A Rapper and a Writer Play Ball

Francis Arevalo and best friend Irving Chong share a candid conversation on music, life and the beauty that comes from female collaboration. 

Francis Arevalo and I talk everyday. 

If anyone were to read our texts, they'd think it was all nonsense in a stream of NBAmojis, links to good music, and plans to be goofy together in real life. Most of our real conversations seem to happen on the mornings before we go play basketball, way before the sun rises. Maybe it’s because we’re both sleep deprived, or that we need to exercise thoughts before stepping into our own hyperbolic time chamber, but throughout the game, we open up about what’s frustrated us in the world over the week and discuss how we can help. On one particular car ride, Francis was frustrated about a line another local rapper spit. I told him not to worry about it, but his response was firm; “I can’t just ignore it.” One of the hardest things to learn, I've realized, is that not every person sees the world the same way you do. The hardest part is building empathy with those who don’t.

I was the first person Francis told about his new project. Entitled “Love & Basketball,” this mixtape grew organically, and by organically I mean he wrote enough songs for multiple albums. I remember when he was deciding on which songs to put on “Love & Basketball,” he wanted it to be more than just a collection of songs. He was searching for his foundation, one song that anchored the rest. He found it in “Gardens.”

I’ve told Francis that he's a living room rapper. He wants every performance he puts on to be as inviting as a party in a close friend’s home. After recording “Gardens,” he might be the greenhouse rapper now, in the way his thoughts weave in and out and bloom, like the things we all are searching to say.

“Gardens,” and by extension, “Love & Basketball,” is a road-map on how Francis wants to build his life. It’s a flowchart of his relationships and a blueprint for his support system. He understands goodness takes time and that growth cannot happen in a vacuum. Below is a discussion he and I had about “Gardens,” relationships, what it all means, and our way of continuing the conversations we feel are necessary. 

‘Gardens’ represents the home you take with you wherever you go.

Irving: After an hour and a half of recording Gardens and listening to it back you said that this was the first song you've made where you thought, "Oh wow, this is actually good." Why? 

Francis: When I first listened to it front to back after Kim laid down her parts, I honestly couldn't believe that we made that. I had this moment of disconnect where I no longer had the ideas of the sounds floating around in my head, it was out in the world in front of me. There are a few layers there: 1) that was the first time I felt like I wrote an actual song that I was proud of, not simply a collection of bars marked by 10-second hooks. I used to be terrified of the idea of writing more than clever couplets. 2) That was the first track Kimmortal and I had collaborated on. And it sounds like that? I mean come on. The warmth in her voice and the strength in her person fit it perfectly. And in the choruses, it sounds like we are acknowledging what we can build together, saying "we can grow a garden" or some kind of affirmation to each other. 3) Some songs take years, some take hours. This one I wrote in an afternoon, and it felt like it wrote itself. I had intended it to be a response to a conversation I was having with someone about our friendship. Raw emotion turned into song.

It was the most honest I'd been [about] love and related conversations up until this point in my life and music.

Irving: You wrote it in response to someone writing you a long, open, and honest response about why she didn't want a romantic relationship with you, right? So much of Gardens has to do with building something with people you want surrounding you. What was that conversation like before you sent her the first draft of Gardens back to her as a response?

Francis: I'd re-frame it as less about why she didn't want a "relationship" with me, and more a conversation about what kind of relationship we both could agree upon. [The] conversation before sending her “Gardens” was healthy, honest, open and forthcoming, which was refreshing.

Irving: Why don't you think people have these conversations as often? Are they too awkward? Too messy? Too uncomfortable? Or people just don't have enough practice in doing so? Some people might look at what you said and just be like, "Oh Francis was friendzoned and he's trying to save face."

As we grow older, we realize that relationships take work, that they’re messy.
— Irving Chong

Francis: There are a few ways to go from there. I mean, sure I was "friendzoned" in these situations, in the sense that my expectations of our desires for romance or sex in these relationships didn't line up with theirs, but I don't feel like I'm trying to save face or experiencing disappointment. If you asked me when I was younger, I'd probably be sweating it, but as I've grown up I've realized that some relationships can grow deeper than the ones we restrict into quick romances, and that emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual intimacy does not necessarily need to become anything more than deep friendship. There was a kind of liberation and clarity that came from what some people would see as rejection. I felt like a path was being cleared.

An initial thought on why we as friends, lovers, teammates, co-workers, and neighbours don't have these conversations more often is that I can't remember actively learning skills and having conversations around having healthy relationships with people. We kind of just learn by trying over and over again until things become more and more right for us. And that requires risk of failure, which can be terrifying. It doesn't help also that the majority of TV [shows] and Hollywood make quests out of love stories between characters where the pursuer either wins or loses it. I can't think of a movie off the top where one of the participants gets turned down, and then they become dope together in some other more powerful way, without romance confounding their partnership.

