Epoch Failure’s Attitude of Gratitude

Urban pop duo discuss mindset for success

Posted May 05, 2016

When national radio DJ Casey Kasem said, “Keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars,” Epoch Failure was listening.

Shervin Lainez
Source: Shervin Lainez

The urban pop duo, made up of Billy Joe Marrero and Nick Young, has certainly been reaching for the stars. Their self-titled EP, released last year, was called a “firebomb of art.” Their single, “Champion,” has been labeled a “breakout sync track” and is being played at every major sports network, including the NFL Network, Fox Sports, ESPN, NBC Sports, NASCAR and the WWE. And their remake of the classic anthem, “Living on a Prayer,” earned praise from Jon Bon Jovi himself. 

The secret to Epoch Failure’s success comes from an approach to life firmly grounded in gratitude. Both having grown up in families headed by single parents who often struggled financially, Marrero and Young learned how to appreciate everything they have, and they are sharing their simple formula to becoming a champion:

Be grateful for what you have, work hard to get what you want and never stop believing in yourself.

Gratitude, as an orientation to life, is premised on the belief that we are entitled to nothing and, therefore, appreciate anything we have beyond that – including living, shelter, food and family. This approach is a stark contrast from focusing on evaluating one’s life in terms of what we don’t have (e.g., “I am angry that I don’t have more money.”) However, gratitude does not preclude wanting or working for additional things in life. It just means being appreciative along the way.

Research suggests that gratitude can directly result in improved health and well-being. For example, experimental studies show that keeping track of things for which one is grateful leads to improved emotional and physical health as compared with keeping track of “hassles.” Further, longitudinal research suggests that expressing gratitude in relationships predicts more constructive relationship behavior, such as voicing relationship concerns to address problems over time.

Marrero recalls the difficulty he and his family faced growing up in Camden, New Jersey. Marrero told me, “I realized it was a bad situation when my mom left. That was when it got really hard for my dad. A lot of nights, we didn’t have power or heat or food for five growing boys and a full-grown man. I saw things that most people don’t see at all in their lifetime. I’ve seen a lot of friends die, a lot of fights — I myself involved in a few.”

Young also described coming from modest means, but the challenges he faced were a bit different from Marrero’s. Having grown up in Brooklyn, New York, and eventually moving to Trenton, New Jersey, Young told me, “We grew up in pretty poor and run-down places. My mom worked for the Bell telephone companies back then. So every time they got swallowed up by a new company, she would just move. I moved around a lot, so I really didn’t have a lot of childhood friends.”

And yet through these hardships, both Marrero’s and Young’s parents were very clear that their children needed to be grateful for what they had and work hard for what they wanted.

“And that was one thing my dad always taught me when I was younger. Don’t be mad that we don’t have any heat. You have a roof over your head,” Marrero explained. “You have your brothers to keep you warm. You’ve got food in your stomach. A lot of people don’t have that. There’s kids in this country and other countries that are living on the street — never seen a real bed ever in their lives.

“There are things that I hold every day, and it motivates me,” said Marrero.

Young recalled observing his mother providing for him under any circumstances. “As far as gratitude, when I was little, we didn’t have a lot, but my mother made sure we had enough,” he said. “So, I was always very grateful for her. And it was tough at times. She missed sporting events and a lot of things that I was into because of it. But I never wanted for anything, either. We never went without, even though we never had the things that other kids had.”

More, Marrero’s and Young’s parents instilled a strong work ethic in them. Research suggests that grit, or the tenacity to work hard to achieve one’s goals, predicts higher achievement. For example, in one study, while it was unrelated to IQ, grit predicted grade-point average in Ivy League undergraduates, as well as the likelihood of West Point cadets completing their studies. Perhaps because people with grit are more likely to achieve life goals, grit has also been shown to be an independent predictor of lower depression.

Marrero explained, “My dad was very involved, very strict, very old-school in the way that we weren’t allowed to hang out wherever we wanted and just disappear into the streets until it was time to come home for dinner. He was very serious and very adamant with us not being down with any of that. He kept us busy at a pretty young age working for him at a food cart in the seventh grade in downtown Camden in front of the prosecutor’s office.”

Not only did Marrero’s and Young’s parents instill them with gratitude and work ethic, but they also gave them their starts in music.

“My father got me this 12-key Family Dollar keyboard when I was a little kid, and from there, I taught myself how to play. Then, one day, I found this cheesy-looking purple and green very ’80s looking 34/40-key keyboard,” Marrero said. 

“My dad was a big Bee Gees fan, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Dean Martin, the Beatles, the Beach Boys. A lot of those guys were singer-songwriters,” he said. “And they wrote from the heart and from the struggle. Billy Joel, probably my top three up there. Bruce Springsteen – those guys – they sang and felt it and spoke for the little people, if you will. I thought that was dope and it inspired me.”

