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Soaring Multi-Instrumentalist Hip-Hop Artist Cardynal

Cardynal and the Flock

Cross-genre musician Cardynal Chavis has a familiar story about getting into music among young Athenians, but they have managed to leverage their drive, vision, opportunities and setbacks into Athens music achievements some people wait decades for.

Most recently the name may be familiar to you if you attended AthFest or paid close attention to the lineup. Chavis and their backing band performed on the Wicked Weed Main Stage Friday evening as Cardynal + The Flock, combining elements of hip hop, R&B, indie rock and more with an array of instrumentation. Performing at AthFest as Cardynal has been a goal and dream for them, starting with performing at the festival as a teenager.

“The first time I experienced AthFest at all, I had to have been 13 playing on the kids stage with the Camp Amped group. I was playing with this band called Trash Dog,” says Chavis. “It gave me that taste. It gave me that drive. Because, you know, I got to walk around and watch all these other people play on these huge stages, and I’m like, this exists in my city, like where I’m at.”

Before making it onto the AthFest main stage, Chavis was nominated in 2023 for the coveted Vic Chesnutt Songwriter of the Year Award. Each year this award aims to spotlight local musicians of different genres who exemplify skillful and thoughtful storytelling. Chavis was nominated for their song “If You Love It,” which is about burn out and becoming aware of the cycles and patterns in day-to-day life. Under the artist name Cardynal, they had only been releasing music and presenting themself as an established artist for about two years at that point.

However, the bigger picture is that Chavis has been playing and making music essentially their whole life. Having watched their dad play drums and guitar growing up, Chavis jumped on the drum set as soon as possible around the age of 3 or 4, then picked up the guitar at age 5. They went from writing their first song in first grade to rapping at age 13 or 14.

Mason Pearson

Early in life Chavis says that the hip hop they listened to was mainly whatever made it to popular mainstream, like Eminem and Drake. They listened to a “hodgepodge” of genres from singer-songwriters like Jason Mraz, Jack Johnson and Eric Hutchinson to heavier alternative bands like System of a Down, Linkin Park and Rage Against the Machine. Taking part in Nuçi’s Space’s Camp Amped music program exposed Chavis to an even wider range of music, and this diverse background of sounds is evident in what Chavis creates now.

The hip-hop artist and producer Cardynal was born out of the COVID pandemic experience. As a high school student in the spring of 2020, Chavis says they went on a “spring break that never ended.” Stuck at home and staying at their mom’s house half the week away from their instruments at their dad’s house, Chavis focused on making beats on their mom’s computer. It was a particularly productive period of songwriting, writing full songs on a daily basis while quarantined. Then the name Cardynal came from a project idea to write songs from a bird’s eye view of the community, exploring different perspectives and empathizing with people who normally wouldn’t draw sympathy. Although the project wasn’t released, the name stuck and became a deeper sense of identity for the artist.

“I have to think about myself as Cardynal the person and as Cardynal the concept. That got even more complicated when I accepted that I was non-binary. I questioned for years, years and years; I’ve always had a thing for androgyny,” says Chavis.

As a rapper, singer, producer and engineer, “Cardynal the concept” is truly a reflection of what Chavis is capable of as a multi-instrumentalist and musician. The newest addition to the performance aspect of what Chavis delivers is The Flock—the backing band composed of Izzy Morrow, Cat Littlepage, Spencer Paul, Julia Nyunt, Assata Bellegarde, Mac McComb, Julien Berger and Ivory. As someone who is admittedly very solo in their creation process and at times uncompromising, creating a live music experience with The Flock has taught Chavis a lot.

“One of the biggest lessons that I’ve learned in the process of working with the group is that not all changes are bad. Just because somebody is changing how they go about something doesn’t mean that they are trying to override what you created or what you started with,” says Chavis. “I have to expand my horizons. I have to expand a little bit on what I’m capable of being.”

Similarly Chavis views the projects they have dropped as a display of progress, a demonstration of talent and a view of their versatility. The next project, The Flock Tape, is very electronic based with an accumulation of impressive Athens-based features, and it will be released July 5. The inspiration for a feel-good, party-esque collection of songs came from Chavis’ dad making a comment after their last release, Bebop, that they hadn’t dropped a happy song in a very long time. 

“I try to show the outer reaches of what I’m capable of doing as a producer, because I do want people to constantly walk away from my music with it in mind that I am a producer first,” says Chavis.

There will be an album release show for The Flock Tape at MaiKai Kava Lounge on July 5 from 8–11 p.m. with opening performances by Nony1, DK and Kive?!, followed by a solo playthrough of the album by Cardynal. The performances will be followed by an after-party-style celebration.

If you missed Cardynal + The Flock at AthFest, another performance with the full band is coming up Aug. 2 at Athentic Brewing Co. with Nony1, DK and Blesstheplaya joining the lineup. Chavis also plans to release a music video to “Practice” from The Flock Tape around the time of this performance, so there is plenty to look forward to from this artist.

WHO: Cardynal, DK, Nony1, Kive?!
WHEN: Friday, July 5, 8–11 p.m.
WHERE: MaiKai Kava Lounge