Author’s note: “It was really moving to hear how Porter Ray overcame adversity on multiple occasions and was able to heal through his music. And to see in person the joy his son brings him was truly inspiring.” (This story originally aired on March 7, 2020.)
It’s not all that uncommon for musicians to share their experience with struggle and heartbreak through their songwriting. But for Seattle rapper Porter Ray Sullivan, who goes by Porter Ray on stage, being able to have an outlet like music to express his feelings on the tragedies that he faced in his life seems like almost a necessity.
Porter Ray is 30 years old, but looks young enough to be his son's older brother, and certainly too young to have gone through what he’s gone through. But as a musician, he has made his splash.
“My early childhood was good. It was love. I had both my parents around. My parents were together. My mom is a black woman, my father is a white man, but both of our families always came together on holidays and birthdays," he said. "My dad was a lawyer in my early life, and my mom was an educator, working in early academics. So we always had food on the table. We grew up in a nice house. We grew up in Capitol Hill. I grew up with a lot of friends on my block, friends in my neighborhood. I could walk anywhere or ride my bike. But my early life before high school, all through middle school was good, man. It was a beautiful time.”
Porter Ray was a talented basketball player, and music was around too. His parents were avid vinyl collectors, and would always watch and record music videos off the television and songs off the radio.
But when he was an early teenager, his family started to notice some issues with his father's health.
“We were riding in the car. And he ran a red light or something like that. And I think he might have stopped in the intersection, and we were being honked at on both sides," Porter Ray said. "And he...he just wouldn’t go forward. And I’m asking him what’s going on, and he’s getting real frustrated with me. But he wouldn’t punch the gas and we were kind of stuck.”
Porter Ray’s dad was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and over the next four years his health deteriorated rapidly. He passed away when Porter Ray was 16.
“And it was a huge reason that I started hanging out in the streets, and trying to hustle and being distracted from school and losing interest in school, and losing interest in athletics, too," he said. "And just trying to find my place as a young man in the world, but feeling like I was an adult.”
Porter Ray says that when his dad passed away, it was like losing his only role model. He eventually dropped out of high school, and started hanging out with friends who were getting themselves in trouble. He’d find different ways to try and make money, so he could help put food on the table or buy clothes for his little brother and sister. And while there were plenty of struggles, he says that the passing of his father made him more philosophical and reflective. And that, in turn, led to his desire to express himself artistically. But Porter Ray would continue to experience hearbreak.
On July 22, 2009, his brother, Aaron John, was murdered. Porter Ray says his brother was stepping in to support his friend, who got into a dispute with another kid in the Seattle neighborhood Leschi.
“And that resulted in my brother being shot, I want to say accidentally,” he said. “I believe there was only one shot taken from the house.”
Porter Ray says the passing of his father was different; he knew it was coming.
“So it was still very tough, and it was extremely painful,” he said. “But when my brother was killed, you know, he was just shot dead. It was instant. And so there was nothing that could prepare me for that. And my brother is my best friend, and someone I actually looked up to a lot.”
Porter Ray says the murder happened at a time when his brother was coming into his own — and at a time when a lot of his friends were getting locked up.
“Just a lot of things were crumbling,” he said. “But it also, too, it really fueled my art and me having a passion for rhyme. And that’s what kind of really, really motivated me and inspired me to start really recording music seriously.”
Porter Ray was 21 years old when his brother was murdered and processing all of this. Writing about it helped, but telling his story through music means having to constantly revisit it.
“It was tough to relive a lot of these moments and try to capture those moments, or express my feelings about it. And having to look inside myself and how I really feel about things. Things that I’m hurt by, things that I’m traumatized by," he said. "And trying to capture those, it’s hard to create it."
But, when he hears the final product, it's a release, he says: "And it’s good. It’s good for me.”
Porter Ray was introduced to Geoff Gillis, a veteran in the music industry, who became his manager. Together they started going through Porter Ray’s huge library of music, and put out a trio of mix tapes in 2013. Porter Ray signed with Sub Pop Records in 2014, and three years later, he released his long awaited breakthrough album called "Watercolor."
“I just wanted people to soak it up, and to love it, and just run it," he said. "It’s something that would be hopefully timeless, and I could capture a moment in time for my city and for my story and just have it be this imprint.”
"Watercolor" was extremely well received, and Porter Ray was set to go on tour. But one week after the album was released, tragedy struck — again.
“The week after that, my son’s mother, Joy, Joy Brannon, passed away in a car accident. And I was on tour," he recalled. "I met her in high school, and we just kind of instantly and hit it off and became really, really good friends. And ended up parenting together. And again, this is someone who is my best friend. My heart and soul. And someone who I had been through a lot of ill situations with.”
Porter Ray found himself there on tour, performing his music about a past filled with heartbreak, only to be heartbroken all over, and a newly single father. He said that it took him about three years to find the strength to write about his brother, and has taken him about three years to write about Joy.
“For a long time, you lose somebody, or something (expletive) up happens in your life, and you’re kind of lost and you’re trying to find yourself and you’re questioning who you are," he said. "You’re questioning what the world is, what it means to you, what’s important and what’s not. And I really feel like I got to figure all of that again for myself.”
Porter Ray also explained how he felt about creating a body of work that is so personal, but so public.
“One of my strongest characteristics is that I’m myself, and that I’m telling my own story," he said. "So that’s what is always going to make me unique. At least I hope it will. It will make me familiar because people can relate. A lot of it is autobiographical, of course, and it is always very personal. But a lot of it, too, is fun. And it is entertainment, as well. And it is creativity. And so I choose to live with that. So now I just feel like I’m twice as strong and twice as quick.”
Porter Ray’s latest album is "Eye of the Beholder."