Before he took on the name Paragon Don, he was known simply as Donovan Beatty, a kid from Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Now, the 23-year-old rapper delivers sharp-witted lyrics over the laid-back, soulful beat that distinguishes his track “Photogenic.” His melodies float through my car’s speakers as I cruise through the streets of Winston-Salem – the city Don calls home. I drive down the highway, catching a glimpse of the city’s skyline, and consider the impact Don is having on the local music scene.
Before he gained recognition as a rapper, Don was reluctant to tell his parents about his music career, afraid they would disapprove, or worse, that they would not like his music. In fact, Don kept his music a secret from his parents until he came home one day in late 2018 and his mother asked him if he was rapping.
“Yes,” Don replied hesitantly. He proceeded to play a few of his songs for his mother, who loves R&B but isn’t crazy about hip-hop. Much to Don’s surprise, his mother enjoyed his music. Nowadays Don is used to hearing his parents play his music in the house. But Mr. and Mrs. Beatty aren’t even his biggest fans.
Paragon Don started to gain his footing in the hip-hop community after releasing his debut album, Last Year Local, in January 2020. This past year saw Don make the transformation from the guy in Winston who happens to rap to a legitimate artist carving out a path in the music industry. The album’s title draws inspiration from Don’s desire to make a name for himself outside of Winston-Salem, which isn’t known for having a prominent music scene.
Thanks in part to Don’s music, though, Winston-Salem is beginning to gain some recognition as a breeding ground for young music artists. Despite being on the smaller side, Winston has a lot to offer in terms of musical talent, Don says.
“I feel like the city has a lot to give,” Don said. “I think the city has enough talent and enough people in it and enough sense of community to where we really don’t need to be that big of a city to have the impact that we have.”
Don is part of a music collective called Steady Hyperactive, which is made up of nine artists. Members of the group frequently collaborate with each other and perform at shows together.
Moving forward, Don is excited to not only grow as an artist but to witness the development of the music community in his hometown. This year Don plans to release several EPs with various producers, beginning February 25th with 2 Min or Less EP, a project produced by JillB.
For those looking to get caught up on Don’s music, the deluxe version of Last Year Local is available for purchase on Bandcamp. The original version of the album, along with the rest of Don’s discography, can be found on all streaming platforms.
When did you start making music and what motivated you to do so?
So, the first time I was on a recorded song was 2015, but I didn’t really take it seriously until 2018. I feel like my main motivation has always been…the reception things get and just seeing people react to it and just knowing they’re enjoying it brings me the most enjoyment really. It makes me want to keep pursuing what I’m doing.
Growing up what kind of music did you listen to?
So, growing up I listened to a lot of R&B stuff because of my mother and old school hip-hop because of my dad. But I was with my mother a lot more at the time because my dad would be at work a lot. So it was a lot of R&B stuff. I didn’t really get into rap heavy until about seventh or eighth grade. At around that time my older brother introduced me to Drake, Kendrick, Lil Wayne, and that’s when I really started being able to appreciate the art form itself. And I started doing my own musical journey of finding a lot of artists I like. I started really listening to Childish Gambino, Chance, and people like that. And the love has grown from there.
Why did you decide to call your debut album Last Year Local?
I called it Last Year Local because I felt at the time I wasn’t really that known as an artist in the area. I would talk to a lot of people and they’d be like ‘oh you make music?’ And even if they did know, it wasn’t really much for them to know because I didn’t have that much music at the time. But with Last Year Local…basically, it was 12 songs, which is more songs than I had out at the time. It just gave me something that I could say I was proud of from top to bottom and I felt like it was something that would bring me from just someone who raps in Winston to an actual artist in my field. And I feel like it accomplished that definitely with the reception that it got and the various articles and things. It was something that I definitely appreciated.
What does being a rapper from a smaller city like Winston-Salem mean to you?
It means a lot, honestly. I feel like the city has a lot to give. It’s a lot of very talented artists in the city. Personally, I’m part of a collective called Steady Hyperactive and we have nine members in the group currently and I feel like all of us make fantastic music. And then you’ve got people like Tia, and all the other people affiliated with Steady and even people in this area who aren’t, who we’re just friends with. It allows people to build more of a connection to the artists around them, really get to know everybody, and really build together. You got a lot of bigger cities like Atlanta where, because it’s big, you’ll hear a lot of art from that area but all those artists aren’t really connected as much because the area is so big.
Do you think Winston-Salem is starting to gain a bit of recognition for its music scene?
