Simply by name, you may not recognize him. But perhaps his alter ego, “John the Sandwich Guy,” rings a bell. You know, the one who loves tweeting about Warren’s cranberry chicken salad special?
Yeah, that guy!
But Howard-Devoe makes more than just sandwiches for the Boston University masses at Warren Towers’ dining hall. The 38-year-old Boston native also makes his own music, a passion that has driven him to pursue his hip-hop dreams for more than 25 years.
In comparison to many modern-day musicians, Howard-Devoe’s tracks are what he considers “just something different” and “a change of vocabulary.” And, unlike much of today’s negatively infused “gangsta rap,” Howard-Devoe’s hip-hop contains positive and motivational messages that he hopes will inspire young people to better themselves and pursue their passions.
“There’s so much in the music that I’m saying. I know it can help other people. I know it can,” said Howard-Devoe in an interview with The Daily Free Press. He said he wants his music to reach kids primarily of middle school and high school ages. “So that’s what I’m hoping for. When people have a bad day they can play [my] songs and go ‘You know, yeah — I can get through this test today.’ For me personally, I would love for somebody to just get the message. If I could get that, I’ll feel blessed.”
Howard-Devoe said his musical pursuits began in 1987 when he and a group of childhood friends began recording instrumental beats and freestyling over them.
“We never really did it to become famous or anything. It was just a hobby,” he said. “We were just helping each other out. It was kind of like a little round table kind of thing.”
Inspired by rapper KRS-One — Howard-Devoe’s biggest musical role model of both past and present, and whom he considers to be “music, 100 percent” — Howard-Devoe’s hobby quickly transformed into a potential career path, and he began performing as a solo MC in and around Boston. At one point his networking even led him to the West Coast, after someone heard his track “Brothers and Sisters” and flew him out to Los Angeles.
“It opened doors. Nothing too big, but it was enough for me,” Howard-Devoe said. For him, music was a message more than it was a means for making money. “As long as I knew that I could touch 10 to 20 people — and I was doing more than that — I was like, ‘Wow, this is kind of cool.’”
Howard-Devoe continued to dedicate his undivided attention to his career in music until 2001, when his daughter Jonnai was born and he turned his focus to a new kind of job: being a father.
“That’s when I put the career on hold because you have to spend 24/7, seven days a week with the music,” he said. “You can’t take no breaks. It’s like when you guys have midterms; you can’t slack off.”
To support his daughter, Howard-Devoe said he began looking toward paying career paths outside of hip-hop. With encouragement from his stepfather, who also works at BU, Howard-Devoe applied for a position in the University’s dining services.
“I filled out an application and that was it. I’m here,” he said, laughing. “And I love everything that I do now. I love making sandwiches! I can’t believe it.”
Since coming to Warren Towers — which he claims is the “#1 dining hall” — Howard-Devoe’s personal life, as well as his musical career, have both undergone major changes. In the past year alone he has acquired a manager, whom he met at this year’s Beanpot, and has gotten married. (“Shout out to my babe!”)
With a new manager, Howard-Devoe said that he would continue to write, record and release music through his SoundCloud account, where he currently has three original songs posted with another one to come in the upcoming weeks. He hopes the meaning behind his newer music will be powerful enough to reach and inspire a broader audience.
“Everybody wants money, but I’ve been writing for so long and I have so much material — I really just want to get the message out there,” he said. “You can get your word out and you can actually get a message out to people through music. I didn’t know it was going to be this powerful.”
Looking toward the future, Howard-Devoe said he also plans to create a video for “Brothers and Sisters,” which will perhaps include an appearance from his daughter. He also hopes to speak and inspire at youth centers in the area, and publish written works, including a short book of rhymes that readers can use as a “picker-upper.”
But for now, Howard-Devoe said his biggest hopes for the future lay right here on BU’s campus.
“I have a bright future here,” he said. “I don’t want to do nothing to where I have to leave this.”