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Antone Exum moved from the NFL into music

The former defensive back is on tour with his first album

Former NFL player Antone Exum has exchanged his helmet for a microphone. Exum, 30, was a defensive back for the San Francisco 49ers and safety for the Minnesota Vikings. Even while playing football, Exum was making music.

On July 10, 2020, Exum was scheduled for a routine heart procedure. He was supposed to be home the same night but flatlined on the operating table. Not surprisingly, this moment was transformative. In his younger years, Exum was so afraid of death that often he cried at the thought that his loved ones would no longer be around one day. He turned this fear into art, and it is the inspiration for “Muffin Years in Lydian,” the concluding song of his debut album, Xardinal Coffee.

His music has been described as “genre-bending” and includes elements of rap, dream pop, neo soul and hip-hop. Now on his first tour with Alex G, Snarls and Big Thief, Exum spoke with The Undefeated about traveling for football versus being on tour, what’s behind the name of his album and starting a religion.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

How was the transition from playing football to making music?

Smooth. I have been making music and writing for some years. The latter years of my [football] career, it started getting more serious because I was getting hurt, and I just had so much time on my hands. I had a creative itch, and it needed to be scratched, and I guess music was with that avenue.

During the second-to-last year in the league with the 49ers, I got hurt again, and I was completely immersed with making music. Then I got picked back up [by the 49ers], so I had to halt a little bit. I was kind of just playing both sides when I had the time. It is funny, though, because nobody in the locker room knew I was doing that. They are probably just sitting at home like, ‘What the?’ Because they are seeing on Instagram that I am on tour now. I was not really talking about that. I wanted to keep it football and focus on that and be present with that when I was in the building. I did not want it to be a distraction for me or for anyone else.

What made you go the football route instead of music starting out?

I am from a sports family. We were listening to music, of course, but there were no musicians in the house. My dad was a basketball coach. My mom was a star athlete in high school, and my sister played tennis. When I was younger, I got pianos and stuff for Christmas that I asked for but nobody in the house knew how to work them. I did not try to save the beats that I was making or anything, so it was just like, ‘I will just go back outside and play basketball, I guess.’

How is being on tour different from traveling for football?

The turnover from game to game is a lot longer in football. We play every Sunday or sometimes Thursday, Saturday, Monday. It is four times a week for the most part, and the days in between you are prepping. With music and touring, it is back to back. There is no taking a week off to prepare for the next one. It is rapid-fire. I feel like at the beginning, I had more nerves involved, and then, as we kept flowing, those started to subside a little bit.

How did you come up with the name Xardinal Coffee for your album?

I was staying at my mother’s house where I grew up in Richmond, Virginia, and she has this backyard. If you go out in the morning, you can hear birds humming, cardinals flying around, doing their chirps and sending different messages. It is really beautiful. Then, you can hear the wind blowing. I would wake up in the morning, and I would immediately meditate outside on the back porch. Instead of me having a cup of joe or Folgers, nature was waking me up.

What does your creative process look like?

There is no set, go-to process. The other night, I think we were in New Orleans, and I was trying to sleep, and a melody just came to my head. I started playing with it and I wrote down some lyrics. This all happened within the span of a minute or something. I just pulled my phone out to record so I can remember it. Sometimes it comes out of thin air and then, sometimes, it is more of a conscious effort. I will buy a book just to skim through it and just see three passages within the book that are interesting. I do not need to know the whole story. I can just get into a micro-story in the book and might find some phrase that inspires me.

What are your hopes for the future of your music career?

I do not really have any hopes, and it is going to sound cocky, but it just is what it is. I am going to be one of the greatest artists that has ever lived. That is how I feel about my artistry. That is what I envision in my head. I am going to start a religion, and my next album is called 27 Planets, and the doctrine for that religion I am going to release with the album. It is going to be in report style, and it is going to be called the Ückean. That is where I am at with things. I just have plans of connecting with a lot of people and venturing off into different sectors.

I mean, the possibilities are endless. I feel limitless as an artist and as a human being. I just understand that I am bigger than just a human being, and I am trying to spit that message to people every night. There is a spirit inside of us that does not die, so I am fearless out here. I want to do anything and everything that interests me and moves me. In the art world, I want to direct music videos, movies, television, like, all that kind of stuff. I want to create clothes. Of course, continue to make music. I am learning how to play the piano, so I will be producing stuff. 

A senior broadcast journalism major from Orange County, Calif., Sarah Jones-Smith writes for The Hilltop, Howard University’s student newspaper, and her writing has been published by The Los Angeles Wave, and more.