My father has donated to the Fred Jordan Mission in Skid Row for as long as I can remember. During my childhood, I stood next to him countless times as he stopped to give homeless men and women money, a cigarette, or both, always lingering to offer a light. When we walked away together, he would take a drag of his own cigarette, pause, and say, "If not for the grace of God…" As I've pieced together fragments of my father's trying life from those moments he's shared with me, moments which I will not relay here out of respect for his privacy, the weight of his unfinished sentence has become greater and greater: "If not for the grace of God… that could've been me."
When the Los Angeles Times reported that Los Angeles County's homeless population is up 23% from last year, I saw my father's face, heard him trail off, and thought about the living conditions of the near 58,000 people for whom grace has yet to arrive. Sadly, the same May report notes that the population of the chronically homeless—those who've lived on the street for at least a year or multiple times and suffer from mental illness, addiction, or physical disability—jumped to 17,000. While these figures are staggering, this one is perhaps the most harrowing: homelessness in LA County among youth ages 18 to 24 rose 64%.
Natia probably evaded the last headcount, but he fits the bill for every faceless statistic. The 24-year-old Inglewood native has been chronically homeless for the last six years, the entirety of his rap career. Lately, when I'm buying a meal or going to bed in my apartment, I can't stop thinking about him.
In light of everything Natia's lived through—a fractured home life, homelessness, mental illness, and more—the fact that he's sustained any semblance of a rap career is astounding. Sourcing gratis beats, artwork, videos, and more from friends, he's released five increasingly auspicious projects since 2010 and has even landed meetings with Interscope and Columbia. Though a major label deal never materialized, he's garnered a small but avidly engaged following and caught the attention of budding independent LA label P.O.W., which released his official debut album, 10K Hours, in late July.
Before 10K Hours dropped, Natia landed songs from the album on Apple Music's Beats1 Radio and London-based radio station Rinse FM. He also received praise from XXL, LA Weekly, and Viper, among other publications, drawing comparisons to admitted influences like Wu-Tang Clan and Eminem. You can hear shades of the former on the gory single "Blood on the Hypeman" ("Shoot up your dresser, your closet, and your nightstand / Got your whole bedroom looking like Iran") and in his frequent use of the word "god" (a synonym for "man"), which he admits came directly from RZA and co. On tracks from his earliest independent releases (i.e. 2012's Worthless Treasure), his affinity for Eminem albums like The Slim Shady LP is glaring, the zany perversion couched in endless internal rhymes.
10K Hours, however, achieves a marked singularity. The lyricism of Natia's forebears remains, but there are hooks and verses with cadences and melodies that feel as fresh as they do distinctly west coast. With production that finds the middle ground between dynamic, forward-thinking percussion and the sample-backed rap of the '90s, 10K Hours is the rare throwback that feels contemporary. It's also purposely antithetical to the trap-leanings popular on radio and now Soundcloud. Debauched tales of partying and drug abuse exist ("Fuck Our Problems"), but Natia better conveys the inherent humanity of those endeavors, enunciating and emoting where others might mumble themselves into numbed incoherence. There are also several songs where he graphically details his attempts to survive while broke and homeless, relaying the information with a mix of nihilistic zeal, regret, and hope ("Stealing shit inside of open cars / Like credit cards, weed jars and Xanax bars"). In the end, these juxtapositions reveal that there is no guide for a musician in Natia's circumstances, and there never will be. He's endured and persisted both in and outside of the studio by any means necessary, some dubious and some not. 10K Hours, then, is the beginning of a map that should chart the interminable journey from rock bottom to rap stardom.
On the afternoon of our interview, Natia is not at the Inglewood address he'd sent me the day before. He isn't responding to texts or phone calls. After 30 minutes, his manager is able to get in touch with him. Natia calls and apologizes for oversleeping before directing me to a friend's house in Westchester, an adjacent and more affluent neighborhood not far from LAX.
Though Natia now has several places to stay (the first address also belongs to a friend), he still lives a nomadic lifestyle, keeping one duffle bag of essentials with him wherever he's spending the night and two more at his mother's Inglewood apartment. Stashing clothes and occasionally sleeping at his mother's home, however, is only a recent development.
"I'm finally back living with my mom," he says later. "I was like, 'It's been cold outside. Could you let me in?' She said, 'I'll give you a month.' I was like, 'That's all I need to get rich.'"
