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[Interview] Akinyemi: The New York Rapper Who Is Immune To Distraction

[Interview] Akinyemi: The New York Rapper Who Is Immune To Distraction

Akinyemi is a full-time rapper, full-time band member, and full-time student. At only 22, he has established himself as a respected talent on the New York rap scene, with growing fan bases within and outside of the city. With a definitive style, both in flow and in dress, Akinyemi has just about scratched the surface of his potential. We caught up ahead of the release of his debut EP, summers’, though it feels like he’s already sitting on a sizeable body of work without this project release.  

The EP is a short 20 minutes made up of seven tracks, a superstitious number in itself, even before you realize the word is seven letters, and the cover art portrays seven ‘scenes’, each connecting to a song.

[Interview] Akinyemi: The New York Rapper Who Is Immune To Distraction

Left-mid = dust calling; Right-mid = fleece; Top-mid = winter; Top-left = onetime;

Bottom-right = highway; Top-right = change; Bottom-left = asylum

Quite simply, Summer is Akinyemi’s favorite season, and he wanted to “make a collection of songs that you could bump every summer, whether it be road trips, beach days or small get-togethers.” The lead single, "dust calling," was recently released and has already found its way onto a few prominent playlists. Speaking on why he chose this as the first song on the project, Akinyemi says, “I feel it's an experience which many rappers/entertainers start their day with - doubt. Wondering if they're good enough to be welcomed into their respective "executive offices". ..I made this song so that folks could feel relatable to the doubt they feel every day in their respective fields.”

From first to last, Akinyemi comments on "asylum," a jolt back to reality to end with:  “I wrote it right after the events of Mike Brown occurred, where all I would see on my Facebook newsfeed were gruesome, gory Black victims being killed, in cold blood. It was a dark time for me, and DuqueNuquem shot me a beat that matched that mood perfectly. Insanely inspired by it, I wrote the whole song in thirty minutes.”

Even within its 20 minutes, summers manages to convey the whirring in Akinyemi’s head, whether it be about family, friendships or the world at large. It’s hard to believe someone as multi-talented as him can focus enough attention to produce a cohesive body of work such as this, but he can, and he did. We spoke about the many ‘hats’ he wears, his influences growing up and look at a deeper understanding behind a few of his favorite tracks.

UHH: You’re a born and bred New Yorker; tell us about growing up in Queens and some of the musical influences you had growing up? Did any of them have a direct influence on your own music?

Akinyemi: I'm from Queens Village, specifically, which is geographically a little south of Bayside and just on the border of Long Island, but still in Queens. Probably Tribe was the biggest Queens-based influence. ….Kid Cudi, Kanye.  I remember when I was first rapping and it was over like Wiz Khalifa and Mac Miller beats and those two were probably the biggest ... I'm not going to say they're the biggest influence but their production was the one I connected with the most.

What about non-hip hop artists?

I wasn't really listening to that much hip hop, it was mostly Red Hot [Chili Peppers] and Nirvana . My circle of friends in high school, we were just weird, so we would go to Warped Tour with the scene crowd like August Burns Red, A Day To Remember. I remember being in the mosh environment and experiencing the rock bands and all that, and that was different. That was a phase I guess but definitely Red Hot Chili Peppers, specifically the album Californication, I was every day listening to that and getting inspiration.

What about R&B or jazz? I only mention those genres because your production is very varied, in a good way. It feels like a lot of different influences are at play.

R&B, definitely. Everyone was listening to Usher, and everyone was listening to Mario and whoever was the flavor of the month. R&B I felt like I listened to because girls listen to it, and also because it was just everywhere.

What about now? Do you feel like New York artists are having more influence on you, or are you looking at people all over the world?

Now I'm finding inspiration from really unorthodox places like taking samples from Brazilian dance or Bossa Nova. I'm definitely a lot more jazz-influenced than I was before because now that I have a live band, every member of my live band goes to the New Music School for Jazz and they are always playing jazz, and always picking me up and putting me onto new jazz artists that I otherwise wouldn't have known about. Now that I'm listening to them more and more, I'm like, 'okay this is awesome, they are very talented in their instrument.'

[Interview] Akinyemi: The New York Rapper Who Is Immune To Distraction

How did you find your band, and all from The New School?

It was about two years ago, I think June of 2015. I went to a show in College Point, and there was this hip hop duo called J-PRIMZ that was rocking with a live band. It was the first time I had ever really seen rap with a live band before, and they were killing it. I knew that a backing track was nothing compared to a live band, and live bass, and drums, and guitar. You were forced to draw into it. It was after that performance that I was like 'I need to have a band.' I actually reached out to the drummer who was playing on that band and we ended up setting up a rehearsal, and he brought in some musicians. We rocked for a little bit, and I had a group called Akinyemi and the Rhythm Section. That was for like three or four months, and we did a couple of shows. But that drummer had to drop out because he was in like five different bands. I found Brian, my current drummer and he goes to New School for Jazz, and that was just through mutual friends and hitting people up on Facebook. He was rocking with us for like two months and then he pulled me aside and was like, 'Yo, the musicians in your band right now, I respect them, and I feel like it's not really my place to say but they're not really playing your music right.' And I was like, 'Wow, I really appreciate that.' So we had a talk, he introduced me to all his friends from the New School for Jazz and we had a rehearsal, and it was like a thousand times better. So I  was like, ‘do I want to stick with my friends or do I want to go with the better sound?’ And I just had like an epiphany I thought, ‘okay I think I should just go with what's best’. We formed a group called Chiv Culture that's a different entity to playing with me, and they've been my band ever since.

So you're involved in Chiv Culture too? How do you split your time?

We recorded like eight records and we definitely have an EP on the way. But they're all in different places. My guitarist, Lucas Kadish, is in Ohio and my bassist, Daniel Winshall, is in Boston; my drummer, Brian Marshall is in Philly; and my keyboardist, Marcus Williams, is in Jacksonville. But they all go to New School for Jazz, so when they come back at end of the summer, they're all in the city and during that time we do rehearsal and really become a solidified band.

Are you full-time on music?

No, I'm still in college. I study Computer Science and I'm about to graduate in the spring.

So you've been doing that for four years?

Yeah, it's my fourth year. It's hard, it's extremely hard to balance both but I figured that I stuck it out for this long.

How does the writing process go for you?

The writing process has become similar recently but before it was all over the place. Before I used to just write over beats that were sent to me, like YouTube beats and things like that. Then I got a vocal coach and ever since I'm more cognizant of melodies and things like that. I'll write melodies while I'm writing lyrics. As of recently I haven't really been working with beats that are sent to me, I sit down with producers and work with things that we make from scratch, and then I'm writing a melody and we'll match the melody to any riffs of the voice. I usually write a hook first and write a verse. I'm closed off to the world and I have to be in my own space. Even if we're over in a shared space like a little corner, and I'll write, I'm counting syllables, and counting bars. Just in my own world for maybe like an hour or two then I'll come back and rejoin the session and say, 'Hey this is the verse I got.'

Are you writing verses outside of your session, or do you tend to just do it while you're making music?

I do write verses outside of sessions but I feel more inspired and I feel like I write verses quicker when a producer is producing at the same time. It's like an energy ping-pong game where they're making beats at the same time and I'm writing the verse, and even though it's not pressured, it feels like they're waiting on me to finish. It's not like I'm rushed, but we're in a session, things are being created. I just have to create faster than I normally would if I was at my house.

That makes sense. How do you find producers to work with?

There's usually mutual friends. There are all different ways I've met them. ATELLER was a producer that I've been working with for a while. We have an EP called "i am u" on the way. He's like a jazz cat, and we met on stage. I was rocking at Palisades (Amani Felad told me to go on stage) and he was rocking, and then my friend was like, 'Yo, go on stage and rap with him,' so I did and we just connected after that. Another artist, DuqueNuquem (producer of summers) reached out through SoundCloud and was like, 'Hey I like your stuff, I live in New York too, let's work.' I liked his stuff too, so we linked up. However we meet, as long as we get in the same room and have the same goal, I feel like a good song can be made.

