Rob LaRay of Student Dream: “Take a break and come back later”

Early this year, Student Dream had a money summit that provided students from across the country the opportunity to network and learn about personal finances, entrepreneurship and investing. During the summit, I gave a live concert and led two breakout sessions, both focused on entrepreneurship for creatives. I found that there was one student who […]

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Early this year, Student Dream had a money summit that provided students from across the country the opportunity to network and learn about personal finances, entrepreneurship and investing. During the summit, I gave a live concert and led two breakout sessions, both focused on entrepreneurship for creatives. I found that there was one student who showed up to both of my sessions, praised my live performance and asked great industry related questions. I later found out that she was an artist and was interested in a career in visual arts. She expressed great gratitude for the information provided and enthusiasm about pursuing her dreams. This is significant because there were only a small number of student entrepreneurs at the conference who identified as creatives. This student felt heard and validated as an artist and in return, I felt validated as a coach.

As a part of our series about music stars who are making an important social impact, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Rob LaRay, a singer, songwriter and recording artist who enjoys engaging audiences through music and expressive dialogue. He is also the Artist in Residence for Student Dream, a Brooklyn based non profit that trains young people of color to build wealth. Whether he is teaching a songwriting course, performing his original music or hanging with friends, his message is simple…peace, love and joy.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit of the ‘backstory’ of how you grew up?

I was born in Stamford, CT but was raised and spent the majority of my life in Hookerton, NC. A town with a population of less than 500 people, to be exact. I come from humble beginnings. Poverty is normal where I come from but honestly, I didn’t quite recognize it until I was older. My mom did a great job of ensuring that the family’s basic needs were met. Although we didn’t eat lobster and steak, to this day, my mom makes the best spaghetti and beef vegetable soup! There wasn’t a lot to do in my hometown but there were great opportunities to explore and imagine. I spent most of my childhood playing hide and seek with my older sister, making action figures out of my mom’s porcelain figurines, and singing in the youth choir at church. It taught me two important values, creativity and gratitude, both of which are still serving me well today. After graduating high school, I attended Appalachian State University in Boone, NC, where there was a population of 15,000 people. I definitely wasn’t in Hookerton any more. I had never seen so many people. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in psychology, I moved to Washington, D.C. and attended Howard University. There I obtained my master’s degree in social work. I worked in the clinical social work field for about five years before deciding to pursue a career in music. All of these experiences and more helped shape the storyteller and songwriter I am today.

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?

When I was about seven years old, I attended this church conference with my youth choir. It was an annual conference that allowed multiple churches to gather together and fellowship. One of the main events of the conference was a combined youth choir concert. There were a lot of kids there and we were all excited to sing. I’m not sure how but I was chosen to sing the first verse of Go Tell It On The Mountain, an old gospel Christmas song. It was my first ever solo. I remember standing calmly on this large platform with my white dress shirt and green bow tie. I wasn’t nervous at all; only excited. I walked to the microphone and began singing and once the song was done, I remember everyone standing up and clapping. People appeared to be really happy for me. After the concert, older church ladies gave me hugs and told my mom how great I did. I didn’t know what to do but smile. I had never received that much attention before. I felt proud. I felt significant. It was at that moment I knew I wanted to be a professional singer.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career? What was the lesson or take away that you took out of that story?

I had recently released an album and moved to NYC. I was pretty excited about my music so I sent it to a couple of radio stations, including Power 105.1. Charlamagne Tha God is one of my favorite radio personalities and I heard he was having a book signing for his first book, Black Privilege. I loved the book and it was actually one of the things that inspired me to move to NYC. I go to the book signing and I meet Charlamagne. We have small talk about the south, as we’re both from the Carolinas, and he signs my book. As I walk away he says, “your music is trash by the way”. My heart sank to my stomach. I started sweating immediately. Did Charlamagne just say my music was trash out loud? Did he just tell me “f#*k my dream” as he says directly in his book? Wait, if he did say that then that means he listened to my music. Charlamagne listened to my music! A carousel of thoughts flooded my head. I finally turned around to discover that he was actually speaking to the Barnes & Nobles associate about the music playing in the store. Man was I relived. What’s the lesson? I learned in that moment that I have to be confident in myself and the music I create. Music is subjective so I can’t risk seeking validation from others but I can work to create material that I am proud of. Gratefully, Charlamagne wasn’t talking to me but even if he were, I still needed to be proud of the music I created. And I was!