Irving: I have trouble coming up with more than a couple of examples where friends get a happily ever after in pop culture. Love is painted as black or white with no in between, but we know this isn’t what real life is like. We have been taught for so long, however subliminally, that women have to be “chosen” by men, that women are competing with each other, have the disadvantage, or must wait to be “picked.” What’s your perspective on that? Is this a problem? And if so, how damaging is it?

Francis: I'm going to take this opportunity to quote Keep Shining by Shad:

"I used to want to find the love of my life
Now I'm trying to live a life of love
It's not just a husband and wife thing
It's something that Christ brings
Some comfort at night
True beauty doesn't run from the light"

A bit of a tangent from the original question real quick: I used to think a singular romantic love was sort of the end-all in my search for meaning and purpose, like "finding your person" somehow guaranteed a happily ever after. Then I learned things like love is work, love is a series of actions, love is daily, and that expecting all the love your mind, body, heart and soul needs from one person is unfair to everyone involved and unrealistic. [A] "love life" does not depend on romance to be whole.

Irving: And as we grow older, we realize that relationships take work, that they're messy. And to that, sometimes liking someone or loving them isn't enough because you don't have energy to give to them. Right?

Francis: Word word. So, I can't speak on women's behalf what that paradigm of a thing to be chosen, competed against, and picked is like, but I can say what I've experienced as a boy/man in participating in that. It's damaging growing up in a culture of toxic masculinity where someone's manhood is determined by their ability to best encroach on someone's womanhood, as if one's identity is dependent on anyone but themselves. And then comes into mind just thoughts of one's agency in participating in a relationship, that it's important that all parties have choice in where anything goes at all times, and that anything not mutually agreed upon, over time often leads to confusion, misaligned expectations, or some kind of hurt.

Irving: What we're trying to do with our creativity and art is to deconstruct these things.

Francis: Yes!

It’s damaging growing up in a culture where someone’s manhood is determined by their ability to best encroach on someone’s womanhood.
— Francis Arevalo

Irving: But it's a process, and as much as we can show examples to the world, people ultimately need to discover these things for themselves.

Francis: Definitely.

Irving: Back to "Gardens" and by extension "Love & Basketball." The mixtape is a highlight of what you loved as you were growing up, from the perspective of an older you, and you have many amazing women in your life to draw draw inspiration from, you have that support in your projects. What does it feel like, thinking you’ve really connected with someone, thinking that there’s something mutual and magical, there? How does your attitude towards everything external change?

Francis: When a person and I acknowledge a mutual magic, in whatever form or medium, man, woman, and all between and around, it is the most exciting feeling. That we both become aware [of how] together we can make or build or experience something that only is possible in our unique interaction is just the first step in changing our own little worlds for however long we choose to.

Irving: Is this why you reached out to so many people to collaborate on the mixtape and the future album?

Francis: Well, I woke up one day and realized how lucky I was to be alive and sharing a life with such talented and loving people. There grew an urgency to love back, and actively build a meaningful life with everyone around me day to day.

Irving: My favourite professor once told my class that a person needs three relationships in their life. The first is someone who will support, love and have your back unconditionally. The second person is someone who will tell you the truth no matter what. And the last person is someone who you love more than yourself because that's the only way you will extend yourself past what you think you're capable of. These three relationships take a lifetime to cultivate.
You're someone who seems connected with many people, do you ever worry that you're stretching yourself too thin?

Francis: As I've grown, I've become more aware both of my limits and depths when cultivating relationships. The right people give me life, Full stop. For me, to love is to work for and with and towards other people. It is work, so it takes effort and energy, but up until this point it has been work that I decide everyday to want to do for the rest of my life.

For me, to love is to work for, and with, and towards other people.
— Francis Arevalo

Irving: Back to the beginning of our conversation, talking about relationships with someone and how they change and grow ... is it possible as a heterosexual male to have female friends, without discussing anything further? 

Francis: Yes, it's possible for a heterosexual male to have female friends without discussing anything further.

Irving: Why do you think this is such a foreign idea to people? We don’t think twice about it because some of our closest friends are women. Some people may feel threatened by it; whether it's men believing they can't be themselves when women are around ... or women who are spooked by the idea of a man with many female friends.

Francis: I honestly don't know where to begin answering that question.

Irving: What feels right?

Francis: I think that sort of act comes on just when people aren't wholly comfortable with each other, as if these typical social narratives are at play all the time, and people are always surveying and choosing their next romantic partner. I remember the days when "Netflix and Chill" was literally just Blockbuster and chill.

Irving: Simpler times, Super Smash Bros and chill.

Francis: Where Smash isn't a euphemism.

Irving: Things were easier when we were eight huh? Last question, what do you want your Garden to represent? What will it grow into?

Francis: For me, a garden represents the life that I cultivate around me, made up of the people in my life and the different kinds of beauty between us. I want it to grow into a home we can live in now and a home I leave behind for my loved ones when my time's up. “Gardens” represents the home you take with you wherever you go.

Irving: Let’s plant some flowers and water them with the words, “I believe in you.”

You can find more of Irving's writing here

Irving Chong