This true-life story is a repost from our sister site, Our Life Logs®
This is the story of C.A.M. as captured by the team at Our Life Logs. The following is brought to you in partnership with Guitars Over Guns, and organization that aims to change the lives of disadvantaged students through music and strong, consistent mentorship. We hope you check them out!
It's in the Words We Give
So, I was born in Chicago in 1989 as the youngest of seven. Yep. With that many siblings, you know it was something different every day. One moment you’re tight and the next you’re in an argument. Really. I remember one of my brothers who DJed throughout the night would come home early in the morning after a gig, never trying to be quiet or anything, and just simply tell me, “Get up and do what you gotta do before I get home.”
Our house on 69th and Winchester in Chicago, was always best in the summertime. We’d have these huge block parties. A couple guys would man the grill with the burgers and tips while the rest danced to the music my dad threw on the turntables. I would weave through the adults with all the other kids, and we’d have a barbecue and lemonade and we’d just party together.
When I think of my home, I think of that. I never thought about it as dangerous because so many people were around to look out for each other. That’s just it. We had each other’s back. Even though we heard gunshots, we never saw anything because some other adult would make sure we got in the house before something went down. I didn’t think anything of it. But that’s also to say that kids in the neighborhood had just a few ways to earn some money. That led to dangerous ways to make it.
When I was nine years old, I remember sitting inside our house while my brother’s friend came by. I don’t think my brother was home, so he left. Being nine and curious, I followed him to the front of the house and waited at the threshold.
My brother’s friend had this really sharp gold chain hanging around his neck. As he moved to the sidewalk, I watched the chain get smaller and smaller. All of a sudden, a big car screeched and stopped in front of my brother’s friend. It looked like the guy in the car wanted that chain. I watched my brother’s friend shake his head. And then I saw him get shot. And then I saw the man in the car take the chain and drive away just as hot as he came.
I was nine.
Nine years old.
After that day, I struggled to make sense of why that happened and what I’d just seen. My whole world had changed. Being in situations like that will put you in fight or flight. If you chose to fight as I did, you learn to adapt to seeing things like that. You find someone to talk to. You find an outlet.
My outlet was poetry.
I’d been one to scribble a little story or two in a random notebook I’d found ever since I could write. But at nine, the content of my poetry changed. I used my words because I wanted to understand. I wanted to see better and make sense of something that I couldn’t explain. How do I feel about this? What would make this better? I couldn’t get out of my situation, so I learned how to live in it. I learned how to create. Later, I found out that my mom saved all my little poems she found hidden in the pockets of my jeans that were in the laundry. I bet she found a hundred. I wrote a lot.
Then, there was music.
As I said before, my dad DJed. He loved music and blared it through our house as he liked. He’d put on an R&B record, or blues, or the dusties—it really depended on what he was feeling. Anyway, I’d hear these verses and they’d just stick with me. It seemed natural that I’d use music as a way to help me create.
At the age of ten, I transitioned my poems into something with a beat. I’d stay in my room and conjure up a rap battle (me versus me, of course) and time would fly by. These moments alone made me focus on how the lyrics could hold a beat. I listened to a range of sounds outside of what my dad played like Nas and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. It wasn’t until I was a little older when I went to see my very first rap show that I thought, “Wow. I really want to do this too.”
Throughout high school, music was nothing more than a hobby. It was just something to fill the space in between homework and the next time I got to hang out with my friends. And like many kids that age, I didn’t have a great sense of what I wanted to do after I graduated from high school. Seriously, I didn’t really get that I could connect what my hobbies were to something I could do for the rest of my life. At the time, I didn’t know what that would even look like. As a result, I basically went to every junior college in Chicago. I’d feel like more school was what I was supposed to do.
When I was 19, I made a friend in college, and we started rapping together. We’d throw some verses back and forth just for fun, but it was really the first time I’d shared that part of my life with anyone besides the four walls of my room. Not long after, I would start freestyling with my godbrother in the car. This is all to say, it took me a while to really open up and from there, people started encouraging me to do something with what I had in the notebooks I kept.
At 22 years old, I wrote my first song. I wanted to write to get out the thoughts I could really tell anyone. And for the first time, I got to make a little ecosystem where my one emotion could live within the lyrics and beats and melodies. I told myself that I wanted to keep being positive. It was around that time I wrote one of my favorites, “Sunshine.” It’s just a song with a good feel, but it kind of conveyed my imperfect childhood—the one marked by a sudden understanding of the faults of the world. And I liked it. I liked being vulnerable with music. I liked turning the negativity around me and the struggles of living into something positive.
