King of Nothing Has Something to Be Proud of
Photos by Samantha Westmore
Two weeks after trying to kill himself, Daren Napier went to training camp.
He had recently graduated from St. John's School, a prestigious, mostly white Houston private school nestled in River Oaks. He was going to play football for Columbia University. But before he was set to leave for college and summer training in New York, he took a month's supply of his ADHD medication -- 2700 mg.
"I went [to school] straight out of the psych ward," Napier says. "The first time I talked to my coach was fresh out of the hospital."
He'd end up quitting college football after playing for a month, and would have to leave the school for the following three semesters.
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You could say his suicide attempt was the beginning of a downward spiral, but it would be ignoring much of the rest of Napier's experiences, such as toxic high school relationships with girls and subtle racial stereotypes sewed into the fabric of the life he lived. It would be ignoring the eventual death of a best friend.
Rather than ignore any of it any longer, Napier, a local rapper who goes by the name King of Nothing, pieced it together. His recently released mixtape, Ashli Orion, is a depiction of the sentiments that arise in transitioning from childhood to adulthood. It's about what he calls "undoubtedly the hardest time in my life."
King of Nothing was born in tragedy.
Nick Nañez, who produced Ashli Orion, says in an email that he and Napier wanted a mixtape filled with "detached yet full and enveloping sounds" with "a more late-'90s Southern feel, in the vein of DJ Screw." They got it.
"Zion (Strictly For My F.A.D.E.S)" is like four songs rolled into one -- an eight-minute, ultra-aggressive verbal barrage with a verse in Spanish. According to Nañez, some beats in Ashli Orion have more than 80 tracks mixed in, allowing songs like "Faye Dunaway (The Bait)" and "Wishing Well" to give off the sense that Napier is "alone in the center while reflecting on his life."
It has been a miserable life at times.
Napier struggled with his racial identity ever since he enrolled at St. John's during middle school. In "Patience (Jesus Wasn't White)," he recalls arriving at a school "where I looked like the lunch lady and not the principal." He's uncomfortable with racial stereotypes and how he does and doesn't fit into them.
"It's hard to be the one black kid from the environment that was mostly white people and be a rapper," he says. "But still not want that from myself -- to try to break those stereotypes. I'm in a weird situation. I'll forever be the tremendously imposing black guy with the newest edition of Cosmo and all the ingredients to make a cake in the checkout line at the grocery store."
When Napier left St. John's for Columbia, he continued to be depressed. By the end of the semester, he was drinking every day and had substance abuse issues. The prestigious university in New York felt like "purgatory" to him.
"It reeked of temporary," he says. "There was this inherent sense of, 'Nigga you're not going to be here next semester.'"
He was right. He finished the semester and had to choose between medical leave or suspension. He picked medical leave because it would look better on his transcript. Half a year later, near the end of Napier's first semester away from school, his friend Ali Mirza would die from a seizure.
Nañez went to college with Mirza in California, and was the person who broke the news to Napier.
"I was hoping [he] could find the words, as he always does," Nañez says. "Daren couldn't say a thing."
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Napier wrote the first track on Ashli Orion, "Murder Multiplicity," soon after Mirza's death, but didn't record it until October 2013. And he says it wasn't until January 2014, after his girlfriend broke up with him, after he found out he'd have to stay home a third semester before returning to school and after he lost his "ability to communicate with people or really function," he says, that he began to write intensely for six weeks. Eventually Napier realized he had a mixtape.
One of Ashli Orion's favorite quotes is by the English novelist George Eliot: "It's never too late to be who you might have been."
Orion is a former porn actress; Napier was watching a music video of porn actor-turned-rapper B Pumper when he first discovered who she was. After a little googling, he found an interview she did explaining her choice to leave porn and edit music videos for a living. The sentiment: she can't put her past behind her, but she doesn't make it her present.
"Porn doesn't define me," Orion says. "There's so much that's happened in my life now, but I could never be like a teacher or something."
Napier has come to realize the same about his life.
"A lot of the themes and a lot of the stories in this tape are me trying to process and battle some things that were going on in my past, and ultimately realizing that I can't ever escape it," he says. "Instead of trying to escape it, I just have to learn how to deal with it, and incorporate the lessons I learned into my present life."
Napier and Orion became friends over time via Twitter. Orion says when Napier told her he wanted to name his mixtape after her, she was "honored," having heard some of his previous work. While they've never met in person, they talk almost daily.
Orion is in the song "Dirk Diggler (Ashli's Song)," finishing the outro with the words, "you can't run from the past, so you might as well run to the future."
This fall, Napier will return to Columbia; his manager, Sam Davidoff, says he will perform shows in New York while developing his next idea for a project. Davidoff also plans to give Napier a role within the company Davidoff is CEO of, Wavey Media Group.
Wavey, a collection of less than 20 college students who mostly attend The New School in New York, was founded to, according to Davidoff, "help improve the quality of mainstream music." It also has its hands in fashion and television.
As for Columbia, Napier has to start entirely over. The grades he received his first semester of college are the one part of his past that did fade. He plans to major in creative writing and says he's "absolutely terrified" by the prospect of failing again.
He says he's always been smart, but never worked hard in school. Maybe that'll be different this type around.
"This mixtape is telling me that good things happen when I try," he says.
Listen to and download Ashli Orion on Soundcloud.
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