“Remember that motha***** name, Kemba”. That’s what Kendrick Lamar said of the rapper on December 16th at his secret American Express gig in Brooklyn. Kemba was pulled out of the crowd to perform a 2 minute acapella much to the surprise of everyone there, including Kemba himself. This was obviously a big deal for the rapper, as it would be for any artist, underground or not. But this artist is no stranger to sharing a stage or bill with global names; he actually supported Kendrick at his first NYC gig pre-Section.80. He’s mates with Pete Rosenberg (and recently featured on his Hot97 show, see below), hung out with Nas and has performed in most New York venues you can think of. But this has not phased the Bronx born-and-raised rapper, who has been making music for 13 years, up until this album under the name YC the Cynic.
Kemba’s latest album, Negus, was released in June 2016 after a three year gap between his previous and well-received album, Gnk. You can tell that the 12-track record has been meticulously planned, from the first note to the last, just like an album should be. Negus carries a lot of opinions centered on the social injustices happening at the time of writing, and that continue today. This not only makes it a highly relevant album for listeners, but it introduces us to a bolder artist, one we can hear in Gnk from YC the Cynic but who has now matured and educated himself further, giving us a unique voice. However, unlike some other music carrying a message, this is not preachy or self-righteous. Lyrics like this on ‘Heartbeat’ are straightforward statements echoing the sentiments of millions of people: “I can’t stand to see my brothers die / I can’t stand to read my sister’s will / I can’t stand to see our mothers cry / I can’t stand to see my niggas killed / I’m too young to see the other side.” Kemba doesn’t claim to have all the answers, or any in fact. The album poses questions, points to ponder and stark truths that may be uncomfortable at times but are very much the reality. For instance, he starts ‘The New Black Theory’ with, “I can walk outside now and get shot down / If you ever wondered why I’m hostile” and ends it with, “Why are we divided? / I can’t see the logic”. However, even with all of these references in Negus, Kemba is clear that he does not want to be labelled political, as ‘Caeser’s Rise’ begins, “Please don’t call me conscious / Don’t call it political / Please don’t deem this lyrical / These are negro spirituals”. He might not want to be labeled political, but Kemba is fast becoming a reliable voice for many people.
The production by Frank Drake is beautifully thoughtful, with effortless inclusion of full samples or simply melodies with original lyrics, for example, the outro of ‘Hallelujah’ uses the “It’s almost over now” line from N.E.R.D’s Rock Star, mixed amongst new words. The thread running throughout the album is a series of clips from an old documentary. They come from a school teaching African-American children to be ruthlessly proud of their heritage, even in the face of blatant discrimination or temptation to disown their race. This is powerful and adds depth to Kemba’s own highly intelligent observations. Overall, Negus feels like a very strong refresh for the re-branded rapper, who is showing us what we can do musically, as well as being a highly educated and opinionated member of society.
I first saw Kemba perform at his delayed album release / birthday party on November 22nd at Rough Trade, hosted by Pete Rosenberg and supported by Homeboy Sandman. I had been listening to the latest album on loop for a little while (thankfully) so I could appreciate the structure of the gig, where he showed visuals of the school documentary, which introduced a whole new dimension to the album I had heard on my headphones. Attending at least one hip hop show per week in New York, you can imagine the range I’ve seen, both in performances and audience participation. But this felt different from anything I’d attended before. The entire audience was wholeheartedly focusing on the stage – not on their phones, not talking at the back, not walking in and out – just enchanted by the performance, repeating all the lyrics and generally showing a lot of love. I had to arrange an interview with Kemba and discuss not only his impressive album, but also how he holds this connection with his fans, which any artist should be envious of. So that’s what I did; we sat down a few weeks later to talk about just that, and a whole lot more.
Nicola (UHH): Just by way of introduction, for those who don’t know you as Kemba or hasn’t heard about the change from YC the Cynic, could you tell us about growing up in the Bronx and getting into making music?
Kemba: I grew up in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx, I got into writing when I was 9 because my older brother was doing it and it just seemed like something impossible. I saw it on TV and then I saw my brother doing it and thought, ‘this is the coolest thing ever’, you know? So I just started re-writing other people’s songs, I would write over whatever beats he had around on beats CDs. I would write forever, it’s crazy the amount of inspiration you have at that age, you just never want to stop. That’s the purest time I think for an artist when they first discover it. I was writing from 9 to 13, then my brother took me to a studio in the neighborhood. It was a spot everybody in my neighborhood knew about, there were always about 10 people there writing, making music, and that was the coolest thing. Everyone was 30 and older and they kind of just took me under their wing. They put me onto everything that came before me, they were like ‘in the Bronx, you got to know your history’. They made me listen, they were like an incubator for me – that was my start. I feel like every part of my career has been very fluid. When I was there, there were people who were doing open mic so when I got to 17, they would take me to them and it all started from there.
