words by Eamon Whalen
photos by Cellini Kim courtesy of Twelve'Len
Last April, a deep dive into the Blue, Silver, Pink and Yellow EPs by the Miami singer-songwriter Twelve’Len left me both enamored and confused. The music was refreshing and Twelve'Len's charisma and versatility felt special, in the yawningly cliche until you come across it way. But curiously, his name wasn’t cutting through the noise of the music internet at the rate I felt worthy.
So, I tweeted at him. “After listening to the catalogue it's hard to believe @TwelveLen isn't way way bigger,” I wrote. Joseph quickly replied back, “I know, it sucks right. In due time. Maybe in this life or the next. Either way it goes I'm happy,” accompanied by a sunflower and smirking-face emoji.
Since the late-September release of his album Fri(end)s, and after speaking to him for an hour, our digital exchange has become that much more poignant and rings true much of what you need to know about the twenty-four-year-old born Lavares Joseph. He’s a remarkably gifted songwriter with an unpretentious confidence and genuine positivity that you can’t help but want to root for. And fortunately, the dots are connecting behind the scenes to the point where his ascent seems, in due time, guaranteed for this life, not the next.
Joseph is from Carol City, a neighborhood in the blighted Miami suburban city of Miami Gardens. Carol City has a strong hip hop legacy, from the unabashedly commercial Flo Rida, to the grandiose Rick Ross, to the loose canon Gunplay, to the current generation of rebellious experimentalists that evolved out of –– or in parallel with –– rapper SpaceGhostPurrps early 2010’s tumblr phenomenon collective Raider Klan like Yung Simmie, Nell, J.K The Reaper and Denzel Curry. As Joseph brushed shoulders with this new scene forming all within a mile of his house, his first foray into recording music was, naturally, rapping.
Joseph shared a similar upbringing with this new generation, but eventually his artistic goals diverged. Favoring a certain sonic quality and desire to stand out amongst an increasingly crowded sub-culture, he abandoned the grim, lo-fi sound of the day. Joseph’s new path combined his upbringing in the church choir, equal parts classic and contemporary influences –– Marvin Gaye, Al Green and Blues music passed down from his Grandfather, to Sampha, Jai Paul and Frank Ocean –– all siphoned through a hip hop sensibility. Joseph calls the resulting sound “Rock and Soul.” It's a response to those unable to equate where he’s from, what he looks like and what his music sounds like, as well as an extended hand to those of a similar upbringing who don't fit into presupposed expectations.
On Fri(end)s, Joseph’s songs carry a heavy emotional weight cloaked in a care-free, feel-good tone that moves fluidly through folky acoustic strumming, electric boogie funk and pop-friendly bedroom crooning. On “My Baby,” Joseph adds friction to an otherwise tender love song, “We know her mom and dad don’t like us together, but we don’t care.” Or, on the part-celebratory, part-protest song “Star Dust,” he pauses the joviality with a call for unity. “They want us to fuss and fight, but we want to dance. They want to lock us out, they want to box us in, but we ain’t stoppin’ shit. So you can let the pigs on in, cause I can guarantee baby we won’t quit.” In Joseph’s own words, Fri(end)s is an album to be listened to on your “last days on earth.”
Joseph is now managed by Kevin “Coach K” Lee, who’s had his hands dipped in the careers of nearly every Atlantan rap star of the last decade. He’s the former manager of Gucci Mane, Young Jeezy and Pastor Troy, and the current head of upstart Atlanta label Quality Control and management company Quality Control where he represents Migos, Lil Yachty, and OG Maco among others. Joseph is a few lanes away from anyone on Lee’s roster, but his bohemian aesthetic and celestial interests might have fans evoking the spirit of one key figure in the last twenty years of Atlanta rap, Andre 3000.
Just after the release of Fri(end)s and two weeks before Hurricane Matthew, we spoke about Joseph’s musical foundation, moving from rapping to singing, his Haitian heritage, “genre bending,” and why his first love isn’t music.
