The day I called Big Sean, he was traveling through Detroit with his mother. Although born in Santa Monica, California, it’s no secret that Sean Michael Leonard Anderson, commonly known as Big Sean, calls Detroit home. After all, this is the city where he developed himself as an entertainer and rapper; where close friends and family members such as his mother and grandmother showed him the importance of dedication, humility and kindness; where as the story famously goes, he freestyled for Kanye West, foreshadowing his signing to G.O.O.D. Music and being mentored by one of contemporary music’s most influential artists.
From rapping about life lessons as an adolescent to releasing several mixtapes and music videos that document his ascension to mainstream success, Sean has grown as an artist, and more importantly as a person.
Now 27 years old, Sean is determined to expand his legacy. Yes, the music is still a focus but Sean wants to give back to the community that offered him so much. He created the Sean Anderson Foundation a couple of years ago, which provides school supplies and organizes special events such as basketball games for children in Detroit. In giving back to his community, Sean is also expanding his worldwide influence by creating video entries on his website that center around family, fear and other universal themes, as well as making music that is “positive.” Take the latest single, “One Man Can Change The World,” from his most recent album, Dark Sky Paradise: “I hope you learn to make it on your own. And if you love yourself just know you’ll never be alone,” writes Sean in the song, as its accompanying music video displays different parts of Detroit. It’s a testament to where he is currently at in life: maturing as an artist and individual, hoping to have a positive influence on people, just like his role models had on him.
First things first, congratulations on your new album.
Thanks, man. Just to paint a picture, I’m riding in the car with my mom, “IDFWU” is playing in the background, we’re in Detroit and, you know, life is good. I can’t complain.
That’s got to be a surreal moment.
It’s fun, it’s a blessing. It’s really cool that my mom fully believed in me before I believed in myself. I just did an Instagram post saying that. My mom was flying me to Chicago to record with these certain producers before things were taking off. You can just imagine hearing your song on the radio now and things are completely different, and it was just a matter of a few years, you know? It’s so special.
What brings you back to Detroit?
My foundation, the Sean Anderson Foundation, we’ve been getting deeper and deeper into the community and the city. We keep on looking for ways to expand our foundation. We met up with some people and put our minds together to give back to the city and stuff. And on top of that I get to kick it with my mom.
Tell us a little more about the foundation: What you guys have done and what do you plan on doing?
The Sean Anderson Foundation, it’s a new foundation we started in the last couple of years, but what we’ve been doing is focusing on the youth and Detroit public schools. We’ve linked up with great partners who’ve provided uniforms for kids that couldn’t afford them. We gave book bags full of school supplies to students that couldn’t afford them, and I mean large numbers — like 5,000 to 10,000. Kids who really needed them. We also linked up with the Boys and Girls Club and sent kids to basketball games that would never be able to go so they could have that cool experience. We’ve been doing things like that for awhile around the city and they’ve been really supportive. But we’re just looking to expand it now and focus on certain things. We’re just trying to make a big impact, man. The more and more I focus on it the bigger and bigger it gets. We really take the time out to concentrate on that, just like I got to take time off to concentrate on music. I really want to concentrate on my foundation.
You’ve always been community driven it seems, even earlier in life before your music career took off, and it’s a rare trait in this industry. Where does this predisposition of helping kids and building communities come from?
I’ve been active in my hood — and what I mean by that is ever since I was rapping back in the day about being a positive role model — I always wanted to have a positive impact. I make music out of love, even “IDFWU” man. That’s just a light hearted song. People want to make it what it is, but I’ve seen people be so happy listening to that song, you know? I always wanted to affect where I came from because it affected me so much. That’s just my grandma — my grandma always made me donate my clothes to the salvation army.
Your grandmother is a great woman. Grandmothers are usually the best mentors.
My grandma, no matter what was going on, she always made sure she donated the same amount of money to her church and to the DIA and to all of the things she believed in, no matter if it was a good year financially or bad year. And I honored and respected that because that’s how important it was to her. She was G’d up and I’ve already told the story about how she was a female black captain during World War II, and one of the first female cops in Detroit. And as long as I’m here she’ll be here too, you know? She’ll live through me. I’m just painting the stories of things I’ve been through. That’s one of the realest things you could do. That’s one of the positive things you could do. I’m just letting you know what it is and keeping it authentic. Whenever you’re authentic, that’s the best gift you can give your listener. Some real shit.
Agreed and we can always use more of that in music, hip-hop in particular. But on the note of mentors, Kanye has also been a mentor towards you. What have you learned in working with Kanye?
One of the things I’ve learned is that it’s not always about the money, and that’s something that sounds very simple. But it’s really about the feeling, the impact you have and how you’re going to be remembered. And also doing things to the best of your ability. There’s a difference between wanting to make music because I want a Rolex and a car. And then there’s a difference between I’m making music because I really believe in what I’m talking about and I want to be undeniably great. And you’ll hear that in the music. Another thing I learned from him is to take your time and never rush. Treat your projects with respect and respect the time that it takes to make something the way you want to make it. There’s been times where I’ve rushed stuff and looked back and was really disappointed in myself. That was something I needed to take and learn from him and apply it to myself.
With that in mind, what pieces of knowledge you share with the next generation of up-and-coming musicians to come out of Detroit?
In addition to what I just mentioned, I would tell them they have to stand out. You’ve got to give people supply and demand. You’ve got to supply something that they don’t have, that they’re demanding. And that’s with any business, and I feel like if you’re in the business of making music, it applies the exact same way. Give the people something that no one else is giving them.
