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A weekly series focused on Bloomington-Normal's arts community and other major events. Made possible with support from PNC Financial Services.

When V8 Vast Change is called to leave the Twin Cities, he will. But he’s not done here yet.

 A man with a black t-shirt, silver chain and afro smiles with raised arms as if pumping up the crowd.
1221 Photography
V8 Vast Change plays Saturday at Make Music Normal, a two-day festival taking over Uptown Normal this weekend. Several local hip-hop artists are on the lineup.

By some accounts, Dominique Stevenson is an average Twin City resident who builds vans at Rivian while raising three young children. But he’s better known to many as V8 Vast Change, the rapper who burst onto Bloomington-Normal’s music scene about five years ago.

V8 Vast Change will appear at Make Music Normal this weekend, where fans can hear previews from his upcoming album, “The Melanin King.” Then he heads out on the road for a fall tour with Atlanta-based Landon Wordswell and Chicago rapper Taco.

As a star football player in high school at Normal West, Stevenson started tinkering with beats and lyrics.

“I told my uncle I wanted to do this music stuff,” he said. “And he’s like, you can’t go by Dominique Stevenson on stage. I hadn’t thought about this part yet; I just started writing lyrics.”

By 2017, Stevenson had a catalog big enough to fill two albums and had settled on the stage name V8 Vast Change.

“The V stands for Vast,” he said. “There’s seven days in the week, so seven is completion, but eight represents new beginnings.”

A year later, V8 landed his first-ever radio interview — with WGLT.

“I met Jon Norton at a gun forum after a group of my friends were just slaughtered at an apartment complex,” he said. “It hit the city hard. A lot of people had good relationships with these young men and they just happened to be caught up in that lifestyle.”

Indeed, 2018 was a particularly bloody year in the Twin Cities. V8 spoke up at the WGLT forum, foreshadowing a public persona that has been equal parts music and activism. From then to now, V8’s meteoric rise has led to (almost) being able to support his family on music. While that’s certainly a goal, he doesn’t think too hard about destinations on his musical journey.

He does, however, notice progress.

“Back in 2018, people were not booking local hip-hop artists to do anything,” V8 said. “It had a stigma to it. I was getting turned down from everywhere in town. The Castle told me they didn’t do hip-hop.”

They do now. V8 Vast Change has played the Castle and just about everywhere else in town — including the Corn Crib, where he opened for Nelly in 2021. He made inroads through hard work, persistence and integrity. That has benefitted Bloomington-Normal’s music scene as a whole and certainly created more platforms for more hip-hop. The Make Music Normal lineup this weekend is one small example, featuring not just one but a handful of local rappers. And last spring, the music department at Illinois State University hosted V8 Vast Change for a residency that included a lecture series on the music business and public performance.

 A black and white image of a muscular Black man pointing to his temple with pursed lips and sympathetic eyes. He wears a pick in his afro that has a black fist on the end.
1221 Photography
V8 Vast Change performing in Springfield

“I was just kind of chipping away at the community,” V8 said, “and trying to chisel out a very particular image that I’ve worked very hard to build.”

Part of that carefully crafted image is code-switching, in which non-white people shift their speech and demeanor to assimilate in predominantly white spaces — something V8 Vast Change learned growing up in Bloomington-Normal that has afforded him access to high-profile opportunities and audiences.

“[Black people] are perceived as aggressive, angry, violent and almost monstrous human beings,” he said. “So yeah, a part of what I do is dictated by those thoughts.”

But V8 feels he is able to navigate a wide range of spaces and still be true to himself.

“It’s extremely exhausting, but this is the other side of it: You don’t have to fake anything to make people comfortable. You can authentically be yourself and still get results.”

Case in point: For the last few years, V8 hosted “A Very 309 Christmas Party,” a concert and fundraiser bringing all sorts of people together. Last year’s party was at the Hanger art gallery in downtown Bloomington and raised money for Children’s Home and Aid Foundation and the Housing Our People Everywhere (H.O.P.E.) Foundation.

“I have business owners, and politicians, and single moms, and single dads, and impoverished families all around people that live on the east side coming to a centralized location to donate to charity and enjoy great music,” he said.

V8's bourgeoning Midwest Madness Music Festival is cut from the same cloth, bringing musicians from a wide-range of genres together with a "rising tide lifts all boats" mentality.

At risk of overdoing the water puns, it’s a “big fish small pond” approach. For years, V8 has been told his career would blow up by moving to a bigger market. So he might not be here forever, but he’s not going anywhere for now.

“It’s really not that complex,” he said. “When I feel released to move somewhere else, then I will. I just don’t know if God is ready for me to move out of Bloomington yet.”

V8 Vast Change’s latest album, “The Melanin King,” is scheduled to drop this summer. You can hear some of the new songs in his set at 8:30 p.m. Saturday during Make Music Normal. The full artist lineup is on the Uptown Normal Facebook page.

Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.
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