Cliff Notez has already earned a reputation as a brilliant and thoughtful singer and songwriter, having won Best New Artist at the Boston Music Awards in 2018 and just one year later being named Best Musician by “Boston” magazine in its 2019 Best of Boston roundup. He is moreover a visual artist, a budding filmmaker and a producer. He co-founded the Boston-based media production company HipStory that is “dedicated to centering marginalized identities in media through music and film,” and if that weren’t enough, he also teaches songwriting and music-production at Berklee College of Music and marketing at Emerson College.
In this interview with Pier Carlo Talenti, Cliff reveals how being nakedly honest in his art has been a double-edged sword in his leadership journey and why pop icons Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder remain leadership paragons for any artist leader to emulate.
Choose a question to begin exploring the interview:
- At 29 years of age, you are a musician, a visual artist, a producer and a professor. At this point, do you consider yourself a leader?
- Can you talk more about leading as a unit rather than as a singular person?
- There’s something about an authenticity that was able to get you a lot of collaborators and followership, it sounds like.
- Is there an aspect of your leadership currently that you’d like to explore or expand further?
- As I’m speaking with you we’re still in the middle of a pandemic and George Floyd was buried only two days ago. How would you like to lead through this period and how would like to see other artists lead through this period?
- What advice do you wish you could go back and give yourself as you were starting to become an artist?
Cliff: I try to remain as humble as possible. I’m going to tie this into some analysis essay I read about films that talked about how a lot of films get revolutions wrong. The revolution is always framed within this idea of this singular person. Like “The Matrix.” You have to have The One. “This person is the one that is going to save us.” It’s always The One. Although I think that there is value in the one, I think that our world has grown in size by multiples since a lot of those movies have come out and a lot of those ideas have been grown on. I think that leadership, real strong leadership, has to come from a collection.
But I think that I would be remiss and selfish not to say that I have gone through lots of systems of privilege that a majority of people that have my background have not been able to crack in the least bit. My high school was $57,000 a year for tuition, and I got to pay none of that because I could play basketball, and that cracked me through the system, which got me into Wheaton, which got me into Northeastern. I didn’t have to pay for it all because of this path that I got to. It’s a very rare path that a lot of people don’t have that access to. I would be very selfish to not be aware of the fact that that comes with some type of power that can be used in order to sway in a way that a lot of folks don’t have the opportunity to do.
I think that’s why I’m big into education, because that’s a lot of pressure. I’m like, “I don’t know if I can do this on my own. Let me try.” Through teaching folks, hopefully, I can inspire the next person and give those seeds or create an army of people who have been through my classes or who in some way, shape or form share these same ideals and who also have that equipped knowledge that I was able to gain through the privilege that I had growing up. I guess in a way I’m a leader by default?
... I know that my power lies in being able to activate communities and activate other people around me. I’ve done a lot as a singular, but I’ve done way more as a unit and amongst a lot of people.
When I think of a leader, I think of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, and [he laughs] I don’t think I’ve done anywhere near as much as they’ve done yet. I would hope to be able to do as much as they have done and more, but for now I know that my power lies in being able to activate communities and activate other people around me. I’ve done a lot as a singular, but I’ve done way more as a unit and amongst a lot of people.
Cliff: Yeah. I think it comes back to the reality of my situation. In reality, I just wanted to make art and talk about my experiences. Unfortunately my experiences exist within the context of being a black person in America, and that has centuries of things that are completely out of my control.
When you look at my art as a singular, my art as a solo artist, or just individually, I’m very much talking about my depression or my struggle with my bipolar disorder and how I feel that relates to my experience, being a black person in America. That’s how I’m talking as an individual. But how I’ve been able or how I think I’ve been able to gather people around it is by building something that is bigger than me. I think the simplest way to describe it is how I’m even thinking about writing my songs.
I’ve been writing songs forever. Even in crowds and performing with other people, I’ve had the most connections in songs that aren’t talking just about, “Cliff is going through this, this and this,” but being able to frame it in a way that I’m not the only person that this song could apply to. That’s the very microcosm example of what it is I’m doing with my company, HipStory, and creating this platform for marginalized voices and stories to be heard.
