The fourth-year University of Florida student opens up about the reality of a time billed to be the best four years of his life.
By Tyler Francischine
If we gauge our reality by the media we consume — and let’s face it, it seeps and creeps in no matter what — then those four years we spend as college students are bound to be the best days of our lives. This is a time in which experimentation leads to real discovery about our identities, our futures, the reason why we ended up on this planet. Right? Not quite.
What if our college years end up being a series of struggles, interminable weeks in which feelings of otherness lead to suicidal thoughts and an overwhelming sense of hopelessness? Many students at the University of Florida may find the Gator Nation doesn’t give all newcomers the same welcome. For these students, it takes more effort to sift through the dominant culture and carve out a space of one’s own.
On his debut album, Manny Bravo, born Emanuel Griffin, delves deep into his time as a Gator, piecing apart the experiences that nearly broke him and the ones that built him back up. The 21-year-old says the meaning behind the album title, We Gon’ Die Anyway! has evolved along with his sense of self.
“We Gon’ Die Anyway! was primarily inspired by a drug overdose. You see college kids partying and taking drugs in movies all the time. What the movies don’t show you is how many of them end up in a hospital or a casket. After a normal night of partying and poor decisions, I was almost one of them,” he says. “I used to say ‘We gon’ die anyway’ to justify my drug consumption, selfish behavior and defeatist attitude. Ever since the overdose, I say it as a reminder that I need to live the best life that I can every single day.”
On album opener “Bored of Education,” Bravo catapults listeners into the world of a suicidal college freshman, feeling adrift in a sea of (white) orange and blue sports fans: “Imma blow my brains out in my dorm room anyway/It’ll probably make the front page of the school news unless my school wins a football game”
On the eight tracks that follow, Bravo chronicles the idiosyncrasies inherent in attending a large university in the South. Even though University of Florida leadership publicly touts values of inclusiveness and equality, individual students of color may experience interactions of another flavor. No stranger to the tenuous nature of racial politics on campus, Bravo has met with UF President Kent Fuchs about improving the school’s racial climate, and he currently serves as a student advisor to University Police Department Chief Linda Stump-Kurnick.
“I’ve been called ‘nigger’ by students in moving cars. I’ve had professors assume I’m at UF because of some minority scholarship. However, the majority of racism I’ve experience at UF has been subtle. There are certain little microaggressions I have to deal with on a daily basis,” he says. “UF is in an interesting position. It’s a top-10 institution, so there’s a demand to be diverse. At the same time, a lot of its money comes from racist, old White dudes. The administration wants to keep the donations coming in and keep a progressive public image. It’s having a hard time doing both.”
On track “On-Campus Freestyle,” Bravo paints a clear picture of the racist perceptions maintained by members of the authority: “Cops stopped and frisked the kids with melanin/ And the kick is, while the cops is messin’ with niggas, my dealer is a White chick”
“The University of Florida portrays itself as inclusive, but it isn’t,” Bravo says. “The same fraternities and sororities have been running student government for decades. ‘Every Gator Counts,’ but we don’t count equally. If you’re a minority and aren’t part of Greek life, you have to create your own place to prosper. I’m still trying to figure how to do that myself. Whether I figure it out or not, I’m not all that angry about it. It’s good practice for the real world.”
Bravo cites artists Kid Cudi, Kanye West, Tyler, the Creator, Lil B and Paramore’s Hayley Williams as influences, leaders in creating their own brand of sound. For Bravo, newness is the word.
“I want to make stuff that nobody has ever heard before. If you know yourself, that shouldn’t be hard to do. After all, there’s only one you,” he says. “The artists I admire most created their own lane and influenced future artists to follow their heart by doing so. I want to be that type of artist.”
Just as a once terrified freshman becomes a nearly collected and confident upperclassman, the mood of We All Gon’ Die Anyway! lifts as it progresses. “TRY!” urges listeners to keep on keepin’ on, even in the face of adversity. That doesn’t mean moments of doubt are in the past — the second-to-last track, “Off-Campus Freestyle,” dips back into the pit of despair with the lyrics “I said I was happy/ I lied.”
As one’s college years come to a close, that unsettled feeling is replaced with a more insidious fear: the question mark that is The Future. For Bravo, creating music affords him an outlet to channel these fears, and he hopes this album serves listeners in a similar way.
“[Music] allows me to express these feelings of doubt, frustration and depression in a healthy way. On top of that, it also allows me to help somebody who is going through similar situations. I’m able to give them a soundtrack and let them know that they’re not alone,” he says. “I want the people who aren’t passionate about their major and don’t know what they’re going to do after graduation to hear a song like Off-Campus Freestyle and say, ‘That’s exactly how I feel.’”
Ultimately, We Gon Die Anyway! leaves listeners with a sense of hope, resilience and power. Just as Kendrick Lamar’s “DAMN.” implores audiences to focus inward to create change from within, Bravo’s album closer “BElieve in YOUrself” advises listeners to recognize their own power. “Use school. Don’t let school use you.” As Bravo enters his last months at the University of Florida, he looks forward to a future surely replete with experiences he can draw from to grow, evolve and share his truth with others. He plans to release a follow-up, “High Dive,” this winter.