Fri(end)s is now available on Apple Music
Greenroom: Your music has so much variety and seems to pull from all these different inspirations. What was your musical foundation growing up?
Twelve'Len: "Growing up I was heavily in church, I sang in the choir in church. But once my grandmother passed away, I saw myself drifting more towards rap music. Around 2010-2011 is when rap in Miami became, I don’t want to say oversaturated, but there was a time when we had a heavy scene down here with the whole Raider Klan movement and people like SpaceGhostPurrp and Denzel Curry and the underground low-fi sound. I loved the sound but I was never really the one to create low-fi music, although I was rapping along with them, I was more so stuck on quality. I was always big on quality and how things should sound versus the aesthetics. So, you know I was always the outcast out of everyone. While they was releasing music, not really caring about the sound and creating that whole nineties feel, I was holding on to my music. And it kind of left me in a place where they excelled at a faster rate.
And when you have a community of like 10 people or more recording their music in a certain style it becomes a sound. It becomes cohesive. So, it was a cool thing because it was actually a sound. So, from there I started realizing, “Dang I need to do something that is going to make me stand out a little bit more.’ So, I just started going back to my roots with my grandmother who had me in the church and started doing more harmonic things under my rhythms and under my raps, and it slowly evolved into what it is now. Which is really me just accepting where I started from, which was singing more. It’s not really about the science of singing, but more how it makes people feel. It’s more soulful, you know there’s not a formula to it. It’s making the people believe what you’re saying and making them feel where you coming from.
SpaceGhostPurrp, Denzel, Robb Banks -- I’m still cool with all them, all of us still tight. We all still see each other, we work together time to time but I just chose to go a different direction. So, if I can conquer this direction in which I take, they can crossover and play in my field and I am able to play in theirs. And because of my aesthetics and where I come from, I’m able to cross both sides because that’s just who I am. I’m just trying to give communities like mine another outlet. Like, it’s cool to create indie rock, or R&B, or Rock and Soul. That’s what I call my music, Rock and Soul, because it’s a mix between blues, R&B, rock music, and hip-hop. I just want to leave something behind where people that come from where I come from, that are less fortunate and in that lower financial bracket, something worth picking up instead of drugs or guns. Like, we got this too, we’re able to do this too."
GR: Does your background in rap help you as a singer-songwriter?
T: "Yeah, actually it does make it better. As a rapper you have to think on your toes, because it’s much faster. I was able to master that, to a certain extent. Now I’m able to take my time and actually write lyrics. I don’t have to rush that process and try to put words on words on words and to elaborate on words to make the bar stretch out. I am able to take my time, so it helps my writing a lot. And on top of it, I still carry myself around like I’m a rapper, and not pretend to be something I am not. Because, music is universal, good music is good music no matter who is creating it. It could be a homeless guy, but good music is good music and you are going to sit there and listen to him sing or rap or whatever because it’s good music. So, I don’t have to try to paint an image of something that I am not. That’s why like even on my last visual, Star Dust, I shot it in the heart of Overtown inside of Carol City which are the two least fortunate places that I lived in in Miami. I shot it there with me and my childhood friend just to show the people. Like what you want me to do? What you want me to be? Be something that I’m not? But for those who understand and even for those who don’t, they still love it because it’s like ‘I can do this now. He’s making okay for me to have a shitload of tattoos, and big dreads, and a mouth full of gold teeth and be able to do this now.’"
GR: When I was writing a piece about Denzel Curry I learned more about just how rough Carol City is, and how particularly brutal the cops are there. In the description in the “Star Dust” video you say, it’s for the forgotten and the second-class citizens of America. What does that mean for you to represent that group of people?
T: "It’s about picking those people up, but in 'Star Dust' specifically, it’s more so just a demonstration that there is some light in all darkness, like it’s there, that feeling of “I want to dance.’ The underlying message in 'Star Dust,' and all of my music really, to be honest, is a sad story. People don’t really peep it because sonically I make sure it makes you feel good. Because I want you to feel good, but also I want you to know I can relate to what’s going on.
