To most Chicagoans, “Englewood” and “rock” are hardly synonymous, but guitarist Edward Vaughn reps his hood proudly as he follows his rock-star dreams. And where he’s from isn’t the only thing about him that points away from rock ’n’ roll: he also has a bachelor of science degree in aerospace engineering.
“I’m from Englewood, so of course, you know, hip-hop and R&B—that’s what we grow up off of,” Vaughn says. “But [Guitar Hero] introduced me to the world of rock music.”
Early rockers such as Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Bo Diddley all drew from the popular Black music of their day, especially R&B (influenced itself by Black gospel) and electric Chicago blues (whose most important architects included Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon). But rock ’n’ roll was broadly popularized by white acts, and before long they’d taken over the genre, claiming it as their own.
Vaughn, who uses the stage name Rockstar E.V., connects rock to the Black popular music of his day. In homemade videos he posts to social media, he adds his high-voltage rock ’n’ roll guitar to songs from the 1980s till the present by the likes of New Edition, Aaliyah, Usher, Smino, King Von, Frank Ocean, and Megan Thee Stallion. Vaughn describes what makes his style stand out from those of his peers: “If you’re a Black guitarist, usually they come up in the church,” he says. “And if they are playing solos, they’re not playing like superfast shredding solos, like 80s rock solos, on top of this trap stuff.”
Vaughn displays his love of rock in the reels on his Instagram page, where he intertwines 80s riffs and licks with R&B, soul, and hip-hop hits. His cover of Alicia Myers’s 1981 track “I Want to Thank You” exemplifies how he takes classics to another level, embellishing them with solos that seem to amplify the chords and bring out more from an already beloved tune.
Vaughn learned guitar while attending Leo Catholic High School on 79th and Sangamon. As a sophomore, he had his eyes set on joining the Jesse White Tumblers, traveling frequently to the far south side to practice. But two weeks before his tryouts, at a gym in Alsip, he broke his ankle and ended up in a cast for a couple months. “I had nothing to do but play guitar, so I just picked it up,” he says. “I started practicing like seven hours a day, and in about two years, I got decent at it.”
Englewood Music Fest
Featuring Syleena Johnson, Crucial Conflict, Q Parker, Jenipher Jones, Dexter Walker & Zion Movement, Bianca Shaw, Rockstar E.V., UPOW, Kristen Lowe, and others. Proof of COVID vaccination or negative test within 48 hours required for entry. Sat 9/18, noon-7 PM, 6300 S. Halsted, englewoodmusicfest.com, free with RSVP, all ages
Though he’d become a talented guitarist in short order, Vaughn also demonstrated serious skills in math while still in high school. He says his teachers encouraged him to take pride in that. “They kept telling me to do something in math,” he says. “And I’m like, I’m good at it, I like math, that makes sense.”
When Vaughn graduated in 2011, he saw his career options as accounting or engineering. He says he chose the latter because of the Air & Water Show. “My grandma loved the Blue Angels,” he says. “I thought both [the Blue Angels and the Thunderbirds] were super cool. So I’m like, I could see myself designing something like that—if I want to go into engineering, at least that’d be something super cool.”
Vaughn studied aeronautical engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Broadly speaking, that branch of engineering deals with the development of aircraft and spacecraft, and Vaughn says his lessons included learning how to optimize the size and shape of wings, ailerons, and other control surfaces. “For my senior design project, we had to work in a team of seven to design a replacement for the Northrop T-38 Talon jet trainer,” he says. “Basically, come up with a new jet trainer, as far as college kids could come up with. The government gave us the specifications and upgrades they wanted for the new design, and we had to implement them.”
Vaughn couldn’t secure an internship in aeronautical engineering, but after graduating in 2016 he found work in a distantly related field: civil engineering, which focuses on the development of infrastructure projects such as roads and bridges. That job took him to California and Guam for nearly two years, but he took the fact that he wasn’t in aeronautical engineering as a sign to pursue his musical aspirations. “I’ve always wanted to do music,” he says. “I had to remember that engineering was just a backup plan for me—honestly, a very long, expensive backup plan.”
In 2018, Vaughn left his last full-time job in engineering to devote himself more thoroughly to music. He’s kept using his math skills, though: in 2020 he took a short-lived job as an instructor for AeroStar Avion Institute, which aims to help underrepresented or underserved kids get into the field, and he currently works for himself teaching middle school, high school, and college students under the name Supernova STEM Tutoring. He also offers virtual or in-person guitar lessons to students of any age.
Tutoring is just one way Vaughn sustains himself. In 2019, he began playing gigs with his girlfriend Ayanna Williams, aka Yanna Cello, a cellist who also makes cover videos. He says what worked best to get them exposure and bookings was when they’d shoot a video outside and tag music producers when they posted it; the producers would then repost it with praises. “They might just take the whole video and be like, ‘Wow, this is dope,’ like, put it on their page and stuff like that,” Vaughn explains. “And they might reach out like, ‘Hey, I want to work with you.’”
Vaughn has taken his talents to venues all over the city, including the Silver Room, House of Blues, the Promontory, and even the Sears (Willis) Tower. Though he appreciates the success he’s seen, his dream is tackling the United Center. “[The United Center] and the Taste of Chicago are like the major places I haven’t performed,” he says. “Everywhere else, if you named it, I might have performed there before, which is a good feeling.”
On Saturday, September 18, Vaughn will take the stage at the Englewood Music Fest on 63rd and Halsted. The free festival runs from noon till 7 PM, and its lineup also features Chicago legends Syleena Johnson and Crucial Conflict. The final schedule hasn’t yet been announced, but Vaughn will play a ten-minute solo spot sometime between 2 and 5 PM.