Brandon Callender sinks into a vacant hardwood chair as the morning crowd streams its way through the Brooklyn Roasting Company on 23rd Street. He sips his hot chocolate, people-watching, with the old-school black-and-white tiled floors reflecting the 10 a.m. July sunlight that’s beaming in from a bustling city outside.
It’s all familiar to him. New York, with all of its complexities and contradictions — a place he describes as being full of both poverty and wealth, sorrow and life, despair and opportunity — is and always will be familiar, even if the dorm room he’s renting for the summer is an hour away from South Jamaica’s Baisley projects that he once called home nearly 10 years ago.
Opportunity just so happened to be what sent the 20-year-old college student to the city in the first place. With financial backing from The Lookout Fellows Program at UNC-Chapel Hill, as well as the assistance of a generous alumna whose connections extended far beyond Tobacco Road, Callender snagged an internship with The FADER, a New York-based music and culture magazine.
And so he sat in the middle of the coffee shop, barely a month into his impermanent stay, with the publication’s head of content, Eric Sundermann, grabbing himself a cold brew coffee of his own before plopping down in the seat directly across from Callender.
Morning coffee runs or afternoon lunch escapades quickly became the norm for the young music journalist hoping to see more and do more than what was expected of him and his coworkers in the editorial fishbowl — transcribing, writing, and spit-balling.
Brooklyn’s, a quick jaywalk away from the office, was an easy spot to post up and chat before starting an eight-hour workday. And, that morning, Sundermann wanted to know why Callender was even there interning and going into the industry at all.
“Why are you here?” he asked. “What’s your endgame with this s***?”
Callender replied without hesitation:
“I’m gonna take your job.”
When Valerie Cureton decided to make the 500-mile move from New York to Durham, North Carolina, she knew she’d be leaving things behind. The bricked foundation of the Bailey projects, a place her children knew as home, would be left behind. But the move was calculated, necessary, something that would prove fruitful for her family.
She was leaving behind unsustainable living expenses, a public education system that lacked adequate funding for the arts, and a community that just didn’t provide a future she wanted for her two — and later, three — kids.
In Durham, a city where her sister already lived, she would find a safer environment with a public-school system that offered arts and extracurriculars, as well as a realistic path to college.
“It’s exactly what I wanted for [them] and is one of the reasons why I made the decision to move from New York,” Cureton said. “To give them the opportunity to go to college, to see that there’s more beyond high school.”
Brandon Callender was indoctrinated into a love for music and written word at an early age.
Whether it was his mother and her love of dance hall and R&B, or his father — whose tastes he takes after — and his passion for New York rap, music was always playing at home, even after his parents separated. He even played the alto saxophone in marching band throughout middle and high school.
Likewise, an elementary-aged Callender would read whatever he could get his hands on — fiction novels (“Shout out ‘Magic Tree House,’ those are my joints,’ he says), books on musicians, and even Dr. Phil’s 310-page “Family First,” which he read as a second-grader.
There was just something about words, he says, and a writer’s ability to artfully craft them into meaningful sentences, that interested him. So much so that his infatuation with reading morphed into a love for writing, and a quick stint in a high school newspaper class cemented his desire to pursue a career in journalism.
UNC’s School of Media and Journalism would provide Callender a chance to learn the technical side of writing, as would a semester on the copy desk at The Daily Tar Heel — but that wasn’t enough for him. As his friend Rebecca Menard says, he soon felt pigeon-holed by a journalism program that focused primarily on hard news writing, something Callender found stale and uninspiring.
He yearned for creative expression, and would go on to treat his J-School classes in an experimental manner. He pushed boundaries, accepting whatever lackluster grades came as a result.
“All this writing stuff — writing is a muscle,” Callender said. “You have to exercise stuff. You have to get uncomfortable and try these different things. If you don’t, then what are you doing? If I’m writing to please you, I’m not learning s***.”
Without any bylines to his name heading into the summer before his junior year, he decided to take a leap. He was no stranger to social media or online chatrooms and blogs, and he was certainly no stranger to Jeff Weiss, a universally-respected music journalist who runs Passion of the Weiss (POW), a renowned blog and launching pad for music writers.
Callender was always listening to music and talking about music — but he wasn’t writing about music, and he wanted to change that.
So he decided to carve his own path, according to his friend Landon Bost.
He emailed Weiss, without expectation, asking for a shot.
And Weiss gave him one.
It’s been over a year since Jeff Weiss decided to respond to an inexperienced college kid’s email and give him a shot at breaking into the music journalism industry, and Callender is eternally grateful for the opportunity, guidance, and perpetual nit-picking that’s forced him to grow.
Since then, he’s crafted a style of his own, one that fits his audience’s demographics and his own personality. Fun yet critical, he says. After all, he’s 21 and writes about rap.
He’s talked to music producer Jetsonmade about what he orders from Bojangles and how he creates “that Carolina sound” in his beats. He’s talked about memes and social media with digital illustrator Kodone. He’s written a review on a freestyle over the “Full House” theme song and is currently working on a piece on A$AP Ant’s celebrity, which he’s pretty excited about.
He’s having fun with this, and according to Weiss, it’s paying off.
“As a writer, he’s ahead of nearly all college students that I’ve worked with over the last decade,” Weiss said in an email. “And [I] think he has it in him to be one of the best culture writers and editors of his generation.”
Writing is Brandon Callender’s passion, but it’s not his endgame.
That’s why on that one summer morning, hot chocolate in hand, he flatly told one of The FADER’s editors that he was gunning for his job. Not to challenge a higher-up, but to proclaim a strong, personal goal.
Callender wants a hand in the canonization of rap: who’s covered, how they’re covered, and who gets to cover them. In a period where music coverage is skewed and ill-informed, he says, he just wants it done right.
“I take this s*** serious,” he says.
That’s why he’s here.