“Star Dust” is a song about police brutality, but at the same time it’s about us all being the same. We are all stardust. The second verse isn’t on the video -- you get it on the album -- but the second verse is saying, ‘ooh I wanna dance, they wanna fuss and fight, but we wanna dance, they want to lock us out, they want to box us in, but we ain’t talking shit so you can let the pigs on in, cause I can guarantee that we won’t quit.’ So, it’s like people get it, they hear it, and it registers because the people that hear it are consumers; they are like sponges, not even knowing that they programming themselves and I’m programming them just as well.
All of my songs are happy and sad songs. Because, like I said, sonically it makes you happy. It makes you want to move, but it’s in the darkest things that we are all mirrors of each other. I find myself talking to people a lot and find myself learning things while talking to them about myself and understanding and realizing things that happened in my past by trying to help them get through their situations. I constantly remind myself, I’m a mirror and you’re a mirror for everyone that’s around you because we can all relate to each other in certain situations and to a certain extent."
GR: Is that partly the vision and concept behind Fri(end)s?
T: "Definitely. That’s the vision behind it, one hundred percent. I don’t want to make depressing music, because I’m not trying to make you depressed. I want to make you feel good. But at the same time I’m gonna speak where I can speak from, which isn’t so happy all the time but it has its moments. But I’m not gonna sit there and make you sob in your misery. I want you to get up and feel good. I’m gonna let you know, 'Hey I get it, but you need get up and move.' The words are saying, 'I get it. I get this situation,' but the music itself is saying, 'I need you to get up and get over it now.'
GR: Making songs that are heavy but also being happy and uplifting is one of the hardest things to do in music I think. To take it back a little, your grandfather was a huge musical influence on you?
T: "Yeah, the biggest influence really."
GR: Was he a musician?
T: "Actually, my grandfather just collected music. He was in the Air Force, he was in Vietnam, and being in the war they listened to music the majority of their time being on the base. So he listened to, just everything! Blues, on blues, on blues, on blues. And he also put me onto people like Marvin Gaye. That was later on in his age. A lot of the instrumentation is where I get my inspiration from. Because of him listening to those records, hearing how fat and heavy the music was in the sense of the recording, how much weight it actually held. And sonically you can listen to projects today and it sounds so thin and watered down and it actually feels like that.
So yeah, he was a major influence. His name was Leonard, but everybody called him Len. Growing up, everybody called me Twelve, and twelve is the number of perfection. So I just put two and two together, and that’s how I came up with my name Twelve’Len. Just a couple weeks ago he had heart surgery and it was looking really bad for him, but he pulled through and now he is doing better. Right now he is in rehab, learning how to walk again and everything like that. That’s a big blessing because I didn’t want anything to happen to him. Especially at this point where the momentum is picking up for me and I want him to be able to witness what he created, you know, in me. So, I’m grateful and thankful that God left him here."
GR: I assume you’ve showed him your music.
T: "Yeah, I actually did an interview with him when he was really sick and it’s an interview of me playing my whole album and he’s being the critic, telling me what he dislikes and likes. It was real dope to interview my grandfather and have him listen to the whole album and tell me like, ‘I don’t like how these horns sound.’ It was lit. He was talking about his childhood and growing up in segregation in Marianna, Florida. One of his best friends was white growing up, a little boy, and his friend’s mom moved him away from Marianna because he was best friends with my grandad. Just different things like that, just telling me stories like that and how time is repeating itself and how now his grandkids are going through what he went through. Which is what I say all the time. People of this generation, we are now more like our grandparents more than our parents were. Like our parents didn’t really go through those things but our grandparents did. And the media is trying to convince us that’s what we are going through, which is this whole entire race war thing that everyone is trying to publicize."
GR: Your family is from Haiti originally?
T: "Yeah, I’m of Haitian descent."
GR: Culturally, was that a big part of your upbringing?
