Meet Apollo J
For Apollo J, music wasn’t always in the plan.
“I never in a million years thought that I would be doing music.”
“Going into Duke I was like, ‘okay I’m going to go into Duke, do my four years, I’ll be a political science major, go to law school and be a lawyer.’ So that was always my goal going in. My parents loved it of course.”
But after spending his Community Summer working in the Orleans Public Defenders office Apollo J – also known as Kalif Jeremiah (Duke ‘19) – changed his mind. “I wanted to become a lawyer to create change and it was like ‘okay it doesn’t feel like one public defender can do that much’ and it feels like they get burned out really quickly so I thought, ‘okay well maybe I could do policy.’ Then I got in policy classes, and it was all thinking of things as numbers so I’m like ‘I don’t know how to create the change that I want to see so badly,’ and I just thought about music after that.”
Now, he’s using his talents as a writer and a rapper to spread the messages he thinks are important. “I definitely believe that music can lead change in our society. (A mentor) told me – ‘put the medicine in the candy,’ so if you can make a song that sounds good you can slip some great positivity and great ideas into it so that people can start to think about those ideas.”
He tries to be authentic in all that he writes. It’s a skill he’s honed since childhood, “When I was a kid, I was always a writer. Back in elementary school I was writing poems, writing short stories, just spending my time trying to be creative. My mom keeps a book of my accomplishments in a nice little binder, and one of the first ones is my poem from 3rd grade about snow which got published in this small school sponsored newsletter…and from there I was always in love with writing.”
As a teen Apollo J co-founded his school’s spoken word club, which he credits with developing his performance skills. At Duke he joined Spoken Verb and competed at the national level with the team. A friend of his encouraged him to take his performances to the next level. “One of my good friends was the president of Small Towns Records and said, ‘you know I think you could be really good at music, it’s a little similar,’ and I was like ‘oh okay yeah I see that.’ So I just honestly went out on a whim, thinking I’ll try out for the label and see what happens. And I got it. Even just a month before that I hadn’t expected that music would be my passion and now it’s the industry that I work in full time.”
When he’s not performing, Apollo J works in A&R, or Artist & Repertoire, at Columbia Records, doing everything from supporting senior executives to mining TikTok for new talent. “TikTok has become such a leading factor in the music industry in 2021. In that sense I’m learning holistically what it takes to find and break an artist.”
It’s a job he says he wouldn’t have gotten with the Robertson Scholarship. “If it wasn’t for The Robertson I wouldn’t be at Columbia Records right now. Basically, just to get a job in the music industry you have to intern somehow someway; applying from the outside makes it almost impossible to get into a job just because there are so many applicants, but the summer after my junior year I got an internship with Columbia Records… and I almost didn’t take it.” The internship was unpaid. In fact, interns had to register for course credit in order to be considered for the job. “Explaining that to my immigrant parents was impossible. They just wouldn’t understand, ‘Why are you not being paid?,’ ‘Why are you paying? It doesn’t make sense!’” Summer funding from the Robertson made the internship a possibility for Apollo J, “Because of that internship, I have this job today.”
As a young leader, Apollo J was able to sit down with Julian Robertson. In that meeting he was able to ask him about his views on leadership. “We spoke about not just leading people but how you get people to follow you by infusing your words with emotion. I think that’s just something that’s followed me through my musical career as well. I’m someone who tries to be very deliberate with my words, I think coming from that poetic spoken word background I understand that each word is very important and so I try to make sure that on every song I’m saying something of substance.”
The nexus of art and leadership comes down to storytelling in Apollo J’s opinion. “For me it’s all stories. I think that’s how I first understood it. I appreciated art at a young age, and movies as well and I was always asking, ‘what is it about these movies, these songs that make me feel so moved?’ And it’s the story behind it. It’s the ‘why’ in what’s being told and how you frame it. I’m just trying to make it my life’s work to tell a story in a way that someone is moved. If you can transport someone from wherever they are physically, to whatever song or page that you’ve put in front of them, then I think that makes you a successful artist.”
Apollo J’s music can be found on Spotify, Apple Music, and Instagram. There you can also find his work with Bungalow Collect– a group of young artists based in Brooklyn, New York.