Kind of like your new album, which also somewhat represents a new chapter in your life…What kind of challenges (if any), did you face during this transitional phase?
Yeah, but there’s challenges everyday, man.
One of the challenges is like, thinking of your next move. Executing your next move. I think that’s like something everybody can relate to. You can work so hard towards something and once you get it, ok what’s the next move? I go through personal things all day long, man. Let’s keep it 100 man — I’m the first black rapper from Detroit that’s made it to this point. There’s no manual to it, or textbook on how to handle it all. There’s no right or wrong and those things can be tough to deal with sometimes. But there’s so many things, man: personal life stuff, falling out with friends, relationships not working out. The long list goes on and on, and through it all you just got to make sure that you really have to love yourself. In the song “One Man Can Change The World” when I said “If you love yourself just know you’ll never be alone,” self love is one of the most important things I’ve learned in the past year. I’ve always loved myself but when you love yourself to the point that you don’t need nobody else and to the point where anybody else’s love is an added bonus, you don’t have to rely on happiness from anybody. I read this book called ‘The Four Agreements’ and one of the four agreements was to never assume. When you assume and you give someone that much responsibility — the responsibility of your happiness — that’s just a fast way to get let down, you know?
True, and the underlying question there is how were you able to discover “self love?”
How I was able to discover it is to concentrate on what makes me happy and not only concentrate on it but magnify it, and bring myself emotionally to happiness, no matter what’s going on. You can let people affect your mood all day long, but if you’re so set in your ways, then you’re unstoppable. Another thing I read from the four agreements was to not take anything personal. I’ve been learning to not take anything personal because you never know what somebody has going on, and everything is from a perspective. The only thing I take personal is me, my person, and you just got to be set in your ways and be so confident in yourself, and that’s so much easier said than done.
Would you say the lessons from your family such as mother and grandmother helped you navigate within the game too? The fashion and music industry can be quite harsh at times.
Yeah. Growing up I’ve been through a lot of fucked up shit. My family’s not perfect. There’s been times where we’ve had some crazy things going on, but it’s just like any family. But I definitely was raised right when it was all said and done. I hope I can raise my kids the right way, and show them everything I learned. But everybody around me heavily impacted me in so many ways. If I didn’t have that what would I be like? I look at a lot of my friends that didn’t have that, and I look at people that don’t have any parents or grandparents. And it makes me feel like I need to make sure I express what I learned from them in my music because I — as funny as it sounds — may have to be what my grandma was to me through my music to somebody, in a way smaller scale. The things I learned from her I may need to teach here. And I’m not trying to be a preacher or make the most conscious music ever, but I’m just trying to make something authentic to me. Because we both know that all of my music isn’t all conscious or isn’t all this and that. It’s just authentic and it’s from the heart.
What do you think you’ll be doing ten years from now?
Man, just doing whatever the hell I want to do. Whatever’s making me happy. If it’s rap still, I’ll probably be rapping and making the best music I can. Making the best music I ever made, because I feel like I want to keep getting better as an artist. I choose to have every album be better than the last one, or bring something that I didn’t do before. But I got other dreams and goals too, man. There’s a certain impact on society I want to make. I got a lot of talented friends – I want to start a production company. That’s a whole other conversation.
We could talk about it, man.
I don’t want to go too deep into it but one of my friends, he directed the “IDFWU” video and he just did the “I Know” video that hasn’t dropped yet with Jhene Aiko. But if you rewind ten years, me and him were in the back of the Camry together riding around through the city. We got pulled over together — we were homies. We spoke it up and spoke it into existence, so you can imagine being homies all this time and ten years later, being able to put my mans in that opportunity to boss up, and his career is popping now, too. So it’s just like, we did this with videos, let’s do things like this on a larger scale. I’m not trying to do anything premature. I’m just focusing on all I can at once, and doing what I love to do. So ten years from now I’ll be doing what I love to do.
Have your goals changed?
My goals have changed tremendously. Now I want to make songs that — I make these Vlogs all the time about fear and imagination and family and all these things that impacted me. And they’re just my thoughts and they’re for my core supporters. But I make those because I want to impact their lives. If you listen to me and you’re into me, I want you to be into what I’m into. That’s how my whole intention has changed. I want to make undeniably great music to my standards, and I want people to know what I know. If we all share our own information, if I bring an apple and you bring an apple, then it’s two apples and then we’re good. But I think my intentions went from being less selfish to more selfless. Wanting to inform and just have fun with it still. I want to make music that is therapeutic for me.
How do you deal with competition?
I feel like when you compare yourself to someone too much, that’s how you throw yourself off. I feel that competition is a label that people are putting on your peers. But I don’t look at no other rappers as competition, because how can you when my album sounds completely different from Kendrick’s album? And J. Cole’s album sounds completely different from Drake’s album? If everybody is doing their thing and bringing something to the table, when we all come together it’s like the Transformers or something. What’s cool is that everybody’s bringing something different to the table, and I’m going to keep doing my part and bringing what I bring to the table. I’m not really worried about competition.
Pleasure speaking to you always, any final words?
Just to the supporters and listeners that have been with me. There’s people that I run into and they’re like “Man, I did not fuck with you and now I’m your biggest fan.” That’s a true testament that I’m on the right track and we’re truly getting better at what we do. So I got to say thanks to the people that have been riding with me and have love for me. It’s all love, man. I’m a positive guy and everything I do is from the heart. I ain’t got no ill intentions out here. I’m just from a city where you got to boss up and get it, and I’m bossing up and taking care of my family, and I just want to say I appreciate that.
Words by Davis Huynh
Photography by Steven Taylor
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