The new EP “Sacramentality” is an introduction to Dre-T the rapper, but showcases the continuing work of Andreas Tillman Jr., the young teacher and poet-mentor who performs under the moniker.
Produced with a jazzy and organic sound, “Sacramentality” explores combustible situations within Tillman’s community – echoing struggles seen in Ferguson, Mo. – and plots ways to a better tomorrow. The chorus on a track called “Change” goes, “You don’t want to see change / but you want me to be change,” and Tillman sings it as if he’s seen a lifetime of marginalization by age 21.
“I wanted to put something together that picked up where I left off as a student and poet, from high school to adulthood,” Tillman said. “I wanted to make sure people have an insight into what the 18-year-old Dre-T was thinking of, all the way up to the 20-something.”
On Sept. 11, his 22nd birthday, Tillman will perform “Sacramentality” at an 8 p.m. all-ages EP release show at Sol Collective (2574 21 St., Sacramento). He said he’s debuting a song that night and will continue to release one song a month until March, the same month he first put the four-song project online.
Tillman’s music stems directly from his poetry. Sacramento Area Youth Speaks founder and director Dr. Varja Watson met Tillman as a student from Rosemont High School when he enrolled in her program, which “enables participants to critically reflect upon and read the world around them,” according to its website.
When he turned 18, Tillman joined SAYS as an employee and member of the youth poetry slam team.
In addition, Tillman began working in area schools. He also performed in national-level poetry slams, fathered a daughter with his girlfriend, and met Dr. Robert K. Ross of the California Endowment, who gave him a grant to form his own nonprofit, Foreign Native.
The accumulation of these experiences is the fabric of his songwriting, he said. The topics Tillman discusses on his record as Dre-T are the same ones that he’s articulating as a poet-mentor in the SAYS program.
“I always found Dre-T to be wise beyond his years,” Watson said. “A very analytical and insightful thinker which was paralleled with his ambitions to really impact his community.”
After Tillman performed spoken word for a SAYS-related night at Sol Collective, executive director Estella Sanchez and music manager Anand Parmar invited him into their Sol Life Music collective, a record label and artist development branch of the nonprofit. The partnership extended into Dre-T receiving space within Sol Collective for Foreign Native, which helps kids develop creative interests.
“We call him a young elder,” Sanchez said. “That’s why his voice is so important. He’s a young person that young people will listen to.”
Tillman said “Change,” which opens “Sacramentality,” was written while he was mentoring at Highland High School. According to Tillman, the administration decided not to send students, ones Tillman described as “the most left behind,” to an annual summit that brings students to UC Davis to “see what it feels like to be treated like a college student, to have that responsibility, and receive that college education.”
Tillman later asked the students to tell him how they felt about not being able to attend the field trip. He wrote their answers on the classroom chalkboard. He later turned their feelings into a spoken word piece and then a song.
“What you hear in that song, these are jewels they are giving me,” Dre-T said. “I took a picture of the blackboard and started writing, grabbing what they said and putting it into spoken word form. ‘Change’ is my thank-you to the youth.”
The next year Highland resumed its attendance at the summit, Tillman said, and many of the students from that class still follow his music and keep in contact.
Instilling empowerment and creating connections are two of the pillars in Dre-T’s life philosophy. On his album cover, and in life, Tillman wears a necklace of African beads, which he will place around the necks of new friends and supporters. He posts photos of them wearing the necklace on his Instagram and Facebook feeds.
“I’m taking the image of Dre-T out of it and showing how important the support is,” he said. “If you look at my Instagram page, it’s mostly my supporters.”
Necklaces have been a symbolic fixture in rap culture since the 1980s. For some artists, it was a status symbol, with gold chains reflecting success. Later, African medallions were worn to symbolize connection to one’s roots and resistance against materialism.
For Dre-T, the bead necklace, passed down to him from his father, represents humanity.
“As people, just like these beads, we all come in different shapes and sizes,” he said. “We have unique attributes, but when we’re all together, we’re one.”