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Through Rap, Zyon Iman Wrestles With the Circumstances of His Own Birth

Dallas rapper Zyon Iman confronts two generations of ghosts through his music.EXPAND
Dallas rapper Zyon Iman confronts two generations of ghosts through his music.
Draven Crutccher

On Aug.16, Zyon Iman turned 22. That day, the Dallas rapper by way of Milwaukee released the first installment of his mixtape series IPMD [I Paid My Dues] Vol I. The title may seem a bit presumptuous and off-putting to those in older age brackets, but when you consider the life obstacles Iman has endured, it's safe to say he's at least paid some dues.

There's no criteria to measure whether someone has endured enough hardship to deserve success, and each person’s struggle is unique. Iman’s hardships have been plentiful, and he revisits them in detail on IPMD Vol I.

Releasing a mixtape is a frequent rite of passage for a kid in his 20s. But one aspect of IPMD Vol I that is glaringly uncommon is Iman’s willingness to rap about how both he and his mother are survivors of sexual abuse. He candidly speaks about this on his song “Respect the Game,” which uses the instrumental from Jay-Z’s Dead President’s II. Iman was conceived when his mother was raped, and he himself was molested at the age of 5 by an extended family member.

“When I started writing the songs for IPMD, I told myself, I have to say it, I have to get this out; I’m lucky that I’m able to be confident and socially accepted to where I’m not worried about somebody taking my cool card based on shit I’ve been through,” Iman says.

“People who might be socially awkward, or not accepted by their peers, feel like they can’t speak up about things like this because they’ll be judged, or shamed," he continues. "They can’t do that to me because I still get fresh. I can still get girls. I can rap. I know my worth. I’m not saying it’s all about being popular, but I want to be an example to others that you can still hold your head high and live a full life.”

In recent years, significant progress has been made in fostering a culture of support for abuse victims. For most men of color, though, this topic is still taboo, especially sexual abuse. Iman does not pretend to be fully healed from what he went through, and the decision to speak publicly about it was not easy.

“Honestly, since writing that song I’ve been fucked up mentally; shit that I’ve buried has reentered into my mind,” Iman says. “But speaking about it is like taking my power back. Confronting what happened is my way of defeating the trauma.”

Up until age 16, Iman was raised by his mother and the man he believed to be his biological father. He learned the truth under difficult circumstances.

“One day, my phone broke, and my mom let me see her phone. My mom and dad were going through problems at the time. I saw a message that said 'Yeah, that’s why you don’t talk to my son no more because he’s not yours.' That’s when I found out he wasn’t my dad,” Iman recalls. “I remember just punching a hole in the wall and looking in the mirror feeling like I didn’t know who I was. I was thinking, how could my life come from so much pain?”

The trauma from learning about the details of his conception gave Iman self-esteem issues and a severe identity crisis. He and his mother came up with the name Zyon Iman to replace his birth name, Caleb, as they felt it was more befitting of who he was and who he wanted to become as an artist.

A few months before his 18th birthday, Iman took a leap of faith to further his career by moving to Los Angeles for three months during the summer of 2016.

Iman had been in Milwaukee at the time recording and working on music when a friend said he knew of someone in L.A. who could invest. He had a friend in Texas sell his car for $1,000 while Iman flew to San Francisco and then took a bus to L.A.

"I didn’t get the money until I arrived, I just left on faith and he sent it to me through Western Union,” Iman says of his friend.

Iman’s stint in L.A. yielded a series of tough life lessons.

“My best friend Juice met me out there, and we were living in a [shared workspace] WeWork,” Iman recalls, who says his possessions then amounted to a trash bag full of clothes. “I remember times where we ended up coming back too late, the doors would be locked and sometimes we wouldn’t have our key to get in. I remember having to sleep outside, and it was just so fucking cold,” he continues through laughter. “One of the craziest times I remember was being in Koreatown. I had a meeting in Beverly Hills with an agent and took the wrong bus coming back. When I realized it, I asked someone for a ride. They turned me down, and I just had a meltdown because it was getting late. There were homeless people sleeping in the street, and a lot of crazy things happening around me.”

Iman would go without shelter multiple times, sleeping in parks, city benches or on the beach. Frustrated that he'd seen no progress with his music career, Iman decided to return home.

“When I first came back home, I was so hurt because I said I wasn’t coming back,” Iman says. “But I never took time to consider if this wasn’t for me. I just got a job and started over again. I never processed not making it because I knew my story wasn’t over.”

Iman’s three months in L.A. may have been a failed mission, but in 2019, his music career made progress. His single “Lights” found its way onto the airwaves of 97.9 The Beat thanks to P-Skillz and DJ Elusive. He connected with veteran free-form DJ Sarah Battle and the two performed at Trees for Premier Live’s “The One” competition, which has helped launch the careers of Rakim Al-Jabbaar, Mozez Tha Great and Flower Child.

In 2019, Iman was also was one of the winners of G.U.M Fest [Great Underground Music Festival]. Through G.U.M. Fest, Iman formed a close relationship with producer Camp Bond, who created the showcase through his company Blexx Entertainment.

Bond has become a mentor to Iman, and he’s simultaneously producing the majority of Iman’s upcoming EP Say No More, which is set to be released this summer, and his first full length album, Child of God, which is tentatively scheduled for early 2021. The duo recently recorded two singles for Child of God at The Kitchen Studios in Garland. “Hypnotize” begins as a bona fide party anthem and transitions into an infectious R&B/rap love song on the chorus. The second song they recorded is titled “Revelations,” a two-part hip-hop odyssey that lasts nearly seven minutes.

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As for IPMD, Iman has removed the mixtape from streaming platforms and plans to repackage it. The artist plans to release a remastered version and also has plans to record and perform a live version of the mixtape.

Iman’s ferocious delivery and prophetic lyrics, in conjunction with the cinematic, anthem-styled instrumental on “Revelations,” serve as an ideal representation of the ambitious sound Child of God aims to achieve.

“I’m not about to let nobody tell me I can’t do this. I could go rap in front of 10 people and feel good because in my mind I’m already at a stadium, because I know it’s going to happen," Iman says. "I’m naïve to the point where I believe.”

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