The cell phone reception was horrible, and it remained so for the better part of an hour. In between lost signals and static, Prayers? Rafael Reyes aka Leafar Seyer told his story, and what a story it is. So good that I had to ultimately tell him that this was simultaneously the best interview and the most difficult.
?That?s my life, man,? he laughed. ?This interview is my life. I don?t want to be constantly just talking about all these hard difficulties. I want a break too.?
Reyes has earned it, and these days, life is good for the leading proponent of Cholo-Goth music. He?s enjoying his time with his lady, Kat Von D, and Prayers? latest, Baptism of Thieves, has achieved critical and popular acclaim. But the scars of the past are still fresh for the native of Cotija, Michoacn, Mexico.
?This album was me finding a way to cope with the things that were happening with my life at that moment,? he said, referring to, among other things, an estrangement from his now 21-year-old daughter that still stings.
?It?s been a rough four years, but this music has been the salvation of me,? Reyes said. ?Because I feel if I leave these things inside of me, I will go act on them. Music is my way of taking action, my way of having dialogue with the people that hurt me, the people that betrayed me. And I get to communicate with them ? not directly, but I know they?re listening. I get to have this dialogue and let go of it and not have to carry it with me everywhere I go and not have to feel like I have this thing in my chest that?s not allowing me to breathe. I can breathe, and this music is therapy for me and I?m using it to move forward and make sense of the things that are happening all around me.?
The issue with his daughter, which involved a betrayal by those he considered friends, tore at Reyes and almost led him back to the ways that landed him six months in prison for assault and earned him two strikes in his adopted home of California in 2010.
?When the truth came out that this was happening behind my back, it devastated me,? he said. ?It rocked my world.?
Acting out against those who betrayed him would earn him one more strike and life in prison, prompting his family to encourage him to move out of San Diego. He agreed, ending up in Los Angeles, close enough to home and maybe not far enough away.
?We?re a big family in San Diego and we built so much,? he said. ?Everything from gangs to the restaurant to art communities. Three boys, two girls and myself, and we?ve given back and helped with homeless shelters and battered women?s shelters. We?ve always been a part of the community in one way or another.?
The hurt in his voice is evident, but he knows it?s for the best, especially when his family is involved.
?I?m super close to my family. Everything I do, I do for them. I even joined a gang for my family. I wasn?t the type of person that would even consider doing that.?
A lover of the arts from a young age, Reyes discovered this side of himself at Pacific Beach High School, but when bussed back to his neighborhood, it was a different world.
?It was lacking in resources,? he said, and life was about to get changed forever.
?My father had sent my sister to the store to get tortillas,? Reyes recalled. ?She comes back without them and she?s crying. My father said, ?What happened? Where?s the tortillas and where?s the money???
Reyes? sister was robbed. Their father, Alfonso, was old school. He took care of business. Unfortunately, that put a target on his back. The teenage Reyes then took care of business himself. He joined the Sherman Grant Hill Park 27 gang, getting jumped in not once, but several times. ?A lot of those guys didn?t like me,? he said. ?I would go hang out and they would say, ?Who are you???
?You know who I am.?
?I don?t remember seeing you, you?ve got to get jumped in.?
?It was another 27 seconds,? Reyes said of the jumping in process. ?Finally, they probably said, ?Damn, this guy?s got heart or he?s stupid.? I think I was just afraid of them hurting my father. I don?t even think I had heart or was brave. I?m a small dude in stature, but I was just so afraid of them hurting my dad that I would just take it and just get my ass beat.?
His family was safe, but Reyes despised his new life?until he didn?t anymore.
?I hated it for so long and I resented it, being in a gang, but eventually I fell in love with it when the camaraderie and brotherhood started developing,? he said. ?My mother could go to the store and no one would harass her. My sisters would go to the park and play and no one would mess with them. My brothers got to do whatever they wanted to and they didn?t have to join a gang. They could be weird and go skateboard and do these things and that brought so much joy to my heart. I knew the sacrifice I had made was worth every f**king beating that I got because my family could walk around the neighborhood without getting f**ked with.?
It was not all sunshine and rainbows for Reyes, though, either in or out of his house. He got stabbed in the face by a member of a rival gang, a reminder on his forehead visible every time he looks in the mirror. His cousin, Wicked, shot and killed four men, earning a life sentence at the age of 16.
?This was the s**t we were bringing to our family,? Reyes said. ?Every night, my father would move all the furniture to the front of the house. We had glass-paneled doors and it was a ritual we did just so the bullets wouldn?t go through. That?s how we were living. In one sense, we were safe, but when there was war between the neighborhoods, it was the scariest thing ever.?
Reyes dealt with gang life as best he could, and it got to the point where it became second nature. What was tougher was dealing with the disappointment of his family.
?My family hated me for it,? he said. ?My parents thought I was garbage for joining a gang. And I never told my father that I did that for him and for us because I didn?t really feel like it was necessary. My dad used to hate me. He?d say, ?You?re an idiot, I should have left you in Mexico. I brought you and the family here for a better life and you go and join a gang.??
These days, Reyes is retired from the gang, but it will always be a part of him.
?I am from Sherman and I will be for life, but I?m not active, I?m inactive.?
Maybe in gang life, but not anywhere else. Following his stint in prison, Reyes was clean and ready for the next chapter. He wrote and released a book, Living Dangerously, in 2011, and made music a part of his life, eventually teaming up with producer Dave Parley to form Prayers. His father, who passed away in 2005, never got to see his son emerge from the darkness, but Reyes takes solace in the fact that he has come through to the other side thanks to his music.
?I?m just trying to find my way and my meaning and music allows me to do this because I?m all about self-awareness and self-exploration and that?s what I?m doing.?
In the process, Reyes and Parley have created a genre, one that is raw and unlike anything else out there. That?s risky if someone is seeking commercial success out of the gate, but Reyes doesn?t worry about such matters.
?We?re not worried if people will get it,? he said. ?We?re grateful that other people like it, but we are definitely, in no way, shape or form, making music for anyone but ourselves. We are naturally doing what we know how to do because we come from an unconventional place of creativity. David, in his own way, learned how to produce without going to school for it or anything and it?s the same with me. It?s more pure and I think that?s why it?s the way it is.
?I didn?t have the proper songwriting technique and he (Parley) didn?t have the proper producing background,? Reyes continues. ?He sees shapes and colors when he?s creating these soundscapes. And the music ends up pulling these emotions and these feelings and these thoughts that I?ve been holding inside me.?
Prayers have hit a nerve with listeners, garnering a loyal following that is likely to only get bigger in the coming years. So what happens if, in five years, Reyes has exorcised the demons of the past and is embracing a life he never thought he would have? Then what?
?That?s the scary part about success,? he admits. ?It does dull you and it changes your life. I know that I still have a lot of stuff inside of me, but in five years, if you take away the struggle, who knows.?
I?m betting that Rafael Reyes will figure it out.
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