Tyler Donavan strolled into our office in a black tee and trucker cap and casually posted up. With his unassuming demeanor, you’d never guess this local hip-hop artist has been grinding on the underground scene for over a decade.
After exchanging pleasantries, Donavan relaxed in the recording studio. He delves into his winding musical journey with the introspection of a man who’s endured his fair share of struggles. His tone wavers between philosophical musing and wise hip-hop veteran.
“I started making music under the name Wrighteous, inspired by my last name Wright,” Donavan explains. “I dropped my first mixtape, The Declaration, during high school in 2009.”
This inaugurated a trilogy of early mixtapes that Donavan now regards with a twinge of embarrassment. “Declaration Two was called A Versatile Child of Words, which I thought was super clever at the time,” he says with a self-deprecating chuckle.
Nonetheless, this baptism by fire honed his chops for wordplay and rapid-fire flows. As Donovan reflects, “I just wanted to be the best rapper. I was going extra hard on different flow patterns and trying to say the most clever thing.”
After graduating high school, Donavan joined up with a ragtag rap crew called Vivid Animation. But the chaotic nature of collaborating soon lost its appeal. “I took a lot of things from it, but that era was done,” Donavan asserts. “It became a real personal thing for me.”
Thus commenced a period of isolation in which Donavan handled production and recording entirely by himself. He adopted the name Tyler Wrighteous to gain distance from the “Christian rapper” box he felt listeners were forcing him into.
But a life-changing event in 2018 jarred Donavan out of this individualistic mindset. He underwent major surgery that upended his career and left him questioning his future path. “After the surgery, I had to stay in the hospital for a month, relearning how to walk. I really didn’t think I was gonna keep releasing music,” he admits quietly.
It was during grueling physical therapy sessions that inspiration struck. Donavan’s therapist implored him that the mere breath in his lungs signified a purpose he needed to fulfill.
Energized by this notion, Donavan pivoted his musical focus toward uplifting themes that could shepherd listeners through their own struggles. As he puts it, “I want to be an example that it’s never too late to pursue your purpose, no matter your circumstances or age.”
Hence Tyler Donavan emerged as the culmination of this renewed outlook. It combines the familiarity of his first name with the paternal tough love implied by his middle.
Donavan’s forthcoming album Gasping for Air manifests the hardship and self-actualization that defined this transformative period. Aptly divided into two parts, Inhale and Exhale, it arrives on August 31st and November/December, respectively. Both will b
Inhale celebrates the inhales and small joys of life. Exhale reckons with past pains and mental health hurdles. According to Donavan, its heavy subject matter aligns with other confrontational hip-hop opuses like Kendrick Lamar’s Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers.
Yet for all his bravado, Donavan betrays an endearing vulnerability when discussing his creative community. “The 757 music scene embraced me even though I’m not from here,” Donavan gushes. “It’s been really inspiring and super dope seeing the growth and rise of artists like Al Doms and Jesse Boone.”
Donavan reserves the highest praise for fellow Virginia Beach native Marv.P, who hosts showcases for local talent at venues like Smartmouth Brewing Company. “As far as a well-rounded hip hop artist, I don’t think it’s close,” Donavan contends. “What he’s built with his audience is incredible. If we had more 150-300 capacity venues here, Marv.P could announce a show today, and it would sell out easily.”
This emphasis on communal success permeates Donavan’s worldview. When asked what the local scene is missing, he’s hesitant to critique. He stresses that everyone lifting each other up is paramount.
Donavan muses, “I don’t wanna just put Virginia on if I’m at the forefront carrying the flag…You gotta give before you get.”
Our conversation concludes with Donavan in a hopeful mood. He’s optimistic about performing new material at an upcoming Norfolk Day event. He daydreams aloud about selling out the Scope Arena one day.
Yet Donavan keeps his ambitions in perspective. “I’m nowhere near where I wanna be, but the cloud keeps moving,” he notes. “I just wanna plant that anchor of encouragement now, so that years from now when we do the Scope…people remember this encouragement has been there the whole time.”
Before we part ways, Donavan slips me an advance stream of his album. He heads to the parking lot, satisfied that his story was told authentically. The turbulence behind him is fueling a purposeful trajectory ahead.