A young man looking around college age, dressed simply in a blue hoodie and matching hat, bobs down a dark street towards the bright florescent lights of a local corner store. He stops as he moves closer to the light and dances, moving his arms in a slow jerking rhythm, before quickly bouncing through the store's entrance. Under the bright lights it's easy recognize the red and white squares of the Tommy Hilfiger brand printed across his sweatshirt. But, on closer inspection, the name clearly centered is not that of the '90s fashion designer. Instead featured prominently on his chest and hat is the word “Alief."
The scene was from the video for Heat Man, released in 2017 on the project 13 Reasons Why, and the dancer moving through the corner store is Alief's own, Young Deji. For the last few years, the rapper/singer/dancer has been building a buzz in the city and he just wants to make sure that people know exactly where he is from.
“I am a Southwest Alief artist,” Deji says as he flashes a huge smile. “I want everyone to know about my city. I am from Alief, Texas damn near born and raised. I’ve been to every school out there. Ask anybody in Alief and they know about Deji.”
The Deji they know is a kid who, after graduating high school was trying to figure out what he was going to do. He was known around many circles for dancing, being fun loving and shutting down parties. His fun loving nature kept him, for the most part, out of trouble, but that didn't mean trouble wouldn't occasionally find him. He was shot at school and, even though any shooting is a serious matter, it’s an incident Deji takes in stride.
“I almost lost my life out there,” he remembers. “A dude shot at me three good times. Three times! I was only hit by one. In my buttocks. But if I have to get shot anywhere, I’d rather get shot in my butt than somewhere else.”
His tone is pretty tame for someone reminiscing about an assault but a conversation with Young Deji quickly reveals his habit for finding the positive in almost all situations.
“I’ve always been a person who loves music and people around Alief just knew me for dancing," he says. "There used to be these big parties back in the day and that’s how we use to dance to Dallas music. I was always the guy that would dance and shut down the party. My boy knew I was into music and would tell me to come to the house and record music. We did, but you know how those first few songs go. They’re not that great. We just kept doing it every day until we started to think we had something.”
What they had was a remake to Trae tha Truth’s “On The Southside." Creating the music gave Deji the feeling that he could actually do this as a career. The song would end up on Young Deji’s first mixtape, 13 Reasons Why, named after the popular Netflix series. The tape started gaining popularity throughout Alief for the music as well as the number of videos shot for the project like the earlier mentioned “Heat Man."
“My cousin did the video," Deji explains. "He was like me, just trying to find his place in the world, and I told him he could shoot videos for me. All these people from Alief are going out to college and I thought it wasn’t for me. I was just outside trying to make things happen. 13 Reasons Why is just what was going on in my life at the time.”
While the Netflix show is a drama about teenagers and their connection to a girl that left messages on a series of tapes after committing suicide, Young Deji’s collection chronicles his life and highlights the connections of his friend’s and their support. His producer is a friend initially was just trying to keep Deji off the streets. The videos are shot by friends who continue to chronicle Deji and other artists out of Alief. The support even extends to his clothing with Deji usually draped in the wardrobe provided by the Alief Store. The brand started by his friend has expanded from online boutique to physical store over the past few years.
“That’s my brother, Ghost," Deji says. "He has a store at 11903 Alief Clodine Road. People like Nipsey Hussle inspired him and he wanted to put on for the whole hood. As kids coming up, we didn’t have anyone to go get clothes but now we have a store right there by the schools. The kids can come to us to get the drip.”
Young Deji had the music, the visuals and the clothes, but he also had the support of the neighborhood who would frequently make his videos go viral by trying to mimic his signature dance move, The Woah. Starting off as a dance Deji would do at parties, it quickly became an internet sensation with everyone one from young people creating online routines to athletes celebrating a win to celebrities performing awkward renditions of the dance. The dance, however, spread quicker than the music, and its increase in popularity also gave rise to the number of people claiming to be the creator. There’s legitimate debate about the creation of the dance but all of it is just another fact that Deji takes in stride.
“It’s spread all over the world," he says. "It’s a beautiful thing but it lets me know there is so much more work to do so that everyone knows who made this dance. Some people recognize me. Some people don’t. As I keep making music and getting better more people are finding out. I’m here to make music. When you’re listening to my albums like Lil Woah, I want you to know where the woah came from. I’m the creator but my goal is to make really good music. I see dancers make songs that go with their dance but it’s a gift and a curse. They get tied to it. That’s why I’m not even mad at people making woah music. Please go make it. I love y’all for that. I created the woah but I’m also trying to make music that your kid’s kids will listen to.”
While Young Deji was putting his head down to focus on creating more music and ignore the hoopla around the woah people in the music industry were stating to take notice. Wiz Khalifa soon reached out to Deji to speak about his future.
“Wiz saw me doing my thing on Instagram to one of his songs and reached out to me telling me to fly out to the west coast," he explains. "I flew out and after we linked it was over with. Working with him is a blessing because he didn’t have to do any of this at all. To this day it feels like a dream. I’m finding a lot of people in this game aren’t who they say they are, but he is a genuine guy. Everything is real.”
Wiz helped out when it came time to film the video for Snapchat of Deji's album Funplex, named after the Alief indoor amusement park. The video combined Deji’s old world and new with he and Wiz shooting scenes at the Popeye's on Bellaire while being surrounded by the Alief community.
“That video was fate," Deji says. "Wiz had a show out here. I saw he was in Houston and asked him to come shoot the video. We made that whole video happen in four hours. I told everyone I knew, and people just came out.”
With Wiz in his corner as a mentor and label head, Young Deji looks to have another piece falling in place as he continues on his path to stardom.
“I watch Wiz," Deji says. "He could sit his feet up and relax but he’s up every day at 6am working. Once you get to a certain status you have to keep working to maintain it. It’s not about the hit you made yesterday. It’s about the hit you’re making today and tomorrow.”
Young Deji is focused on making hits working with Taylor Gang to amass a diverse catalog of music. He has and R&B album coming out but for Deji this is just the beginning.
“There are ten albums still unreleased. You hear me? Ten,” he says excitedly when talking about his future. “My next album is going to be an R&B album called Enjoymenting. I still have music out that more people need to hear. If you want to know me make sure to go pick up my mixtapes. Go get Funplex. That is one of my special tapes. Listen to Jam Dejo, 13 Reasons Why, and Lil Woah.”
Time has passed and situations have changed but a few things remain the same. Young Deji is still representing Alief wherever he goes. He’s still dancing around the city. He’s still making music and he’s still supporting the community that supported him.
“My whole goal is to take care of my family and my people. I want to make sure that people good music that is still alive.”
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.