The confetti has arrived, and it’s perfect. I’m still adding finishing touches to the new show, but I have three unreleased songs that the crowd will absolutely freak out over. I’ve packed my Dsquared²performance apparel and RP stage lights, and my flight boards at 4:30am at Logan. I’m preparing to leave on my Lyft-sponsored Sophisticated Ignorance Tour, and promoters have told us to expect sold-out shows all over the country!
That was March 9th, one week before “Big ‘Rona” brought the entire nation to a halt.
I jokingly refer to the coronavirus pandemic as “Big ‘Rona” to lighten the mood a bit; however, the mood wasn’t light on the day we cancelled my first national tour. “It looks like,” I optimistically told my DJ, “we might just have to reschedule Cleveland but otherwise we’re good!” I now know nothing could have been further from the truth. Three days after the tour began I flew home to Boston, saddened that my favorite part of my career had just been unexpectedly postponed for an unpredictable amount of time.
As I arrived home and began unpacking, I tried to encourage myself by thinking through all of the things I should be thankful for, in the midst of a pandemic that could completely topple our entire economy. “I mean hey, at least you’re unpacking in your own apartment right now,” I thought. In that moment, my attitude shifted entirely. It wasn’t that long ago that I didn’t even have an apartment to unpack in. In fact, I used to find myself sneaking into the basement practice rooms of Berklee late at night so I could have a place to sleep.
To say I ‘snuck’ into Berklee isn’t completely fair. I was a student. Or at least, I had been one for two semesters. After dropping out, being fired from the Newbury St. Starbucks and subletting my apartment on craigslist with the subject line “Super Sexy Apartment for rent”, I ended up on my friend’s couch. “It’s totally cool bro, just give me a week to figure this out,” I told him. Six weeks later, he was gently pushing me out of the door. That friend’s couch turned into another friend’s kitchen floor, which turned into either sleeping outside or sneaking back into the Berklee practice rooms, both of which I did on many occasions.
To make money for food, I started performing in the Boston Public Garden. I would stand there alone with my violin case open, and a sign that read “$1 so I can eat tonight? Berklee College of Music has all of my money.” I thought I could gain some sympathy with the first line, and hopefully a smile or a laugh with the second. Either way, if I could use the sign to capture a pedestrian’s attention long enough to read it, I was convinced my music would keep them there. I was sorely mistaken. Thankfully, it was warm outside and I could play for hours on end, eventually making just enough money to buy fast food; I was surviving.
I grew up in Texas and was used to warm weather. In fact, that’s all we ever had outside of one snowy Christmas in 1994. That Summer, we hit a record high of 116.1° F. So when Winter came to Boston, I was woefully unprepared. Towards the end of Summer I had walked by my friend Josh, who coincidentally was also busking in the same park. “Yo, maybe we should try playing together?” he had asked. We spent that Fall busking on the bridge of the public garden but now that Winter had hit, neither of us knew what to do. We couldn’t play violin in the bitter cold and even if we somehow figured out a miraculous way to do so, nobody would be there to listen. And then someone mentioned the “T”.
Our first day performing in the Boston “T” system, we picked a prime location with the highest number of people, at rush hour, in the middle of the Park Street stop. With trains dropping off passengers on both sides of us, we were ready to “make bank!” After a couple of hours performing, we had amassed a grand total of $12, which we split between the two of us after paying for our train tickets. I made a whopping $4 profit, but I wasn’t ready to give up. We agreed to meet at a different station at a different time the next day, and we kept playing in different stations until we found our two favorite spots – North Station and South Station.
If you google “subway violinist” you’ll find stories of Joshua Bell, but first you’ll find us performing in South Station. After my Berklee laptop crashed and my dreams of “going viral” had been crushed, I spent my last $300 on a student-made music video which did exactly that – it went viral. I received messages from NY Post, calls from Huffington Post and Fox News, and within a week the “Subway Violinists” were written about in every single Boston publication except the actual subway newspaper. Life is funny like that.
I’ve gone on to release videos that have a collective 30 million views, and have had the good fortune to have performed for some of my favorite musicians, actors and athletes. Cheryl Tiegs once took a photo of me with Matt Damon in Beverly Hills, which I still need to print and frame because, wow. It’s in tough times, whether desperately asking for tips or navigating a career as a recording artist during a life-altering pandemic, that I realize how truly blessed I’ve been.
It’s easy to become worried, upset and scared. It’s even understandable and somewhat expected. But life isn’t meant to be a gentle ride. It’s the ups and downs that make this roller coaster worth the ticket price. You might be jolted, roughed up a bit and have your life spun upside down, but when things settle down and everything smooths out, I hope we see each other back in line for the next ride.
Follow Rhett online: @rhettypants
Rhett’s music career began when he was only four years old. His music has been described as “Provacative, inspiring, and tastefully unique” by Deli Magazine. Widely regarded as one of the world’s top hip-hop violinists, Rhett creates music that all generations are adding to their playlists alongside hip-hop heavy hitters. To learn more about Rhett, his music, and upcoming tours go to rhettypants.com.
ALL IMAGES BY: ERIC SNYDER