Perfecting His Pitch

By Sarah Godfrey
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, February 8, 2008

Raheem DeVaughn is excited -- and with good reason. The singer's second album, "Love Behind the Melody," released Jan. 15, has climbed atop the charts. Its lead single, "Woman," has earned him a Grammy nomination. And by all accounts, the underdog status he has enjoyed -- or not enjoyed -- for most of his career is falling away.

He is pumped up about all of that, naturally, but on a recent evening he is sitting in the restaurant Marvin at 14th and U, speaking passionately about another project he's working on -- his part-time business venture selling video phones.

"It's the technology of the future," DeVaughn says. Through the company he distributes for, he explains, customers can purchase cable service, pocket computers and even cellphones -- possibly making him the only major-label recording artist on Earth who can set you up with a mobile phone and a ringtone of his very own Grammy-nominated R&B hit to go with it.

"It gets no better than that," DeVaughn says, smiling.

The crooner, who grew up in Prince George's County, calls himself the "R&B hippie neo-soul rock star," a poke at the difficulties media types have classifying him. While enjoying the recent recognition he has received, he still keeps his fingers in a lot of different ventures apart from music. He doesn't sit back and wait for the industry to take care of him because, in his experience, it hasn't.

DeVaughn's huge grass-roots following in D.C. during the late '90s led to his deal with Jive Records. But he was kept on ice for five years, awaiting release of his first album, "The Love Experience." After the disc finally dropped, it didn't make the splash that was expected, and DeVaughn stood by watching as singers with far less sparkling falsettos produced music that climbed the charts.

"I enjoy being grass-roots. I enjoy being an independent artist. But anybody who is an artist who tells you they'd rather have 50,000 fans versus 50 million is a liar," DeVaughn says.

Although Jive has thrown considerable weight behind "Love Behind the Melody," DeVaughn doesn't leave promotion duties solely to the label. He works the streets to get the word out, selling mix tapes of unreleased material to build buzz, popping up at local venues to give impromptu shows and contributing guest vocals to almost anyone who asks -- be it an unknown local artist or rapper Beanie Siegel.

One example of his determination to promote himself: Appearing on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" late last month, DeVaughn wore a T-shirt that read "Grammy Nominated" on the front and "Love Behind the Melody -- In Stores Now" on the back.

In person, the 32-year-old singer is soft-spoken, slight of build and typically dressed down -- not like someone trying to avoid the public eye, but like someone who doesn't even realize he's in the public eye. Tonight he's in jeans and a windbreaker, with a cellphone soldered to his ear -- he's constantly texting and finalizing plans for events related to his album.

"I'm my best marketing tool," he says. "I'm building the brand Raheem DeVaughn. I have to do it."

Such hustle is, in part, a self-protective move. "It's a worker's market," says Jerry Vines, DeVaughn's longtime manager. "Some artists feel like they're superstars, but people have to create opportunities and make sure they stay in the marketplace."

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