Austin Johnson stays inspired.
Johnson, known professionally as Wakai, has been developing his personal rap style since before he even knew what rap music was. He recalls seeing Kanye West’s “All Falls Down” music video on MTV Jams when he was just five years old and reproducing what he saw with action figures and model cars.
As an adolescent, the Baton Rouge native spent most of his after-school hours playing drums and imbibing the music of his parents, be it his father’s collection of ‘90s-era Hip-Hop vinyl from his days as a DJ or his mother’s preferred Neo Soul. Being steeped in such a rich musical tradition from such an early age helped forge Johnson’s uncompromising dedication to his art.
But it wasn’t just his parents’ musical taste that made Johnson the artist he is. A core principle of his creative philosophy is a keen awareness of the rich tradition of not only Hip-Hop music, but of African American culture as a whole, that he is a part of.
“My ancestors are channeling these words that come to me, because they spoke it before I spoke it,” Johnson said.
Johnson considers that sense of history to be crucial in generating honest, truthful music. It is evident just from listening to his songs that he holds a great regard for the musical legends who came before him and who continue to influence his constantly-evolving style. Chief among these influences are Andre 3000, Erykah Badu and, of course, the late MF DOOM.
“I want to take certain principles from back then, evolve them, and apply them to right now,” Johnson said.
The young artist’s respect for the past is trumped only by his ambitions for the future. One of Johnson’s primary goals in his career is to pioneer a new, unique Louisiana sound, much like his idol Andre 3000, of Outkast, did for Atlanta in the late '90s. While he acknowledges the great work of Louisiana rappers before him, Johnson feels the state’s Hip-Hop culture lacks a certain degree of unity. He also feels much Louisiana rap music lacks honesty, often reflecting a prioritization of commercial success over artistic expression.
“There’s more going on than just what’s hitting at the club,” he said.
Another part of what compels Johnson to forge a distinctive brand of Louisiana Hip-Hop is the unique perspective that he believes growing up in this state has afforded him. He has always found himself at the crossroads of many different lifestyles and values the perspective he’s developed through that experience.
“I got homies who are gang-banging, I got homies who are scholars, I’m seeing everything at once,” Johnson said. “Being in the middle of everything, I can rap about multiple things that I’ve experienced.”
But rapping isn’t the only area in which this young creator excels. He’s an adept producer, making beats for both his own music and that of other artists, and also has a keen eye for film-making, directing most of his music videos and a handful of unreleased short films. Johnson is also co-founder of an original clothing line called UPER-KUT.
“I’m a big fan of mixed medium,” Johnson said. “If I’m making a song, I’m already visualizing the video. And by thinking about that, I’m already thinking about fashion”
Despite Johnson’s resolute dedication to his craft and his astounding talent in all his artistic pursuits, he remains exceptionally humble. This can be credited in large part to his reverence for the music’s history. But it goes even deeper than that. Even the briefest conversation with Johnson reveals the wide-eyed wonder with which he draws inspiration from the world around him. Everything he sees and feels and hears, both in his own experience and in others’, he absorbs, processes, and then expresses through his art.
“I call myself a vessel. I’m a vessel of my ancestors, of my relatives, of different people in my life … and I vocalize it through music,” Johnson said.
Johnson’s latest single, “dumditty,” which he made in collaboration with Baton Rouge producer Wavworld, is available on all streaming platforms.