It takes many years for an artist to develop, and most are unafraid of the challenges that come with growth. Of course, every artist’s journey is different. Confidence in self, combined with support from community and family, drives the need to be successful. Artists are becoming more comfortable managing themselves and even other artists, as more young people are branching into entrepreneurship. And while the COVID-19 pandemic closed venues, it also brought a need for new content and opportunities to expand media.
Nanya Zefaniah Walker-El, also known by his stage name, TheZeffsterr, is the CEO of Critical Money, Incorporated. Founded in Iowa City in 2018, the label holds the partnership of many local artists such as WxCKD, TM Mike and Davoo.
Companies such as Roc Nation, founded by rapper Jay-Z, and energy drink franchise Red Bull influenced the type of business TheZeffsterr wanted to run. These brands paved the way for artists to branch into any field they desire by hosting events, funding charities and building communities. It is not just about the music, TheZeffster said; it became about creating an experience for his fans and a pathway for other artists.
“That is something that I want to do,” he said. “I want to be a gateway and help people get to the next point.”
Critical Money recruits people who love music but have talents and passions in other fields. Being in the public eye isn’t the end goal. TheZeffsterr believes in being open to any ideas that can help people push their art forward to the most creative place possible—being the bridge needed to elevate their careers. He was inspired by a lyric Nas raps on the track “Nas Album Done” off DJ Khaled’s 2016 album Major Key: “Start a label, run it, sign yourself / That’s a major key.” Critical Money was founded two years after that release. Music has become a gateway to business management, creative directing and social influence. Zeffsterr appreciates the honor that comes with being a middleman, one of too few people who want to learn as much as possible about this industry.
TheZeffsterr’s dedication to change drove him to launch Critical Money while still in school. Education afforded him the ability to take his time with finding the direction he wanted to go, and the responsibilities that come with being a student (TheZeffsterr is a 2021 graduate of Kirkwood Community College) brought the focus necessary to be a new artist. Learning to be patient became the virtue behind his drive.
Knowing great things take time, he was ready to start the clock. TheZeffsterr set aside the time required for much research, sacrifice and networking, aware of the challenges that come with establishing a new business. He found that Iowa City’s dedication to education and the arts was the perfect place for him to build a solid foundation for his enterprise.
The need to prioritize classwork and studio time brought with it a growing maturity. His mentality changed when he began conquering challenges he had once deemed impossible. Though his message was always apparent in his music, he wanted to make sure his story was truly being told.
Many artists express a need for love in their music. For TheZeffsterr, his relationship with girlfriend Serenity Amos (founder of Peaceful Dishes, a local food company specializing in cultural cuisine) granted him the stability to focus on his career. Their relationship gave him a new aspect of realness, selflessness and honest criticism needed to launch Critical Money Inc.
TheZeffsterr engages closely with four key principles of life: inspiration, individualism, innovation and idealism.
He found his inspiration growing up on the South Side of Chicago in the musical influences of such greats as Kanye West and Twista. His early music represented the challenges of growing as an individual around peers who were more easily misguided. He knew how his friend groups could drive his creativity and begin challenging his thoughts; being around other artists helped him figure out what kind of artist TheZeffsterr would be. Learning to express yourself comes with great exploration and sacrifice.
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It’s important to TheZeffsterr to have that individualism reflected in his music. He doesn’t allow other people’s feelings or fears to shape his path, he says. Feeling intimidated by other people drives him to be unapologetically himself. These challenges are needed in order to build self-confidence, which is transformed into a high-energy stage presence.
“Realizing that I perform alone and shape my own destiny” comes with great reflection, he said. “My mom provides for me the best way she can, and I cannot discredit her by not embracing the blessings she has put upon me. I understand I have to pass them forward and embrace them fully without guilt.”
TheZeffster plans to take Critical Money as far as can be imagined, and that requires innovation.
“I am big on that word!” he enthuses. “Hearing the word ‘innovation’ makes me think of Critical Money. I see things differently and want to leave the longest blueprint possible.”