That’s a pretty amazing start. Did you go to the studio to hang out or just to write when you could?
I was there every weekend. I was always writing, I was never really just hanging out. I think that’s what they liked about me, that I was very focused, that I knew that’s what I wanted to do.
These days you still live in the Bronx, where do you like to hang out when you’re not recording or writing?
I don’t hang out that often, I go to friends’ houses. But it’s really all music related, maybe play video games, listen to whatever’s out. Usually we just talk and theorize about the music industry, and what it takes to be successful.
Who are you listening to at the moment?
Anderson .Paak, always, at all times. I just listened to the Bruno Mars album and Childish Gambino’s, he’s like my favorite person in the world. I knew he could sing but I didn’t know he could experiment with his voice like that. He’s probably literally my favorite celebrity. I saw him at SXSW a few years’ ago in a house with 20 people there, and when I saw him I freaked out and couldn’t say anything! When he entered the room, there was a wave of existential sadness and I was like, ‘that’s the coolest shit’, that’s exactly what I want to feel when I see him perform.
You mentioned your brother had all this music at home, who were you listening to at that time?
There was a lot of Eminem, a lot of 50 Cent at that time. Just all the hits, I really didn’t discriminate, I wasn’t looking for the most lyrical person. It was Missy, Ludacris, Biggie, whoever was on the radio.
So you renamed yourself from YC the Cynic to Kemba, which is a risk sometimes for artists. Why did you decide to take that risk?
I didn’t see any other option. I got that name when I was 12, I was given that name, it wasn’t something I came up with. I feel it was very likely I would grow out of it, it was given to me by people who didn’t know me that well and at 12, how much can you even know yourself?
You were a cynic at 12..?!
No I was YC, the Cynic came after. I was doing open mics and my friend said, ‘No one is going to find you as YC’, so I added the Cynic because it looked aesthetically pleasing and it was pretty true. Plus, when I started putting out music I was super young, and I didn’t really know how to write music, I was learning along the way kind of publicly and first impressions are everything. People kind of put me in a box that I wasn’t comfortable with. So I feel like those reasons together, I thought ‘let’s start new’.
Did you come to that decision straight after your previous album or somewhere in between then and Negus?
I think somewhere in between. I feel like I had been floating the idea for a while but taking the step to do it was definitely in between.
So where does Kemba come from?
I made it up!
Just because it sounds nice or because it means something?
I didn’t want to go from one name that meant something to another. I wanted to pick something that I could define myself but also when you heard it, there are things you think of. So for me, I wanted something that sounded young and sounded powerful, definitely has black African sounding roots. I was workshopping a lot of names, it was a weird process.
How did you go through that process?
I was looking for about a year, looking through popular names, unpopular names, in different languages from different countries. The ones I liked I would sit with for a while and feel how it would feel to be called that, my friends would call me that name for a while or give me their opinion. It was weird, it’s still weird, I’m still getting used to being called something different.
Credit: Patrick Struys
I read your article for Huff Post recently, which was excellent. I had no idea you had a whole ordeal with jaw surgery, like Kanye but way worse. How long was that all going on?
My first surgery happened when I was 18 and my second when I was 23. Then I had another surgery a year after, it’s been a crazy span.
And you said you performed at SXSW with a mouth full of blood right after a surgery?
I don’t really think of it while it’s happening, I just do. In my head it was simple, I didn’t want to yield lying in bed for 10 days. It went by so quick. I knew if I stayed home I would have felt horrible, but that was crazy.
Did you ever record anything like Kanye with your mouth wired shut…?
Do you feel that experience made you work harder or change you in any way?
I don’t think it changed me. I think I’ve been the way I am for a long time. I just feel like it showed me how far I was willing to go. And now I don’t really have that many fears – it’s hard to explain. It sounds weird but I don’t think there’s anything that could stop me from making music or doing what I want to do. I don’t like the way it sounds, it sounds mad artsy.
No, it just sounds determined. You have to have that attitude otherwise you get just stuck somewhere and give up.
Yes but I mean anything, like physically I don’t think anything could stop me.
Invincible, like Luke Cage?
Yes! That was a good show. It wasn’t great, but it was good.
I was lucky enough to see you perform at your birthday gig and album release party for Negus last month, supported by Homeboy Sandman and hosted by Pete Rosenberg, which is amazing. I’m aware you’ve known him for a little while but how did that particular show come about?
