You might assume that a man who calls himself NOVAGAWD DeGrate is an egotist, but you’d be wrong. DeGrate is actually his real last name. As for NOVAGAWD—the first name the artist picked for himself back in 2016—indeed, “GAWD” stands for Genuineness Awakened With Dignity. The term is meant to honor the team of people, including his son, wife, videographer, DJ, the rest of his family, and his community, who have helped him thrive. “I am just the person who sings and writes,” NOVAGAWD tells DoubleBlind. “But they’re the people who help me breathe life into my words.”
NOVAGAWD is first and foremost a poet, but that doesn’t encompass all of what he does. He’s also a painter, singer, and artist. He’s not just a jack of all trades, but truly a master of them all.
“I literally do anything that has to do with art and music. All of it gives me life because I’m able to teach people lessons without them realizing they’re learning,” he says. “I like when people go home, dive deep into my music, and after listening, believe in themselves.”
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In NOVAGAWD’s 32 years on this planet, he’s lived many lives, having served in the military then becoming homeless due to an injury; having birthed a son then transitioning genders; and through it all, having tried psychedelics, then coming into himself as an artist.
Despite the vastness of his experience, life really opened up for NOVAGAWD when he tripped for the first time. “My world basically started in 2016,” he says. “Psychedelics allowed the veil to be lifted off my mind, the strings to be cut, and for me to be free,”
In 2018, NOVAGAWD released his first album: Poetry in Motion, Vol. 1. A blend of spoken word, R&B, and hip-hop, the album has been streamed over a million times on Spotify.
Through his poetry and music, NOVAGAWD says he tries to help his listeners grow as individuals. “I try to teach you how to be a better person in your relationship with your lover, but also with the people you surround yourself with daily,” he says. “A lot of people don’t understand that their vibe is what attracts your tribe. So for example, if you’re upset about how somebody acts towards you, maybe there’s something you should change in yourself first. Become that prototype. Show them what to do.”
NOVAGAWD’s humble beginnings and immense hardship undoubtedly contribute to his humanitarian philosophy. Born Yasir DeGrate in Los Angeles and raised in the Pueblo Del Rio projects of South Central, he moved to Texarkana, Texas, in middle school. During his teenage years, he took care of his two younger siblings, since his mother worked late hours and his step-dad traveled for work.
At the age of 17, he was forced to graduate high school early because he’d already taken too many credits; administrators told him he wouldn’t be able to return for the next semester, so in January of 2005, he enrolled in the military to pursue combat documentation, and began basic training. Shortly after his training, however, Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, and NOVAGAWD joined the soldiers who went to help with hurricane relief.
At the age of 19, he was honorably discharged, due to neurological damage to his right fingers, hand, and arm from holding heavy equipment. Yet, it took more than a decade for NOVAGAWD to finally receive his military and disability benefits. NOVAGAWD explains that the sergeant who had forced him to work through the pain, refusing to let him receive medical treatment, conveniently lost all of his documentation—likely because he was implicated (and arguably responsible) for NOVAGAWD’s injury.
For 11 years, NOVAGAWD was homeless off and on due to his injury and his inability to work. “Music saved me,” he says. “Cause even when I was homeless, I still had a purpose. I still knew what I wanted to do, and one day I’m going to have my own festival like Lollapalooza.”
Roughly three years after his military service, NOVAGAWD bore a son. He conceived the child through artificial insemination. Although NOVAGAWD was born a woman (he didn’t medically transition until three years ago), his girlfriend at the time couldn’t conceive a child, so he decided to undergo the pregnancy himself. However, before the baby was even born, the couple split up, and for the first eight years of his son’s life, NOVAGAWD raised the child alone with help every now and then from his older sister Wanisha.
Then four years ago, he met his now-wife and artistic manager, Jasmine. She’s been a major help raising his son, who’s now 12 years old. She’s also the person who introduced NOVAGAWD to psychedelics, changing his life forever. “Before psychedelics, I didn’t realize how traumatized I was by stuff that I saw in the military—at Katrina,” he says, “and the things that happened to me in my childhood.”
Though friends and family had always praised NOVAGAWD for his ability to help them let go of stress and worry, and to see themselves in a positive light, he’d never been able to do the same for himself. That is, until he tried acid and mushrooms for the first time—simultaneously: “I was able to self-counsel without judgement,” he says.
In fact, it was only after tripping that he felt inspired to see a therapist in order to work through his PTSD. His transformative experience with psychedelics also led him to sleep through the night—something he hadn’t done since his teens.
NOVAGAWD likens his initial psychedelic experience to A Christmas Carol when the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future visit Ebenezer Scrooge. “The first time I really felt the trip, I no longer felt like I was here on Earth,” he says.
The trip helped him recognize and process the first time he got hurt as a toddler and the times he was treated unfairly, but didn’t speak up. Then his mind fast-forwarded to when he was in the army. He saw himself losing sensation in his arm and telling his drill sergeant about it. For the first time, he was able to see his sergeant’s reaction because, when the event actually occurred, he was too consumed by his own physical pain.
Then he did something which he hadn’t done since his nerve damage: He began sketching. At first, his drawings were childlike, but by the end of his trip, he saw a marked improvement. He also decided to do push ups. He had been trying to do them for a while now, but was never able to get past even one following his injury. During his trip, he did 25.
He says the trip taught him that he wasn’t as limited by his injury as he thought he was; and so from thereon out, he picked up painting. “After doing psychedelics, I thought to myself, why not paint?” he says. “I was able to allow all the chaos that was inside of me to go onto a canvas and people wanted to buy it.”
Now four years following his first psychedelic trip, NOVAGAWD has opened his own art gallery Yasir’s Art World in Texarkana to feature his paintings—something he says he never could have dreamed of ever doing if it weren’t for psychedelics.
Now NOVAGAWD lives in a home with his wife and daughter in Texas, and he’s spending more time than ever before making art and music. He recently completed three upcoming projects that will all drop this year while he tours the United Kingdom performing his music. He says he still takes psychedelics ever four to six months to reset his mind and keep the creative juices flowing.
“I felt a new joy,” he says, discussing the opening of Yasir’s Art World. “If it weren’t for psychedelics, I don’t think I ever would’ve had the courage or stillness to notice the power within—to knock down all of the obstacles that I see in the way and still yell out to the darkest clouds, ‘My last name is DeGrate not DeGood there is still a way, and I’m going to keep going!’”
Zachary Zane is a Brooklyn-based writer and speaker whose work focuses on lifestyle, sexuality, and culture. He’s currently a contributing editor at Men’s Health and has a column, Zach and the City, at Queer Majority.