Rayven Justice's new mixtape, Do It Justice, is a collection of high-energy club bangers and seductive romps with a hyphy-inflected bounce. But the party-ready project has a less upbeat backstory: It's a tribute to the rising Oakland R&B singer's late younger brother, Raymen Justice, who was just seventeen years old when he was gunned down six years ago near their family home in Oakland's Cleveland Heights neighborhood in what witnesses said appeared to be a mugging gone awry.
During a recent phone interview, it was clear that the life-altering incident continues to deeply affect the 24-year-old Justice. He recalled rushing down the hill with his parents to find neighbors gathered to help his ailing brother. "When he felt my presence, he just said my name. He was just like, 'Rayven.' And then he heard my dad's voice and he just said, 'Dad,' and those were his last two words."
The two siblings were in an R&B group together called The Justice Brothers, and Justice said his brother was a major influence on his formative years as a musician. The night before he passed, his brother gave him words of encouragement that — in hindsight — seem hauntingly prophetic. "The night before he was murdered, he told me, 'I love you, brother, and I'm proud of you, and I know you're gonna be a star one day,' and that was the last conversation I ever had with him," Justice recalled.
While trying to cope with his loss, Justice spiraled into depression. And he didn't return to singing until his brother's best friend, the rapper Surfa Solo, encouraged him to do so. "My music career has a lot to do with my brother. When he died, I quit music. I really quit life," he said. "At the time when I was grieving through that, one of his best friends — who is actually my boy now — came over and was always checking on me. One day he said, 'You gotta do this for him now.' ... From that point on, I got serious with my music."
Today, Justice is in a much better place, mentally and emotionally, as well as with his career. His 2013 hit, the infectious, bold squad anthem "Slide Thru" featuring Keak Da Sneak and Philthy Rich, received radio play on stations up and down the West Coast and garnered the attention of prominent music industry figures, some of whom have become Justice's mentors and collaborators.
When "Slide Thru" was at the height of its popularity, Justice was in Los Angeles on business. He excitedly recalled how one day, when he and his friends were shopping on Fairfax Avenue, he noticed a red Hummer parked outside of a boutique. Curious, he and his crew went inside and encountered Keyshia Cole, the platinum-selling R&B singer who's also an Oakland native. When Justice introduced himself, Cole recognized him from "Slide Thru," and the pair exchanged Instagram follows. They stayed in touch over social media, and eventually Justice worked up the courage to invite her to collaborate. "She's like a big sister to me," said Justice, remembering the encounter fondly.
Last year, Cole even invited him to record with her in Atlanta, where they made the song "Tit for Tat." Justice originally wrote the duet for Cole's upcoming project, though he ended up including it on Do It Justice. Her vocals also appear on one of his biggest songs, "Hit or Nah." The euphoric, bass-heavy track also features a guest verse from New York rapper French Montana, who's steadily gaining prominence and just worked with Kanye West, Travi$ Scott, and Future on his new mixtape, Wave Gods.
Because of the Bay Area's disconnect from music industry epicenters such as Atlanta, New York, and Los Angeles, it's rare for an unsigned Oakland artist to work with such heavy hitters. But from a young age, Justice has demonstrated a knack for business. Inspired by local teenage rap groups such as The Pack, Diligentz, and Go Dav — which achieved considerable regional success in the mid-Aughts thanks to MySpace — Justice spent his years at Oakland High networking with peers from neighboring schools and cut his teeth making songs in other ambitious youngsters' bedroom studios.
"It was like a movement. ... If you had a group, you were poppin' at the time," he said.
Indeed, many of the people from the groups he looked up to in high school have gone on to have well-regarded solo careers: Lil B emerged from The Pack as one of the most idiosyncratic personalities in today's pop cultural zeitgeist; Jay Ant, the rapper, singer, and producer from HBK Gang, got his start with Diligentz; and Bobby Brackins, a rapper and songwriter with credits on hits such as Chris Brown's "Loyal" and Tinashe's "2 On," entered the music business as a member of Go Dav. While The Justice Brothers dissolved due to unfortunate circumstances, Justice has built his solo career — similarly to his peers — on savvy social media marketing and a business acumen he developed in spite of his lack of formal education or direct access to the industry.
An homage to his DIY beginnings, Do It Justice concludes with "Green Light," a Justice Brothers track that's more evocative of a syrupy, R. Kelly slow jam than Justice's current, harder and more hip-hop-influenced sound. "You can tell from the recording quality that it's an old song, and my voice sounds a lot younger on it," Justice said.
Much like the mixtape's cover art, which features a black-and-white photo of Justice's family superimposed over his silhouette, "Green Light" serves as a subtle tribute to the singer's late brother. Justice released the project through his new label, Rayven Justice Music Group, on February 11, his brother's birthday. And, in fact, his first signee to his label is Surfa Solo, his brother's childhood best friend who encouraged him to keep pursuing his goals in spite of his grief.
106 KMEL recently began playing Justice's first single off of Do It Justice, "Roll Something," which features a verse from Surfa. "He inspired me to keep doing the music for my brother, so I really look at him as my little brother. ... He's very talented himself. He's gonna definitely be poppin'."