I love doing release shows, those are my favorite shows to do, especially as I don’t really like doing shows in New York any more.
Because after a while if you do too many, people will just be like, ‘I’ll come to the next one’ – it’s really hard to have a draw anywhere if you’re performing repeatedly, so if I can perform a couple of times a year and make it a big thing then I’d much rather do that. But when I was putting out the album, it was just so much – I didn’t have a label or management, it was literally me emailing everybody and doing everything, like the PR. Adding on a show to that was too much, so I thought I would do it later. Then Pigeons & Planes reached out to me to do the No Ceilings show with Noname, and I couldn’t turn that down, but I also couldn’t do a release show because I took that one, so it worked out that way for my birthday in November. Sandman was probably the first person that I ever met that was making a name for himself when I was 16. He’s always been supportive, he definitely helped usher me into the underground scene, just from how much love he was showing me. That’s like my big brother. Rosenberg found out about me through Sandman some years ago, he actually hosted my last release party too.
At UHH we go to a lot of shows around New York and wherever we happen to be - and maybe it was because it was your birthday and there were a lot of friends there, but it doesn’t matter – the love at that show was palpable, that’s the only word to describe it.
Thank you! I think just in New York City there’s an underdog kind of vibe. These are people that have rolled with me for years, since I was like 17, so everyone is kind of like family whether I met them at an open mic or they downloaded my first mixtape, or my actual family was there too. That’s amazing.
I also really liked how you brought out another artist during your set to perform one of their tracks in full, complete with visuals. It’s very humble of you, do you always do that at your gigs?
Deebo [Dioso]? Yes, you should get to know him! At the hip hop community center in the Bronx every month we would do an open mic called Boogie Mics, and it was amazing how many people were there and he used to come to that. So whenever there’s somebody that’s really, really good I don’t see why not. I always see shows as somewhere people just come to be entertained, it doesn’t have to be solely about me. And for me, I’m putting you on to someone I think is going to be the next best thing, and I’m also attaching myself like, ‘yeah you see him, I was the first one!’
You say you don’t like to perform as much in New York, but which venue would you most like to perform at?
Does Madison Square Garden count? Who would say anything else! A lot of them I’ve already performed at. I was at an open mic you guys did in Midtown, and that place was cool.
Yeah it was really hot, it was awesome. That was needed, that kind of energy.
That’s very cool, we’re bringing those back in 2017.
Getting deeper into your music, before Negus you had released a few mixtapes and then the album Gnk, which was really well received. There was a 3 year gap before Negus – what were you doing in that time?
Well I had my second and third surgery, which took up a lot of time. And then I just couldn’t make anything, there was nothing coming to me. After Gnk, I set out to make something that was more light-hearted, that was more fun and less heavy, and I just couldn’t do it – there was nothing. We made a lot of music and I really didn’t like any of it. So I took a trip to Ferguson with the co-founders of the community center I was telling you about. That was really a life-changing experience. We were there 4-5 days and we protested. We met Mike Brown’s grandmother, we just spoke to her and told her how much we supported her and the family and we marched a lot. There were a few first times – the first time I ever saw young people leading a march and elders supporting them, or not. And the elders that didn’t support them were kind of met with, ‘we respect how you did it, but this is how we’re going to do it’, and that was amazing to me. People that were my age or a bit older, I never saw them as the leaders before, so that showed me what was possible. Also that was my first time seeing hip hop really, really taking the forefront at one of those marches. My friend G1 from Rebel Diaz, he’s like MacGyver, he created a backpack sound system and then he made a mobile rig. We were marching with instrumentals doing chants and I’ve never seen anything like it, it was crazy. So I came back super inspired and that’s probably when I started making lots of the songs that made it to Negus.
That’s a pretty amazing turning point.
Negus is also the name of a track on Gnk, were you always thinking that was a concept you wanted to bring over or did it become apparent after Ferguson?
I just loved that song on Gnk and I guess I did want to expand on that. I was just trying to grasp for air and that was the first one that stuck.
Has the reception to your album been as you expected, or better / worse?
I think it’s been interesting. I think the reception from the people that support me has been incredible. I think there are a lot of new people that started to support me because they love it. I feel the critical reception was really good, but I also feel like there’s a faction of people that their life experience, or lack of, kind of stopped them from being able to enjoy it. I don’t have a problem with it but it’s really interesting.
You didn’t expect people to reject it because of the messages that are in it?
Yeah, especially people who supported me before.
Yes that is interesting, especially as what you’re talking about was still present in Gnk, it’s just a step forward.