T: "I really started experiencing it on my own. When I was younger my dad was in federal prison. He got out when I was 14. That side of the family, the Haitian side, which runs deep in my roots, I didn’t get to experience a lot of them at a young age because he was away. But I started researching a lot of things on my own because I wanted to be more in touch with it in a spiritual way, as far as West African gods and different things like that. I’m really big on all of that. You know, Haitians are Nigerian; they descend from Nigeria, so learning about Ogun and Oshun –– which is the goddess of love, which is the sunflower that I have a tattoo of. That’s who I like try to conjure up at all times when I’m creating music is Oshun, the goddess of love.
So I just started researching a lot of those things on my own. My dad got out and we wasn’t really cool for a long time. But as I got older, we just started getting closer. He just started getting into my music and started wanting to help me out. I’ve always been up on the food. I love that. I understand the language. I don’t speak it as fluent as I should, but like I said, my dad was absent for a long time. Even from the music, you can hear it in my music. If you really listen to the percussions in my music, it’s not reggae or anything like that, it’s the djembe drums. Especially in this album, I do it a lot. I got this record called Florida and I got the Gbedu up under it. The Gbedu is the big drums you see if you go to a carnival or island parades, with the girls out there with the costumes on. The Haitian influence is there but it came from myself and me wanting to dig into it."
GR: Having been raised in the church, and now being inspired by the spiritual traditions of Haiti and West Africa, how has your relationship with religion changed over the years?
T: "It really hasn’t. I look at the West African gods not as a God but as spirits. I feel like there is only one God, whoever it is, on top, and your brain is the telephone to connect to it and your soul lives inside of you. I know that at the end of the day there is only one thing, there is only one creator. At the end of the day there can only be only one underlying thing, you know one main umbrella. So, it’s like, I just take everything in to learn. Just learn, learn, learn, learn, learn.
So, [learning about West African spirituality] didn’t deteriorate anything I learned in Christianity and the church because at the end of the day the church is not the building, you are the church. Once the word is in you, the word is in you –– and you take it everywhere. That’s in the bible. Like, you are the church, not the building. So what I took and I learned from the church is still in me. I am the church. I don’t even go to church anymore, I don’t go to that building. I go to the beach and I talk to myself and I connect with myself. I connect with whatever it is higher and it speaks to me through my self-conscious. Because, being in the church and seeing people backslide away from what they do in church makes me feel like it’s a big stage play. Like, it’s all about tax write offs. So to kill all of that, I just read on my own, I learn on my own and I take it wherever I go."
GR: Is that how you keep peace of mind? We’re living in such tense times but you seem like a really positive guy.
T: "That’s how I keep peace of mind one hundred percent! Because, if you don’t have peace of mind, you don’t have nothing. You’re gonna end up like Marvin Gaye, sad. Sad because you want to change the world, but in reality you can’t. But those who want change, you can give them the best experience. You can’t save everyone; you can only save those who want to be saved. So, to keep a peace of mind you have to understand all of these things and don’t you try to know everything and try to discover everything. You trying to force, 'why is this' and 'why is that' you gonna be why-ing for the rest of your life, because there is no end to it. It’s infinite. It’s an infinite journey and an infinite discovery, so it’s like, catch it as it comes to you. Question it as it comes to you, don’t try to sit down and try to keep scratching the surface. I’m a Virgo, so that’s a curse on me to be honest. I stay trying to figure it out; I’m always trying to figure out something. But I be having to step back and realize like, ‘hey, you can’t do that.’"
GR: In the “Star Dust” video, there’s a little interlude where you say you want your album to sound like the ‘Soundtrack to your last days on earth.’ What do you mean by that?
