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The Caged Bird Raps, Too: Ben Reilly and the Art of Finding Freedom

With over 10 years of music experience, rapper Ben Reilly has seized his moment with the utmost focus. His first solo project outside of the artist collective Abstract Media Group has garnered attention from new eyes and ears all over. Reilly’s solo debut, FREELANCE, is a labor of love, and he is only just beginning to harvest his fruits. I spoke with the New York-born, Atlanta based artist about his trajectory in maneuvering his new-found freedom.


Written by Amariyah Callender

Ben Reilly Performing at You Are Here Fest. 📸 Moja Visuals


A lot has happened for you since we last spoke. You’ve gone viral on social media, you’ve had opportunities coming at you left and right. What do you feel has been your biggest accomplishment so far?


Ben Reilly: My biggest accomplishment so far, so on my birthday and on New Year’s I wrote in my rhyme book all of my goals, like the first two pages, I wrote the goals I wanted to achieve in 2022. By March, half of them were crossed out. So, I think my biggest accomplishment is being able to do really well with my music and also say that I’m a [full time] rapper now, being able to quit my job… It feels good.


What was the moment you realized you needed to lock in and focus on music?


Reilly: The moment I hit a million streams and the moment I started getting a lot of interesting phone calls. I was like, “alright, cool, I guess I don’t need my job anymore.” I still worked for like, a month, before quitting. I was slick using my job as an escape, too, because it was getting overwhelming. I think the second it started happening, I realized, I’m doing something right.


Your career blossomed out of being a member of Abstract Media Group. How has being a part of that collective helped you grow as an artist?


Reilly: It helped me grow completely. We’re still a group, it’s not ‘former.’ We have intentions on making our group a label. Outside of that, just in terms of how we’ve helped each other grow as artists, we’ve been making music for 10-12 years and we’ve really been honing our sounds together and things like that. I feel like it’s helped me become not just a better person, too. Those are my brothers.


Abstract Media Backstage at Land of the Lotus Eaters. 📸 Moja Visuals


What inspired you to create “FREELANCE”?


Reilly: “FREELANCE” is a quarantine project, so when everyone went on lockdown in Atlanta (even though it was for like, two weeks,) and shit was real depressing for everybody and stuff, I was just like yo, alright… We all had to split up, physically, so everyone had to be alone… During that time, we had to share recording equipment too, so at times I was like “I can’t even record group songs, so I have to write my own second verses,” and shit like that. But that’s what prompted me to make my solo project and I just got really, really inspired during that time to make “FREELANCE.” I felt very, very free whenever I would go for runs, whenever I would see certain birds, and it just made me feel really good. That’s really what prompted me to make “FREELANCE”.


It’s great that you mention that because there’s some running themes in “FREELANCE,” one being strings, and another with birds, and probably a third one with freedom overall. Tell me a bit about that.


Reilly: I tie it all in like this. So, FREELANCE is basically about me– I don’t like to say it’s a concept and I don't like to call it an album– but… the idea of it is me just tryna play with the word “free”. So, I wanna play with different definitions of “free” and work it into my own meaning in different ways. That’s really what it is. I play with the themes of freedom– financial freedom, emotional freedom, stuff like that. The idea of the birds, it really came during quarantine. I would go for runs. Every time I would go for a run, every time I would see a red cardinal bird, it would bring me a sense of relief or a sense of freedom. And eventually, I was like, “Man, I keep seeing this bird every single day.” So, I started to research, “What does it mean when I continue to see this bird?” and I learned that red cardinal birds symbolize peace, freedom, and also a loved one who’s no longer with you letting you know that everything is okay. So when I learned that, I went into a deeper rabbit hole and I started researching, like, oh, “How long has this bird lived in captivity?” and “How long will they stay alive?” and stuff like that. I learned that red cardinal birds, when they’re in a cage, they only live for, like, 13 years, and in freedom, they live for, like, 28. So I challenged myself to make 13 tracks within 28 minutes. And then, same thing with the no strings, that also ties into freedom. Not being held down, not being tied up and things like that, so I play a lot with that and also tied that into the cover with me having ropes around me and the birds around me.


How would you describe your sound overall? You’ve been compared to a lot of people, possibly New York’s Kendrick Lamar of sorts.


Reilly: I’ve been compared to a lot of people. I would explain my sound as ‘me’. I know the comparisons exist, but I’m really just being myself. I like to say it’s colorful, it’s polished, but still a little dirty. I don’t know. That’s a good question! I feel like it’s just me.


Speaking of you, what makes you Ben Reilly?


Reilly: I feel like my whole purpose is to make myself and others feel like we all have superpowers. You know what I mean? Everybody is the same, everybody has the same 24 hours. What you do with that makes you different. How you deal with that makes you different. I feel like we all have things, experiences in life that build us and define our character, etcetera. I feel like given that, how I take that, is like a superpower. Anxiety, to me, is a superpower. Happiness, sadness, is a superpower. How you use that defines you.



Going back to influences, I can tell that growing up in New York has also had an influence on your sound, because, of course, you were born there.


Reilly: I’m from Brooklyn. Brownsville, Brooklyn to be exact, that’s the hood. That influences, more specifically, my lyricism. I like bars, I write double entendres a million times, so that’s really just my perspective on it. That’s what made me, me. But, I also spent a great deal of my life in Atlanta, so, given that, I like to rap over 808s and bouncy beats and I like to play with my voice and sing a little bit. Stuff like that.


What’s your favorite song that you’ve created?


Reilly: One isn’t out yet, it’s called “Clipped.” I really enjoy that one. You’ll hear it eventually. Out of the songs that are out, specifically FREELANCE, I would say “Red Bird,” “Finsta,” and “Brown Bird.” Those are the songs that I like the most. Group-wise, that’s also not out yet. I can’t even say it because it’s not out.


What do you love most about being an artist?


Reilly: Being able to express myself and knowing that everybody won’t understand how I’m expressing myself, but at least you get to hear it.


What’s one thing you always have to do when you perform?


Reilly: As of late, I’ve been wearing a vest. I don’t know why. That’s been my thing lately. I like to take a swig of water, take some deep breaths. I’m tryna get into the habit of eating fruit before I perform instead of– like, when I do perform, I don’t eat before a performance. I never eat. If I do eat, it’s gonna be fruit or something really light, or like, a smoothie or something. But I try not to eat. I don’t know why. I think that’s what I do as of right now.


For your supporters, what can you expect to give them next as far as what they want to hear and see?


Reilly: I would say what I’m giving next to my supporters is more material, so I got a Volume Two type of deal for Freelance coming by the end of the year, more music videos, some merch, more shows. I plan on just doing a lot, so hopefully everybody gets a chance to see it and enjoy.


 

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