When Dondi Iannucci suggested to her brother Thomas he should enter the 2016 John Lennon Songwriting Contest, he asked one question.
“How much does it cost?”
“$35,” his sister answered.
The Kauai man shook his head.
He said the chances of a rapper from Hawaii that no one has heard of winning anything in a national competition were slim. With hundreds of songs coming in from rising musicians across the country, he didn’t like his chances.
“Nothing against my talent, I just don’t feel like throwing my money away,” Thomas said, adding he could use the cash to fill his car with gas, a much more sensible thing to do.
Dondi, however, wasn’t taking no for an answer.
“I really think you should do this,” she insisted, then she offered her brother a deal he couldn’t refuse.
“I will pay your entry fee as your birthday present,” she said.
Thomas entered the song “Fadeaway”, which he co-wrote with Cameron Williamson, with John Obiano singing some of the lyrics alongside Thomas. He then promptly forgot about it and didn’t hear anything for months.
He figured, well, at least it wasn’t his $35.
Then, earlier this year, as he was waking up from a night’s sleep, still rubbing his eyes, and he checked his emails on his phone.
No, he didn’t win. But he was a finalist in the Hip-Hop category. That, itself, is cool and prestigious. There are only three finalists from many submissions.
“You gotta be kidding me,” he thought.
Dondi happened to be the only other one awake in the family’s Eleele home.
“You’re not going to believe this, but I made it to the finals in the hip hop category of the John Lennon thing,” he said.
Dondi was like, no way.
“I guess you were right and I was wrong,” he told his sister. “Thank you.”
For being a finalist, he will receive some studio equipment, which he plans to give to Dondi, herself a talented musician. His picture is on the John Lennon Songwriting Contest website, and the song Fadeaway can be found there, too.
You can hear Thomas rapping away, with the opening lines: “I wake up in the morning, I can see my hand shaking. I can’t find the aspirin, now my head’s aching. I feel nervous, and I don’t know why. I just woke up, I want to cry, to scream, to run, to leave this place, to do anything else but face the day. It’s an anxiety attack, I know it well, I’ve had enough that I can tell.”
They’re more than words.
For Thomas, they’re life.
Fadeway, 3 minutes and 30 seconds long, is about his battles with anxiety, which he has battled over the years. He has struggled to meet, connect and talk with people.
On stage, he’s fine, a performer at his best. Off stage, it’s different. Fear creeps in. Worry. Tension.
Anxiety is something few will talk about, but Thomas does and will.
“I want to talk about real things,” he said.
Not that it doesn’t hurt to do so. But it also helps him overcome those feelings of insecurity.
“It’s not very cool to admit it,” he said. “Hip-hop is very masculine.”
Fadeway has found connections.
“I’ve had a lot of people come up to me, ‘Dude I know that feeling so well,’” he said.
“It’s crazy that song is so personal, it actually applies to so many people at the same time,” he said.
Being a finalist in the John Lennon contest is great exposure, he said, and gives him a career boost as he was considering giving up music and focusing on writing, which he loves.
“Music is an expensive hobby if you want to do it well,” he said. “It’s way cheaper to write prose than pay money to go record in a studio.”
His passion is telling stories. Hip-hop lends itself to story telling. Thomas refers to it as “modern day poetry.”
“I’m able to express things,” the 2010 Waimea High graduate said.
Thomas is the night manager is Kauai’s Pietro’s Pizza at Harbor Mall. His parents are Tom and D’Lissa Iannucci.
His father is the man who started Pietro’s last year, is the pastor of Breath of Life church in Lihue and writes, too.
His mom is a gifted musician and songwriter and a church music leader.
“I was learning at her feet, constantly,” he said.
The 25-year-old has an album to his credit — “Notti Insonn,” (Sleepless Night) — and has been involved in music 15 years.
But despite his achievements, he found himself questioning whether music was worth it, whether it was the right thing for him. He believed he wasn’t gaining traction toward a breakthrough.
He said he’s not a musician, and insists he can’t sing, either.
“I’m under no illusions of that,” he said, laughing.
“I am realistically nobody at this point in my career. I’m just some guy.”
While others urged him not to be discouraged and praised his songwriting gifts and flair as a rapper, doubts remained.
“I don’t know if this is for me anymore,” he responded.
It was then he said a little prayer: “God, Let me know.”
Soon, that email arrived with that notice of being a finalist.
A message from heaven?
For Thomas, absolutely.
“Am I abandoning music? That was like a resounding, no,” he said, smiling. “Stick with the music, man. That was like God himself.”
Fadeway ends on a positive note: The Christian rapper finds resolution through faith in Jesus Christ.
He’s already working on a second album that will be in memory of his friend, Lucas Makana Riley, who died in a car accident last year in San Diego.
Doing well in the contest looks good on his resume. It also gives Thomas standing to music producer, something to point out if they haven’t heard.
“Suddenly, it makes them take me a lot more seriously,” he said. “They’ll say, ‘He’s not just some clown. There’s a level of excellence, there’s a level of commitment. It opens up quite a few doors in that regard.”
It also just happens that Thomas Iannucci, like his father, is a Beatles fan.
When he was in elementary school, he was part of a Beatles parody group that wrote Christian lyrics to Beatles songs. He later was in a Christian rock band in high school.
His father told him most of the great songs tell great stories.
“I think there’s very much proof of that in the Beatles stuff,” Thomas said.
Songs don’t have to be crazy, over the top, he said. They just have to be catchy and tell a story — a story about life.
“I think Fadeway does that,” he said.