T: "What I was really thinking on that is the inspiration behind this project, I was reading the Book of Enoch, which is one of the last books in the bible that they took out of the Old Testament. And it was about how God had created earth, but it goes more in-depth about when he comes to wipe out all of the evil and take all of the righteous. I take a stem off that story. It talks about the watchers, who are the angels who watch over us. The angels ended up becoming jealous of humans and what they started to do is produce their own stems of themselves. Basically that’s how you get someone like Hercules. I like that story so much that it inspired my project. The name of the project is Friends but it’s not about friends, it’s about a little kid who encounters extraterrestrials, or angels, that come to him in his dreams. But he’s too young to comprehend what they are so he just calls them friends and they tell him how the world is going to end. That’s the storyline throughout the whole project.
Then you got these people on earth trying to backdoor their way into heaven. They come to Florida, where the space station is, and they all try to load up on these space ships and fly to heaven like it’s only a planet away. So everyone is trying to backdoor their way into heaven and the friends come, and they come and destroy everything and they take all of righteous. That’s the storyline from the book of Enoch. That’s how I came up with the storyline of the project. ‘The last days on earth,’ is saying these songs are the soundtrack that I would want to feel if these were my last days on earth. Just in general, this is the soundtrack I would like to listen to everyday. This is what you want to hear when you’re feeling down. This is what your girlfriend wants to listen to when she’s cramping. This is what you want to listen to when you going through a fucked up moment in life. Or, when you’re happy and you want to move, dance and feel good."
GR: And a lot of the album is produced by Nick Leon and Zach Fogarty who produced your last few projects?
T: "On this project I worked with Nick Leon and I worked with one of the producers from the last project and that’s it really. Now, I’m working on this next project and I’m really trying to look forward to working with No I.D. and DJ Dahi on this next project."
GR: Oh wow, you’ve been recording with them already?
T: "Oh, yeah definitely. I already got a few tracks from DJ Dahi already and No I.D., I’m already linked up with him as well. I’m really looking forward to working with them."
GR: Is that related to something with Def Jam?
T: "No, not even. It’s not with the label stuff or anything. It’s just really like getting with them musically. Right now I’m working with Coach K, that’s my manager, so I’m over there with Solid Foundations.."
GR: How did your relationship with Coach K come about?
T: "A good friend of mine has a good relationship with Coach K and sent him my music some years ago. Then recently that friend sent him some of my music and Coach K said, ‘Man tell this kid to call me.’ I was like ‘shoot just tell Coach to call me,’ because I thought my friend was trolling me. Then like an hour later Coach texted me like, 'Yo, what’s good?' I was like, ‘who this is,’ and he said, ‘Coach K, whenever you get a chance hit me up.’ I’m like, ‘I’m free right now, just give me a call.’ Then he called me, in like less than a minute and was like, ‘Yo, man I love your stuff, like this is a breath of fresh air, this is what the world needs right now and where music is going right now. You know, the people need this. When the sheets began to get pulled and unfold from people’s eyes, they’re gonna need this music. Like they’re going to need this. Like they have the music that’s out right now, it’s fun, but when things start getting serious people are going to need this music. They gonna need this feeling, they gonna need this direction.’
And just to hear him say that, because I didn’t have to tell him what my vision was. So, when I heard those words come out of his mouth, I was sold. Like, me and you finna rock, and we just started rocking from there. He’s the first guy to really reach out to me and attempt to put things in motion and make plays come together out of everybody that was around me. A lot of people tried dealing with me but it’s like they don’t understand what I got going on. So, it never happened how it should because they don’t really, really, really understand. They love it, they just don’t know how to categorize it. They can’t classify it. So, it’s like how do you market something you don’t know how to market? But that’s the thing, you don’t. You just gotta put it on the platform and let the people choose sometimes. We do what we can to make sure that it’s nice and it’s packaged, but it’s for the people, so let’s give it to the people."
GR: It seems like in this era, it’s easier to fit in the spaces between conventional genres, and blend genres, and your music is proudly all over the place...
