When John Patton was in high school, he changed his name to Quamé. When he got to UC Berkeley as a student, “it stuck, instantly,” he says. At Berkeley, Quamé’s world opened up: “African American studies changed my life.” After a graduating, getting a master’s degree, trying to make it as a DJ, hitting rock bottom, then coming back to his alma mater to teach hip hop, Quamé is still Quamé. And he’s an academic counselor, helping students unlock their potential and follow their hearts.
Following is a written version of Fiat Vox episode #44: “Academic counselor Quamé on standing out, dreaming big — and letting go.”
When John Patton was in 11th grade, he changed his name to Quamé.
[Music: “Rodney Skopes” by Blue Dot Sessions]
He was in biology class at Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles. His teacher had shown the students a book of African names. John and his friends each chose one, just for fun.
But when John came to UC Berkeley as an undergraduate two years later, he became Quamé.
“When I got to Cal, I started to actually use my name and it was Quamé,” he says. “And it stuck instantly.”
“And it was natural for you to answer to it? Were there ever times when people were like, ‘Quamé!’ and you didn’t answer?” I ask.
“No. No,” he says. “Because people said it in a certain way. I liked the way I felt when they said Quamé v. John. Yeah.”
And 30 years later, Quamé is still Quamé.
As an academic counselor for the Educational Opportunity Program and Student Support Services at UC Berkeley, he works with students to help them find their own paths — to dream big and follow their hearts.
Third-year student Amir Wright, a political science major and ASUC senator, has been meeting with Quamé through EOP since he started at Berkeley. He says Quamé encourages him to take advantage of every opportunity, to go after it and apply. What’s the worst thing that can happen, he asks him? You don’t get it and you move on.
“He’s been incredibly supportive, just making sure that I am getting the most out of my time here,” says Amir. “He would tell me to not let school get in the way of my education. You know, just really trying to expand out of the classroom and learn as much as I can and be in as many spaces as I can.”
When Quamé walks through campus, he knows everyone. I mean, it really seems like he does. He says he’s been on and off campus for 30 years, but it’s more than that. He makes people feel good.
“I like people, you know what I mean,” he laughs. “I like people.”
As a counselor, Quamé tells students to follow their dreams. Even if it doesn’t turn out exactly like they thought it would. It’s advice that has guided Quamé since he was a kid, following his passions and bucking the norms — even when his own life was at risk.
[Music: “Kunta Kente” by DJ Superstar Quamallah]
Hip hop as a way of life
Growing up an only child, Quamé yearned for siblings. He lived with his mom in Brooklyn, New York, in a small brownstone apartment. She was a costume designer and seamstress with dreams of having a play of her own on Broadway. To keep himself company, Quamé imagined little pet mice.
“I used to call them micies,” he said. “That’s a distinct memory from my childhood. Those were my friends. All the way up until I was maybe 7, 8 years old.”
When Quamé was in second grade, Quamé and his mom left behind city life for his mom’s hometown, Fayetteville, North Carolina.
“Very kind of rural existence in North Carolina,” says Quamé. “Slow. It was just so slow.”
But Quamé figured out how to liven it back up.
[Music: Clip from movie “Beat Street”]
In middle school, he started listening to hip hop and learned to breakdance. The big backyards in North Carolina gave Quamé and his friends a space to practice their drops, headspins and windmills.
It was the early ‘80s — they were b-boys, part of a growing counterculture of people who wore flashy clothes and rejected oppressive mainstream society.
But after a few years, his mom wanted out of her hometown, so they packed their bags and drove across the country to Los Angeles, a place where fitting in meant joining a gang. And not fitting in could mean death.
The courage to not fit in
“And man, we moved north to L.A. and this kind of gangster culture, which had really died off in the ‘70s in New York, you know, was like thriving in L.A. The gang bangin’ culture was pretty much running a lot of the black and brown neighborhoods in L.A.”
On his second day at Crenshaw High School, Quamé was wearing what he always wore — flashy b-boy clothes: A red Izod shirt, red suede Pumas with red and white shoestrings.
“People are walking away from me as if, like, I didn’t take a bath or something. I would sit in class and people would part and nobody would sit next to me and I said ‘What is going on?’”
