It’s 3am and Merlaku Ra is just opening his eyes. Sparking a joint and listening to the demos made the night before, he’s ready to begin the day. These days, the hustle requires reorienting the traditional sleep schedule. “3-7 AM are when I’m at my most creative,” Lak explains. The deep baratone that passes through FaceTime emits a sense of maturity that I would expect from a seasoned vet, but he’s only 24. Immersed in LA’s respected Hip-Hop circles, Ra’s pilgrimage didn’t kick off in LA, or even the West Coast for that matter – Merlaku Ra is a South Carolinian.
Hip-Hop inspiration in Greenville, South Carolina was underwhelming to say the least, but diversity of sound was never an issue for Merlaku. As a child, the echoes of Sam Cooke, OutKast and Lauryn Hill would play through his fathers speakers, only furthering Ra’s passion for vocal authenticity. In between the inspirations of his father, Merlaku would find himself preaching at only 13 years old – a testament to the wisdom that Ra was able to share with adults over 20 years his senior.
As with many South Carolinians, including myself, the clutch the Bible Belt was felt all throughout adolescence. As Merlaku grew into his teens, his passion for scripture would morph into a focus on writing and producing songs. Armed with only a mic from Radio Shack (RIP) and the free version of Audacity, Merlaku was fast at work – even forming a label with his brother Devin. “Even then we were focused on an artist friendly outlet that could help unite the city,” Merlaku reiterates.
As life goes, successfully starting a record label at 16 didn’t come to fruition, but steps for a future career in music were now engrained in his bones. Translating passion and skill into a full-time job wouldn’t be easy, and at 18 Merlaku conceded to his parents wishes and attended college at Tuskegee University. As Ra embarked onto to college, he couldn’t kick his destined calling – a decision to drop out would loom on his mind. “I knew if I was going to be successful, I had to put in my 10,000 hours, but college wasn’t the environment to facilitate that,” he explained.
Leaving after only 3 semesters, the toll was still was still a staggering one. “Those 3 semesters were some of best of my life,” he reminds me. Leaving close confidants and the community behind, Merlaku drove home from college to break the news to his parents. “If I didn’t leave South Carolina, I wasn’t giving myself the best opportunity to flourish, but explaining that to my family was definitely hard as hell, they couldn’t fathom the risk I was willing to take – they even took my laptop away,” explained Merlaku. Residing at a crossroads, there was only one option left – it was time for Ra to test the limits of his work ethic and move to Los Angeles.
The bright lights and expanse of talent leads lots of blossoming talent to LA, but not everyone flourishes. Describing the initial send off, Merlaku alludes to the lack of understand he had regarding how much money it would take to survive out West. “I left with around 2.5k saved up from a job at a coffee shop, I really thought I would be able to build from that,” he laughs. It would be gone within a month and a half.
“Folding was never a fucking option,” Merlaku reminds me. Though his finances weren’t stable, the decision to bend or break wasn’t even on Ra’s radar. As the reality of his new situation set in, the fear most LA transplants have came to fruition. Describing the direness of his residency, Merlaku’s tone isn’t one of regret.
“I ended up homeless. I was hungry and bouncing from couch to couch – that was my biggest test of faith.”
Now in his early 20’s, Merlaku was praying for a sign that his decision wouldn’t be made in vain. Between studio sessions across the city and countless hours on the train, Ra caught a break. Linking up with Gary Biddy and Trav – the cofounders of The He(A)rd – Merlaku would soon notice a shift in spirit. “I met The He(A)rd at the perfect time, it would give me a space to create and prosper with likeminded individuals,” he explained. The management team wouldn’t just give him an opportunity, but open the door for an immersive introduction into the core of Los Angeles’ rap scene.
Surrounded by a knowledgeable management group, the stress on Lak’s shoulders can be shared with his new brothers in arms. It was time to go to work. Countless late nights and joints rolled have positioned Ra to have an inordinate amount unreleased tracks in the vault. “They aren’t all raps though, as of lately I’ve been honing my production skills. I want to have my own distinct sound outside of the verses.”
Manifesting his goals into reality, Lak proved his production prowess with his latest single, “Aliens,” featuring Free P. Lak has multiple verses on the song alongside Free-P’s raspy and bouncy hook. While the song shows great elements of his capability, the upcoming single “Check It” featuring Sylvan LaCue and Grip unleashes even more of Ra’s skillset. Produced by Merlaku, each artist voices passionate discussion on battling demons on the search for clarity and inner peace. While you wait, check out Merlaku’s latest video for “Issues.”