Rapper Kali Dreamer finding his place in the world

Andy Downing
Kali Dreamer

Growing up in a strict Apostolic Christian household, Kali Dreamer had limited access to music. As a result, his introduction to the form arrived largely through church hymns and video game scores, along with the odd classic hip-hop or R&B record he would spin when his parents were out of the house.

“My parents had those records hidden away, so I’d have to sneak and listen when nobody was home,” Dreamer said. “The records were like these ancient sarcophaguses hidden under stereo cabinets.”

On rare occasion, his mom would play pop music in the car, which led to an ongoing fascination with Phil Collins, as well as artists like Britney Spears, whose face graced the T-shirt Dreamer wore for our early September interview. “That sowed the seeds for me, and got me more excited about music than I already was,” said the rapper, who headlines 934 Fest in Milo-Grogan on Friday, Sept. 13 (the festival continues through Saturday). “Even when I was a kid, way before I started doing music, it was this thing where I’d tell people, ‘Oh, I’m going to be a rapper,’ because it was the cool thing to say.”

At the time, friends and family would often respond with surprise, asking a young Dreamer what he intended to rap about, since his interests strayed from the world many associated with the form. “I’m a nerd, like, I’m not in the streets or anything,” said the MC, who grew up in South Linden but never involved himself in any of the illicit activities that he said plagued his neighborhood. “I was a geek, playing video games and trying to be a ninja.”

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As a result, Dreamer’s songs often return to the idea of locating one’s fit within society at large. “In time, I’ll find my place in this world,” he raps on the surrealist “Waking Nightmares.” And then, on “King Diavolo,” “I’m just trying to find my space.”

“It was always weird, like, ‘He’s too masculine for the girls but too feminine for the dudes,’” Dreamer said. “They wanted to play football and I was like, ‘Butterflies are cool. Let’s go look at butterflies.’ You feel like you’re too nerdy for these kids, but you’re not cool enough for these people over here. And then you throw the blackness in and people have a whole other expectation of what you’re supposed to be. You always feel like you’re in-between states, so I was like, ‘I’ll just figure it out and do it my own way.’”

And if that means throwing a green fur coat atop a Britney Spears shirt for a local website’s photo shoot, well, all the better.

Though Dreamer long felt drawn toward music, he didn’t fully immerse himself in making his own until well into college, around 2010, when distance from home and the bullying of his peers combined to make him feel even more isolated and withdrawn than he had in high school. It was at that point that Dreamer happened upon the video for Nirvana’s “Smells like Teen Spirit,” lured by singer Kurt Cobain’s slumped shoulders and similarly defeated demeanor. “We had the same sad eyes,” said Dreamer, who spent time enrolled at Central State University, Ohio Dominican University, Ohio State University and Columbus State Community College before opting out to pursue music full-time in 2012. “After the video ended, I called my mom, like, ‘Yo, I want an electric guitar for Christmas,’ and it was just on from there.”

Even now, the guitar is the foundation for Dreamer’s raps, often present haunting the background even as he rhymes over stumbling accordions and fractured synth beats. “In my head, I’m still a guitarist over everything,” said Dreamer, who write most of his raps with an acoustic guitar in hand. “I’ll even write some of my verses the way someone would write a guitar solo, where there’s a build-up and then it repeats, and then there’s a part where I’m going fast, almost like Eddie Van Halen when he’s doing his wiggly-wiggly-wiggly-type thing.”

Dreamer described his evolution as a rapper as a constant process of self-discovery. His earliest rhymes were often comically angsty — “It was like I was this super-villain who was going to destroy the world,” he said, laughing — a phase that gave way to a stretch where his rhymes felt like the MC had just procured his first thesaurus. “I was using all of these extra big words and it was like, ‘You can’t be rapping about mitochondria and ancient Rome,'” Dreamer said. “At a certain point it clicked and I was like, ‘People are going to have to listen to this, dude.’”

Gradually, rhymes about lucid dreams and night terrors started to be replaced by real-world concerns, including personal finances and the political and social ills dominating current headlines, though Dreamer rightly points out, “There’s still that weirdness in there.”

As Dreamer’s music has relaxed, his outward appearance has grown wilder, reflecting the rapper’s increasing confidence in his own skin.

“I’ve always looked to fictional characters, especially the villains, who are always so grandiose, like, ‘I’m just going to put on this green fur coat,’” Dreamer said, brushing down the collar of his fur. “I just wanted to own the weirdness because even though it makes me stand out, it makes me feel more secure on the planet.”

934 Gallery

7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 13

934 Cleveland Ave., Milo-Grogan


934 Fest continues at 11 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 14. See a full schedule of performers here.

Kali Dreamer at 934 Fest