SW 2019 Preview: Daniel Caesar

Image Courtesy of Daniel Caesar, Illustrations by Liana Chaplain

Preview by Jennifer Katz

All the way back in September 2018, Brown Concert Agency (BCA) booked the first artist for Spring Weekend 2019 — 24-year-old R&B artist Ashton Simmonds, better known by his stage-name, Daniel Caesar. BCA’s Andy Rickert ‘21, detailed the group’s selection process, “We looked at all the artists that were in his price range and he made the most sense in the most literal way. His music is really good and I think a lot of people were surprised that we were even able to book him — some people’s reactions were like how did you get him?”

Growing up in the lonely suburbs of Oshawa, Ontario, Caesar was raised by immigrants from Jamaica and Barbados. His father, Norwill Simmonds was a gospel singer with a number of critically-lauded albums. This religious influence in his upbringing lead to the birth of Caesar’s musical career. Growing up singing in the Seventh-day Adventist church choirs with his three brothers, Caesar’s gospel background was bound to play a role in his sound. Since then, Caesar has distanced himself from the church. In an interview with Q Magazine, he said, “I felt the holy spirit move when there’s music, so for me that’s God.”

Caesar’s gospel-infused music, coupled with his honeyed voice and introspective lyrics, has promoted his rapid success in the world of R&B. Caesar admitted in an interview with ID Magazine, “That's something that I figured out at a real young age, that I could make people cry with my music.” One thing’s for sure — tears will undoubtedly be shed by audience members during his performance.

In 2014, Caesar was expelled from his predominantly white, Christian, private high school for a minor marijuana-related infraction, and finished his last year of high school being home-schooled. Though his parents were supportive, some friction emerged between Caesar and them, motivating him to distance himself from his childhood household. After graduating at 17, he left home for Toronto with a dream to pursue a career in music and the fervor to do anything it took to make it there.

After working grueling late-night dishwashing shift, weeks of couch surfing, and at least one night spent on a bench in Trinity Bellwoods Park, Caesar released his first EP, Praise Break, in the fall of 2014. Produced by Matthew Burnett and Jordan Evans, a duo that’s worked for the likes of Eminem and Drake, the 7-song EP, which includes the single “Violet,” follows Caesar as he navigates the feelings of his first love.

After dropping two more EPs, Birds of Paradise and Pilgrim’s Paradise, the release of his debut album, Freudian, in August 2017 earned him two Grammy nominations: best R&B album and best R&B performance for album single “Get You” featuring Kali Uchis. The album was released with Golden Child Recordings, a DIY record label he founded with the help of Burnett and Evans. With the help of these collaborators, Caesar was able to achieve widespread success without the support of a major label — and that’s not because other labels weren’t interested. “Why would I want to give my baby, my creation, this thing I made over to [a label] when we don’t have the same values?” he told Now Magazine. “As soon as you sign, you give over your ideas, your potential, to somebody else to do how they see fit. You’re no longer the big boss.” Resisting a corporate deal and continuing to have massive success as an independent artist is a huge accomplishment that exemplifies Caesar’s raw talent and dedicated work ethic.  “We sat through a lot of pleasant label meetings,” he says in an interview with Billboard, “but none of them reflected the value we placed on our work.”

When asked, Andy Rickert described Caesar’s music as “very nostalgic and very tender, which is definitely an interesting headliner vibe, because I think some people kind of expected a more lit thing, but I think Brown students can also appreciate tenderness every now and then, in moderation.” In response to backlash on BCA’s choice of Caesar instead of a more upbeat and high energy headliner, Rickert said, “We book artists with respect to the time slot that they’re in. So we wouldn’t have had Daniel Caesar in the same slot that Aminé is in, because that’s Friday night, which is a different energy from Saturday during the afternoon.”

“I think what’s interesting to me about Daniel Caesar,” Rickert says, “is that he’s definitely not a musician with a cult of personality around him. I don’t think people listen to Daniel Caesar for Daniel Caesar, I think they listen to him because they like the music, which is different from a lot of artists, such as Mitski, for example. People get super excited about Mitski because she has this whole persona and social media and narrative that people really get into.”

In fact, up until the night that the Spring Weekend Lineup was released, Caesar had avoided drama, steering clear of the public eye. Hours after BCA announced that Caesar would be a headliner, he posted a controversial video on Instagram live, making drunken statements defending Instagram personality, YesJulz, who has been accused of making racially insensitive comments directed towards black women in particular. In his video, he questioned why “we [black people] are being so mean to white people right now” and continued to rant about the problem with black people being too sensitive. He was immediately criticized for his comments.

Rickert was highly disappointed to hear the statements that Caesar made, but noted that they didn’t know this before booking him. “We as BCA care a lot about what artists say,” he continued, “We pay a lot of attention to that when we’re booking artists, and we didn’t know that at the time. There are artists that we’ve looked at that the things that they say and the people they’ve hurt is a deciding factor against bringing them into the space. We try to look at these things before bringing artists.”

Black activist, DeRay Mckesson, troubled by Caesar’s statements, met with him and tweeted after their conversation, “it is clear that he’s learning & growing re:understanding *systemic* racism & has more work to do. & he has begun to do that work.”

Growth and exploration are major themes in Caesar’s discography and we can only wait to see how his contemplative journey to self-realization and understanding will play out.