Oh yeah, absolutely. I think the city has enough talent and enough people in it and enough sense of community to where we really don’t need to be that big of a city to have the impact that we have. At the end of the day, I feel like…it’s on its way. We’ve done enough and we’re only going to continue to grow and that’s all we can really do is just keep being ourselves and keep having that sense of community so we can grow like we’re supposed to. Because once people start doing the whole ‘Imma do this my way, whatever, whatever’ then that sort of thing gets lost, people get dropped off, stuff like that.
As far as Winston, what do you think can be done to bring it to the level of an Atlanta or something along those lines?
Just continuing the sense of comradery. I mean at the end of the day we are a smaller city. Winston is kind of a place where people go to retire. As much as I’ve talked to people from here, a lot of people say ‘I used to live in New York City’ or ‘I used to live in LA and I came here to kind of settle down.’ So it has to grow naturally. The city is developing in itself, even outside of the art community. Things are coming into downtown and a lot of stuff is getting bigger and more prominent and I think it’ll grow naturally. No one can get discouraged just because we aren’t at a certain point right now. That’s really the main thing because once you start looking at other cities and being like ‘okay, well we’re not this yet so maybe I’m doing something wrong’ then that’s when things start going awry because comparison is the thief of joy. So you just gotta keep doing what you do and everything will work out if you really put your all into it.
How do you feel when you perform your music?
It reminds me of a more nerve-wracking version of public speaking or presenting something for a class. It’s very fun. I do enjoy talking to people and I do enjoy rapping – it’s like ‘I really don’t want to mess this up so I really gotta make sure that I’m prepared.’ I get these butterflies in my stomach when I’m onstage and then by the time I’m actually performing and going through my first, second, whatever amount of songs everything’s really good. I feel good and then by the time it’s over I’m like ‘dang, I wish I could have performed three or four more songs.’ You get in the zone at a certain point.
Music today is so accessible. Anyone with a laptop can make music, but that also saturates the market and makes it hard to stand out from the crowd. What are your thoughts on that?
I’ve definitely thought about that a lot recently, especially the way you have to think about rollouts as a smaller artist. You have these top tier artists who can afford to wait two, three, four years and not release music because they’ve created their fanbase and their mainstay and so they can survive and they’re fine and as soon as they announce a project, people are gonna be all on it and they’re gonna anticipate it like crazy. Like Kendrick and a lot of people in TDE, Drake if he really wanted to, J. Cole – those type of people can really wait as long as they want to and not put out music because they’ve created a fanbase that is so dedicated that it doesn’t matter.
But you’ve got a lot of people who are up and coming or who are currently following the wave that hip-hop is in to where to stand out they have to make as much music as possible or be in the forefront as much as possible because if they don’t then things kind of fall off for them. So it’s definitely an interesting part of music to be in. I like it only because I’ve been able to hear so much more music than I ever would have. I found so many different artists than I never would have just because of the internet. And I can’t imagine how many people were making music in the 60s, 70s, 80s, that it was probably really good but it just never reached where it was supposed to or never reached where it could. Because the music industry is very political but the internet has made it so people don’t have to abide by that.
I’m curious about your writing process. Do you write lyrics down as they come to you or do you block off a certain amount of time to sit down and write? What does that look like?
Sometimes I’ll just be randomly thinking about lines I could say, lines whether they’re clever or just something I think sounds good and I’ll write them down in the notes and I’ll go back to them later. Sometimes people will send me beats and I’ll be like ‘alright I’ll get back to this later.’ Sometimes people will send me beats and I’ll be like ‘oh I have to write this now.’ It really just depends on how I feel at the time. There was a point in 2020, I’d say around mid-2020, where I wasn’t feeling very artistic. People would send me beats or I would think about stuff but I felt like I couldn’t make a song. But eventually, you know, just kind of kept grinding, weathered the storm, and then started knocking out a bunch of songs at one time. So it comes and goes. The artistry comes and goes. The creative process changes all the time. I just gotta make sure that whatever I’m doing and whatever I rap about, I’m not doing it just because…because once you start making things just to make things and you don’t really feel it, that’s when you lose that authenticity.
How do you plan on continuing to grow as an artist?
