Minutes before his Unity Day performance, Shawn Lawson Jr. calmly awaits his turn. His relaxed presence makes it apparent that he has done this many times before as there isn’t a tense bone in his body. His natural control over the crowd makes way as the audience swiftly averts their attention as he captivates them with his orotund voice and catchy beat. The bass booms through the speakers and the show is on.
Halfway through the song, when the music goes out due to technical issues, Shawn doesn’t become discouraged or frazzled, instead he rocks the crowd with his words over the chitter chatter of the audience. Although his performance was cut short, Shawn leaves
with a smile, his kind attitude displaying his enjoyment not in the attention, but just doing what he loves.
Shawn Lawson Jr., stage name Shawn Crysis, is a writer, poet, rapper, and a performer who has always been actively involved in the Rutgers community, specifically through Verbal Mayhem. As a psychology major at Kean University, he has always had an interest in writing, poetry, and music. As he reminisces, Lawson says “Poetry came about in 6th grade, when I really liked this girl named Tamelia. I wrote ‘I feel like Halle Berry losing Isaiah, my emotions all over the place like a willy wonka elevator,’” and a poet was born.
Although his writing died down for some time, he found himself back at it after his self-diagnosed depression once dropping out of New York’s School of Audio Engineering (SAE). “I wasn’t depressed,” he shrugs. “Ya know, ya just be sad sometimes.” He decided to take a year off and found himself through self-help books, which prompted his interest in psychology.
Growing up in North Brunswick, Lawson says he had a beautiful childhood despite losing his mother at a young age. He was raised by his aunt and her husband whose company never allowed him to notice the absence. “There was always someone there,” he says. “Someone being my aunt, my two cousins, my dad, not my biological father, but my dad being my aunt’s husband, it always just felt like a regular part of the day.” Lawson credits much of his childhood for shaping him into the person he is today because it taught him how to handle certain emotions and put his energy elsewhere when need be. “I learned how to get away from the nonsense and sort of have my own sense of paradise” he says. He finds this paradise in music.
Lawson has rhythm running through his veins and it has always been within him,. He did his first spoken word at Soul by the Pound, a quaint cool open mic spot not too far from New Brunswick back in 2012. The crowd loved it, and showed Lawson how powerful his words can truly be. His inspiration can be derived from anything, like a random beat, a cool line in his head, or just casual conversation. As many morning routines consists of waking up with a motive to get something done, Lawson uses that time to write. “Best time to write is usually in the morning because I am fresh out of bed and nothing is really in my head. When I do get something in my head I try to run with it as rawly and unfiltered as possible.” he says.
The nature of sounds is one of Lawson’s favorite ticks as they put a feeling inside of him that he can’t get anywhere else, he explains. “I’ve become so in love with sound. It could be a shingle falling off of a roof, and I pick up on the rhythm it does, like dang, that sounds beautiful. Now how can I incorporate this with other sounds to make everything cohesive.” he imagines. While being amazed by sounds, Lawson is interrupted by a Prince song playing in the background bringing a smile to his face. He brings his attention back and finishes his thoughts on sounds.
Lawson has plans to create an album titled Algo-Rhythm where he can travel all over the world and listen to sounds in their specific space and see how to orchestrate them while keeping the essence of what is inside of it. This is where all his creations begin.
As he sits in his room in front of his computer, he stares at the blinking cursor on the screen waiting for his thoughts to spew. Lawson’s top three things to write about are conscious awareness, women, and self. “Recently noticing that I can affect people and have some type of change whether it be in my own family, the world, or the youth is why I write,” he says. As a writing coach in Newark, Lawson is amazed with how sharp kids can be with their tactful minds and understands that whatever he writes, the kids are watching. “We have to be mindful so that we can breed them to make change in this world.” he says.
One of Lawson’s biggest accomplishments is starting the poetry eClub at Kean University.“I wanted to leave some type of legacy, but after a while it no longer became mine, it became theirs.” he says. Lawson’s poetry club became a safe and brave space where many writers found expressing themselves therapeutic. “The first few days, we had people crying everyday, and that is when I realized this is surpassing everything I thought it would be.” he smiles.
As a kid, Lawson had many memorable experiences and feels that growing up in the diverse New Brunswick he was always exposed to many different people. He remembers dressing up for Halloween as a dark, figured goul one year at school only to find his good friend Chandra in her African dress. Lawson puzzled, questions his dear friend, “Is that a costume? That’s not a costume right?” She kindly replies, “Yeah it’s my African heritage, it’s my dress, ”she says. Lawson credits experiences like these for always exposing him to a culture unlike his own. Lawson laughs about a time when he used to think he was white. His Black and Puerto Rican roots, and lighter complexion prompted him to believe otherwise. “I used to see how white people got treated, and there were always white people on TV, so like why not? Why not associate yourself with something you constantly see?” he says.
These thoughts didn’t linger for too long. His 2016 album titled hangOn was a response to the social injustice and police brutality as an offer of solutions to make people aware and engage in some sort of action to answer. Lawson explains his album as a “sense of urgency, pain, and a cry for unity so that we can stop the same reoccurring pain.” He questions why we can’t break away from our pain and sorrows wondering if it has simply just become who we are.
Lawson has also been getting more in touch with his Puerto Rican side in his new project called 203, which is a place where he grew up with his grandpa in New Brunswick, who is on his deathbed. “I have been so pro-black, I almost forget there is another side to me, although they do correlate, they are completely separate entities.” he explains. His song Bodega, is a tribute to his grandfather which he used as an outlet to release some of the emotions he has been suppressing with his grandfather’s sickness.
Lawson can be categorized as a hip hop activist as he uses his voice to make prominent statements to affect and inspire a community to say and do something. Hip Hop Activism has been making a comeback with rappers like J.Cole, Kendrick Lamar, Joey Bada$$, Mick Jenkins, Chance The Rapper, and Little Brother, to name a few. Lawson says, “It’s becoming the wave of what Hip Hop needs to be. You’ll always have your fun music, but there isn’t proper exposure.” Lawson believes that music of this content is not exposed due to how the world feels about black people and those feelings trickle down to silence this kind of music. “It’s just that nigga be quiet, you can’t be saying all of this, because you might start some shit.” he proclaims. Lawson says that although rap music is so loved and wanted, it’s also so hated.
There is a strong message that is to be carried through Lawson’s words, actions, and music. “You can really change this world, we are living in an age where you can do anything and affect someone’s life. You don’t have to affect a million, but just knowing you can affect one means you made a difference in the world. Not everything is so minuscule. There is always something you can do.” he expresses.
Lawson just wants his voice to have an impact on the people and he understands the backlash that could come with it, but also understands its liberation. “With activism comes being able to free yourself so that you are able to have your own voice and to not be afraid to share that with the world.” Lawson likes to spin it to you differently and knows that in his position he can have some type of change to this world and plans to do just that.
“What I hope people remember about me, is to just smile, smile through it all.” he smiles wide.
Shawn Lawson’s thoughts on Inclusion:
“You belong to a certain group, to other people, but you still exist outside of that group. Like Me being Black and being Puerto Rican and being a minority, no matter how I try to look at it, I am technically in that group, no matter what. But it is more so how can I make group A, form with group B and C in some type of spider web to figure out what is at the center. I feel like the inclusion part is segregation… it is segregation. We can see where it is all bittersweet with segregation. You being together with who you feel comfortable, but you aren’t comfortable enough to go out and see what else is different. I feel that it limits you in the spectrum of the world and the rest of society, but being a part of that group gives you free range in that group, the sky is the limit, but only in that group. It’s having the courage to expand out and not be secluded because of what society feels the world should be in order to thrive.”