When Natia greets me and walks from the driveway of the white, one-story Westchester bungalow to its canopied backyard patio, he seems anxious, almost giddy, like he's dreamed of being interviewed for years. Soon after the tape recorder is on, he confirms as much. "I should've been rich and famous [a long time ago]," he says. "Niggas are getting on at 10-years-old."
Clad in baggy blue jeans, an oversized red flannel, and scuffed Timberland boots, Natia is, all at once, dressed like a lumberjack, a designer-savvy thrift store habitué, and someone who stepped out of an early issue of The Source. Once seated, smoking a cigarette, and surrounded by a few members of the Renaissance Family—Natia's closely-knit clique, which consists of rappers, photographers, producers, engineers, and more—he begins to relax. When he talks about 10K Hours, though, he shifts back. At times, his enthusiasm is infectious. In other moments, he seems on the verge of becoming unhinged, the variety of his facial expressions and gestures impossible to catalog. Through it all, he remains undeniably charismatic, the intensity in his eyes and the sheer force of his laughter impossible to ignore, the sun glinting off of his light skin.
"I hope JAY-Z hears this album," Natia says. "I think he'll be like, 'This man is bringing this shit back.' When you listen to this, you can see and touch the things that I've seen and touched. I probably recorded each and every song like six times. No fuck ups, punch-ins and all—I'd listen to them and be like, 'I don't like it.' I did it over and over."
Still, no amount of work could compensate for the obstacles Natia faced in cobbling the album together. Aside from trying to find food and shelter day in and day out, he recorded at three different studios in LA. For those unfamiliar with the city's infamous sprawl, getting around without a car or the money for an Uber is time-consuming and taxing. More often than not, Natia was also shouldering his massive duffle bags. To top it off, he had no computer. Without one, he was unable to store the stems from a number of songs, much less work on those songs outside of the studio. In addition to losing songs to various hard drives, he was forced to record some of his vocals over beats that had already been mixed and mastered. With the help of writer and P.O.W. founder Jeff Weiss, who helped pay for some studio time, and members of the Renaissance family, who offered their mixing and mastering expertise, Natia was able to finish the record in just over a year.
"For one song, I couldn't find the instrumental. I was going insane. It's been rough, but everything is from scratch now," he says before talking about a friend's recently built home studio, where he plans to record from now on. When asked if he listens to or feels he's competing with any of his contemporaries, Natia is incredulous. "Hell no. Who? They're saying they're rock stars. That's why I made 10K Hours. What I'm doing, this is hip-hop. Y'all are going to be able to tell the difference."
While Natia's grandiose assessment of his own work isn't uncommon for an artist of any ilk, the list of rappers who share his aesthetic leanings and level of skill is short. To that end, his collaborators are quick to back him up. "Early on I probably would've compared his music to the music of contemporary emcees like Joey Bada$$ or Dillon Cooper, but nowadays I don't know. I feel like he's writing his own book," says El Lobo, the producer behind the Earl Sweatshirt-approved "The Wrong Way" and several other tracks on 10K Hours. "He's making music for the right reasons," explains Ryan Rigsby, the director behind many of Natia's music videos. "Nothing is being done to look cool. He cares about his craft. That's pretty rare."
Equally rare on 10K Hours is hearing about the life Natia lived before the six years he's spent trying to get off of the street. There are brief allusions, but it's difficult to feel their poignancy in the absence of a fully drawn biography. It follows that these years are wildly revealing, especially for their enduring trauma.
Born Natia Happy Maluia, Natia is one of four children. Shunned and exiled by his immediate family for continually reprehensible behavior, Natia's father emigrated from Samoa to the U.S. at 21. During those first years in the states, he too was virtually homeless, sleeping in churches and the homes of extended family. Natia's parents met while taking classes at Los Angeles Trade–Technical College, his mother eventually going on to work for Boeing, the multinational airplane company. The family of six shared the same two-bedroom apartment in Inglewood that Natia's mother still rents today, his parents sleeping in the living room. According to Natia, his father was a perpetually jobless alcoholic with a possibly undiagnosed mental disorder. After years of turbulent fights with his wife, he left the family. Despite their lack of communication, Natia recently learned that his father has become paralyzed from the neck down, the result of a possibly inebriated fall. Though he remembers his father's facility for drawing and playing musical instruments, he's light on praise and sympathy. "I learned how not to be a man from that nigga," he says while taking a drag from one of the half-dozen Marlboro's he consumes that afternoon on the patio.
