Grouptherapy.: From Child TV Stars to Boundary-Breaking, Life-Affirming Music

Music

When the trio known as grouptherapy. takes the stage at Toad’s Place in New Haven, Connecticut, the crowd is compact yet energized. It’s a Sunday night in the fall, and this is the smallest crowd the group has seen so far on their debut tour with the rapper Tobi Lou to promote their own album, I Was Mature for My Age but I Was Still a Child. Compared with their other East Coast shows, in places like Philadelphia and Boston, New Haven is Sean Astin in Rudy: small in size but large in heart and energy. The crowd never takes their eyes off the stage, bobbing their heads in sync and bouncing their hands up and down to the lyrics “Hands up, don’t move,” from the track “TrunkPoppers.com”, which is L.A. in vibe and raw in lyrics and message. For many in the crowd, this is their first encounter with the group — at least as musicians — but it won’t be the last.

If you were a kid with television access in the mid-2000s, you might recognize the names and faces. Jadagrace “Jada” Gordy-Nash took her first major film role as Star in 2009’s Terminator Salvation; she was later the star of her own show, The Jadagrace Show, on OH TV, which led her to a record deal. Tyrel J. “TJ” Williams voiced the character Tyrone on the 2004 kids’ show Backyardians before becoming a Disney actor, known for his work on the Disney XD series Labrat. Tyson “Coy” Stewart starred in the 2015 series Bella and the Bulldogs after playing Kevin, the son in the 2010 spinoff series to the movie Are We There Yet? Life as a kid actor was complex for all of them. On one hand, they were television stars; in other ways, it was limiting, having to be homeschooled, working Monday through Friday and trying to cram fun on the weekends. 

“It was really hard to make friends,” Coy says when I meet them for brunch in downtown New York. “It was virtually impossible because we weren’t around other kids. It was hard to find somebody who related directly to what we were going through, so when we met each other and realized that we were isolated in our own respective fields, we just held on to each other.” 

Their name, grouptherapy., is intentional, with a seemingly multilayered definition. Its lack of capitalization is symbolic of their unit: detailed, rebellious to the rules of properness, pridelessly equal. Its immediate period at the end is a disruption to the status quo, a polite “fuck with it or fuck you,” if you will. Having the shared experience of being on screen as jits, working through the complexity of the work experience that both enriched and limited them, is a continuous journey. While it might sound cliché in the social media realm, the trio is on a literal path to heal the inner child within each of them that they didn’t get to explore — a theme and backdrop throughout I Was Mature for My Age but I Was Still a Child

As we order food at San Marzano on the east side of Manhattan, I can’t help but notice the way that all three artists, now in their mid-twenties, embody their art form in real time. It’s evident in the music and what they call themselves, but it also manifests on the physical plane. They are like a holy trinity of artistic expression, all with short blond hair and matching tattoos that sit in different places on their bodies reading “Still Alive” — the title of the last track on their project. The five-minute track pulls on relatable heartstrings, talking about battling life’s lows and mental health, as the opening line reflects on the theme of making it through another year. Coy raps earnestly and vulnerably that his “demons, they are very alive, they just vary in size/From barely my height to there in the sky/I wear a disguise, aware of my pride it’s buried inside deep/I’m paranoid, eyes open, especially when I sleep.”

The track can easily bring tears to your eyes, especially when Coy’s mother takes the mic at the song’s end in the form of a voicemail. “She had sent it to me during the pandemic, during one of the worst times of my life,” Coy recalls. “I felt like the world deserved to hear this. I wanted to solidify it and put it on wax, to make it eternal. In that moment [she] was everybody’s mom.”

The trio’s friendship took root by way of their weekend chill time away from the spotlight as adolescents. They would alternate houses and spend their Saturdays watching movies and riding scooters and skateboards — although they admittedly didn’t feel cool because the protective gear they had to wear to preserve their television careers was a hindrance to their nature of being a kid. It wouldn’t be until 2016 that making music began to infiltrate the group’s quality time together — although initially, for two-thirds of them, exploring a new talent came with feelings of imposter syndrome. 

“Coy and I were making music on our laptops in secret,” recalls TJ, who says they had no intention of putting it out. “We were insecure about it, especially because Jada was doing music for real, so we didn’t want to jump in and be embarrassing.” 