I probably said things more unapologetically that could rub people’s feathers, so it’s just interesting that people let their beliefs get in the way of enjoying it.
I saw that Yasiin Bey (another artist who changed his name) is releasing an album with Negus in the title (Negus in Natural Person) – what did you think of that when you saw it?
He’s one of my idols, so of course he can have it. The microphone I have is because of him, years ago I saw him perform at Fort Greene with this classic red microphone and it was just the coolest thing, I just wanted to do it.
I read that you reject being called a political rapper, which I understand, although your album is still very much commenting on social injustices happening now. Do you think it’s important for artists in general to speak about these things?
I think if you have views that can aid the people that you’re talking about, then I think it’s important that you speak up. But I think if you haven’t done research, then you shouldn’t. I would rather artists would not distract people with views that are super contrary. You don’t have to agree with everything but there’s always a way to say it.
You came back from Ferguson incredibly inspired and motivated; was it a natural and conscious progression from Gnk to being a bolder artist and “less apologetic”, as you said?
Yes it was definitely conscious. When I was in Ferguson, that was the most upfront rebellion that I’ve ever seen, completely fearless, it was crazy. People like Tef Poe, it’s unimaginable how fearless he was, it’s hard to explain, you just got to be there. Standing up to police officers, putting his freedom on the line every night for months. And I just mention him because he’s an artist, he wasn’t even a political figure before that happened, he just answered the call. So I came back like, there’s no time to beat around the bush or try to be an intellectual activist – I don’t care about that, you know. I want to say things in a way that will immediately affect you; pull your heart strings or anger you and I guess that was the goal.
Getting into the tracks and how the album is put together, you have the creative theme of these clips of a little boy, which you also showed at your gig. How did you come across him?
I just saw the documentary, I think it came out in the 60’s or 70’s and it’s at the very end, and as soon as I saw it I was like, ‘I love this, I want to use it’. As soon as I see clips I like I put them in an email draft and save it forever, so I did that along with the Nina Simone clips. I guess in the middle of the process, I realized that I wanted to split them up and use them throughout and make that part of the story. When I have enough music to start to put the pieces together, then I start looking for clips or thinking about how everything could flow. That was the best idea that I had I think.
You also have strong samples on Negus and your previous projects, and many of them are classics. How do you choose those?
On production? That’s all Frank [Drake]. He’s so determined to sample things that no one’s heard. I’m like, ‘Hey look, French Montana just sampled this popular song again’ and he’s like ‘great’... I respect him for it, he’s incredible. He’s super creative and mindful with his work. My career is definitely way better for working with him.
How did you meet him?
He emailed me 5 or 6 years ago after Fall FWD, my second mixtape. I usually ignore emails because I don’t know these people but I listened and fell in love with about 4 things. I recorded them, I think 3 of them made it onto Gnk. It was just super natural, the chemistry was there from the beginning. Towards the end of it he moved to New York City from Saratoga Springs to finish and we’ve just been working ever since. It’s funny because now we go upstate to record so he probably didn’t have to move at all! But ever since I met him, I feel like I’m making way better music, I’m writing songs better. I feel like we help each other a lot and we feed off each other because we’re in the same room when we create stuff.
Recently producers and artist / producer duos have been getting a lot more attention e.g. 40 & Drake, DJ Esco & Future. What do you think about people knowing more producer names now?
I love it, they deserve it. They’re probably the most important person to the song.
The New Black Theory has a powerful video, which I watched many times. Do you come up with the ideas behind your videos?
For my favorite ones! I wrote that one. I really like videos with one or two scenes, it puts you in a world without explanation, and I did that for a video I wrote called ‘Molotovs at Poseidon’, that was my first one. It’s just another extension of creativity that I really enjoy, I want to do it more. Videos are really hard to make; they’re expensive and you need to have a director that you really trust that can take your idea and bring it to life.
So what’s the next video going to be?
I want to do one for ‘Already’ but I kind of want to make something New York centric that’s a fun video to show where I’m from. I love videos that show me where the artist is from, and I want to do that.
‘Already’ is catchy but it still has a message. If I’m hearing it right, it sounds like you’re disillusioned with everything that’s out there right now, is that fair – is music now a bit ‘blah’?
I love where hip hop is at right now, it’s in a really good place, and I don’t like people that don’t think it’s in a good place. I think they’re just being lazy and not looking, there’s a ton of good artists. I guess the main argument is that what they play on the radio is not good, but people don’t listen to the radio like they used to. And also, the stuff on the radio is pretty cool. I’m a huge Drake fan – Drake is probably played the most and Rihanna’s album is incredible. If you don’t like Lil Yachty or Lil Uzi Vert, I get it. I’m not mad at them, but I understand why you don’t like them. But if you don’t like the radio, there is so much music you can find everywhere.
