Submitted by Tracy Moore
He’s crisp, not showy. Involved, not busy. Confident, not boastful. Deep, but not lofty. More like a regular guy who happens to have achieved laser focus to manifest in a variety of different directions, for all of which he carries great passion. With enough on his plate to keep a multitude occupied, he doesn’t seem haggard or overwhelmed, instead gliding through with a royal grace–the epitome of his very name. It’s time to shed some light on one of Reno’s most intriguing individuals.
His name is Pharoah Davis, a dreadlocked City of Reno firefighter, 44 years old, who carries within his long lean frame an I-can-do-this spirit of peaceful determination. It has propelled him, over the course of the last couple decades, to steadily nurture interests ranging from basketball to music and most recently vegan cuisine, emerging as a creative force in and somehow balancing the demands of all of them, and sewing in the chance for others in the community to experience the same kind of growth and blossoming.
The how he does it all has much to do with why he does it all.
“It’s for the culture,” he explains. “The culture of life. If it’s for the universe, I’m for it.”
A touch of destiny resides in the early life of Pharoah (he prefers to go by just his first name). A native of the San Bernardino County city of Fontana, he was born in 1976 to a jazz producer father and jazz singing mother. He was also greatly influenced by his flute-playing uncles and by his grandmother, who taught him to cook, but around whose home in nearby Pomona orbited the vibes of family, gathering and community.
“My grandma’s house was like the hub of the family,” Pharoah says. “Where we all kind of learned culture, food, family, coming together and wellness.”
A genesis of his drive to accomplish could be pinpointed to a high school setback on the basketball court, when he failed to make the team at the age of 15. Not liking that feeling, he practiced hard for a year and came back the next season ready to make the most of his tryout. It ultimately led to a basketball scholarship and a college hooping career at Utah State, where the six-foot, six-inch Pharoah graduated in 1999 with a degree in broadcast journalism.
Shifting to fire, but holding onto the game
His basketball journey would take him to Australia, Europe and the NBA summer league. But eventually he stepped away from his basketball career–“too aggressive, I just didn’t like who I was as a player on that gladiator level, and it was hard to be a good father”–and decided he wanted to be a firefighter. In true Pharoah fashion he dove right in, spreading applications around the nation while he diligently studied sample entrance exams. Pharoah ultimately, and maybe fatefully, landed a position in Reno in 2003.
But basketball was still in his blood. By 2010, splitting his time in Sacramento during his off days from the Reno Fire Department, Pharoah would establish a community outreach basketball program based in Sacramento called Lions Pro Style Fundamentals. It was a type of fraternity, as Pharoah describes it, comprised of about 40 to 50 youths around the age of seven. They’re now 10 years older, still playing, and still learning from the wider life focus of the program.
“We introduce the kids to the idea of having a network among peers,” Pharoah adds. “Some may become athletes, some entrepreneurs, some might be a dentist or coaches or whatever endeavor, but they all started as kids together.”
Now just a few years from retirement with the RFD, Pharoah is qualified not only in his rank as a firefighter, but is hazmat, aerial and engine qualified and, not surprisingly, is a member of the department’s peer support mentor group.
Music in his name, and veins
During all of this, music held an important place in Pharoah’s life. In fact, he was named after John Coltrane’s tenor sax comrade and legendary free jazz immortal Pharoah Sanders, using his personalized spelling of the name, and was surrounded by stacks of jazz vinyl as a child. He is specifically moved by the power and opportunity of expression in hip-hop music.
Seemingly never content to just sit back and be a fan, and with a perfect rap handle for a name, Pharoah jumped into the world of hip-hop and music production during his days at Utah State. In 1998 he teamed up with fellow student Richie Panelli, known in the hip-hop universe as Apprentice, and now a Reno audiologist, to form Dorm Room Muzik, based mostly in Sacramento but with affiliated studios spanning from Sacramento to Reno to Salt Lake City.
Now over 20 years in, DRM has produced for artists in musical styles ranging from rap to acoustic, drum and bass, reggae infused and rock, even collaborating at one point with the Reno Philharmonic to present a “hip-hopera” at the Pioneer Center benefiting the Rainshadow Community Charter High School. He collaborates with other local artists, like Carl Dash (CD) and Idol Hands.
Most recently, DRM has released a hip-hop number and video on YouTube called “Lemonade.” The track speaks to making the best of what life sends your way, featuring Pharoah and track producer CD among others, including his wife of just over a year, Kendall. She’s moving in her own directions these days too, as a respiratory therapist, interior designer and synergistic contributor to DRM and all of Pharoah’s works. The couple brings together Pharoah’s two sons and a daughter and Kendall’s son and daughter, ranging in age from 11 to 21.