Shortly after his father left, Natia became his mother's new sparring partner. From his pre-teens onward, the two were at odds, their arguments often ending with Natia being cast out of the house. "It could be anything from not cleaning my room to having a girlfriend," he says. "Sometimes she wouldn't even kick me out. She would be like, 'Get out.' Or I'd punch a hole in the wall and be like, 'I'm about to leave.' There was a lot of arguing for no reason, a lot of miscommunication. I'm like the black sheep of that family."
Initially, Natia sought refuge at his grandmother's home, which was only a short walk away. With her guidance and support, he excelled for the better part of his academic career, enrolling in honors classes and winning a NAACP sponsored poetry contest during his freshman year at Inglewood High School. When his grandmother passed that same year, however, so did Natia's interest in school. "[She] died and I kind of gave up [on school]," he says. "She was pretty much raising me."
By then an avid fan of rappers like Nas, Eminem, and Tupac, whose infamous gilded bathtub shoot inspired the cover for 10K Hours, Natia began ditching school to smoke weed, write rhymes, and spraypaint his graffiti moniker (EveryOne) across Inglewood. Kicked out of Inglewood High and Inglewood Continuation High School (a.k.a. Hillcrest) for poor attendance, he was able to graduate by completing the bare minimum for home studies requirements. Following a short, half-hearted tenure at Santa Monica College, Natia dropped out of school indefinitely and pursued rap full-time. More time at the house, however, meant more confrontations with his mother. Before long, she kicked him out. All while recording his earliest projects and taking meetings with various managers and record labels, Natia had to learn how to live on the street.
To discuss the six or so years that followed, Natia agrees to show me a few of the places where he once sought refuge after sundown. As we leave his friend's Westchester home and slog through the late afternoon traffic, it's clear that he knows every inch of pavement. If I miss a turn, he's rerouted us quicker than any GPS. He points to spots where his graffiti has since been covered up, to the train tracks he used to walk on the way to high school, to apartment buildings where friends now deceased and incarcerated once lived. The Westside of Los Angeles is ingrained his brain, the byproduct of walking countless miles while saddled with three bloated duffle bags.
After a short jaunt down Manchester, we arrive at the Westchester Recreation Center parking lot.
A beautiful park in what is predominately white and wealthy neighborhood, there's a large, open plot of green grass, a baseball diamond, basketball court, a pool, picnic tables, and a skatepark. Natia first came to the park to skateboard, a hobby at which he's remarkably gifted. Finally, next to the skatepark, there is a series of tennis courts, each fenced in by towering chain link. When Natia came to this park looking for a place to sleep, he chose this blue and green asphalt.
"I used to sleep on the ground until I found out that you could move the bench. I moved the bench and I put it right there," he says, pointing to the corner nearest to the parking lot. "I could see if a car pulled up or if somebody was coming in the tennis courts. I spent my whole time in that bitch. I'd wake up by myself and go to sleep by myself."
As we drive to the next location, I ask Natia how he managed to eat and a bathe on a regular basis. "Sometimes people help me out. Sometimes I have to beg some motherfuckers. Sometimes I take things from people. I'd take people's stuff and sell it," he explains. "Sometimes I'd have a girlfriend out of nowhere because I was homeless and needed a place to sleep… Girls always wanted to take me away from that life. I'd do some weird shit for some bread and they'd be like, "Come with me.""
When asked how he braved the elements, he's quick to debunk the "it never rains in L.A." mythos. "I got rained on like a million times," he says somberly. "When it first rained on me, I hadn't even thought about it. We live in Los Angeles, but it rains out here. When it rains, it pours."
The depressing realities of Natia's day-to-day life outside were only exacerbated by the fact that he's possibly schizophrenic. "I have out of body experiences" he explains. "I'll wake up and I'll be on the freeway or under the bridge on the 405 by the Manchester exit. It's happened a lot. It feels like I'm high, like I'm having a bad trip. The doctor told me it's hereditary."
After one early episode, Natia found himself lying on the freeway divider between the 405 and 90 freeways. "I was in the middle of the divider where the carpool lanes are, and I was lying in the middle of that shit just smoking a cigarette just looking up. Culver City police got me. That's the first time I [saw the symptoms]. I started hearing all types of shit. I was like, 'That shit ain't real.'"