As a child, Young lived with his mother, brother and sister, and would hear each of their musical tastes. “There was a whole, big mix of music genres in my house. It was a lot of teen angst from my sister,” he said. “My brother was more into hip-hop. And my mom had country and gospel playing. At any given time, you could walk in my house and walk from room to room and get a whole different experience.

“Like a club with ADD.”

Early on, both Marrero and Young were each independently working on their own music. And each realized how magical music was for them — an escape that made them feel better. That’s not surprising. Research suggests that playing or listening to music can improve health and well-being, including symptoms of depression, anxiety and chronic pain, and even schizophrenia.

“In middle school, we were really struggling, and I was playing piano, but we didn’t have any lights or heat or anything like that. And it kind of distracted the family from those kind of crappy situations. And I just loved it. The way it felt. The way I could escape in it,” Marrero said.  “I can remember thinking to myself, ‘I’m never going to be like this. I don’t want to be hungry. I don’t want to lose any more friends. I just want to get out of here.’ And that was my motivation at a very young age. Probably when most kids were worried about Pokemon, I was thinking about how the hell am I going to get out of Camden.”

For Young, artistic endeavors became an activity to fill the time when he was alone and eventually a way to connect with people. “My mother would work all the time. So at that point, I really had no option, because I was in the house by myself a lot. So I always did art and drew and did stuff in journals,” he explained. “I had to reinvent myself to fit in. So I was in eighth grade. And me and a few friends, we would pass a notepad back and forth and just rap-battle each other in class.”

Eventually, Marrero and Young realized that music could be not only something that felt good, but also a career — a path to a better place. And they eventually found each other a few years ago to form Epoch Failure. 

While one might think that Epoch Failure’s brand of upbeat, positive music that blends pop and hip-hop would be immediately embraced, Young explained how the path thus far has not been easy. Young described difficulty booking shows as club promoters were wary of hip-hop music.

“When we started, a lot of venues didn’t exist for hip-hop. It was more like you had to know a promoter to even get on a bill. But a lot of venues looked at hip-hop as a liability. They would say, ‘Our insurance doesn’t cover hip-hop,” he explained. “When we first started out and tried to get gigs, I called every bar, every club, every promoter that I could find and tried to give them an elevator speech. And they’re like, ‘What kind of music do you play?’ And I’m like, ‘Well, you know, it’s urban pop, hip-hop.’ And they’re like, ‘Ooh, yeah, we can’t do hip-hop.’”

But for Marrero and Young, there was no chance that these barriers would get in the way. Again, their approach was based on the principles of gratitude and hard work that they learned as kids.

Marrero described how he approaches his gratitude on a daily basis. “Every day, I carry around things with me in my daily life. I remember being that little kid that was starving, wishing he had it better. And a lot of the things that I’ve been through weren’t necessarily bad, but weren’t things that kids shouldn’t go through.”  He has gratitude for the struggle, adding, “I can’t forget. Because if I forget I’m probably not going to work as hard as I do to be something better than I am now … . It’s motivation to keep going.”

And at times, to keep going, it means making do with whatever resources Young and Marrero have.  “If you don’t have the means, you become resourceful,” Marrero said.  “And even though we don’t have a $40,000 studio to record in, I do it right in my bedroom. Sometimes I do it in my bathroom, playing drums on the sink because it gets a certain reverb. So you create with what’s around you.”

But for Epoch Failure, being grateful and working with what you have does not mean that you aren’t confident about your work and assertive about sharing it with others. Being assertive without being aggressive can be an important part of leadership and effectively achieving your goals. And studies show that people who are more assertive appear less likely to be depressed. 

Rather than being boastful, Young prefers to be both humble and assertive by just presenting the facts, “like, hey, this is a great song.”

“I believe this is a great song. And that is a fact to me, because I believe it. So I want you to believe it, too. Epoch Failure’s my passion. Music’s my passion. And just knowing the product and the kind of music that we make and how it makes me feel, just makes me want to push it in everybody’s face,” Young said.

“In terms of business and not taking ‘no’ for an answer, that’s also part of where we come from and where I come from. Being from Camden, you get ‘no’ before you even get a chance to ask for ‘yes,’” explained Marrero. “You could be the next number in the body bag or the next number in the jail cell, or just some guy who disappeared and nobody knows what he did with his life.”

“And that gives you the incentive. And that’s why I’m not scared to get on stage. I’m not scared to get in front of a bunch of guys with suits and ties and tell them what we think we’re worth. I know where I’m from and what it took to get here. And I’m not just going to have someone tell me ‘no,’” Marrero said. “Eventually, you get hit, and getting up is the hard part.”

“But people don’t understand that once you get up, you’re 10 times stronger than you were before.”  

Michael Friedman, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in Manhattan and a member of EHE International’s Medical Advisory Board. Follow Dr. Friedman on Twitter @DrMikeFriedman and EHE @EHEintl.

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