Terrence Culbreath is a 32-year-old Recording Arts grad currently serving as the mayor of Johnston, South Carolina.
He calls himself unconventional. We agree, but would add that he’s also undeniably a people person – the kind of guy who knows how to enter a room, who nurtures his professional relationships and rolls with the punches, who has friends in cities across the country, and is always on time.
When Terrence started Full Sail back in 2004, he, like so many other students, dreamed of one day landing a position in a professional recording studio. He even took a leave of absence from his studies to attend the Atlantis Music Conference in Atlanta, Georgia, in hopes of furthering his aspirations. “I was able to network there,” he recalls. “I’d stand up at the events and ask questions. I’d hand out business cards and resumes and met studio owners, managers, producer, rappers.”
Most importantly, Terrence was realistic in his networking goals. “I knew that many of those people didn’t necessarily hold the key to getting me a job. So I didn’t just chase popularity. I didn’t want to meet T.I., you know, because I knew the idea of T.I. giving me a job was highly unlikely. But the people I did meet, I emailed or called when I got back to school. I nurtured those relationships.”
Upon graduation, Terrence relocated immediately. “I was a regular college student – I was broke! But a family friend owned this charter bus line, and he was driving some seniors up to Daytona for a day trip, and he had some empty room under the bus for luggage. So I loaded up everything I could under this man’s bus, and sold the rest. That’s how I moved.”
He stopped for a brief, two-week visit in his hometown of Johnston, SC before planting semi-permanent roots in Atlanta. Once there, he leaned on the contacts he’d made at the conference and crossed his fingers. After a few weeks, he landed an internship with OutKast’s Stankonia Studios. “They made me a weekend intern, but I was there almost every day of the week, just to help out. They liked me, and offered me a job about three weeks in.”
Terrence started as a night manager – a position he claims had as much to do with his stature as his skills and dedication. “I’m 6’6”, about 300 pounds. That’s a nice way of saying, ‘If things get out of hand in here, we know you’re big enough and strong enough to throw someone out.’”
Over the next few years, Terrence made friends both inside and out of the studio. He worked independently, setting up home studios and helping artists with management and promotion; he also built a rapport with OutKast member Big Boi, and was credited on the rapper’s critically lauded solo album Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty.
“There were good times and there were bad times.” But eventually, says Terrence, “I just wanted to do something different.”
Terrence’s transition from entertainment to public service didn’t happen suddenly or even consciously at first. “I moved to Columbia, and then to Johnston. And I just started getting more civically engaged when I moved back to my hometown. I started throwing parties and then registering people to vote. I was like, ‘Hey, you’re young and already need your ID to get into this party, so why don’t you go ahead and register to vote? It’s free.’ Most people don’t understand how local politics affect them more than national politics. They both affect you, but I mean, I’m a mayor. I have a council meeting tonight, and what we vote on tonight could change someone’s life tomorrow.”
Terrence officially entered the world of politics after being appointed as a councilman. After that, he pursued the seat for mayor. “I didn’t agree with the policies of the current mayor. Being in the South, in Edgefield county, it’s very conservative. And the incumbent had been in politics 20-some odd years in this county. It was a true uphill battle, but I’d already laid the groundwork on the battlefield years prior when I registered so many young people to vote.”
And so again, Terrence’s success was nudged along by his likability – by the relationships he’d tended to so thoughtfully. “When it all happened on election day, my margin was pretty outstanding. It was well over two to one.”
Reflecting on the vibrant and winding path that led him back to Johnston, he says the connection between music and politics is simple: “It’s all about vibes. You always have to know how to enter a room and how to exit a room. In dealing with the music industry before, I learned about value. I valued myself before anyone else did. And if I value me, then by default, I know how to value you, too. As long as two people can find that common ground, we can get something done.”
These days, Mayor Culbreath, the once-RA student who dreamed of making waves in indie and hip hop culture, doesn’t think his aspirations have really changed much. “The dream is still very similar. I just changed the trajectory. The same skills that got me there are the ones that got me here.”
“I want to build more avenues for youth. I tell young people, ‘Don’t be afraid of your dreams, but don’t be so comfortable with your dreams. I’m not saying they should change, but they should evolve. And don’t be afraid to question anything. Challenge yourself to go outside your comfort zone and get answers. Once you start breaking down self-built barriers, you start realizing how big the world is, and how big your own world can be.'”