[Through comparing radio in the UK vs the US, UHH discovered that Kemba had recently done a live interview with BBC’s Huw Stevens, who is a veteran British DJ and tastemaker, known for introducing new artists. Further proof that Kemba is the next big thing].
Where do you find new music?
Just from word of mouth, I don’t listen to a lot, but Facebook is such an echo chamber. When something that you like is coming out, you will find it.
What do you think about the concept of the album and people listening start to finish, not on shuffle? I don’t feel I can shuffle your album, for example
I don’t think I made it in a way that you could shuffle it. I think albums are losing ground, but I don’t think they’ll ever completely die. I think mixtapes and albums are the same thing at this point, I just think the difference now is a consistent stream of singles versus a project. I think you can do both, you’ll probably benefit the most doing both. It makes sense, for a long time we’ve been moving in the direction of shorter songs that fit your current mood. That’s why playlists are so popular.
Do you make playlists?
No, I listen to albums! If you’re an artist and you couple a consistent stream of music and lead that into the roll-out of your album, and then put out a solid project, that’s probably the best thing you can do. But you can’t do away with one of them, you can’t just make an album now.
So are you going to drop a song soon?
Probably, once the year is out.
[Through discussing albums, UHH discovers Kemba likes Skepta and knows about grime music. UHH continues to tell Kemba about Skepta’s recent homecoming show in London for 10,000 people, streamed live on Apple Music. We continue to talk about his greatness for a while and promise to send plenty of other grime artists for him to check out].
Credit: Patrick Struys
I don’t know if this is true, because it was on Wikipedia, but I read that you have performed on the same bill as Kendrick, Big Sean and others, is that right?
Yeah for sure. Kendrick’s first show in NYC I did with him at a venue called Southpaw in Brooklyn that’s closed now. That was when he was about to drop ‘Section.80’ and it was packed, that was crazy. I also met Ab Soul there, he was Kendrick’s hype man. I performed with Big Sean at NYU for CMJ and Nipsey Hussle was also there, in 2010 I think – I’m probably just saying random years! I’ve had some interesting experiences so far.
At that time you hadn’t put out that much music though, right?
I had two tapes out. I don’t know, I’ve been super blessed. For example, I was doing open mics and a lot of people that I grew up with in the scene were doing 4 or 5 open mics a week. It’s just a cycle that you keep doing in the hopes that a) you get better at performing, b) you build a fan base, and c) you meet somebody that will help you do something more. And that didn’t happen for many people but at an open mic I met a guy named Jah C who was a booked at Southpaw, and he put me on my first real show, I opened for Canibus when I was 18. From there he booked me for more shows and I started meeting other bookers, I got my first manager. So I’m super fortunate, I saw that that wasn’t happening for everybody.
It’s never just luck!
What would your advice be for hip hop artists trying to come up and get noticed?
I would say, get a job. I wasted a lot of years thinking that talent alone was going to propel me. I really had to listen to people and humble myself, and learn that you really have to invest in your own career. Living with your parents is great, it’s not bad at all – get a job, save money, live with your parents and invest in your career.
Before we wrap-up, what can we expect in the coming months – do you have any shows lined up in New York or elsewhere?
I’m doing a bunch of colleges right now, that’s just personal things. I’m also trying to create a workshop so I can teach more consistently. I’ve done it and spoken to colleges, but nothing that I think is strong enough to do consistently, I’m just doing trial and error right now. I don’t know exactly what I want it to be about yet, so I’m just talking to people that have done it and figure out what I would love to show and teach people. Also I’m creating, I think this time around I want to make music about life experience. I want to make music that people can live with and enjoy and grow with. Everything I had to say about any social injustice issue, I feel like I said it, for right now at least. So I’m going to start putting music out in the New Year. I’m also going to keep putting videos out for Negus – I’m sure a lot of things will unfold itself.
To end our interview, I always like to do some fun quick-fire questions. Ready?
Subway train or Subway sandwich?
Train (but Subway cookies are the best…)
Prince or Fresh Prince
2% or whole milk?
Sofa or the club?
J Cole or Jay Z?
J Cole, right now
Puff Daddy or P Diddy?
Bottle or glass?
Sand or snow?
Kemba has no doubt had a successful 2016, ending on a particular high with Kendrick’s endorsement. I personally cannot wait to see what 2017 holds but it can only get better. To follow Kemba’s rise with us, use the links below: