Most people who grew up in the St. Louis area have been to the Missouri History Museum at least once, either for a school field trip or as something to do on a summer day, seeking relief from the heat in Forest Park.
"I've never been here before," the 24-year-old rapper born Trevon McCray says while looking around the free museum on a Saturday afternoon. That's because he didn't grow up with the kind of experiences other kids had. For one, he says he never lived in one place. Moving around frequently in his adolescent years led him to Nebraska, which was nothing short of a culture shock.
He remembers being the only black kid in class and excelling in writing. Third grade in Nebraska was the period in which he discovered his talent for crafting stories and nurturing his imagination on paper. That sort of background is common for many rap artists — that is, a knack for sentence structure, poetry and wordsmith creativity.
Beginning with an encounter when he was eight years old, McCray began recording music out of pure chance. An early opportunity to put his thoughts about candy onto a track started his love affair with making music.
But as J'Demul, his music has not always been about such pure and innocent imagery. At the age of twelve, McCray witnessed the killing of his cousin Terry, an event that marked the beginning of a struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder.
It's not uncommon for hip-hop performers to create art that revolves around the storytelling of street life, poverty and rags-to-riches tales occupied by steak and champagne. But in recent years, rappers such as Kid Cudi, Meek Mill and Kanye West — among others — have been vocal about their struggles with mental health.
Meek Mill stands out. The rapper has mentioned in several interviews since his release from prison in 2018 that he'd been diagnosed with PTSD. He's acknowledged that he knows many black men in that particular struggle as well, while even more remain undiagnosed. Meek Mill attributes the traumas witnessed and experienced while living in poverty-stricken neighborhoods to the PTSD plaguing so many black people.
For McCray's part, he says watching his cousin's final moments is what traumatized him. It's an experience that comes across in a haunting yet beautiful way in his music. On the track "TRUMAN," off his upcoming album DwnTwn Certified, the rapper channels his pain with lyrics like, "Heartbroken but I'm coping / doing drugs, now I'm floatin' / I was trying to escape, don't know where I'm runnin' / see Terry with my eyes open / see dead folks with my eyes open." It's a track that is as much of an emotional release as it is a glimpse into the experience of PTSD.
"I guess it's like the normal thing to talk about now, but for me, it's how I've really been living," McCray says. "It's what I know."
In the aftermath of his cousin's murder, McCray says death was always on his mind. He remembers experiencing the trauma and its fallout in a time when other children weren't dealing with such hardship.
"It wasn't just that situation with my cousin that gave me a mind change," he says. "It was after that, and what people said." He recounted a conversation with his aunt after Terry's passing, thinking about the meal he'd eaten, not knowing it would be his last.
"I'm twelve years old, but that stuck with me — that he'd said the food was so good, and he didn't even know it was his last meal," McCray says. "Like, I could eat a bowl of cereal right now, and then step out the door and be gone forever."
From that point on, McCray says his thoughts about death were constant.
In his music, McCray's approach takes on a storytelling quality without gimmicks or machine-written hooks. It's a glimpse into his diary, with beats pulsing in the background. With a unique cadence and a gentle speaking voice to match, much of the rapper's output feels like a conversation. He's in tune with his emotions across the spectrum — from pain and trauma to love and arrogance, it's all there.
DwnTwn Certified is the rapper's debut LP, with previous releases such as 17th, along with a discography of music from his earlier days — although that's mostly been wiped from the internet, aside from a few music videos dating back to his teen years. He's worked with artists such as Smoke DZA, and is featured on a recent single, "Stop Talkin' to Me," alongside MBZ Live and EJ Carter. Over the past several years, J'Demul has received mentions and nods from popular music publications and digital sites, creating a buzz with what OkayPlayer called a "bluesy drunken flow." And it's an accurate description.
His stage presence, likewise, is captivating. In 2019, the rapper performed unreleased tracks such as "TRUMAN" at Parlor in the Grove as part of the Stag Sessions music series. He gave the audience snippets of old and new songs, making teasing remarks of, "Oh this isn't out yet" to a crowd wanting more.
But that's what hooks his listeners. It's the feeling of wanting to know more of J'Demul's story, along with how he chooses to rearrange traditional cadences with his interpretation of rhyme and meter.
It's been a bit of a journey, but McCray is pushing ahead. He's looking forward to allowing listeners deeper into his psyche while enjoying fatherhood and standing in his purpose. He says he's "chosen," not for cocky reasons like feeling he's the best, but feeling destined for a life with meaning.
"It sounds weird, but I think my whole life is what my music is about," he says. "As long as I keep living and talking about it, I'm always going to have living diaries as projects."
As he makes his way through the history museum's Pulitzer Prize Photographs exhibit, the rapper is visibly captivated by the images. He says that he'll bring his son someday to experience what the museum has to offer — a chance he never had.