I first made HipStory when I was in undergrad and thinking about creating a platform for marginalized voices and stories to be heard and told. Initially, selfishly, I was the marginalized voices that needed to be heard and told! [He laughs.] I created HipStory as an opportunity. Honestly, I knew that people weren’t going to listen to me unless there was this facade and this idea of a group of other people. So I created HipStory as this fake label to get people to think, “Oh, this is HipStory, who’s reaching out on behalf of Cliff,” even though it’s me who’s writing all these emails.
But even gathering that idea, I realized that there was more power. People care about things that involve more people than yourself, and that’s such a simple idea. Realizing that and also learning about my history and structural and systematic racism in America, I realized that there’s an opportunity to do something here. I thought everything I’m thinking outside of myself, it’ll start inside of me, but I realized that the only way that it’ll matter is if I can even prove that this matters. It matters if it’s something that is happening to multiple people.
If the world was in this place where I, Cliff Notez, am the only person in the world who has ever been a victim of police brutality or the backlash of that, then it wouldn’t matter as much. It’s like, “Oh, that’s a clear mistake. Something happened. He’s the only person that this has ever happened to.” But when I realized that this is something that millions of people are dealing with, whether indirectly or directly, that’s when it becomes universal.
It was basically just being able to think outside of myself and realizing, 'Yeah, I’m struggling, but who else is struggling? Who else can I connect with? Who else? Is anyone else feeling like this?'
It was basically just being able to think outside of myself and realizing, “Yeah, I’m struggling, but who else is struggling? Who else can I connect with? Who else? Is anyone else feeling like this?” I think that was basically my first album. It was me just being, “I’m depressed as shit. Does anyone else feel like this?” Then me getting that feedback and being like, “Oh, a lot of people are feeling like this!”
Cliff: To be honest, speaking now retrospectively, it sounds like it can be easy to hear how I’m speaking about it and think, “Oh, he just went through some shit, figured it out. Figured out he needs to connect with a bunch of people, and it was good.” But no. That path was a very dangerous, painful time, and I’m grateful to have even survived that time period.
Yeah, the key was just being honest about what’s going on through myself. But there are so many levels and layers, especially if you’re a black person, especially if you’re a person who is identified in the public as a male and black. There are so many levels that make it so hard to just be able to be honest with yourself, especially if your honesty is coming in the form of, “Hey, man, I don’t know if I could do this.”
Being a man, that comes with … there are so many phrases around it, like “man up.” There’s a film that I used to teach around. It was called “Tough Guise.” “The Mask You Live In” is another film, same director. There’s a mask that we’re forced to wear, so I had to break through that. And even after the album came out, I got a lot of support because this is the first time I’m publicly talking about my depression. It wasn’t until the second album where I was like, “All right. Depression has become more acceptable, but how about bipolar disorder? How does that sit with you?” Because that has a whole bunch of stigmas as well. How does that fit within the Black community?
Even after the album came out, I was like, “Yeah, I’ve got to delete this.” [He laughs.] Fighting with my friends, like, “I’m going to delete this today. Nobody needs to hear this.”
Pier Carlo: How did you talk yourself out of deleting it? How did you stick with it when it got really, really hard?
Cliff: Well, I think that was more of a thing with the first album. That was an actual fight and struggle with Tim Hall, who is co-owner of HipStory, and the rest of the people that worked on the album with me and other people that are now invested.
Before that, I had put out six, seven mixtapes and EPs under this group called The Valedictorians while I was in college. Putting out music was not a thing for me. We were able to tour, but the internet was still growing at the time, so it wasn’t like we were this viral sensation. We were enough to be able to pay for drugs and alcohol in college, [laughing] which is all we needed, but this was the first time, as an adult, where The Boston Globe is now writing about it. And now all these major different articles, people are talking about it. I’m like, “Oh, this isn’t something that is existing on campus; this is something that exists in the world. The world now knows I’m depressed.”
I was freaking out a lot in those first months up through the first year, where I’m no longer performing college basement parties. I’m performing in legit venues and selling out venues and festivals. I’m performing the songs that originally were just in my computer and in my head, my personal thoughts, and now I have people coming up to me after shows and telling me about their trauma and the stuff that they’re dealing with, which is a beautiful thing in retrospect, but emotionally and mentally, I was not in a place to hear that. Because all I was hearing was this mirror and this reflection of, “Oh, you’re fucked up? I’m fucked up too.” And I’m just like, “Oh, damn, I’m fucked up!” The realization of that. That was a lot to battle through.