The start of their fascination with creating their own tunes came from the desire to express themselves outside of the confines of their child celebrity. Creating songs, with one another bearing witness, seemed to have the flexibility and rawness that they were missing, and it felt more impactful than writing in a journal. As they leaned into the process, their confidence not only grew but they noticed they were also dismantling their own triggers and traumas, becoming better humans and bolder ones. Coy was finally embracing himself and his gift of rapping. TJ, both a rapper and producer, came out about his sexuality to his parents, who are Christian ministers and gospel musicians. Jada, a veteran in the music game, began to break free from a past of being a dissatisfied teen in the music industry, to now being in a place of having creative control and finally tapping into her grief over the loss of her father when she was 16. 

“I was dealing with the label and not being happy with what I was making,” says Jada. “They set up a session right after my dad passed away and I remember going to the studio thinking, ‘This is what I’m going to write about.’ And I made music about it and it wasn’t interesting to them. That’s when I realized this is my life and this is something I need to feel and find an outlet. So I was just going into TJ’s garage making music just to get it off, even though I knew it wouldn’t come out.”

Jumelles Studio*

After months of exchanging ideas, Coy finally announced he wanted to make a mixtape and wanted TJ to produce it all. The project, Everybody’s Got One, an acronym for the word “ego,” took two months to complete and was the major turning point in the three friends’ music trajectory.

“That was the beginning of what grouptherapy. is now,” says TJ. “It was just the three of us in the same room trying to bring Coy’s vision to life, and we fell in love with it and we don’t want to ever stop.” 

Now, with their first official album completed, grouptherapy. has truly shown their ability and span of expertise. Throughout its 49 minutes, the diversity of its sound is captivating, ranging from dance, pop, and trap to rock. “American Psycho” has punk-rock elements with fiery lyrics that introduce its listeners to TJ’s raw flow and Coy’s playful yet melodic rhyming ability. “Lightspeed” is the perfect song to vogue to, with Jada taking lead, rhyming about her late dad who “put [her] first,” showing that her lived experiences are interesting and have a place in music. “Peak” is another dance vibe that could easily be made into a TikTok dance challenge, with a production that gives off a nostalgic Calvin Harris 2010s vibe. “Thatsmycheck.” is a fan favorite with its blend of hip-hop and R&B. “Nasty” is prime hip-hop and has the ability to make you dance, or throw your panties and bra on stage — an actual occurrence on the second stop of their tour in Dallas. 

With close to 700,000 followers on TikTok, the group has generated millions of impressions for their videos that include day-in-the-life-of clips, cyphers (such as Jada freestyling on “On the Radar,” showing fans her multidimensional brilliance on the mic), and before-and-after pictures that show how they went from kid stars to now being their most authentic musician selves. One of the most impressive facts about grouptherapy. is that they are a resource unto themselves. Whether it be merch, curating the treatment and execution of music videos (such as the black-and-white “Trunkpoppers.com” video, which features TJ’s brother Tyler Williams, who plays Gregory on Abbott Elementary), even down to the DJing during their concert — it’s all done by them.

If you think of the group as a triangle, Jada would be the base, which is fitting for her Earth sign in Virgo, known to be detail-oriented, grounded with a sense of practicality, but perfectionist with discernment of quality versus bullshit. TJ, a Pisces, is truly ethereal in his lyricism and production and his space of building out the music. Coy’s wordplay packs punches in subtle and vulnerable ways. His ability to describe emotions that are nuanced, messy, and all the way real is in alignment with his Cancer sun. 

“I think a big fear for TJ and myself was not being respected as rappers,” Coy says. “That’s actually a goal of ours, to reshape what it means. As Black men, there’s already so many boxes we are being put in, I realized from early on, I want to break the mold of what that looks like.”  

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The new mold is simply authenticity. “The only way I knew how to feel confident and powerful was to make songs that I wished other people made about my experience,” says TJ. “I don’t know of a trap song about men that’s not making it [just] about that.” He mentions their 2022 song “Sweet,” a true gem with lines like “My boo thang ghosted on me when he saw that I was next up,” over a trap beat that makes you want to put the stereo volume on maximum. 

Their next stop is a sold-out show in New York, which will be held on Feb. 2 and hosted by Spotify. It’s another big look after a year full of them. But grouptherapy. has achieved something more important than fame or money — they’ve found their people, and themselves. “Creatively, we all want to be a part of the future,” Coy says. “We want to be a part of what is now and what could be.”

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