“Lemonade” is a sort of CSNY “Our House” meets Madness’ 80’s hit “Our House” colliding head on with 21st century realities blatantly and metaphorically expressed as only hip-hop can.
“If you watch it you see family, kids outside and all the stuff going on the world, people with masks on, stuff like that,” Pharoah relates. “We’re still vibing, we’re still humans and we’re still grounded and have our experiences. That’s what Lemonade is all about.”
One of the great things you see at Dorm Room Muzik’s Instagram page is the ad for the DRM Music and Film class, happening Tuesdays and Thursdays in Sacramento. The class, nominally targeted to “at-risk” youth, provides the basics of audio and video production — for free. Pharoah’s own untrained, shoot-from-the-hip grant writing prowess, in collaboration with Sacramento’s Mutual Assistance Network and its affiliate Black Child Legacy Campaign, funds the class.
Pharoah notes that the main qualifications for attending the class, now five years strong, are ambition and desire, with no requirement to prove any “at-risk” status.
“That would stipulate some type of stigma,” says Pharoah. “You could be at risk simply because you don’t have an outlet, and that’s enough to have your spirit crushed for your dreams.”
The only place the term “at-risk” is used is in the language of the grant request, the $10,000 from which is quickly exceeded. Pharoah keeps the program alive through professionals donating their time (on Zoom these days) and other volunteered sources, covering studio time and equipment.
“We’ll figure out a way to get you in if you have the desire,” Pharoah says. “That to me is hip-hop. We’re not exclusive. If the grant funds one through eight we’ll sponsor eight through 50 if 50 people show up.”
The classes reach out to youth within the Black Child Legacy’s project called Healing the Hood, but beyond that they are pretty much open to anyone who signs up.
“It’s an opportunity for community,” Pharoah explains of the program’s open philosophy. “You don’t have to be pigeonholed into a societal norm; you can actually get more by networking with people who are different from you.”
Returning to Grandmother’s kitchen
In the last year-and-a-half or so Pharoah has come full circle with the vibes of his grandmother’s kitchen with the launch of his vegan food preparation and delivery service in Sacramento and more recently in Reno called 1837 Vegan (@1837vegan). The 1837 actually refers to his grandmother’s street address back in Pomona. 1837 Vegan offers such menu fare as gumbo, enchiladas, orange chicken (actually oyster mushrooms), peach cobbler and more, all in a vegan, non-gmo, organic fashion in line with Pharoah’s ideas of wellness for all.
The 2014 documentary “GMO OMG” inspired Pharoah to become vegetarian, and he has been vegan since 2016. Aside from the delivery service, 1837 Vegan’s food cart can be found at area wellness events such as Sacramento’s “Self Care Sundays.” Pharoah was recently accepted into the city of Sacramento’s Alchemist Microenterprise Academy, which according to its website offers a 12-week program “to make sense of the confusing aspects of starting a food business,” after which participants can test for the ServSafe food manager certification.
At any one moment, Pharoah can be found in Reno or Sacramento, fighting a fire or performing a river rescue, cooking up a vegan delicacy or dropping some lyrics to a hip-hop beat, coaching the finer aspects of a left-handed layup or having lunch out with his wife, welcoming a new round of aspiring creatives to a production class or at home playing one-on-one with his son. It’s an impressive juggling act driven by Pharoah’s inner motivation, or as he puts it, his flow.
“That’s the key, this is my life’s flow,” he explains. “I go with the flow. My flow leads me down these paths and they all have a time, a place and a season.
“You see the table (of activities) every day. You have to ask yourself ‘what’s the flow?’ If my energy is called for me to be at home, I’m home. If it calls for me to be on a song, I’m on the song. If it calls for me to help a cardiac arrest victim, that’s what I’m doing that day with my energy. The choices become easy. I handle it. You are in charge of your own thoughts and manifestations.”
In fact, as of the late October, Pharoah reports that he has just secured a $15,000 grant through Dorm Room Muzik in collaboration with Sacramento’s Mutual Assistance Network to form a community intervention team aimed at providing outreach and mentoring to youth affected by violence and gang-related difficulties.
“Another way of adding to the repertoire,” Pharoah smiles.
The main sacrifice for his continued achievement? Not a lot of just sitting around.
“Oh no bro, none of that,” he laughs. “I don’t waste a thought.”
About the author: Tracy Moore is a Reno native and long-time but currently Covid-furloughed host of the KTHX-FM’s Reggae Shack radio program. He is also an occasional contributor to the Reggae Festival Guide online magazine, and takes an interest in notable figures in Reno’s creative and healthy eating scenes.