T: "My music is everywhere. I make folk music, I make indie rock, I make alternative where it’s all mixed. You can put me on stage with anybody. You can put me onstage with Adele. You can put me on a stage with James Blake. You can turn around and put me on stage with, I don’t even know, Vince Staples or Kendrick Lamar or Denzel Curry or whoever. You can put me on stage with anybody because one, my aesthetic. They way I carry myself, the way I look, my aesthetic, and where I come from. Two, you can’t deny good music. You can’t deny someone like Thundercat. You can’t deny Flying Lotus. You can’t deny that stuff, you know. You can’t deny how it makes you feel but you can’t categorize them because of how they look. That’s what it is you know?
It’s hard for people to put my music in a genre because they’re looking at my aesthetics. Because if you didn’t know who I was, you didn’t know how I look, didn’t know I was African-American, and this is how I carried myself, you would put my music under the category of folk music with no problem, or indie rock music with no problem. People like to compare me to Frank Ocean and people like that, which is cool. I love him that’s my favorite artist, but in all reality our music is not the same. It doesn’t sound the same, but because our aesthetic and where we come from is different from folk or rock music culture, not race, but what that culture is producing, you’re going to call it ‘alternative,’ because you don’t know what to do with it. But, whatever, I’ll come up with my own category, ‘Rock n Soul,’ and we gonna move. That’s what it’s going to be. This is how they created the the trap-R&B music nowadays. They made that up, what, just a year and a half ago. It’s a whole thing now, you know what I mean?"
GR: What are your overall goals as an artist going forward? You touched on wanting to make an impact on and invest in people from your neighborhood.
T: "It’s not just even my own neighborhood. It’s all neighborhoods and communities that are just like mine that don’t feel forgotten, but moreso feel oppressed. People that feel that there aren’t that many outlets or opportunities there. Because where I’m from, they took the arts out of the schools; they took the music out of the schools here in Miami Gardens. It’s just the main curriculum, physical education, and you either in the band or you’re not. I just want to put more outlets there. With my music, my goal is to obviously become successful so I can help people and create genre-bending music to where it doesn’t matter how you look, and people don’t judge you for your outer appearance, and what you create is what you want and people will accept it and it will thrive if it’s good. I was just telling someone yesterday, music is not my first love, at all. It’s not something that I really wish to stay in for the rest of my life. Music isn’t really my first love. It’s just what I’m good at. It’s really just my gift."
GR: What is your first love?
T: "My first love is helping people. Creating opportunities; not only music, but art as well, businesses as well. Like with all of my friends that I grew up with, they all come to me with their ideas and I help them piece their ideas together to where they make sense to be able to go out and do those things. So, that’s always been my first love, creating outlets. When I was young –– this is crazy, I don’t tell a lot of people this –– but when I was younger, my mom used to always laugh about it and tell her friends about it, but when I was young I used to go around and lay my hands on people and pray for them, and speak in tongues and stuff like that. I always wanted to heal and help people. That’s always been my thing. That’s funny I’m saying this right now because I don’t always tell people that. But that’s always been me. I’ve always wanted to help people; I always put people before me, always.
Pink almost never came out because of me helping people, me trying to help my friends. My best friend passed away last year. I was producing his whole album and creative directing his whole album. His name was Big Bo. Denzel Curry talks a lot about him in his music too. He ended up getting shot and killed. So all that work that I put in pretty much went to waste because I never got to finish recording a lot of his tracks and to put it out. My whole goal with his album was to get it and to shop it to big labels or people who can help get behind his work. So, when that happened I couldn’t even do that anymore because he isn’t here anymore physically. So, when that happened, I was putting my own music on the back burner to do that and that ended up falling and failing.
So, like I said, my first love has always been helping and supporting and trying to build people. Like I still hear different ideas and I’m quick to jump on your idea and be like, “Yo, but you should do it like this!” You know I’m always excited, you feel me. That’s always been my first love and in order to do that and create my own agency and to be able to do things like that. But first I gotta do what my strong suit is, which is music. My music is what’s going to put me there, it’s what is going to get me there and then I can create agencies and have my own programs in communities all across the world. To be able to manage artists, and creatively direct artists and curate events and put things in the schools. Because, I never graduated high school myself. Helping people, that’s my whole thing."