Aspiring country artist Norman North knew his mom had been sick. She had long complained of breathing issues throughout her life, but the doctors could never quite pinpoint what was really going on. But she was only 45 years old. There was plenty of time to find out why she felt the way she did.
Or so Norman thought.
"I wasn't there when my mom passed away," North, 28, recalls quietly in a recent interview, days before the release of his country EP The Otherside, premiering exclusively on PEOPLE. "I was in the studio working at Atlantic Records. They didn't tell me right away that she was braindead. They just said she was in the hospital and I might want to come home."
But life was busy, and time was tight. And then, time ran out.
"The entire last year of my mother's life, I was working and grinding so hard," North remembers. "You go all your life living like you have all this time to indulge in the world, and you never think real life is going to hit you … until it hits you. So, when I lost my mom, who was one of the most important people in my life, it really hit me."
What struck the Texas native was a mix of emotions and memories, happier times spent with his mother watching her eyes light up whenever she heard the Brooks & Dunn classic "Neon Moon" come through the speakers of their favorite small-town fried fish joint. Or the way his mom couldn't get enough of the velvety voice of George Strait. Or how, as a teenager himself, North would drive to his football games amongst the backbeat of the 2009 hit collaboration between Tim McGraw and Nelly on "Over and Over."
"I loved the storyline and the vibe that I heard in country music," he remembers. "So, when my mom died, I craved the chance to go back to those feelings I would have listening to that music. When you look at everything I was doing in life, the thing that still gets me is the moments I can't get back. The only way I can get those moments back is when I listen to certain country songs."
Kiwaina Bennett Norman North
So, despite making quite a name for himself in recent years in the hip hop circles, successfully writing and producing for years for the likes of Megan Thee Stallion and Moneybagg Yo, North made the decision to give country music a go.
"I'm making what I like to call memory music," he explains.
Born and raised in Sunnyside, Texas, North's earliest memories of music were within the church. He soon found his way into the choir but was often relinquished to taking over drummer duties in the group. When he was 15 years old, North finally received the keyboard he had long begged for, the keyboard that would go and ultimately change his life.
And it was this keyboard that he found himself staring at last year, as the pandemic began its cruel hold on the country. For North, a sense of boredom also set in, along with a renewed sense of purpose for his life and his career.
"There was nothing more to do than just embrace what I really wanted to do," remembers North, who went and released some solo country music late last year that quickly snagged him over 100,000 monthly listeners on Spotify with virtually zero promotion. "The pandemic essentially made me make country music. I finished the first song and it really touched me and I thought to myself, 'Oh this is going to be a problem.'"
Kiwaina Bennett Norman North's "Plain Jane"
He laughs, but this is far from a problem. On his new single "Plain Jane," the influences of North's youth combined with the sound of traditional country music mixed with the vibe of hip hop all come together in a reverb heavy song that reminds us of the beauty that can emerge from our differences.
"I know we have the traditional country artists out there, but I'm a blend of a couple different fusions of a couple different vibes," North explains. "And I truly believe that because of this, I am going to drive more people to the genre. There are more people like me that would love country music, but they just haven't experienced it. I feel like I am the one that is going to create the music that will bring them to the genre."
And maybe someday and somewhere, he will be the one getting his mom two-stepping again too.