Not long after I wrote my first song, I went to see one of my sister’s shows at some bar in town. I sat in the bar from the beginning of her set among the dusty haze of the lights and watched her do something she really loved. Towards the end of the show, people got up, closed their tabs, and all of a sudden, my sister comes over the microphone and just says, “My little brother is going to perform one of his songs.”
She motioned me. I don’t know how I got up there, but in an instant, I was giving the band a beat and they picked up on it. We really did that. Now, I’m not saying it was my best performance, but I did all I could do to not make myself look like a fool up there. When it ended, I thanked the band and just headed home in a daze.
I wasn’t really sure how she knew to do that, but I needed it.
From there, I started writing songs with a good feel to them. I like songs like that. I like songs that can take you from here to there. So, I made music just like that.
Within the span of a few months, I started going to open mics. I had already gotten my first “show” out of the way, so it wasn’t scary to just go hard and start performing in front of audiences. Slowly, I built up my discography and my confidence. By the time I was 24, I began putting music out into the world.
It was at one of the open mics that I did that I met my (now) mentor, Add-2, at an open mic. I liked his performance and asked for a feature. No beating around the bush. I wasn’t gonna ask him at first, but my friend who was with me just said, “go ahead.” After deciding that I wanted to pursue my creative voice, I realized that there was no room for hesitation. Plus, you never know until you ask. Finally, I told him that I wanted to perform “Good Times” with him. It’s the song that takes me back to the block parties and the good days in the sun. At least—that’s what it was gonna be. It wasn’t quite finished at that point.
Early days of open mic.
When I asked, Add-2 sent me his email. And from there, I went home and took out my notebook with some of the songs I’d been sitting on for a while. I didn’t know what to do with “Good Times,” so I finally just reached out to this stranger I’d met at an open mic. I typed it up, hit SEND, and I prepared to wait, and wait, and wait. Within—I wanna say—two to three hours, this guy had notes for me. Really good notes. I revised and added another verse. Together, we wrote that song. He helped me complete it.
We stayed in touch, of course, and after a while, I saw that he managed a studio in Chicago called Haven Studios where you could record for free. Add-2 brought me in so that I could learn music, learn how to work the business aspect of music, and give me a place to just create. Once I got there, I realized that there was so much I didn’t know. And through the guys working at Haven Studio, I got to know more about music production than just the beats I was making. Because it’s way more than the rhythm. I think I was just 26 at the time and I’ve been in that studio ever since.
Haven Studios does more than just churn out sound. Since they’ve connected with the organization Guitars Over Guns (GOGO), Haven has become a space for at-risk teens to create in the studio with more seasoned musicians. So, the kids would come in and we’d help them write lyrics, fiddle with the keyboards and string on the guitars, all while doing all the other social-emotional stuff that goes with building relationships. I became sort of an informal mentor to some of the older kids and it’s been rewarding to give life advice and learn from them (all with a little music thrown in). It really is a symbiotic relationship when you teach. It’s the kind of relationship I didn’t really have as a teenager. And by being in the Haven Studio, I hope I am able to share the outlet that saved me.
Who knows where I’d be today if I never started writing poetry and listening to the artists that have inspired the music I make today? I don’t really dwell on the what-ifs. All I know is that making music is a way for me to tell people what I want to say. It helps me get my thoughts in line and create art out of emotions that are so complex and unclear. It’s not about money. It’s about the clarity gained. The dark corners that are explored. The words that will constrict the heart if not shared. Because, really, what other reason do you make music than to give your words away?
This is the story of C.A.M.
Cameron, now known by his artist's name C.A.M. (Creative Artistic Mind), grew up in Chicago in the 1990s. While his community was always there for one another, it was also susceptible to violence. After C.A.M. saw that violence firsthand at the age of nine, he turned to poetry and, later, music to make sense of the struggles and questions he had. Now, C.A.M. is a musician in Chicago and records out of Haven Studio. Through this opportunity, C.A.M. is able to keep creating music while also being a mentor to the teens who use the facility for their after-school program sponsored by the Guitars Over Guns Organization.
Writer: Kristen Petronio | Editor: Colleen Walker