate falsetto, of a redemptive love. Yet the title track finds him grappling with the ways he hasn’t always felt loved by his family in the same way. “My mother broke my heart before I could ever fall in love / My father broke my heart before I ever knew what it was,” he sings.
The singer grew up in DC when the city was still predominantly Black. There’s a reason, after all, why the American capital is known as Chocolate City—and his connection to the city’s rich musical history runs deep. Like Marvin Gaye, whose music he often listened to in car rides with his grandmother, he was born at Howard University Hospital. His mother lived on U Street, a cultural hub that was home to about 15 jazz clubs in the 1940s, incubating the talent of legends like Duke Ellington.
As a teen, rum gravitated to the sounds of iconic horn players like Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. When his aunt pressured him to pick up the instrument himself, he joined his high school jazz band. “When I started picking up the trumpet, it didn’t feel wrong,” he says.
For rum, learning to play jazz meant tapping into an important part of Black musical tradition. It also gave him a sense of belonging. He’d never quite felt like he had a clear sense of home, and when his teachers asked students to come to school clad in traditional clothing to celebrate their ancestries, he didn’t know what to wear.
“That was one of the first times where I started asking myself, Where do I come from?” he said. “What is my lineage? What is my story? When I picked up the trumpet, I remember feeling like there was a clear lineage I could trace back to the beginning and be like, ‘This is mine.’” Jazz became something steady, even when his life at home felt like it was shifting under his feet.
Singing was something that took him longer to warm up to. As a kid, his mother had taken him to church nearly every day—and he eventually, begrudgingly joined the church choir, though singing was, and to some degree remains, an insecurity of his. But when his mother fell on hard times, he moved in with his grandparents and his aunt, and his stint as a choir boy came to a halt: His relatives typically only attended on Easter Sunday.
rum explores the contrast between those upbringings in his music, where he often uses religious motifs to interrogate his love life and his identity. “If I mistake lust for love, is it still a deadly sin?” he sings on “Hell on Earth,” a contemplative closer from his 2019 debut EP, yaRn.“If I only speak the truth but I lie to myself do I still have to repent?”
He’s also still trying to untangle his convoluted relationship to religion—one that is rooted as much in faith as it is the memories he shared with his mother. “How much of my relationship with God is because of my biological mother, or just because of my natural inclination to believe in something higher?” he says. “I’m still constantly asking myself that question.”
In 2012, rum matriculated at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. But although he would spend the next four years studying trumpet, he found himself gravitating to vocals for the first time. “I liked singing and I enjoyed doing it, but I never thought I was good at it,” he says.
A year later, he uploaded covers of Lianne La Havas’ “Tease Me,” Moses Sumney’s “Plastic,” and Matt Corby’s “Monday” to an anonymous SoundCloud, hoping to hone his skills without fear of rejection. And though he started garnering praise for his falsetto online and networking with producers like Berlin-based James Chatburn, who would eventually go on to produce yaRn, not even his Berklee friends knew he was singing on the side.
After graduating with a degree in music business management and marketing, it was time to see where he would land in the industry. But that journey, like the one he’d been going on internally around his ancestry, was a bit of an identity crisis.
“I was doing all of these things to fight the universe telling me that I should be a singer or an artist,” he says. “Maybe I should work at a label. Maybe I should be a manager. Maybe I should be a songwriter. Maybe I should do all of these things that are circling around what I actually want to do but I’m too scared to do.” Now, with his growing fanbase on SoundCloud providing a needed boost in confidence, he started writing yaRn. “At a certain point, I stopped asking myself, Why not?” he says. “I began to love it so much that I didn’t want to question it anymore. I just wanted to do it.”
In 2018, he released a couple of singles that proved that he was just as talented a vocalist (with vocal runs that could make Brandy proud) as he was a songwriter. “Cashmere Cage” detailed a relationship that looked beautiful on the outside but made him feel “stuck in a lovely way.” “[I was like], I know I’m not supposed to be here, but there are a lot of reasons I can convince myself to stay,” he says, remembering the college relationship that birthed many of his earlier songs.
The man he jokes he was “allegedly dating” at the time also inspired “Where There’s Smoke,” a folksy song centered around a story his ex shared about a previous partner who threatened to burn down his apartment. “After leaving his apartment that day, I was thinking, What state of mind does a person have to be in to want to destroy everything you have, everything you’ve worked for, and you?” he says. Thinking of scenarios that could push him over the edge resulted in lyrics like “It wasn’t in my head, they were both in my bed / Where they’d lie for eternity.”
When he’s not dreaming up fictitious storylines, Rum says most of his music comes from contradicting himself. On Thicker Than Water, songs like “Lullaby” and “Follow the Light” foreground the dichotomies that shape how he sees the world: Grief with joy, good with evil, ghosts and demons, heaven and hell. But nowhere on the album does his struggle to reconcile these conflicting feelings and longings feel more urgent than on “Fix Me,” which rum, a self-taught guitarist, says is one of the first acoustic songs he ever wrote. “You can’t be my northern star / When you’re the reason home seems so far,” he sings.
Just like his life, his music feels like a tug of war between who he was, who he became, and who he is now. But luckily for rum, there is victory in being brave enough to find the answers. That pink neon sign—“I have better dreams when I can’t sleep”—is more than just a quirky slogan. It’s his current life personified: When you are awake you choose your dreams; when you are asleep, your dreams choose you. He’s quieted his insecurities enough to release an album, and is newly married. It’s the life he chose, not the one he was given—though he knows these sorts of certainties are always a work in progress.
“I’m in a good place, but there’s still something that needs to be addressed,” he says. “You can’t fix these things when they were there before you were here and will be here long after you’re gone. No one else can address it because it’s mine to fix.”
Kristin Corry is a Senior Staff Writer for VICE.