What would you advise a young person who wants to emulate your success?

I would encourage them not to emulate my success but strive to create their own. Honestly, my path to success was difficult and is still very much evolving. I spent six years in college and five years working as a mental health therapist because I was too afraid to follow my true dream. That was time I could have spent developing my craft. Instead, I often felt sad and empty because I wasn’t being fulfilled. When I decided to follow my dreams by packing up and moving to NYC, while it was exciting, it was also scary. I didn’t know anyone and most of my support was in NC. After leaving my profession and taking odd jobs in an attempt to create music, I finally landed at a great place. A place where I can create music while supporting youth as they create music. Paths to success are like fingerprints, every single one is different. I appreciate my path because it allowed me to learn a lot along the way. I would advise a young person to set a goal, a destination, and just start walking towards it. The path may change, may be long, but if you actively pursue the destination, my hope is that you’ll eventually stumble upon it.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you explain how that was relevant in your life?

In the Bible there is a passage in the book of Philippians (4:11–12) that reads, “For I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything.” This quote always resonates with me. As stated earlier, I know what it feels like to have little. Whether it’s little resources or little hope, I have learned to appreciate those moments of lack. I have found that they give birth to creativity. The reason why my mom knows how to make the best beef vegetable soup is because there once was a time when we only had canned vegetables. She had to be creative to make a meal. So I have learned to appreciate the good and bad, highs and lows, for they help build character, creativity and gratitude.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Two people come to mind. My very first choir director, Mrs. Gloria Artis, and my high school guidance counselor, Mrs. Vanessa Barnes. Mrs. Gloria was the first person to affirm me as a singer. She always encouraged me to sing solos and didn’t take no for an answer. I spent a lot of Saturday mornings with Mrs. Gloria at choir rehearsals. She helped develop my confidence as a singer. Mrs. Barnes is the reason I made it to college. She would probably say she only assisted with getting me there but I’m positive that if it wasn’t for her, I would not have gone. She motivated me to apply for several colleges and scholarships. It is because of her that I was able to graduate with a bachelor’s degree debt free. Higher education changed my life. The exposure to a world outside of my area code showed me that a small town boy could make it anywhere. This is what I now strive to give as a professional. With every song I write or student I interact with, I want to help build confidence like Mrs. Gloria did for me. I want to make dreams tangible just as Mrs. Barnes did for me. I will forever be grateful for these women. Thank you!

Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview, how are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting social impact causes you are working on right now?

I am the Artist in Residence for Student Dream, a Brooklyn based non-profit organization that teaches young people of color financial literacy. People of color lack access and exposure to wealth education. Student Dream teaches finance, investing and entrepreneurship to high school and college students. The goal is to equip each student with the skills, resources and knowledge needed to graduate college debt free and with a 10,000 dollars savings account and relevant work experience. I initially came on as the Creative Director for Student Dream’s first music project, 600 Miles To Freedom. I spoke with the Founder and CEO, Nena Ugwuomo, and she expressed that they were interested in creating an album that spoke to racial and economic justice, values that are important to the organization. I share these values and was eager to write about injustices in a way that was empowering and uplifting to the younger generation. On the album we discuss sensitive topics such as lynching, reparations, police brutality and women’s rights. We pay respect to the victims of unlawful police killings including George Floyd and Brianna Taylor. We honor prominent Black Americans who were relentless in their pursuit to decimate racial, economic and social injustices such as Harriet Tubman, MLK and Langston Hughes. The album was well received by the targeted youth population but also by a broader range of socially conscious supporters, minority and beyond. After the album, I joined Student Dream as their Artist in Residence. In this position, I get to continue to create music that focuses on economic and racial empowerment. Additionally, I get to teach a Music & Money songwriting course where students learn how to construct, produce, publish and distribute music. Each student completes the course with an original song ready to be released and sold to the public. Having the students leave with a tangible product in hand upon completion of the course was important to me, and Student Dream, when developing the curriculum. It encourages creativity but also entrepreneurship, which is one of the factors that will lead to the building of wealth. The music recording industry is a multi billion dollar industry and for many of the students we serve, the Music & Money course will be their first time learning how to tap into that wealth. During the course, students get to hear from professional music artists, songwriters, producers and audio engineers. Music has always been my passion. It’s more meaningful now that I get to teach students how to build wealth for their families and communities through songwriting.