He wants to leave that blueprint of his accomplishments so that the next generation won’t have to start from scratch like he did. One day, he hopes to be able to show others how to obtain their goals. This mentality of togetherness and longevity can open many doors for other artists. Networking and connecting people to many opportunities is also critical.
Idealism is found in the art of leaving music up for interpretation while understanding the responsibility of having people’s ears. TheZeffsterr knows that ultimately, he controls how he is presented, describing himself as a “Lazy Billy G.O.A.T” (also the title of one of his singles). He understands that he has many flaws that need to be addressed, but still doesn’t doubt he’s the “Greatest Of All Time.”
“Living my life for me, in my 23 years, I am the greatest of all my time,” TheZeffsterr said. “I am the best I can be today, and will continue to be great.”
As Muhammed Ali encouraged Black men, success requires confidence. TheZeffsterr’s confidence is reflected in his music, and can have a ripple effect on his fans. When the audience chants his lyrics, it activates their greatness.
Music is a powerful tool, one that demands responsibility. The lyrics in a song can be the difference between making a fan laugh or cry. TheZeffsterr understands the importance of speaking life in his lyrics, he says. Some artists speak death onstage, not realizing they are releasing that energy into the world. Taking hours to write and review his music is quite, well, critical to TheZeffsterr.
As the artist says, “Inspiration can spark from anywhere.” His favorite movie, Disney’s 2007 animated comedy Meet the Robinsons, has a motto (attributed to Walt Disney) that we all can relate to: “Keep moving forward.” As time changes, we must accept challenges and move with them. Music can paint a story of that growth. The music industry has evolved rapidly in recent years, in particular its methods of distribution. Critical Money plans to adapt not only by streaming on the digital distribution site TuneCore, but also by returning to vinyl.
While most artists only get one project released every five years, TheZeffsterr has averaged a project a year since 2011. The next album he’s working on, I Told You It Would Be This Way, will vocalize the next steps he has planned for his music career. Fan favorite “Reap What You Sow” available on all streaming services, was recently performed at Rebel Writer Records’ artist showcase at Gabe’s last month. TheZeffsterr has performed all over Iowa City at various events and concerts. He has become a regular at the Writers Circle at Iowa City’s Elray’s (opened during the pandemic), which showcases artists every Monday night.
TheZeffsterr emphasized the importance of sharing the stage with other local artists and using social media to repost and promote each other.
“I’m very, very, very big on supporting other artists,” he said. He maintains that philosophy while understanding that other artists may not have the time to support him back. “Treating others the way you’d want to be treated comes with the knowledge that you can’t control other people’s actions.”
In July 2019, TheZeffsterr won a Des Moines talent competition against 40 other acts, earning the opportunity to open for chart-topping hip-hop artist DaBaby. Other talent paid up to $7,000 for a slot he earned. The show was a life-changing experience in TheZeffsterr’s career.
“Everything was meant to happen this way,” he said. “You have to want it for yourself.”
Making this industry connection was a testament to the hard work he was putting in. It was paying off, and quickly. Understanding the seriousness of opening for a major artist was payment on its own. That win taught him that every performance is a chance to get better.
The slogan of Critical Money: Everything is Critical. This means taking advantage of the simple luxuries life grants, such as the five senses, education and family. Life is too short to take essentials for granted.
Treating life like it is critical is knowing everything can be taken away at any moment, TheZeffsterr said. Living life to its fullest potential is critical. Finding what makes us special can be a great motivator. Music is a form of expression, but you must explore what is worth expressing. Meditation, a healthy diet and self-reflection in daily life are the tools for a successful reflection of self in the music industry.
“We are in control of our life,” TheZeffsterr declared.
Dr. Dawson is a senior at the University of Iowa studying Global Health. She is the founder of @hiphophealing, a local business dedicated to cultivating hip hop’s elements through mind, body and soul. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 295.