Nine-year-old Raiquan Thomas didn’t understand why tears were falling from his audience’s eyes.
“Was I bad?” he thought.
He’d just finished singing “A Song for My Mama” by Boyz II Men for his elementary school’s Mother’s Day program. Now the people were crying, and it didn’t make sense.
Then it came to him: he wasn’t bad at all. In fact, those tears were out of how talented he was.
“I realize, ‘Oh snap. Maybe this could be, like, a career,’” Thomas said, recalling his thoughts at that moment. “I thought, ‘Maybe this is what I’m here for.’”
At five years old, the JMU alumnus (’19) was rearranging his living room to build himself a stage. Thomas used to climb on top of the furniture to sing numbers from “Barney.”
Now he’s graduated and hopes to become a producer, songwriter, rapper and singer in all types of genres. Simply, he wants to do everything.
The aspiring musician hails from Portsmouth, a town where not many people make it. Thomas said most people from there don’t have the resources to pursue their dreams. There’s a lack of afterschool programs, and parents are working two to three jobs just to pay the bills. He thanks God for his full ride to JMU and for allowing him to major in what he’s always dreamt of doing.
Thomas is already doing everything. He performs opera at JMU, releases R&B and rap music on Spotify and iTunes and drops music videos to go along with his popular tracks. So far, he’s done two videos: one for his song “Time Out” and the other for “Changed Up.”
In January 2017, Thomas felt confused about his identity. He described it as needing a “time out” from life. He then browsed Soundcloud for beats he could cover and eventually came across one called “Tired” and wrote “Time Out” to it.
“I was in tears when I wrote it,” Thomas said. “I wrote it on my bathroom floor. It was just coming to me — all the trauma and what people were going through at home in Portsmouth, Virginia, and me in college and what I’m going through. And I was just writing, just writing, just writing. Then I came up with ‘Time Out.’”
In February 2019, junior media arts and design major Shank Rai hit Thomas up, saying he loved “Time Out” and that he wanted to make a music video for it. In the video, Thomas does everyday things like getting out of bed, getting in the shower, eating cereal and going to the gym.
Doing these normal activities, Thomas realizes there’s pressure chasing after him. He finds it difficult trying to be a role model at home while trying to maintain the person he is at school. He and Rai filmed for three hours. The video was done later that day.
Thomas wrote his next song that would eventually have its own music video, “Changed Up,” in November 2018. At this time, he found it impossible to please everyone. He was losing friends. When he came home, people didn’t acknowledge him because they thought he was too good for them — in a sense, famous.
“Sometimes I feel like I got all this passion and anger toward people and I can’t really express it, so I felt trapped in that moment,” Thomas said. “Sometimes I feel like a lion in a lion’s den.”
In the spring, he and Rai embarked on a journey to find the perfect place to shoot. Rai pictured a rooftop with the sun setting, but as they drove, they came across an old rickety barn that looked abandoned. The boys looked at one another. Rai told Thomas to turn the car around, and soon, they were on their way to the unexpected — and creepy — location.
They pulled up to the house with the barn and Rai knocked on the door. The two were met by an old man. Rai lied, saying they were doing a project for school, and the man let them use his barn.
“It was kind of an on-the-spur moment,” Rai said. “But when I saw it, it just kind of matched the aesthetic we wanted to go for. We basically switched the entire music video, got rid of all the other scenes and started to shoot there.”
The “Changed Up” music video is all about choices. Thomas said he was dealing with angels and demons on his shoulders. One side of him is wanting to get closer to God, and the other side considers ending it all.
In the video’s introduction, Thomas points out a noose and a Bible — two objects he doesn’t think many viewers will catch at first glance. In the end, the screen splits and the noose and the Bible appear once more in each of the screens. Rai made one side grimmer and the other brighter through color corrections to show its duality. The boys agree that when one struggles, they have two choices: grow from it, or let it take over.
“Raiquan in the music video has a great on-screen presence,” Rai said. “He was really able to show that kind of struggle, being torn apart.”
After releasing two music videos, Thomas hopes to release more in the future. But for now, he’s just graduated and plans on saving money. Someday, he dreams of making music in Los Angeles. Thomas’ friends think he can end up anywhere he wants. Junior media arts and design major Ruth Hailu joked that if he wanted to drop everything music-related and become a doctor, she’d expect him to be just as successful.
“He doesn’t let anything stop him,” Hailu said. “I really see him going places. The options are limitless because he’s so, so driven.”
Thomas said he hopes to build an atmosphere of creation. If he has to pick a single job, it’d be to produce — making music from scratch. He wants to get artists under his own record label and change the world. But along the way, he’s still learning and growing.
“He’s a student,” fellow artist Gabe Driver said. “Raiquan studies. He never stops being a student. He is unafraid to go out. He’s grown in his ability to be authentic and communicative.”
If Thomas could give advice to new artists, he’d tell them to “go for it.” If it’s meant to be, it’ll be. Never choose for the full-time job over a dream, because we only get one life, he said.
“If we had two, I can see people like, ‘OK, I’ll settle for the full-time job with benefits and I’ll be here on the couch,’” Thomas said. “But go for your dreams and do what makes you happy. Don’t settle for less.”
Contact Kailey Cheng at email@example.com. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter @Breeze_Culture.