[Photo by Chimera Rene]

After moving from New Jersey to Austin, Texas, Sam Houston created a name for himself in the city’s flourishing Americana and blues scene. As he grew, he realized that what he was doing wasn’t authentic to himself—the style of music wasn’t his passion, and it wasn’t causing the effect he envisioned he was capable of. Now he’s shifted to performing as BLK ODYSSY and refocused on an entirely different music scene, ready to inspire the next generation to be better than what’s come before them.

On his debut album, he’s taking on the role of both an artist and an activist. The record pulls inspiration from what it’s like growing up and living as a Black American while showing the positive and negative sides of what that means. In some moments, he’s taking on the tragic murder of his brother at the hands of a police officer. In others, he’s advocating for body positivity for Black women. As a whole, BLK VINTAGE is a tale of how music can be more than a fleeting moment of fun and challenge us to question the world we live in.

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“I think that’s a really big goal of mine, and I think it should be a goal of any artist who has a powerful platform and has an opportunity to do things on a larger scale,” Houston says. “Music is good. It makes the world go round, and it’s important to our culture, but there are more important things to be said that can’t be summarized in a three-minute song.”

Through his laid-back, blissful and groove-oriented sounds, BLK ODYSSY strives for creating catchy music while overtly confronting some of the most pressing issues within American culture. Alternative Press spoke with Houston about how he shifted his musical career stylistically and aesthetically, the balance of social justice and personal experiences on BLK VINTAGE and the effect music can have beyond artistry.

You recently made the change to perform under the name BLK ODYSSY. Why did you want to do this, and what does the name mean to you in the context of your music?

When I got to Texas and I kept telling people my name’s Sam Houston, everyone kept looking at me weird. They’re like, “What are you talking about? You know who that is, right?” As a kid from New Jersey, we didn’t learn Texas history, so I didn’t know who that was. It happened to be some super-big Confederate soldier, and I was always very conflicted with how I got that name and that I moved to Texas.

He was the [governor] of Texas when they seceded. I started to notice that I don’t know if this is my crowd because I was doing a show with a country artist, and I walked into the crowd after the show. One lady actually said, “I was wondering if you were a slave descendant of Sam Houston’s properties or something like that.” I knew I really didn’t want to go by this name anymore because people got me all fucked up with this shit. I was like, “No, not at all. Someone gave me that name,” and she got real awkward after that. She was like, “Oh, I’m so sorry. Do you want to do shrooms?” I said no. [Laughs.]

What inspired you musically while creating your debut record with your new style, and what was the process like putting it together?

I was really inspired by a lot of the things going on around me in the beginning of the pandemic, the social unrest in this country. It was at an all-time high, and I really related to that because in 2010, I had a brother that was killed by a police officer. I’ve been so busy that I didn’t have the chance to just sit face to face with those issues that I faced as a Black kid growing up in America. 

I’m watching TV, and I’m watching everybody’s timelines and news feeds, and I’m like, “Dang, this actually happens all the time. How could my brother’s story stand out when next week there will be a dozen other people killed by police?” I started to conceive a story with these thoughts, and it inspired me to paint a vivid picture of our perspective as Black people in this country.

I wouldn’t say that the whole album specifically speaks to all the tragedies because a lot of it speaks to the triumphs too. Songs like “HANG LOW” celebrate Black women and natural bodies, which is something else that I learned on my journey here. When I was in high school, there was this whole light-skin versus dark-skin phase among Black people, which was crazy because as a dark-skinned dude, society almost painted a picture that light skin was more desirable. That was one of the oldest tricks in the book. They had been doing that shit since slavery.

Lyrically, you tap into topics like violence and addiction while also touching on lighter themes around relationships and love. Why do you think it’s important to balance these topics in your music?

I was on the fence about that because I’m doing this politically driven project, and I want to talk about social injustice. At the same time, I’m still a human that experiences things that everybody experiences. Sometimes when we’re on a mission in life, we could neglect the things that make us a person and make us normal and relatable to everybody else. I didn’t want this record to seem unrelatable to anyone, even if it’s a person that doesn’t agree with my political views.

In the beginning of the song “BIG BAD WOLF/SOBER,” I’m speaking about instances that trigger some mental illness in me, and I’m talking to myself in the beginning of that song. It segues into this interlude where I get a call from a girl, and she’s telling me she would never hurt me. It goes into another piece that exemplifies her lying and then goes into a beat switch where I speak about being hurt and where that trauma came from.

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I was trying to take the listener on a journey to where I was mentally. The music is one thing, but I’m very keen on having people connect with me as an artist more than just the songs. Songs like “HANG LOW” present itself as a love song, but more than anything, I’m just speaking about Black beauty and having Black women accept themselves for who they are, no matter how their body features are. I want to change the rhetoric and the idea that dark is not as desirable as light-skinned.

You’ve said you want to create music that is culturally impactful for Black people across the U.S., specifically young people. Why do you think it’s important as a musician to try to inspire the next generation?

We essentially create the next generation with what we do. My father was very intentional in playing music that he thought would shape my ideas and who I was as a person because I absorbed music so intently. It challenged the way I thought about things, and it challenged the way that I looked at other people as a musician. Whether you’re a basketball player, a musician, a teacher, a garbage man, the goal, in general, should be to impact the people we come across in a positive way.

It’s up to us to shape these people, especially when they’re at a younger stage and they’re a sponge. My goal is anyone that I come across, I want to teach them forgiveness, which has been a big thing in my life. Having to forgive the people that killed my brother was one of the most heavy weights that I lifted off my shoulders. I want to reverse some of the bad tendencies that we have in our communities by starting new practices with how we conduct ourselves and how we teach people.

What’s your ultimate goal for what you hope to accomplish with your music?

The ultimate end goal for me is to be able to do things that transcend past music. There are so many different things that we could be talking about as a community that we just don’t talk about because the conversation is awkward, or it’s just not something that we’re known to do because it’s not common in our culture.

What I notice is that a lot of artists when they get the means to talk to people, they don’t do it because they don’t think it’s going to be viral. I think there’s a way to do both. I’m not saying I’m some perfect dude that just wants to have this political message.

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If you listen to my album, songs like “NINETEEN EIGHTY” talk about how me and my brother were on drugs in high school. I speak about how that culture was something that we grew up in and participated in. In songs like “GHOST RIDE,” I speak about it in the same way but from an opposite perspective, from a more intellectual person looking in, and “NINETEEN EIGHTY” was from that person looking out. I understand both sides of life. My goal is to be someone that can help other people understand it because I think that’s very important.

This interview appeared in issue 397, available here.