Three Raleigh-based musicians with ties to NC State got the surprise of their lives when their song “Raleighwood Hills” made President Obama’s top music of 2019 list in December.
There are moments in our lives that stay with us forever, shape who we become from that point forward, or alter the way we see the world. For Sonny Miles, LesTheGenius and Jaxson Free, three Raleigh-based musicians with ties to NC State, a moment like that came on Dec. 30 when President Barack Obama tweeted out his favorite songs of 2019 and their song “Raleighwood Hills” was on the list.
The hip hop song, produced in Raleigh, was recognized by President Obama along with music by Mavis Staples, Lizzo, The National, Beyonce, J. Cole, The Black Keys, Bruce Springsteen, Frank Ocean, and arguably one of the biggest songs of the year, “Old Town Road (Remix)” by Lil Nas X featuring Billy Ray Cyrus.
“It was crazy. No one knew; we just woke up one day and we saw [our song] on the list,” said LesTheGenius, whose given name is Leslie Robbin-Coker. He’s a second-year student at NC State double majoring in chemical engineering and paper science and engineering. “We had to do a triple take because everyone on the list was a signed, big artist and [President Obama] really put us on the list. So it’s crazy that, not only that he heard it, but it was crazier that—out of the millions of songs that release in 365 days—you decided that this song was good enough and you loved it enough to put it in your top list with all these other artists. So that was a big blessing. It was just really, really big for us.”
Sonny Miles, whose given name is Jordan Williams, graduated from NC State with a B.A. in communications in 2018. Robbin-Coker first introduced himself to Williams following a Sonny Miles concert in Raleigh in August of 2018. “It was always about music with Les and I,” said Williams, who made a point of trying to be helpful and aware of other black musicians on campus during his time at NC State and after.
Williams was a member of the Grains of Time, a student-run all-male a cappella group affiliated with the Department of Music, during his four years at NC State. He said the sense of belonging that he found through Grains of Time was an essential part of his college experience. “You’ve got to be thankful for stuff like that,” he said, “because a lot of kids, that’s why they’re not going to college—because they don’t have camaraderie…so it makes it really cool to go to college and have an experience like, wow, sweet, I made friends and it was organic. I have people that I can depend on. That’s the cool thing. I wouldn’t trade that for anything.”
As a first-year student, Williams was new to singing. He spent his childhood playing the drums, but had only turned to singing toward the end of his time in high school. He auditioned for Grains of Time on a whim. “I didn’t really think much about it. It was kind of just like, I like to sing; I guess I’m gonna do this. And I liked [them] because they were funny and weird and different and dry-humored. I’m pretty dry-humored too, so we could just have a good time. So I got the callback and I joined them, and that’s when I really learned about hard work.”
The student-run a cappella ensembles at NC State often compete in several rounds of the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella each year, in addition to performing in their music department sponsored concerts and other regional and campus gigs. The Grains of Time celebrated their 50th anniversary in Dec. 2018, and Sonny came back to perform during the anniversary concert along with former Grains ranging all the way back to the founding members.
“It was so cool [because] the Grains was a different sort of entity that I stepped into, and I had no idea there was this long backstory,” said Williams. “We were doing choreography and things like that, and the people who were around us were award-winning people, at least in a cappella terms…So we’re rehearsing three nights a week and we’re having gigs and all this stuff, and I’m just getting into singing. This is my fourth month singing. And I’m like, alright well, this is a system and I’ve got to get good.”
Williams said he learned a lot about music, particularly about harmony and ear training, through his involvement in the Grains of Time. It also taught him how to be a good collaborator, a skill that prepared him to embrace opportunities like the one presented to him in mid-2019, when he and Robbin-Coker met up with another local artist Jaxson Free—who works at NC State in housing and facilities—after one of Williams’s gigs. Free shared the beat he’d been working on, which would ultimately become the foundation for “Raleighwood Hills”.
“Everybody wrote and bounced ideas off each other about the direction we were going to take,” said Robbin-Coker. “And it just felt like something for the city.
“You can either look at it as [being about] music or a girl, or just something that you’re struggling with in the city, but that you also see the beauty with at the same time,” he added. “We tried to interweave different examples of that, so you can take the song however you want it to be.”
While students at NC State can learn to create beats and digital music in the Department of Music’s Songwriting with Digital Audio Workstations (DAW) courses, or using similar DAW labs in the NC State Libraries, Robbin-Coker got started when he was nine years old, experimenting with beats and recording them with a basic computer microphone. He was born in England to Sierra Leonean parents. He feels that his music is influenced by his family background and being a first-generation American, along with the work of artists that inspire him, like Kanye West and J. Cole.
“It’s been just finding [my] own style throughout music,” he said. “I think that’s what makes everybody’s stuff unique, just learning your own way to make your own music by drawing inspiration from everyone around you.”
In the few weeks following the release of President Obama’s list, “Raleighwood Hills” went from having 50,000 plays on Spotify to more than 100,000. Robbin-Coker thinks President Obama most likely came across the song on Spotify—which he credits as being very supportive of independent musicians—where it was featured on both the Fresh Finds playlist of new releases and several other rap playlists. Success has come quickly, since.
“A lot of different radio stations and publications have been writing articles,” said Robbin-Coker. “A lot of bigger figures have been following and showing love, especially people from the city. A bunch of opportunities just coming up. The numbers just keep going up crazy, and it’s like everybody’s anticipating our next move. It’s just finding a balance between that and school.”
He has several new singles out on Spotify—collaborations with his friends at NC State Zack Cokas and Maayan Eaves (who performs under the name Maay the Muse). He has a t-shirt line called Raleighwood that he ultimately hopes to grow into a social enterprise that will give back to the Raleigh community, either through scholarships, soup kitchens or other charitable endeavors. He’s also trying to pay forward the mentorship he received from artists like Williams to other student-musicians on campus. He does some of this in collaboration with the Hip Hop Project at NC State, a music department-affiliated student organization dedicated to cultivating and celebrating hip hop music and culture on campus and beyond.
Williams released a full version of his 2019 EP Gamma in early February. The mixtape shares his post-college experiences of entering the job market with preconceived notions of what he was supposed to be doing with his life, finding himself through that process and gaining a better understanding of the world around him. “A lot of [the themes on Gamma are] how I’ve been feeling in the last two years, growing up, maturing and learning about what the world really is and not what I thought it was, or what I was blinded to,” he said.
He hopes to build on the success of “Raleighwood Hills” and show his growth as a musician and producer. “It’s one thing to be notable and someone who’s known for something on a collegiate level, but now when you have to translate that to the world and it’s not really working out; when you think you have something, that’s frustrating,” he said. “I’m at a place where I’m confident and now I want to show myself that hey, you did it, and you can do this. And then I’m excited to watch what the world says.”