Before college, Joey Holbert ‘16 was never ‘that’ guy — the talent in the spotlight. The Cleveland native was a decent athlete, a supporting role in musical productions, and he even had an occasional solo in choir. But he never found his passion, his niche.
That changed at Denison where a couple of meaningful relationships and some good creative space allowed Holbert, a communication major, to define himself through music, specifically through his solo rapping career.
“I’m considered one of the campus performers, and I enjoy that title. When I first got here, I kept on trying different groups that didn’t feel like the right fit. For a while, I was almost lost — not doing anything, until I really discovered my music. It’s given me an identity,” says Holbert, who began rapping in high school.
“I think on a different level than I would have been on if I weren’t student here. It’s changed my life, my way of reasoning.”
And this identity is starting to get noticed. Joey Aich, the name Holbert uses on stage, just released his first full album “AichFiles” to critical acclaim; concert promoters contact him on a regular basis to perform shows across the state. Most recently, he was invited to open for his music idol rapper Asher Roth in Columbus. And he frequently is praised for his old-school style, which focuses on meaningful lyrics on top of simple beats.
This long list only highlights what has happened over the past several months. For him, it’s more than making music. It’s a way to process the everyday, including his time at Denison.
Take, for instance, Holbert’s 2014 mixtape “College D.egree,” which includes songs inspired by his time on campus like “Coffee” and “Patagonia Vine’s North Face.” Sound familiar?
Denison also inspires the larger issues he tackles in his music. The song “Poor Man,” for instance, wrestles with the assumed connection between poverty and laziness. Holbert was first introduced to this concept during a Anthropology & Sociology class with Assistant Professor John Davis.
“My songs are inspired by life in general. But Denison has helped my writing a lot. I think on a different level than I would have been on if I weren’t student here. It’s changed my life, my way of reasoning,” says Holbert.
One particular example is his relationship with Communication Department Professor Amanda Gunn.
“A lot of times, I struggle with the idea that what I do isn’t useful. Dr. Gunn’s helped me realize that a lot of what I do is scholarship. She told me ‘don’t let anyone tell you that what you do isn’t meaningful or that someone can’t learn from what you say.’ That’s really helped me,” he says.
With the self-definition and confidence that he’s developed at Denison, Holbert sees more clearly the impact he wants to make in his field and on the world.
“I’m all for expression and just being you,” he explains.
In Holbert’s own life, this means staying true to himself and his passion, even when he encounters challenging stereotypes along the way. In fact, he looks to change these assumptions about the art of rapping.
“When I tell people that I am a rapper, they automatically assume that I rap about drugs, sex and violence. I don’t want to fall into those categories. I don’t really swear, I try to treat women with respect and I’m not a violent person,” says Holbert.
“I once had a family friend say that she was surprised to find out that I rapped because my pants weren’t baggy enough. That’s what I’m fighting against. I go to school. I look respectable. I want to change the image associated with rapping. It’s more than that.”
His plan to institute this change? Positivity and authenticity. That’s what he wants people to feel when they hear his music; the attitude he wants to inspire.
Bearing witness to this is his favorite lyric from “The Nod,” “‘Positivity is peace in the pod, love in the shake, happiness in the nod.’ Basically, just be happy, whatever you do,” says Holbert. “Enjoy life. Love yourself. Love others. Those are the things that I’m trying to promote.”
Photo by Josh Miller