I want to expand the way that I rap and the way I sound. I think when I first started rapping I was always scared of doing hooks because I really didn’t like my voice and I definitely didn’t like the idea of hearing my voice say the same line over and over again. But then I started doing hooks and I was like ‘okay, this is cool.’ And then I started doing ad libs and at first I was like ‘ew, ad libs – I can’t imagine hearing my voice in the background.’ So getting used to my voice so I can try more things. Like I definitely wouldn’t mind harmonizing on stuff. Like maybe not outright singing but I think there are certain times where harmonization is cool on songs and can definitely be utilized. It’s just me finding the comfort level to say ‘I’m going to try this.’
What kind of rapper would you like to be known as?
I think if I’d want to be known as anything, I just want to be known as authentic. I want people to know that the things I rap about or the things that I say in songs are me. I don’t want it to be something where I’m carried by a certain sound. I want to be as versatile as possible. I want to be able to do a bunch of different type of things that not only I enjoy but other people enjoy and really just develop as much as I can.
Touching on that authenticity factor, how do you think vulnerability and authenticity relate to making music?
I’d say the more vulnerable you are, typically the more authentic you are. Just allowing people to see and get to know your true self as an artist and understanding you. Sometimes it might not be a good thing to be…I guess it depends on what you’re rapping about or what you’re doing…because you don’t want to be like…I don’t want to be too somber or too always about me. Sometimes I just want to have fun on the song. Sometimes I just want to talk junk and just be carefree or whatever and sometimes I might want to be a little bit more sad or real. So that’s just the way that versatility comes in. I want to be someone that can talk about a lot of different things.
Who are you when you’re the best version of yourself?
Oh Lord, you snapped. Imma say Don. Really just being Paragon Don and Donovan Beatty the person. Being completely comfortable in what I’m doing, being in that present moment knowing that I’m doing the right thing or at least on the right path of doing the right thing and being completely confident in the way things are going. It’s very easy to get discouraged at certain points over the way things may be headed, the way things may be looking like. You might not get the praise or the love that you think you deserve at the time that you want to get it, but everything that happens happens for a reason or at least that’s how I try to see things. So if it’s meant to be then it’ll happen.
What makes you really excited?
I get really excited right before I release any piece of art, whether it be a song, a music video, a show, anything of that nature. Just so I’m like ‘okay, I put myself out there and now it’s time for other people to enjoy it as well.’ Because I never want to put out a song that I don’t like because the first person that has to like whatever I put out is me. So if I put something out I already know I like it to some degree, so it’s a matter of seeing if other people are going to like it as well. That type of stuff, I get excited about that.
Looking ahead, what’s your vision for your music career? What does success look like for you?
Success looks like something where I can make music with the people that I currently listen to now whenever I want or hit them up whenever I want. Live off of music as a whole and not have to worry about going to work and missing out on things. Because there’ll be times where I want to do certain stuff and it’s like ‘nah, I can’t do this I gotta work’ or ‘nah I can’t come to the show I gotta work’ or ‘I can’t perform at the show I gotta work.’ So being able to have that freedom. I think that’s the biggest thing. I think everybody, really their main goal in life is freedom to some extent. And freedom usually comes from money. So it’s that.
What do you have lined up for this year?
Right now, I’m planning on releasing a couple EPs with various producers just so I can kind of have different works with people. I want to be able to work with more people and get more projects out. I only released Last Year Local in 2020 so I want to have a lot more music out this year and I want to be able to say like ‘yeah, I did this, I put these out, I worked with these producers’ because you never know where people are going to end up. You never know what people can do for you. You never know what people appreciate. You never know what’s going on or what could happen to someone and I feel like producers don’t get a lot of credit as far as how much impact they have in a song or music in general. I think usually they’re probably 70 percent of the time why a song is good. So I really just want to highlight that more. So instead of it being a Paragon Don project produced by whoever, it’s more of a Paragon Don and whoever the producer is.
How can fans support you?
I’m Paragon Don on all streaming platforms and if they want to support me directly, they can go to Bandcamp. If they want to stream the music and send it to other people, because streaming is a lot more accessible for a lot of people, they can pull it up on all platforms, whether it be SoundCloud, Apple Music, Spotify. That’d be the main way. I’m paragondon605 on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook. So it’s a couple different ways.
Could you ever see yourself moving out of Winston?
That I don’t know. Especially with the way the pandemic is going, I don’t want to just move somewhere and then I can’t do anything because I moved. I do like the idea of an Atlanta or a Chicago, but I also want to see the growth in the city first-hand and see if we can cultivate something ourselves because I don’t want to be from the outside looking in.
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Photos / Courtesy of Artist
Story / Zach Skillings