The rapper, singer and pianist balances high-minded thoughts with daily realities
At Denison University, Sarob studied political science and philosophy, disciplines that helped keep him balanced, anchoring his thoughts in reality even at those times he let his mind wander.
“I got to apply the more concrete, material concepts to philosophy, which was useful,” said Sarob, born Rob Tate 23 years ago. “Then, in terms of political science, my real focus was political theory, and I got to bring so many abstract ideas into this world of hard politics, just to challenge the things we think about.”
The rapper/singer/pianist takes a similar approach to his music on the six-song Seeing in the Dark EP, from 2017, pairing socially aware, ripped-from-the-headlines admissions (“Black bodies shot down; how can I remain silent?” he asks on “White Moon,” which recently surpassed 100,000 streams on Spotify) with from-the-mount asides designed to inspire deeper thought in listeners. “Showing love, that’s the secret to life,” he later raps on the track in a sing-speak cadence.
This balance even exhibited itself in song creation, Sarob pairing more traditional song structures — “I do as much as I can to challenge conventional thought while also being, to a degree, a little conventional, or universal,” he said — with an esoteric conceptual approach. According to the musician, each song on the EP started as a photograph, and the image and colors associated with the picture helped shape the musical direction of the track.
“The music and the mixing [on ‘White Moon’] were informed by the picture, which was actually the single cover,” said Sarob, describing the image of his silhouetted form against a blue, twilight-like backdrop. “I was this black figure, and that resonated in terms of the density of the track. I wanted things to be thick. Even mixing-wise I had a whole discussion. … It was like a room full of clouds, that’s how I wanted ‘White Moon’ to sound.”
Growing up in Dayton, Sarob initially gravitated toward drawing, illustrating his own comic books and attending summer art camps. Beginning in seventh grade, however, he picked up creative writing, even enrolling in a magnet art school to further immerse himself in the craft. Around this time, the musician also experimented with his first rhymes, freestyle rapping atop Fergie tracks in an effort to impress his friends.
It wasn’t until Sarob turned 17, however, that he started to take music more seriously, studying the intricate verses penned by rappers such as Mos Def, MF Doom and Jay Electronica, and patterning his cadence after Blu (of Blu & Exile) and Jerreau of Columbus hip-hop group Fly Union. Early on, Sarob’s verses were heavily influenced by his Islamic faith, while more recent songs have explored subjects such as his father’s experiences growing up as a black man (though Sarob was raised in a single-mother home he remains close with his dad) and the rapper’s fears he’ll encounter similar struggles.
“The experiences of the father shape the child,” said Sarob, noting that his father endured a short jail stint on a minor charge and ran a successful business that hit upon hard times.
“I always have this fear I could go to jail. And I’m a good kid. I’m super educated and I don’t commit crimes, I don’t think, other than jaywalking on my way to this interview,” continued Sarob, who also spent a year studying at the University of Oxford and worked a day job at the Ohio House of Representatives for a year beginning in September 2016. “But I still have a fear those things could happen.”
It certainly doesn’t help that Sarob’s journalist mother has a tendency to bust him on every minor infraction. During a December concert taping Downtown, the MC was negotiating with organizers, attempting to determine if he’d be allowed to curse during the performance. “What’s my language? Can it be explicit?” he asked at the precise moment his mother stepped into the room. “Oh, not now. Hi, Mom.”
But, even more than social ills or deep-seated fears, Sarob’s music remains centered on relationships, both of a romantic nature and, most importantly, with self.
“Writing, for me, helped me discover who I am. … And because I’ve been empowered that way, I try to empower people to help them discover a sense of self,” Sarob said. “All the things we have, all of that can go away. I could lose my [clothes], my house, but I’ll never lose myself, so there’s merit in understanding who you are.”