But I think through a lot of different things, I realized the importance and the value of it, because part of the reason why I didn’t have confidence around it was the stigma around it and not accepting the fact that people are fucked up. We have to be able to talk about that to be able to fix anything in the first place.
Cliff: I think that that question alludes to some type of mastery of leadership in other realms, but I think before I can even get to that, I have a lot of work to do to even believe that I am a leader to begin with. I think that I have the power. Because of music and the mediums that I use, I can inspire people, but I —
Pier Carlo: The definition that we use of leadership, which might be helpful in terms of this context, is leadership is the ability to gain willing followers within a given context or situation towards accomplishing a vision or goal. Does that feel right for you?
Cliff: Oh, OK. [He laughs.] I guess it’s really like that.
Pier Carlo: Really, it’s not necessarily about power. It’s about getting people to sign on to help you with your vision or to follow you on your path towards your vision, willingly.
Cliff: OK, yeah. I’m pretty open. I mean especially within the last couple of weeks and me opening my big mouth and talking a lot about things on social media … . I’ve been getting death threats since my first album. Within the last couple of weeks, they got a little bit more intense. But I think what has been heavy on my mind is, what is my legacy going to be? What happens after I go? Because I mean, one, in my mind and within my idea of making it to the age of 25, being 29, I’m lucky to have gotten this far.
What’s important to me is, one, the thing that I’m trying to improve daily is, “Who is going to be the next person that is going to continue to inspire and push whatever it is that I believe?” Then before even all of that, “Is what I believe right? How can I frame this in a way that is undoubtedly understood and clear and able to be interpreted in a way that can continue to live my legacy, to push more and more people beyond me?” Because my time is obviously limited here, and I can only do so much within my time here.
The most important thing that I’m trying to work on within my leadership is finding the next leader. ... How can I implement something that will exist within this flash-in-the-pan moment now and still continue to live on beyond me?
The most important thing that I’m trying to work on within my leadership is finding the next leader. I think it’s not as exemplary of being a good leader if you’re not able to pass that torch down, because then you’re just focused on, “Oh, I’m the leader. I’m the shit here. I’m the person that you come and get to.” You’ve got to realize that you have mortality, and if you’re actually going to lead and make change or make any difference, you have to be thinking about what’s happening in the next generation and then the next generation and the generation after that. How can I implement something that will exist within this flash-in-the-pan moment now and still continue to live on beyond me?
Pier Carlo: So how are you doing that?
Cliff: I think HipStory is one of the biggest ways that I’m trying to do that. The name Cliff Notez, even though it’s not my legal name, is still attached to me as an individual. HipStory, being a digital media company whose mission statement believes in creating a platform within the digital media realm for marginalized voices to be heard and told, is one of the beginning parts of that, of creating something that is outside of myself and can continue to live on and push my beliefs.
Then on top of that, I think being a teacher and an educator is one of the most ground-floor ways of that. I’ve been teaching since I was 18, 19 years old. Before, it was just a job; now I realize that it’s a real tool and it can be used for a lot of good.
Pier Carlo: As I’m speaking with you we’re still in the middle of a pandemic and George Floyd was buried only two days ago. How would you like to lead through this period and how would like to see other artists lead through this period?
Cliff: I think that there are a couple of different things within that. One is a more concrete, and one is a more abstract thing that I’ve been developing and thinking about throughout my grad school up until now. The more concrete idea is as an artist realizing there are people who are listening to you regardless of what you have to say. I think Taylor Swift came into this realization recently, and she had to put out a documentary to promote her new album in order for us to understand that she gets this realization. [He laughs.]
It’s this idea of knowing that you have a platform. One, especially when I think about folks like Stevie Wonder or James Brown or Marvin Gaye … . Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder are prime examples. Both of them were leaving Motown because a lot was happening in the world and also they just wanted individual creative control over their projects. Also Marvin Gaye is very fresh in my mind because I have just watched the new Spike Lee movie. Have you heard about it?
Pier Carlo: I have not.
Cliff: It’s called “Da 5 Bloods.” It’s about these four Black Vietnam vets who go back to Vietnam for an adventure. The movie uses Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man” soundtrack and “What’s Going On,” which was very prevalent around that time.
