“A lot of people will say you’re going to fail if you try to win the world over,” Gashi, born Labinot Gashi, said in an interview with HuffPost. “But I’d rather fail knowing that I have the whole world listening.”
The rapper/singer, who just released his self-titled major-label album debut on RCA Records, has seen his music log millions of streams and his billboard go up in New York’s Times Square. But life wasn’t always so glamourous. At one point, Gashi was homeless, trying to sell his music on the subway platforms of New York City.
Born in Libya to Albanian parents, Gashi and his family traveled around a lot to make ends meet before making their way to Brooklyn, New York, in the late 1990s. He spent many of his younger days as a refugee moving around, living in more than 20 countries before the age of 11.
“Me being born in Libya, being Albanian … my dad traveled to a lot of countries to get to America and try to figure it out. I think, as a kid, I heard a lot of sounds and lived in different cultures,” Gashi told HuffPost.
The breadth of cultural experiences Gashi picked up inspired him to spend his youth finding ways to make music. But when it seemed he was on a path to nowhere, his family started losing patience.
“My parents told me to get a job or go back to school because music was not an option,” said Gashi, who says he was homeless for about a year and a half between 2012 and 2012. “I just left. I took my mattress and I was carrying this mattress with me everywhere I would go.”
“I used to just sit there with three jackets on and try to figure out a way to make my next move … So many people said, ‘You don’t have the look.’ So many people said, ‘Your music is not good.’ So many people said things that could have made me kill myself. But I didn’t.”
He used that energy to fuel more of his own music, fleshing out lyrics with personal stories of the ups and downs he’d faced.
“I’ve always expressed exactly what was going on in my mind — through dark times — me feeling like I wasn’t worth anything and dark times of me struggling to get a dollar for a sandwich. I was homeless. I was broke,” he said. “I’ve seen the bottom and I’ve seen the top.”
So many people said, ‘You don’t have the look.’ So many people said, ‘Your music is not good.’ So many people said things that could have made me kill myself. But I didn’t.
The top has increasingly come within arm’s reach. Gashi’s new album has started to generate some buzz. It’s difficult to pinpoint his exact sound, but Gashi has referred to himself as “the trap Phil Collins.”
“The reason I said that because it’s me going to the ’80s and making an ’80-sounding album,” Gashi said.
It was actually a ’90s film that inspired the pace of his new album: the 1997 sci-fi movie “Fifth Element,” starring Bruce Willis, Gary Oldman, Chris Tucker and Milla Jovovich.
“I wanted to create a soundtrack for my favorite movie. It’s basically futuristic sounds with Middle Eastern melodies … A lot of these sounds were made while I was watching that movie on mute,” he said.
In the end, Gashi wants to make relatable songs that connect people. With a self-described “dad bod,” Gashi seems comfortable in his own skin; he’s not trying to be something he’s not.
“I’m not the guy with the abs that goes to the gym every day … that’s eating salads every day and looks perfect … I’m walking into rooms full of people and I’m dancing and I’m singing and showing people to be confident and showing people to be yourself … And when people hear my music and they hear my story, they know it’s real.”
With two homes ― one in Los Angeles and another in New York ― Gashi’s homeless days are far behind him. Now he’s using his newfound star power to give back.
“I make a difference in my community and I make a difference with the junior high school that I went to. I go back and I check in. Instead of talking about and tweeting about it all day, I try to make a difference in my community and my neighborhood,” he said. “I make a difference in Kosovo and when I go back and give T-shirts and clothes.”
Engaging with fans who reach out via social media from all over the world is also important.
“In my DMs, the entire world is writing me, telling me how much my music has saved them. And I think that’s so shocking, the fact that I can make such an impact on them without meeting them ― with my art … I have kids hitting me up in Nigeria. I got kids hitting me up constantly from India and countries that are so far away,” he said.
Gashi wants to be a global sensation. Which is why this new album, he says, is just a “warm-up.”
“People forget that America was built off of immigrants. So, I think, as crazy as it is to say, I’m taking over the world and I don’t care how long it takes.”
REAL LIFE. REAL NEWS. REAL VOICES.
Help us tell more of the stories that matter from voices that too often remain unheard.