HILLSIDE, NJ — Even when he’s on the job taking orders and waiting tables, Hillside resident Steve Sebastiao keeps a notepad handy, just in case.
The 31-year-old rapper, reminiscent of Eminem when the hip hop superstar was flipping burgers in Detroit, never knows when inspiration might hit.
“I’m a waiter, but I’m a rapper 24/7,” said Sebastiao, whose rap alias is Lyrical Justifier. “I constantly have a pad on me, everyday, every moment, a song, a bar, a verse — I’m constantly writing. I guess the only moment I’m not writing is when I’m sleeping. But I sleep with a pad next to me sometimes. If I’m half asleep, I can write a bar down before I fall asleep.”
Since moving to Union at 15, rapping and writing hip hop has been Sebastiao’s passion. It has been an escape from the bullying, racism and other troubles he encountered as a teenager, experiences that “fuel the fire” for the rhymes in his new album, “Penance.” The album is available on iTunes and other major digital distributors.
“It’s basically life experiences that I’ve put into song. I named it ‘Penance’ because of what it stands for in the bible: It’s basically someone repenting for past sins,” said Sebastiao. “And each song is a reflection of how I feel, what I represent, what’s going on in the world, and everyone needs to face each sin head-on and ask for forgiveness. I hope someone listening to it, listening to the words, it can help them through their trials and tribulations.”
Having grown up in a golden age of intellectual rappers like Public Enemy — whom Sebastiao looks up to — his content is more socially conscious and purposeful than the standard rap formula. It’s not about popping bottles and getting in a Rolls Royce “when I’ve never been in a Rolls Royce in my life,” he says.
“The content of their words, the intellect of how they morphed their bars together, it blew my mind. It made me think ‘yo, I want to write like this.’ And I had people tell me ‘you can’t rhyme, you can’t flow,’ but I continued doing this,” said Sebastiao. “I want something to say. I actually have something to say.”
Much of what Sebastiao tries to get across in “Penance” comes from being raised in the Ironbound section of Newark, where he was told he didn’t fit in, as a mixed-race child of Portuguese and Brazilian descent.
That’s when the bullying started, which he says has shaped how he approaches the world.
“I was bullied as a kid growing up, constantly being picked on. When I was growing up in Newark, there were people who were born in Brazil and people who were born in Portugal,” said Sebastiao. “I was the only kid in the class who was the mix of the two. They’re constantly telling me ‘you’re not really Brazilian, you’re not really Portuguese.’ I knew racism as a child. So being taught, you feel some kind of way about yourself.”
Racism has remained a theme in Sebastiao’s life since moving to Union and, about five years ago, Hillside. He sees it on the news on an almost daily basis, a constant reminder of troubles that he’s all too familiar with.
That’s why, in “Penance,” he raps about confronting racial issues and the Black Lives Matter movement, which has gained support in the wake of high-profile police killings across the country.
“You’re supposed to protect and serve us. We’re not target practice,” Sebastiao says about trigger-happy police officers, evoking the kind of outrage seen after Cleveland cops killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice. “Now it’s not just blacks but latinos and whites, and everybody who doesn’t stand in line. You’re trained as an officer to be restrained, not shoot. How many people are going to die, before we say we’ve got to take this matter into consideration?”
That kind of message is why Sebastiao has stuck with rap, and longtime manager Gregory Hines, for more than a decade. It’s the reason “I worked my butt off,” as Sebastiao puts it, and why he keeps a notepad on his person throughout the day: On the ride up the Garden State Parkway to his place of work, in his pockets while he’s waiting tables and next to his bed while he sleeps.
This isn’t your typical rap album, he says. He wants this to be something special.
“I put a lot of work into it. The album, basically, was on hold for a while so I could focus on my group at the time.
When the group parted ways, I worked on the solo project but I just started. I didn’t just want to record right away,” said Sebastiao. “I want this solo album, I want this to be right. I don’t want this to be just another album to be put out there.”