According to a brief paper published by the National Coalition for the Homeless in 2009, Natia's schizophrenia qualifies him for another sobering statistic: roughly 20 to 25% of homeless people in the U.S. suffer from severe mental illness. That number notwithstanding, the notion that he may have been dealing with schizophrenia his entire life explains a lot about everything leading to his chronic homelessness. A quick glance at the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) reveals that schizophrenia can "manifest itself in a variety of ways, ranging from childlike 'silliness' to unpredictable agitation. Problems may be noted in any form of goal-directed behavior, leading to difficulties in performing activities of daily living." So it goes that Natia was persecuted for behavioral problems at home, had trouble finishing high school, and never sought gainful employment.
According to the DSM-5, the effects of this possible cognitive disorder may be exacerbated by Natia's frequent use of everything from cocaine to psychedelics, which he frequently references on 10K Hours. As we drive toward Playa del Rey, the small yet moneyed beachside community that's become part of the coastline regrettably rechristened "Silicon Beach," Natia recounts how these substances helped him through the life-threatening, four-day stretch he went with nearly no food or water.
"Four days. No food, no drink. Water fountain. Probably a little bread. A chip. Stomach eating itself. What was crazy about that shit was that it was like second-nature. There would be drugs around and I'd still hit the drugs, but I wouldn't eat. The drugs would help me not eat. Then I'd be throwing up nothing."
Driving down Pacific Avenue, the sand and the water just steps away, Natia gets oddly nostalgic.
"I've slept on those basketball courts before. I slept on the beach before," he says, the tone of his voice almost wistful. We drive a little farther and stop in front of a small park next to a pond. Across the water, multistory homes and apartment complexes watch over the land that accounts for their undoubtedly exorbitant rent. "Sometimes I wouldn't even sleep. I'd just be high as hell and come here to think. I'd skip rocks… [and] look at all of the houses."
Listening to Natia tell his story, which he does all afternoon without a trace of self-pity, is, to say the least, difficult. As we leave Playa del Rey, however, I nearly break down. We pass the Italian restaurant where my family has eaten for at least a decade, the same restaurant I hadn't noticed as we approached the basketball courts. In all of the times we walked to our car completely satiated, smiling and at ease, I don't remember seeing Natia once. As the light changes, I wish that I had seen him, that I could've provided at least a moment of grace when Natia needed it most. When I offer to pay for Natia's lunch before we meet up with the photographer, he asks me if I'm certain I want to do so. "It's the least I can do…" I say, trailing off. It's what my father would've done.
While the days of sleeping on tennis courts, park benches, and beaches aren't entirely in the rearview for Natia, they're gradually receding. Last year, he spent over a month living with Ryan Rigsby, one of many friends who spared a couch for as long as they were able. "It's not like a charity type thing. He's not the type to ask for help," Rigsby explains. "He just wanted to get out of his situation. That was what I would hear him talk about most."
Of late, Natia's greatest source of happiness, the person he talks about most, is his girlfriend, Kim. Though she lives in New York, the two have done everything to sustain the bi-coastal relationship. Last summer, after Weiss's attempt to get Natia subsidized housing fell through, Kim moved to L.A. for three months and lived out of a rented car with Natia. "She was going to Santa Monica College and studying in the car," he says, beaming as we drive away from the beach. "That's my ride or die… She orders me pizza from New York. She believes in me. She's helped me all the way."
With Weiss, P.O.W., his girlfriend, and the Renaissance Family behind him, Natia has never had a better support system. After the photo shoot, I drive Natia to a local basketball court where he's scheduled to play a now weekly game with members of the "family." Kim calls him just before he gets out of the car and, as he speaks to her, his voice tender and loving, it's clear that his grace has arrived. "I think this music thing is going to work out for the best," he says before getting out of the car. "It's the only thing I believe in. It's the only thing I'm good at."
At the time of this writing, Natia's just finished playing two shows in New York and is staying with Kim at her parents Staten Island home. From the videos he posts to his Instagram, he seems elated, alternately grinning in front of the camera and yelling joyously behind it. After eighteen tumultuous years at home, six years of hustling and struggling on the street, and over a year of exhaustive recording sessions, 10K Hours is finally out. To say that Natia's defied every statistic doesn't do him justice. The next time you pass a homeless person on your way to work, remember his face and play his album.
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