[Interview] Akinyemi: The New York Rapper Who Is Immune To Distraction

What's the hardest thing you've learned to overcome, or that you've realized, since making music?

The hardest thing is to not let opportunities slip, and to follow-up, and not be afraid to follow-up. The hardest thing is to hit people up randomly, and contact people just to see how they're doing instead of when you need them. That's hard sometimes just because a lot of times you're very goal-oriented; 'this is what I need to get done, who can help me to do that.' It's hard to step outside yourself and be like, 'I've thought about myself for 90% of the day, let me think about somebody else for the other 10%.’

I've been more cognizant of that, and I've been more like, 'Okay, just reach out to a couple people I'm thinking about and see how they doing today.' People appreciate that more, 'Oh he doesn't want anything, he just wants to see how I'm doing.' And you see it reflected, you'll see people hit you up to like, 'Oh, how you doing?' Just a conversation. Sometimes people need that; sometimes people, especially in the music industry, hide a lot of feelings because they have a brand or they have an image that they have to portray, so they don't put their real self out there. So if you just talk to people like human beings, you can see people just release what they need to release to you without any need or goal behind it.

Speaking of keeping it real with personal interactions, let’s take it back to New York. There are so many artists, not just rappers, that are coming up at a similar age or place in their career. Does that inspire you or scare you?

There’s a lot of people in New York, and there's a lot of people in New York that want to rap, but not everybody is good. Sometimes it's frustrating because a lot of the music in New York just gets saturated and too many people are doing it. That's not even to come from a cocky perspective, but it's just to say I wish the people who are doing music re-evaluate why they're doing it. I feel like a lot of people do music because they look at it as an opportunity to make money, and they don't do it because they love the music. Just that alone will take out a good percentage of the people. A lot of people are just like, 'Oh I can make millions doing this so let me just rap about money and whatever topic.' A lot of people who are making music in New York aren't making it for the right reasons, and because of that it saturates the airwaves and saturates the market. So when I tell people I'm a rapper in New York they look at me like, 'Oh you're a rapper,' you know? They don't really respect it initially. I guess I don't really go out and just say 'I'm a rapper' to everybody, I just allow it. Just press play and allow them just to hear first, and then they could make a decision on whether they want to support the music.

You've performed outside of New York, but how do you find gaining listeners outside of the city?

I studied the analytics. I performed in a couple of places outside of New York. I performed in Virginia, I performed in L.A., Hollywood, Seattle, Philly. I feel a lot of those places show love to random people more so than New York does. They are more willing to respect a random sound because they hear "New York." So if I tell somebody I'm from New York and I'm performing in Virginia for example, then they're a lot more intent like, 'Oh he's from New York so he knows the culture of hip hop more,' and they're more engaged in the sound. Whereas if you're in New York, and you tell somebody you're from New York, that's everybody else, you know? As for my audience, I have a pretty big audience in France and Australia.

Really? Do you know why?

I remember I performed at a rooftop with like 150 people and they were all from France. Maybe they went back to their country and shit, I don't know. However it spread, I'm glad they're listening. It's really weird when you post that and people are like, 'come to South Africa, come to France,' you know? It makes you realize how music spreads, and make sure you're saying the right thing to those people across the world that are listening.

When I first met you, you said you traveled a lot outside the U.S. How do you think that's affected you?

It’s humbled me. My family's from Nigeria, so I went to Nigeria, and just seeing the poverty, and the extreme poverty, was just like, 'Wow.' Kids are in the street playing with sticks and dirt, but they're completely happy with it. Kids here, their iPhone screen breaks and they just have a fit and they start crying. It made me be content with what I have, and just not taking anything for granted. I've also been to  Seattle, Virginia, British Columbia, and Alaska. The left side of the world is different in terms of people are very nonchalant with the way they live. It just broadened my variety to know that they world ain't New York, the world ain't America, it's just a very different place and different places. It made me curious to see more, and connect with those people.

