You’re a teenager from Portland, Oregon. You’re backstage at Camp Flog Gnaw—the annual LA music festival curated by Tyler, The Creator—with your new manager. You’ve just put out a painfully personal new single, and it felt good, but it didn’t really make waves. Then Cole Bennett, one of the hottest hip-hop video directors in the world, pulls you aside.
“Cole came in and he sat down, and he starts playing [my song], and he starts singing me the lyrics,” says Daniyel, the young emcee in question. “I’m like, ‘Whoa, what the hell is going on?’ He’s like, ‘Look, bro, I’m not sure if you’ve got the idea by now, but I wanna shoot this.”
The song was called “Lost Ones,” a sweet ode to Daniyel’s aunt who’d recently died from cancer. (A mutual friend had shared the track with Bennett after Daniyel sent over a Dropbox link.) The video, which Bennett shot in Portland, features a slate of locals—friends of friends, Daniyel’s mother, Kiauna Nelson of Kee’s Loaded Kitchen—detailing their own losses. It culminates in a mass vigil. “I’m telling you, the energy that day was so bright,” Daniyel says. “No one was mourning. It literally felt like a celebration.” The video dropped on November 13, 2020. Six days later, it had clocked more than a million views.
“I started receiving DMs from kids all over the world who had a story,” Daniyel says. “My team was calling me crazy, but I took a day to reply to every DM. I’m like, ‘These are real stories. These are real people’s lives. I wanna hear it. I wanna know more about these people.’”
Born in Vallejo, California, Daniyel moved to Portland when he was 5 and started school at Irvington. A few years later, his mother found herself with nowhere to stay, so she, Daniyel, and his two younger siblings left Oregon for a shelter in Las Vegas. For much of his childhood, they stayed on friends’ couches and slept in cars. “The reason I connect with Portland so much is, no matter what we were going through, I always came back here,” Daniyel says.
He landed back in Portland for most of his teenage years and attended Madison High School, where he says he “started taking music seriously.” He listened to Hans Zimmer scores, Kanye West, Childish Gambino, and Jon Brion for inspiration, and he learned to make beats on a demo version of electronic music software FL Studio. “You couldn’t save anything. You had to finish that beat or it was gone. So I would leave my computer on all night and come back to that same beat the next morning just to finish it,” he says.
In 2019, the LA-based Corey Scoffern, who raps under the name the Grouch, accidentally posted his phone number on Instagram. One of Daniyel’s songs was gaining steam on social media, and managers were reaching out, asking to represent him. A fan of Scoffern’s, Daniyel cold-called him instead. “I was like, ‘Look. I don’t have a home. I’m going to LA tomorrow. We should meet. If you don’t want to, that’s fine, but I’m going to LA regardless, and I’m gonna figure something out. I’ve gotta make a change. I don’t want to sign to some fucked-up label that wants to own my music and own me. You’ve always been about independence.’”
Scoffern accepted, and Daniyel started living with him and recording music at a studio in his backyard.
That’s where Daniyel finished his first EP, which dropped last March—eight months before “Lost Ones”—and is fittingly titled Madison High. Looking back on it now, he is ambivalent about the project’s sonic range (it jumps from Lil Peep-style emo rap on tracks like “Guts” to Flamenco-inflected dance music on “Scarred Up"), which he attributes to his sudden starry-eyed access to LA producers. The next project, Daniyel says, will sound like Portland: “That nostalgic, STRFKR, airy, green sound.”
That album, set to drop this year, will be called 82nd, after Portland’s 82nd Avenue: “That’s the neighborhood I was in the most with my friends, just mobbing, being kids." The success of “Lost Ones,” Daniyel says, clarified his creative vision and helped him trust himself; while he was developing 82nd, he brought his producer Louie V to Portland to help capture the city’s vibe. “I really put him in the middle of the city and said, ‘Experience this,’” he says. They went hiking, they ate at Pine State Biscuits, they went to Kee’s, they spent time on Alberta.
Daniyel and his team are writing a short film to accompany 82nd, and beyond music, he says, his heart lies in filmmaking. (He loves Kubrick and Tarantino; his favorite movies are The Truman Show and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.) Creatively, it feels like he’s begun to carve out the independence he sought when he cold-called Scoffern. “My end goal is to make a movie and win an Emmy,” he says with a laugh. You get the feeling he won’t have any trouble figuring out how.