New Orleans-based rapper Dee-1 broke the internet with his viral hit “Sallie Mae Back,” racking up 1.3 million views on Facebook and over 37,000 shares. The anthem, which celebrates paying off student loans, has resonated in a country where student loan debt is the thread that ties us all together these days.
“In a little more than a week, this is easily the biggest song of my career, if you just go based on numbers thus far, as far as combined views. That’s like— wow. I think it’s all about connectivity, and the fact that people keep sharing and talking about it, shows it’s really connecting. It’s not going to stop, it’s not going to stop, honestly, it’s not,” Dee-1 says emphatically.
The song continues to gain momentum as a trending topic online, with everyone from Time magazine to CNN to my own grandma talking about it.
“I’m just happy about everything that is going on with it. It just keeps making me smile. When it’s those songs that are near and dear to your heart and they really take off, it just means so much, you know?” Dee-1 says.
When speaking with the Crescent City native, it’s immediately clear how sincere and passionate he is, both with his career and just generally as a person. He is also humble. When I compliment him on what a rare talent he is, he responds graciously with, “Those words mean a lot to me.”
And his words mean a lot to his fans, who have overwhelmingly responded to his authenticity.
“That’s my formula at this point— it’s to just be myself,” Dee-1 says easily. “I grew up in New Orleans and growing up in New Orleans, we had No Limit Records and Cash Money Records, and those were the big two hip hop labels when I was a little boy. For me, I had all these great rappers who were receiving nationwide notoriety from their music, and they were from right here at the crib. I wanted to be like them, and I kind of got a late start, because I didn’t start until my sophomore year of college. And when I started doing it, the first thing I realized was the thing that everyone else rapped about that I grew up listening to- the messages in their music- that wasn’t really reflective of my lifestyle. You know, I grew up listening to a lot of violent music, a lot of music about selling dope, a bunch of stuff that I can relate to because I grew up around it. But I’m not that dude who lives that life and who has ever done that stuff.”
He realized that although he was inspired by his favorite rappers, emulating them and their subject matter didn’t come naturally. It wasn’t until after he graduated from college that he found his own voice. “My voice is to be that person to give people hope and can motivate people to get through whatever storms they’re going through and just have fun. I mean, I like to smile!” Dee-1’s smile can be heard through the phone.
As he prepared for his interview with CNN, he talked himself out of being nervous by heading his own advice: “Don’t feel that pressure to conform to what a rapper is supposed to sound like or how I’m supposed to carry myself or whatever. It’s like- just be myself. If that means that I’m laughing or smiling or speaking with a super thick New Orleans accent the whole time— it’s like, ‘oh well.’”
The inspiration for “Sallie Mae Back” is clear: Dee-1 achieved the American dream by paying off his college debt. But the way the song came to fruition is even more organic.
“I was doing a free style at a concert, and in the free style, I said something about, ‘I drive a Honda, I don’t drive a Maybach- but seven months ago, I finished paying Sallie Mae back.’ And when I said that in the free style, the whole crowd went crazy and everybody started clapping and I was like, ‘I’m not even finished with the freestyle- why y’all clapping?’” Dee-1 laughs. “So I was like, ‘Oooh, I might be on to something with that. And then I thought about it, and I was like, if I could find a way to make this song at the same time an anthem that celebrates paying your student loans back and giving people hope- not making it seem like I’m bragging or throwing it in their face- but giving people hope that they too can get out of student loan debt. At the same time, touch on the real issues that come along with being a student- current or past student- being in debt. If I could just mesh all that into one song the right way— I was like, ‘this could be epic.’”
This huge moment is just the tip of the iceberg, with a full-length major label record set to drop this fall. And if “Sallie Mae Back” success is any indication, Dee-1 is just getting started.