Messiah, New York’s first Latino rapper to sell out Stage 48, shot his first Sean John campaign Friday, in downtown Manhattan, with Elton Anderson.
This fall’s campaign will be his breakout, and spring is already locked in, too. Born Benito Emmanuel in the Dominican Republic, he was barely two when his family moved to Harlem. By the age of six, Messiah was hooked on music, and he wrote his first song at 11. The 26-year-old had never set foot in Madison Square Garden before he actually performed there. As influential as Biggie Smalls, Jay Z, Nicky Jam and Zion y Lennox have been on his musical quest, the rapper learned a lot at home from a mother who worked two jobs and a father who literally sang (and washed dishes) for his supper. Gatorade just recruited him for ads, and his “Made in Europe” album is now out.
With the help of Sean John’s charity, Messiah will no longer have to singlehandedly buy 500 schoolbags for children when he visits the Dominican Republic. “What really works for an artist’s legacy is just not the music. It’s the things you do, the giving back,” he says.
Here, Messiah talks about his family, his music, fashion — and his admiration for Oscar de la Renta.
WWD: How did you get your name?
Messiah: I’ve had this name since I was 11. Before I was famous, all my friends called me Messiah. That was my tag on the block. I was looking for a name that had a meaning.
WWD: How did you get your start?
M: You know how people say, “Music runs in my family?” Literally, what happened was, I had a lot of uncles back in the Dominican Republic in the Eighties who were into merengue. It was pretty much what I’m doing now with the hip-hop. I grew up in a house with my father singing. My mom would cook; my dad would do the dishes. My dad would play no games with her. He would never have said, “Oh no, that’s a woman’s job.” He was like, if you cook for us, it doesn’t take any less of my manhood to do the dishes, so he would sing. I was lucky to have that. A lot of my friends didn’t have that. They had just the story of a single mom raising them and their dad was nowhere to be found.
WWD: How did that affect your career?
M: That really saved my life. A lot of people say, “Why didn’t you take the other route?” which is expected of us Latinos. The route to be a delinquent and go to jail? No, I took the route of saying, “I have a talent.” I grew up watching my mom work two jobs. What, I’m going to be another one of the bunch? No, I’m going to do something with my talent. I’m the living testimony of the American dream. My sister, who used to pay my phone bill, now works with me in my company that I started a year ago.
WWD: Which labels or designers do you like?
M: Right now, oh my God, I like so many. I have a lot of Balenciaga sneakers. I have a lot of Givenchy and Moschino T-shirts. I love Louis belts. I really just started making money recently. Being able to afford designers is a new experience for me. Back then, it was Nike, Reebok, Fila, whatever my mom could afford. My dad would be so against buying something expensive when there were so many others that were cheap. If my mom bought me a $100 pair of sneakers, she would tell my dad she paid $50 or $60. Because if she had told him they were $100, it would have been World War III in my house. Now it’s like, “How much for those sneakers? Six hundred dollars? All right, I got it. Let me get two of those.” It’s just a dope feeling. It’s not like I’m disrespecting money. No, I worked hard for this. If I walk outside in a $2,000 outfit, then hey, it’s on me.
WWD: What type of work did your mother do?
M: She worked in retail stores — Judith Leiber. She worked at Daffy’s.
WWD: How do you describe New York style?
M: We have such an eclectic group of races. New York is definitely not boring. People always ask, “How are you able to identify yourself as urban if you’re Dominican, because Dominicans are so big on merengue and bachata?” In New York, you’re seeing so many races, so many cultures. I went to school with Colombians, Mexicans, people from Bangladesh…I call it the downtown flavor. There are just so many things in New York. You don’t know what to expect. Just taking the subway, one subway ride can change your life. You can see somebody performing, somebody begging for money. You can read a sign. New York definitely changed my life.
WWD: You wrote a song about the Seattle Mariners’ Robinson Cano. Are you friends?
M: Oh yeah, I actually played on his team for the Roc Nation charity basketball game. We won. About two years ago, at a club uptown, a very good friend of his introduced us. She said, “This is Messiah. He’s the kid who’s buzzing all these clubs uptown.” He said he knew my song. I had one song, “Si Ta Bien.” Right there I came up with the idea of doing a song that would be like a autobiography of Robinson Cano that I’m also narrating — I’m in the clubs like Robinson Cano. I’m a VIP like Robinson Cano. We’re talking about a baseball player who signed a contract for $240 million. When he’s in the club, there are 20 bottles and 20 models. I met him on a Sunday, I went to the studio at 1 p.m. Monday, and by 7 p.m. Robinson Cano had the song in his e-mail, and the only thing he changed was one word. We released the song one week later.
WWD: Did you ever meet Oscar de la Renta?
M: No, man, rest in peace to him. He was such a big figure for Dominicans in the fashion world. He would always stand down. No matter how big his business became, he would always say that he was from the Dominican Republic. That was so admirable. There are a lot of people who spend their lifetimes somewhere else and shy away from who they are. He really put on, not just for Dominicans, but for Latinos.