He soon learned. During the morning break, an older-looking guy in cornrows and on crutches, called him over to his table where a bunch of guys were hanging out.
“They just look like they have gone through stuff in life. He walks over to me and he says, ‘Hey man, can I talk to you?’ And I’m like, you know, ‘Sure.’ And he said, ‘You know, those shoes are def.’ And you know come from New York, North Carolina, def was like D-E-F. It meant good. Like you’re with it. And so I was like, ‘Thank you.’ And then he said, ‘No, I mean D-E-A-T-H.’ And he pointed at the guys at a table and he said, ‘Man they’re talking about killing you.’”
Right there, Quamé got a crash course on gang culture in L.A. By dressing in red, he was identifying himself as a Blood — a major gang, known for its rivalry with the Crips, who wore blue.
Quamé knew it was too late for him to blend in at Crenshaw. But at the same time, he didn’t really want to fit in. He didn’t want to be like everyone else — to be swept up in the gangster way of life.
“Fitting in it at the at the time period could mean death, because then you become affiliated. You might not be jumped in with a gang, but if you’re dressed in a certain way and you look a certain way, then you’re affiliated. And so there’s expectations that you’ll do certain things for the neighborhood.”
So he mostly stuck to himself. He made a few close friends with other East Coast transplants, with their funny accents and haircuts, and bought turntables with money he earned at his after-school job at Pizza Hut.
And that’s how Quamé got through school — DJing in his room whenever he could, and with his sights set on college. He always knew he would go to college, but he couldn’t have predicted how it would awaken parts of himself — about what it meant to be a young black man in the U.S. — that he never knew were sleeping.
[Music: “California Dreamin” by DJ Superstar Quamallah]
African American studies ‘changed my life’
At UC Berkeley, Quamé’s world opened up. After taking his first intro course in the Department of African American Studies, he knew that he’d found his home. He’d always loved learning, but this was the first time he was being taught material from a black perspective.
“African American studies changed my life,” Quamé says. “It confirmed a lot of things and answered a lot of questions I had about myself. About the world.”
He read Beloved by Toni Morrison; James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time; and The Autobiography of Malcom X.
“Oh, it just blew me away to learn about the resources that come from Africa,” he says. “And about colonialism. I didn’t know about colonization of the Americas. Even though we learned that in history, it wasn’t put to me from an indigenous or an African American perspective, so I never fully was able to digest it in a way that made sense to me.”
[Music: “Kid Kodi” by Blue Dot Sessions]
The campus had an energy that lifted him up, that made him feel like he was part of something bigger than himself. He finally felt like he belonged to a community.
“The campus was so diverse. For black folks alone, we were 11 percent at the time. Unlike now, it was common to see a lot of black students from public schools you know coming from places where there are a lot of black people. Now you see black students who come from places where they’re used to being the only black person.”
His professors became like an extended family, always pushing him to be his best.
When he graduated four years later, he went on to get a master’s degree from Columbia and then came back to teach African studies at Berkeley High School. A year later, when his former major adviser at UC Berkeley told him she was leaving her position and that he should apply for it, he jumped at the opportunity.
“I said ‘Are you kiddin’?’ I mean it was a dream job for me because she was so pivotal in my transition into life, grad school. So, I just kinda wanted to do everything she did for me. How I saw her interact with other students, I wanted to do that.”
So, at 25, he came back to campus as the major adviser for African American Studies and dove into being the best mentor he could be. He planned black graduation, which more than 6,000 people attended. One year he got famous defense lawyer Johnnie Cochran to speak.
“Yeah, so I was on fire with that job. That was a high point in my life. It was a high point.”
He didn’t know that by 30, he would quit everything and soon find himself struggling to survive as an artist in L.A.
DJ Superstar Quamallah
After four years as an adviser, Quamé felt like he’d done everything he’d set out to do in that role. His mentor, Professor VéVé Clark, encouraged him to apply to the African American Studies Ph.D. program so that he could become a professor of hip hop — something she could tell he’d be good at.
He applied and got in. At the same time, he released his first album — “Don’t Call Me John” — with ABB Records.