What’s happening in Marvin Gaye’s time was he’s singing about “Sexual Healing” and people think that he’s this huge sexual being, this sex figure. He’s the hottest man in the world, when in fact Marvin Gaye is dealing with real shit. And that’s when “Trouble Man” and “What’s Going On” come out, where he’s talking about this other stuff and he has to breach his way out of Motown in order to realize — almost in the same way that I am — that his initial mission was, “I need to talk about what’s going on with me,” but then realizing, especially with that background of Motown, that the best way to get other people to understand that this is important is to get this to as many people as possible. That’s the birth of “What’s Going On.”
I think it’s the same for Stevie with “Songs in the Key of Life.” He was this 25-year-old who’s fresh out of being a child prodigy at Motown, again, who’s known for making pop cotton-candy music, and now he’s talking about “Higher Ground.” He’s talking about all these songs that are pushing the agenda, because this is his experience. This is what he lives. He’s still a Black man, regardless of how famous he is.
You don’t have to change the world. You can just offer up a perspective and an understanding that a fan who has listened to you for years may have never thought about up until this moment.
I think that those are messages that I want artists to talk about. One, I don’t think that you should be dropping trying to reach large audiences in that pop-appeal way, because that’s important. You do have to reach out to people. But how can you reach other people and also use your experience and the experience of marginalized people to uphold those people and even offer up even information? You don’t have to change the world. You can just offer up a perspective and an understanding that a fan who has listened to you for years may have never thought about up until this moment. You could have been tuning in to Marvin Gaye to get your groove on with some lovebird one night, but then you end up on “Trouble Man” soundtrack and now you’re talking about racism for three hours.
I think that that’s what folks need to realize. I think that there’s value and importance in figuring out out how to do both. I don’t think that you should just stop trying to reach a lot of people and only focus on getting the message out. I think that it’s important to get a lot of people in there, but it’s a balance and a few people have been able to do it: James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, folks like that.
Cliff: Oh, go to therapy. [He laughs.] Go to therapy. You got to talk to someone, man. You can’t do this alone. I don’t think I needed it as immediately as that, but I think what transpired in and after the rabbit hole, even the immediate decision, “I’m going to double-major, and I’m going to take eight classes a semester, even though I only have to take four to graduate.” I went really intense from 2011 to 2016, just really, really trying to do a lot, although I’m grateful for it.
Pier Carlo: Was that keeping depression at bay? I mean you mentioned also that as a first-generation American, there’s a lot of that pressure put on you. That was part of it. But you’re saying it was also an effort to just keep running yourself ragged to keep certain skeletons in the closet or what?
Cliff: Oh, yeah. Retroactively looking at it, that’s 100% what I was doing. I was just literally keeping myself busy to not think about the dark thoughts. Then also because I’m now getting these pats on the back like, “You’re doing good work. This is important,” I’m like, “Word! I don’t have to worry about these dark thoughts because I’m doing good work. I’m fine.”
Then leading up to “Why the Wild Things Are,” I was like, “All right. I can’t.” The fuel had run out. I couldn’t believe that anymore. Something else was wrong. I needed actual help, and I needed to stop. If I’d been more aware of that throughout that process, maybe I could have been more productive, more helpful, and able to use my mind in a better way. But at the same time, I look back at it and think maybe it’s important that I had that really destructive time in my life because maybe that helps me realize how to not be destructive in the future.
Cliff Notez reminds us of the importance of working with others to grow as an artist, a leader and a human being. Lessons we can take from our conversation with Cliff include:
- Have perspective. Artists can certainly make art for art’s sake. However, artist leaders recognize that their message has impact on others outside themselves. Remember your role as an influencer of others.
- Discover your identity. Society places so many complicated layers on identity that it can be hard to unpack your own uniqueness and individuality. Finding your true self so your authentic voice can come through – that is what attracts people to your message.
- Have the courage to battle your demons. Reframe your view of yourself and your past. You can decide what to hold onto and what to leave behind as you define and/or redefine your artist-leader voice.
- Know your leadership impact. Does your leadership influence through direct interactions with people, groups and society to create change? Or is it your artistic offerings that have influence on the world? Leverage your influence to maximize change.
- Develop others. As Cliff states, “The most important thing that I’m trying to work on within my leadership is finding the next leader.” Leadership only exists when it impacts and inspires others and continues to carry your message forward beyond you. Be intentional.