By the end of freshman year, most college students could tell you their favorite class or name some friends from the dorm, but not all could tell you the song they helped produce with Kanye West’s team or the time they got to hang with Snakehips backstage after making a piece of art for them.
Pranav Volety, a University of Wisconsin-Madison junior, embodies the Renaissance Man — operating in the field of science through lab work and neurobiology studies while also being a photographer, producer, creative director and designer.
His latest roles operate as the Creative Director of both the burgeoning rap campaign for NFL wide receiver Antonio Brown and the U.S. Senate campaign for Steven Olikara. Volety creates in all facets, from working on photography and videography to editing and producing.
A first generation immigrant from Hyderabad, India, his family united in Rockford, Illinois during his childhood after separately moving across the Midwest. Growing up in a little-known town that birthed stars such as Fred VanVleet and Virgil Abloh, he balanced his small-town reality with his big-time aspirations.
Since his arrival at UW-Madison, Volety has been featured in Complex, Hot New Hip Hop, XXL and Wiscansinfest. His collaborations include Kanye West, Flume, Santan Dave, Snakehips, Tkay Maidza and WUDMusic.
Volety sat down with the Cardinal to discuss his time on campus and his creative endeavors.
Through all your work so far, you’ve worn a lot of hats — producer, director, photographer and student. How do you avoid being typecast in one role?
I think it traces back to my upbringing. I moved here with my parents from Hyderabad, India where my mom and I stayed in Terre Haute, Indiana while she did her residency, and my dad lived in Chicago because of work.
We later moved to Rockford, Illinois, but being an Indian-American was two hats I had to wear. It’s two different cultures, two different sets of expectations and two different lifestyles I lived. When I was about 11, I had a pretty hefty schedule where I was doing tennis, swim team, Suzuki guitar lessons and Carnatic (classical South Indian) music lessons which my mom made sure that I participated in.
Multitasking became a skill of mine, and that grew over time to mean that I was able to multitask what I do. I know it's natural to most people to see neurobiology and my career outside of it as separate, but they couldn’t be more similar to me because of my goal. I just want to create and provide for others in the most efficient and productive way. I just happen to be creative and interested in medicine.
How did you start out in the field of the arts, and what ultimately drew you to creative direction?
I used to want to make films when I was a kid. Growing up, we had one desktop in the house that was usually being used by my dad for some Bollywood covers of Arijit Singh or Kishore Kumar. Meanwhile, I would sit next to him and essentially act as a studio engineer. I became fluent in music production programs and began making film scores for movies with samples. I would literally run home from school with ideas on beats in seventh and eighth grade and just create stuff.
It’s crazy to think about, but the Carnatic Indian music was probably what made my beats so raw and different. Fast forward to 2018, and here I am making beats for people and then making album art on Photoshop, logos on Illustrator and still making edits in Final Cut Pro. My childhood helped me become fluent in all of these without realizing.
Working and being a student is extremely time consuming. What have you done to balance your schedule?
Any of my friends will tell you this: I really haven’t balanced it. I jump from one idea to another, from one place to another, and by the end of the day, I have this accumulation of concepts and work that I’m able to show.
My break from school is work, my break from work is school, and if I want a break from both I just go watch a movie or listen to some music to get inspired again. Just love what you do and be obsessed with the process of how you do it. You won’t have a “schedule” then.
Early on you had the opportunity to speak with late Badger alum Virgil Abloh. How did that impact you since you both come from the same hometown?
He lived across the main street from where I grew up, and I had no clue until my friends told me about it. I spent the next 40 weekends calling him once every Saturday until he picked up one day. Didn’t take too long for me to realize he must’ve butt-dialed or something and I was listening [to him talk about] his Nike projects while I should’ve been studying for a calculus final.
He realized he answered the phone and ended the call with “Oh, it’s this kid again.” I definitely wasn’t studying for the next hour after that but instead was worried more about legal repercussions for some reason. An hour later I got a call from him, and after some calming down, I explained to him my ideas and some community outreach possibilities.
It was life-changing, and he showed me how I could bridge science and art as he’d done with engineering and fashion. We had our last call sometime near the beginning of the pandemic, and it was nearly an hour long. The last words he said to me were to “Keep going and keep dreaming. It’s way simpler than it looks.”
He changed the trajectory of my life with a few words, let alone the rest of the phone calls. Truly the embodiment of consilience and compassion.
You’ve been creatively directing for Steven Olikara on his U.S. Senate campaign. What made him stand out to you?
I ran across Steven’s campaign manager at the org fair and decided to give it a shot as a creative lead for the team. It was probably the best adventure a kid could ask for. Steven leads through action, whether that means creating town halls to speak at, showing how NFT technology could be ethical, or even showing up at events on campus when no other candidate would.
How’d you start working with Antonio Brown, and what’s your favorite part about working with him so far?
It was actually at a Donda Doves [a high school basketball team founded by West] game in Chicago where I went over to talk to Ye (Kanye West) and DaBaby. I completely skipped over Antonio Brown (AB), not realizing who it was. I’m not into sports much, but I realized a little too late that it was AB and went over to talk with him for a bit.
A month ago I was at Summer Smash and saw him, and he recognized me. Ever since then, it’s been a journey. People don’t realize how much of a genius and how good a mentor Antonio really is. A lot of times in this industry, it’s a give-me-and-back-off mentality whereas, with AB, it’s about the family eating together, and more importantly, making sure everyone is growing. I couldn’t be more thankful for the opportunities he’s offered me thus far, and I’m excited to see what the future holds too.
How would you say your combination of Synesthesia, color blindness and ADHD has gifted you with a unique perspective?
My ADHD mind works best when I can literally swivel my chair from one art form to another. In a world of labels, I decided to brand myself as a creative director, even though I truly believe it’s a joke of a title that a lot of influencers and executives have diluted. Synesthesia and color blindness are things I’m just starting to explore, but expect some projects soon with those.
Most people would be surprised at the fact you’re a neurological biology major. What made you choose that field?
A neuroanatomical and neuropsychological understanding is crucial to creating something that connects with people. A lot of what I work on for people requires me to invoke some sort of emotion or transport you to a certain place. Neurobiology and other fields like it are the future — they merge two existing studies. It’s in this gray area between fields that I thrive. Without the predetermined paths like most fields have, it’s the wild west of science at the moment.
Do you have any advice for people who are also trying to carve a path for themselves in the arts?
Stop worrying about being perfect with what you do. It’ll inevitably delay your goals. We live in a time when elitism in art is present and active. You have to keep your head up and release content. I fall victim to shying away from it too, trust me.
Editor’s note: Pranav Volety previously worked for the Daily Cardinal, writing and photographing arts content. He is no longer part of our staff.