Integrating Gullah heritage with modern hip-hop, Trey Nelson, a.k.a. Finesse’, brings up questions of what it means to be an artist and how one’s voice is connected to geography and tradition. Born and raised in St. Helena, S.C., Nelson began rapping on the playground when he was just eight years old.
“When I was young, I would be asleep and my dad would come in the room and say, ‘Trey, come out into the living room,’ and it would be Bow Wow or Lil’ Romeo on TV,” he says. “But my first experience with wanting to rap was in elementary school. Everyone was into their own things, you know, gang-banging, fighting, girls. I was never too much into it, so me and my friends, we would rap a little bit.”
Nelson, now 18, didn’t start taking music seriously until 2012 when he downloaded Mixcraft and started making his own beats and loops. Nas, Tupac, and Kendrick Lamar were also inspirations. “When I first heard Kendrick Lamar, I heard myself,” says Nelson. “I heard ‘ADHD,’ and I was like ‘Hey, I just had that experience like last week.’ Then, ‘Rigamortis’ reminded me of the lunchroom and battling people. Every song, I can relate to.”
While certain tracks explore identity and spirituality, others get political. “LiveWire,” from debut disc Ultima Thule, falls into the first category with Nelson declaring, “Today, we are who we are. There’s no changing that,” while “Feel That” calls for statewide change and social justice. “[The hip-hop community is lacking] unity,” Nelson says. “I’m the guy that’s calling for action. I’m the one who’s saying, ‘Hey, you want to do that? Alright, let’s do it.'”
After the Emanuel AME shooting, Nelson felt that it was the time to push for unity and pay homage to victim, pastor, and S.C. senator Clementa Pinckney, who was from Beaufort and inspired the community in which Nelson grew up. “I felt like there was more respect to be paid, especially coming from artists I was working with whose hearts were not in the right place,” he says. “It made me take a look at who I was working with and who I was helping and say, ‘Do they deserve this?'”
As a strong supporter of the local hip-hop community, Nelson works with the South Carolina Film Institute on various projects. He also founded Southern Nothings, an organization seeking to foster both musical and visual artists. The organization hosts an artist development initiative called August Agora, while a series of open-mic nights is also underway that will pay artists to perform. “I want to be able to support myself through music full-time. For so many, art is like a dream deferred,” says Nelson. Taking the time to experience and develop proficiency is very important to Finesse’ and what his stage name stands for. “I always write about experiences I’ve had, because that’s what’s true to me. That’s authentic. Finesse’ is style or skill … taking it to the brink of every style that I portray, every skill that I have.”
Finesse’s next project OK, I’m Good is set to be released in the spring of 2016, but it has been in the works for a while. “It’s really getting back to the root of who I am: growing up on St. Helena Island, African-American roots, what Gullah-Geechee is, and also the history of Beaufort … the culture that I didn’t take stock of and the culture that I might have gotten lost in,” says Nelson.
The name of the album represents both past and present, pain, and triumph. “I’ve been going through a lot of emotional things and temptation,” says Nelson. “Until I can really confront these temptations and be like really good and not just OK, then I’ll really like where I’m at. The side of ‘OK,’ that might be more temptation, is like looking at the past that’s still coming at me … And then, ‘I’m good’ will most likely be the things I’m trying to do now, coming to fruition.”