[Music: “Grand Whizard” by DJ Superstar Quamallah]
It took off overseas. He got all kinds of offers to perform that he had to turn down. But when the Oakland hip hop group Souls of Mischief asked Quamé to DJ for them on tour to Australia and Japan, he had to do it.
So, in 2001, Quamé quit the Ph.D. program and set out to make a name for himself as DJ Superstar Quamallah.
“I loved the whole being on the road,” says Quamé. “I loved the non-stop. I loved being on-the-go, not knowing where you’re going to eat, meeting new people every five minutes. Everything about it was me. Everything.”
After the tour, he moved back to L.A. to try to make it as a DJ. He poured his heart and soul into making his dream happen. And instead of feeling alienated, like he did before, Quamé felt at home.
“Now I appreciated going back. Because this was my first time really coming back to live in L.A. since high school. So I actually missed the gang bangin, all the stuff I couldn’t make sense of. Like, I get it. Kinda homesick.”
As the months went by, though, he just wasn’t getting the break he’d been hoping for and he started running out of money. He got desperate. He started drinking alcohol, when he’d never even tasted it before. He asked his friends to help him sell drugs so he could pay rent.
It was a really low point in his life, he says, but also a moment that forced him to look at himself in an honest, raw way.
[Music: “Greylock” by Blue Dot Sessions]
“It felt like a lifetime within three years,” he says. “Yeah, yeah I grew up. More than anything I learned. I took the time to learn and look at myself in ways I hadn’t looked at myself.”
“What did you aspire to?” I ask.
“To stop complaining. Stop whining. Stop seeing myself as a victim. Learn how to work hard. Yeah, I just really had to grow up. I had to get tough. Spiritually tough, emotionally tough, physically tough. Everything.”
After three years of giving it all he had, Quamé knew he couldn’t keep going. It was time to leave L.A.
He called Vévé Clark and she invited him back to Berkeley to lecture on hip hop. So, in 2005, feeling like a failure, he went back to his alma mater to build himself back up.
Working with students, it turned out, helped him realize that he actually had something to teach.
The power of letting go
As a lecturer, Quamé channeled the mentors who changed his life as an undergrad. He wrote his own curriculum, pulling from his experiences in L.A. He brought in guest speakers — hip hop artists, record label owners, entertainment lawyers. Every class, he says, he’d be pacing the floor like he was giving a TED Talk.
“The chalkboard would be filled so students would be on edge of their seats for a whole two hours,” says Quamé. “It was storybook. I loved it. And so I realized, ‘You’re a teacher. It’s OK.’ You know, after that first semester, I started to come down off of my entrepreneurial high. Like, ‘You’re actually a great teacher. There’s nothing wrong with it.’
In 2017, Quamé published his first book, The Power of Letting Go — about his journey of self-discovery in L.A. and how he learned to let go of fear, ego and time. He also developed a class called “Investigating Life Journeys,” designed to help students learn about themselves — their beliefs and why they had them.
“I said, ‘Why would you spend all these years learning in-depth about subject matter and people outside of yourself if you don’t know who you are?’”
[Music: “Soul” by DJ Superstar Quamallah]
And now, as an academic counselor for the Educational Opportunity Program and Student Support Services at Berkeley, he is helping to guide students on their own life journeys.
Recently, Quamé started his own company called Gig Brothers, where he works with the best DJs around, setting up and taking down their sound equipment for them. He hopes when his 5-year-old son Rozcoh is older, he’ll run the business with his dad.
After he retires, he’s going to write a book about his time at Berkeley.
“Yeah, I’m excited. It’s going to be juicy,” he laughs.
Talking to Quamé, you can hear nostalgia in his voice. Nostalgia for different places that became home over the years. Nostalgia for how things were.
“What do you want people to remember you by? Or when they think of you, what do you want them to think?” I ask.
“First word that came to my mind was soul,” he says.
“Like I just loved growing up in the ‘70s. You used to use the word ‘soul’ a lot, you know. Yeah, I’ve just tried to be soulful. Just be a soulful brother. Yeah. And kind of speak from the heart. Move from the heart, you know, and interact with people to my heart. So yeah. He’s a soulful brother. That’s it.”