Can you tell us the backstory about what originally inspired you to feel passionate about this cause and to do something about it?

Unfortunately, I wasn’t taught financial literacy when I was in high school or college. This was a skill I had to learn as an adult. When I discovered Student Dream in 2019 and learned that a large part of their goal was to close the racial wealth gap by directly teaching black and brown students how to build wealth, I had to be apart in some way. Had I been privy to the information that Student Dream teaches, the debt I graduated with from graduate school would have been significantly less. Additionally, I have younger relatives who are hesitant about pursuing higher education because of the fear of debt. That is an inherent thought process that is the result of systemic racial and economic injustice. This has to be directly addressed and Student Dream is up for the challenge. I’m grateful to play a part in this process. 100% of all the proceeds from the music I create for the organization stays in house and contributes to the development of financial literate black and brown students.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and take action for this cause? What was that final trigger?

I have been a dreamer since I can remember. That’s another reason why I appreciate coming from humble beginnings, it forced me to dream of a more exciting world. After going into debt to fund my master’s degree, and working in a field that I appreciated but did not love, I realized that I was faithfully devoted to something that did not fulfill me. There was a moment during my last professional social work job that I found myself crying in the restroom because I felt unfulfilled. It was at that moment that I knew I needed to pursue my true dream. Dream chasing can be costly so I needed to figure out how to make money as an artist. Once I did that, through trial and error, I thought it necessary to share what worked for me with others. My former pastor once said, “experience is said to be the best teacher but I believe mentorship is…because learning from someone else’s experiences can save you some trouble.” The knowledge I have, great or small, isn’t mine to keep. It should be given a way and I get to do that with the work I’m doing with Student Dream.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

Early this year, Student Dream had a money summit that provided students from across the country the opportunity to network and learn about personal finances, entrepreneurship and investing. During the summit, I gave a live concert and led two breakout sessions, both focused on entrepreneurship for creatives. I found that there was one student who showed up to both of my sessions, praised my live performance and asked great industry related questions. I later found out that she was an artist and was interested in a career in visual arts. She expressed great gratitude for the information provided and enthusiasm about pursuing her dreams. This is significant because there were only a small number of student entrepreneurs at the conference who identified as creatives. This student felt heard and validated as an artist and in return, I felt validated as a coach.

Are there three things that individuals, society or the government can do to support you in this effort?

  1. Individuals, businesses and corporations can support by making monetary donations to Student Dream. We are a non profit organization and most of our funding is raised. To date we’ve worked with over a 1000 students and our goal for 2021 is to train 500 more. All contributions are welcomed. If you would like to donate your time by becoming a professional mentor to one of our students, that support is also greatly appreciated. Please contact [email protected].
  2. If you are a music professional and would like to partner with Student Dream Music by offering production, audio engineering or recording services, that support is welcomed. Another way you can support is by streaming and buying all of the Student Dream music. All proceeds contribute to accomplishing the Student Dream mission of building black wealth. Please contact us at [email protected].
  3. The government can support by creating and implementing policies and strategic plans to close the wealth gap in America. In 2016, the median white household’s wealth was 171,000 dollars, while the median black household’s wealth was 17,600 dollars. A 10x difference. This is the case because black people were and have been systematically excluded from certain jobs, property, loans and markets since our existence in America. There are a host of things the federal government could and should do to close the racial wealth gap including providing reparations, student loan forgiveness, appropriate housing opportunities, trust funds to minority infants, and free higher education for all people of color. Just to name a few. The government could also fund organizations like Student Dream who are putting in the work to close the racial wealth gap.

Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Music is subjective. As a singer and a songwriter, it’s important to know that not everyone will appreciate your music, no matter how much you love it. And that’s okay! There are 7.6 billion people in the world, no sole artist is called to entertain them all. On my first album, I included an interlude that featured another artist. After the project was released, I received some great feedback but was always a little discouraged when people told me the interlude was their favorite song on the album. I’m thinking, “you had 9 songs to choose from and you chose the track that’s the shortest and the one I didn’t sing on?” Additionally, I have pitched music for blog and playlist submissions and while some have been accepted, many have been declined. That doesn’t mean I’m a poor singer and songwriter, it means that my work isn’t everyone’s preference. Again, that’s okay! There have been some really cool moments when various people from around the world reached out to me and shared how they’ve been positively impacted by my music. What is the lesson? Create music you love, give it away and your authentic audience will find and appreciate it.
  2. Take a break and come back later. Writer’s block can be one of the greatest obstacles for a songwriter but not because you’re struggling to create but because you’re experiencing guilt around not creating. I’ve learned over the years to take breaks and gather myself when I’m feeling unproductive. That break can be an hour, a few days or depending on the content, a month or a year. There was one time I started writing a song in 2013 and didn’t complete it until 2016. It’s called Float In Your Love and is one of the best songs I’ve written. What’s most important is to not beat yourself up about not producing in the moment. Guilt leads to anxiety and feelings of worthlessness, which ultimately halts creativity. Give yourself permission to have an off day. We know our bodies need rest when we become sleepy, right? Maybe when we’re unable to write or create, our minds need rest. Listen to your body, take a break and come back later.
  3. Passion often leads to purpose. I’ve been singing since I was about six or seven years old and I’ve always known, for the most part, that I wanted to be a professional singer. Whenever someone asked me as a kid what I wanted to be when I grew up, I always said a singer. It was my passion. However, after growing up and studying psychology and social work, I learned that I also have a passion for young adults. I enjoy offering information that could possibly help them on their personal journeys. I enjoy seeing young people persevere through obstacles and winning in life. After having many gigs and jobs, God finally allowed my two main passions, music and youth, to collide, birthing purpose for this season of life. So if you’re having a difficult time finding purpose, I would say follow your passions.
  4. Stay true to yourself. As previously mentioned, there are a lot of people in this world. Many have the same passions as you and with the growth of social media, it’s not hard to miss. It can often lead to comparison and make artists feel like we have to change who we are. Don’t! Comparison is the robber of authentic creativity. As creatives, we unconsciously borrow things that inspire us. That’s okay. However, don’t deny the genuine creator you are in an attempt to get more likes, shares and comments. Stay true to you. Remember what I shared in #1, there is an audience specifically for you. Stay true to yourself or you’ll miss them.
  5. Seek out wise counsel. When considering high school, undergrad and graduate school, I’ve been a student for most of my life and honestly, I want to remain one forever. I realize that I don’t know everything and if I want to grow in any area, I have to be willing to learn. Over the last few years, I’ve grown to appreciate mentorship. I have professional mentors, spiritual mentors, financial advisors and peer mentors. I think it’s important to seek out wisdom from people who are in places and positions we desire to be. Obtaining higher education can be expensive. Discussing goals over coffee with an industry professional or a friend can cost a lot less. Always be willing to learn. That’s the best way to stay creative.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I always love when I’m in a drive thru and the customer in front of me pays for my meal. In return, I then pay for the person behind me. I’ve never seen it but I imagine it’s really cool to see that chain of generosity continue for an extended amount of time. If I could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, I would challenge families in high income households to create a chain of generosity where they pay off the debts of families in low income households. In return, the low income families could begin building wealth, which would eventually lead to a decrease in the racial wealth gap. Granted, federal policies and contributions would still be needed but this would be a great start.

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Politics, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

I would love to have a private lunch with Whoopi Goldberg. She is an inspiration to many including myself. She is one of the greatest talents we have and I’ve personally been impacted by her roles in The Color Purple and Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit. Beyond her contributions to the entertainment industry, she has a heart for philanthropy and charity. I’m not sure what restaurant we would go to but I’m sure we’ll both appreciate some potato chips, as they are both one of our favorites, lol. Wherever we go, I’m sure we’ll have a lot to talk about and we’ll get in a few good laughs as well.

Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was so inspiring, and we wish you continued success!

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