You shouldn’t do music for money
By Ramith Dheerasekara
Dilan Jay (formerly DeLon) is a Sri Lankan-American actor, producer, singer, rapper, and activist from Los Angeles, California. He is the first artist of Sri Lankan heritage to be placed No. 1 on the US Billboard charts among MTV’s Most Popular Music videos. Recently, he joined a live Zoom session with Ramith Dheerasekara and his students to speak to Little Stars.
How did you start your music career?
Well, it all started with a school dance when I was 12 years old. At the dance, I noticed the kids weren’t dancing and gathered that the girls only wanted to slow dance. So I asked the DJ to play some hip hop music, but he said he wasn’t allowed to play hip hop at my school because it was Black music. So I went home and asked my older brother who was 16: “Adrian, why don’t we start a DJ company where I play strictly hip hop; you can drive us around and I’ll use my CD players from home, a video mixer, and my speakers from my room and I’ll start playing hip hop in San Marino?” That’s the city I grew up in. And so I was 12 years old when I became a DJ. That’s how I started out.
Do you tend to write songs in the middle of the night when inspiration hits?
I do. Actually the songs come in my dreams sometimes; I’ll hear a song and then I wake up and I’ll go to my voice recorder and hum it – because you can’t sing when you’re tired. I save it and go back to sleep. In the morning, I pull out the guitar and play the melody over and over again till I write the song. I’ve done that so many times.
What is your aim in writing songs?
In the beginning, I really wanted to change the world using music and my lyrical content, and I still think that’s an important thing to do, but I think the first thing that needs to be done is make really good-quality music so people enjoy themselves because music is an escape for people; they use it to facilitate their life.
So I think the first step is to make music that helps people facilitate their life in whatever energy they’re feeling. Sometimes you can be feeling love, sadness, loss, or even excitement, so I think that’s step one.
And I think once you rise to a place where you’re known and people like you, you can use your platform as a musician to talk about things you feel are important.
However, I don’t think that’s the number one reason to do music. I think the number one reason to do music is because you love it. I don’t think you should do music for money; you should make money in music, but I don’t think that should be your reason to do music. Your reason for doing music should be: “I love music and I can’t live without it, I don’t know what else I would do in my life if I don’t have it.” I think that’s the most important thing.
As Sri Lankans we are very proud of your success. Would you like to tell us about your best performance as an actor so far?
I’ve done two movies; “Sinhawalokanaya”, which I did in Sri Lanka, and then I did a movie called “Hollow Point”, which is an action film coming out in America next year. In January, I’m filming a new movie about a young Sri Lankan kid who is born in America to an orphan family and then gets sent back to Sri Lanka. There’s also going to be a huge American film in which I’m starring; although I haven’t done it yet, I think that’s going to be the best thing I’ll ever do as an actor.
This movie that’s coming out, is it a Sri Lankan movie or an English one?
It’s going to be in English; I wrote it and I’m going to be starring in it, and it’s either going to be based in Sri Lanka or India. The idea is to show kids that, even though I was born in America and you guys were born in Sri Lanka, if you were to come to America, you would feel very Sri Lankan, because at the end of the day, you’re Sri Lankan.
I was born in America but I still feel very Sri Lankan because I’d look around and see nobody like me. So I’m very connected to my culture; I have tattooed my name on my arm, I have Ceylon tattooed on my back. But when I come back to Sri Lanka, I feel very American, because I spent most of my life in America.
There is this disenfranchisement that people feel, this kind of loneliness people feel; it’s not just me, everybody feels that way. I’m sure you will feel like that someday when you’re on your own trying to seek your own truth, and that’s what this movie is about. It’s about showing kids that you’re not alone in seeking your own truth.
It’s really rare to see Sri Lankan English songwriters in Sri Lanka. What do you think is the reason for that, and how can those who do write English songs in Sri Lanka gain international recognition?
When you’re writing in someone else’s language, it’s hard, it’s not easy. As a musician, you’re trying to communicate emotions and feelings. So it’s not like communicating a fact. For instance, if you’re saying I want to go here, you can say that in a different language, but if you’re trying to say you feel scared right now because of the way someone is talking to you, that’s harder to say in a different language; that is, to say it right and to say it with expertise.
I think writing in English is a good idea, although I don’t know if it’ll make you successful in Sri Lanka. I think if you want to learn a little bit more about writing in English, you should listen to a lot of English songs and the lyrics of the songs.