A St. Louis Rapper Lost His Brother — Then Wrote a Hit Single

Donald Walker aka Head wrote his hit song "Not Alone" to process his grief after 13-year-old Nunu was shot

Feb 22, 2023 at 6:11 am
click to enlarge Donald Walker stands in front of a graffiti wall.
Braden McMakin
Donald Walker poured his pain into “Not Alone” after his brother died. The song blew up, getting more than a million views.

Donald Walker can feel Nunu in the Starbucks. He pauses. He stares off into the walls of the quiet coffee house in north county, his eyes full of water and a soft smile on his face, as if he's sharing a moment that no one else can see. It's been three years and three months since Nunu was murdered at the age of 13. But Walker still sees him a lot. His smile. His warmth. His desire to be a musician. Whenever he gets in the studio for sure. And now in this Starbucks.

"I feel like he right beside me," Walker says. "He here right now."

Nunu, a.k.a. Clifford Swan III, was the reason that Walker started making music. Becoming a famous musician was Nunu's dream, not Walker's. Nunu would bounce around the house, blasting YoungBoy Never Broke Again, holding a toy microphone, freestyling for days, pretending to be a Louisiana rapper. Nunu brought life to a room, always joking and playing. "Nunu was funny as hell," says his cousin Rico, who also goes by Ap5ive. "Like, I promise you, Nunu can make you laugh when you got a badass day." He was sweet — the kind of person to call randomly just to say hi — and incredibly smart, a straight-A student who had recently signed a contract with Nickelodeon for acting.

Then, Nunu was killed on September 12, 2019. The 13-year-old, an innocent bystander, was shot while walking to the store by an 18-year-old who mistook him for someone else.

The killing suffocated Walker in pain. They were extremely close. Nunu looked up to Walker, wanted to be like him, and Walker saw himself as his little brother's protector. "He was like more of a father figure than a big brother to him," Rico says.

Nothing touched Nunu — until it did. And Walker didn't know how to respond. People told him that he wasn't alone. "You're not alone, you're not alone," they repeated. But, as Walker says, "I felt alone." His little brother was dead.

So a week after Nunu was killed, Walker walked into his little brother's room. He did what Nunu would have done: He made a song. He found a YouTube beat that "touched" him and bought it for $800. In one day, he emptied all of his grief, trauma and sadness onto the pages of his notebook with a red pen. Everything he felt. "They told me, 'Hold my head up,' but I just keep it down," he wrote. "Ain't no more smiles, all frowns when people come around."

The emotions were easy to describe, he says. But finding a hook to draw people in and capture his pain — that wasn't so easy. Sitting in his brother's room, he asked Nunu for help. Then it appeared in his mind, the iconic chorus that would define his first song.

"Tell me how I'm not alone / They say you are not alone / And I just want my brother home / I can't believe my brother gone / So tell me how I'm not alone."

He released the song on October 29, 2019.

It blew up.

"Not Alone" would become Walker's hit song, under his childhood nickname, Head. Within 45 days, it had 1 million views on YouTube. Agents from Capitol, Atlantic and Def Jam Records flooded his phone. Fans from Germany FaceTimed him. A 13-year-old from Australia told him that the song stopped him from committing suicide.

Nunu's story and "Not Alone" were highlighted in a 2021 Riverfront Times cover story. But Walker's story is still ongoing. The song sent him down an unexpected path: At 23, he is a musical artist known around the world. Since "Not Alone," he has released multiple songs that drew more than 100,000 views, and he moved to Atlanta to pursue music.

click to enlarge A man holds out an image on a phone screen.
Braden McMakin
Donald Walker’s brother Nunu, left, was central to his life.

To this day, "Not Alone" is still Walker's most famous song, with more than 9 million views on YouTube. It touched people in a way few songs can. Really, it was how candidly he spoke about death. In the song, Walker doesn't try to hide from grief. He doesn't try to sugarcoat it. He doesn't try to pretend that it's all OK or that he should feel better or move on or forget about it or use it as fuel.

He raps what he feels: pain. Pure, aching, neverending pain.

"Pain," he says, "lasts forever."

You can read it in his lyrics. "People telling me that you feel me / Fuck nah you just hear me." You can hear it when he sings, his soft voice crying out for help, or the parts where he raps, his voice sinking deeper, booming louder and cracking with anger.

Even after he released "Not Alone," death has been a constant in Head's music. His next song, "Die Today," gave advice to his family if he died. "If I die today, God please take my soul / No funerals, party it up, I'mma forever gonna live long." "By Myself" portrays a character contemplating suicide. "Moma I'm Sorry" is a letter to his mom, apologizing for going back into the streets and risking his life.

To an outsider, Walker's musical catalog resembles a diary. He only has 15 songs, and he seems to make music when he needs it. "It's like therapy," his cousin, Deontra, says. Some songs are one minute long, others three minutes. One is a love letter to his daughter. In another, he's fighting the "demons" inside of him.

"We all got feelings," he says. "I'm gonna let it out. ... I'm gonna open up for them, and I'm gonna let it be known that it's OK to open up."

But he's still trying to make sense of a career he never saw coming.

"I still got to tell myself I'm a rapper," he says. "I be telling people, 'Yeah man, I ain't no rapper.' And they be like, 'No, boy, you is a rapper. You know how many views you got?'"

Music surrounded Walker throughout his life. Multiple people in his family were artists. Walker, though, was more of a "sideman," Rico says, a manager. He helped his cousin, 5ive, for example, write his hit song "Me and My Brother," which received nearly 90 million views. And of course, he listened to Nunu talk about music all the time.

But Walker never planned to make his own songs. In many ways, it was because he never had the opportunity.

"Head wasn't nowhere near rap," Rico says. "That shocked everybody."

Walker grew up all across St. Louis in a large, close-knit family made up of his mom and five siblings. He went by the nickname Head — a nod to his big head. Walker was the life of the party, just like his little brother. "[Walker] can make a joke out of everything," Rico says.

But his childhood wasn't easy. They had little money. They bounced from house to house.

"I feel like [Walker makes] music for people that grew up like him and came from places like him," Deontra says. "Shit, we grew up in the hood. We didn't really have much."

Then, at 12, Walker had his firstexperience with death — when he lost his four-month-old little brother, who died in his sleep. With his mother absorbed in grief, Walker stepped up.

As a teenager, he began stealing from stores, disguising "BB guns as if they were real guns" and selling weed — doing anything to feed and clothe his family.

"It was a purpose behind everything I was doing," he says. "I wasn't just doing it because I'm hanging around these boys and they stealing, so I want to steal [because] I ain't got no friends. Hell nah. I was really doing this shit for my mama's kids to eat. So everything I was doing, I'm bringing it home — for us."

As a high schooler, Walker stopped stealing, focused on his schoolwork and graduated from Hazelwood East in 2017, where he starred as a linebacker and received two college scholarship offers. But he didn't take the offers. He couldn't go to college. His family needed money, he says. When asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, he says: "To tell you the truth, a provider."

He had no grand plans — until Nunu died, and he found a new path.

"I'm like, fuck it, I'm just gonna chase his dream," Walker says. "He's gonna live through me."

Another turning point happened nine months after Nunu died: Walker's daughter was born. The second he saw her feet, he says, he knew his life had changed. Still grieving over Nunu, his daughter gave him a new sense of motivation and purpose. "He wasn't thinking for himself, no more," Rico says. "He got somebody to live for. He got a daughter."

In the summer of 2021, he moved out to Atlanta to focus more on music, spending long days in the studios and meeting producers. "I can't jeopardize my life no more / My little girl need a father," he wrote in "Benji," the love letter to his daughter. "... For you, baby, I shake the ground."

But the music industry hasn't been a simple rise to the top.

When "Not Alone" was released, Walker dropped into the music world with no blueprint. Labels offered him million-dollar contracts, but he turned them down because they wouldn't give him creative control. "I'm worth more," he says. He has sporadically put out music since 2019, totaling around 15 songs. None have struck the same chord as "Not Alone." Sometimes he wonders if he missed his chance. His money trickled away as time passed, and for a period, he returned to the old life that he had set behind. "Shit hit the fan again," he says. "I had to hustle. I had to hustle again."

But Walker says he doesn't feel bitter that his career hasn't skyrocketed yet. Actually, he feels encouraged. He has no manager or label or agent. He hasn't put out an album, hasn't posted consistently, hasn't even wrapped his head around being a rapper — and yet, he's made it this far.

Still splitting time between Atlanta and St. Louis, he wants to post more consistently. "Consistency completely will change everything," he says. This year, he plans to release a mixtape, six singles and an album. Already, he has put out two new songs. He says he is expanding his repertoire, combining his signature pain music with fast-moving, turn-up music.

"My numbers, in my eyes, can only go up," he says. "I came a long way. ... I don't care if ... this song-flower don't bloom overnight. I started from nothing. So to them, I'm not doing something. To me, I'm doing something."

But Walker says he's not doing this for the fame or money.

He's making music for the reason he made it in the first place: to carry on the legacy of his little brother, Nunu.

"He's the reason I do it," Walker says. "He's the only reason I do it."

This story has been updated to correct the date Clifford "Nunu" Swan III was killed. We regret this error.

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