What is the best show that you've ever done?

Resonator Festival was pretty good. It was really fire. Best show I ever did? I opened up for G4shi recently at Rough Trade. I was up there ... I'm not going to say it's my best show, I'm just going to say it's probably top three. It was a sold-out show at Rough Trade, 250 people. A whole bunch of people there knew who I was, but when I engaged with the crowd people were shouting my lyrics back to me. It was kind of overwhelming but it was like, 'Wow, this is a little glimpse of what it could be.' I feel like the best shows are the ones that have the most crowd engagement, and that one was definitely one of my top three crowd engagement shows.

Back to Resonator, it’s a big deal to be on that bill!

Yeah, a lot of people I look up to like Oswin Benjamin were there, and I met Sway. I was talking to Sway and Oswin came up during the conversation. I was just trying to keep my cool, but it was just insane to really meet all the people that I knew in one space, and just further the connection. It was just a great show, there was a lot of people there and everybody was engaged, everybody wanted to be there. The venue was beautiful, sound was beautiful, the visuals. It was just a great, great show. The way things were running, everything was on time. It was definitely the best independent festival I've been to in the city. [Matt UHH agrees].

[Interview] Akinyemi: The New York Rapper Who Is Immune To Distraction [Interview] Akinyemi: The New York Rapper Who Is Immune To Distraction [Interview] Akinyemi: The New York Rapper Who Is Immune To Distraction

I saw that you performed with The Social Experiment, that’s super cool! How did that come about?

Yeah that was the Treble release party, they’re like LinkedIn for musicians and artists. They booked Peter Cottontale and Greg Stix of The Social Experiment, they were jammin’, they saw me on stage and someone at Treble said for Akinyemi to come on stage and rap and I was like 'word.' So I came on stage and rapped and that was that - I rapped with Social Experiment. They're really cool people, just normal, regular people, but just extremely talented musicians.

Who is your dream artist-collaborator?


I feel like you hear a lot of artists say that now, but for very good reason.

I say that not just because Kendrick is the biggest hip hop artist right now, I say that because me and Kendrick both incorporate characters into our music, and I feel like he understands that aspect of using a certain inflection for a certain dialogue or a certain emotion. If we could get together I feel like we could make something that hasn't been made before.

So you've been putting out Summer Sermons, can you explain the idea behind them?

I had a plan, it was like two months ago, I was going to put out 'summers.' I had been sitting on this project a month now, I'm just trying to put it out. And then I was like, who cares? That was when I was like, 'Do I even want this project?' I want to put out some consistent content to lead up to the release of 'summers.' Kota [The Friend] actually influenced that a lot. He was putting out these videos called Lyrics to Go, which are little one minute music videos, and he was getting a lot of engagement for them. I hit him up and I was like, 'I'm not going to copy you, but I'ma do little music videos too.' He said, 'I respect that, I respect you tellin' me that’.

Before we even released the first one, I shot three, and was like, alright they're going to be called Summer Sermons, and they're going to be one minute music videos every Monday leading up to the project. So we shot three, released the first one, and then people were just engaging and loving it. I was like, 'okay, word,' so let's open up the next one and it was just more love and seeing people DMing me, emailing me, 'Yo when's the project coming out?' So I was, 'Okay, it's working.' The engagement is there and people want the project.

I just released the last one called "Juice”, and this Friday I'm going to release the first single from the EP. Hopefully, I did what I needed to do, it was just like little verses that I didn't spend much time writing. They were just little things just to show people my face and show people I'm still making music. These are little snippets of sound that might be on a project or similar styles of production to the project. It was just things I needed to say about lessons. Just consistent content every week, to keep people engaged and looking forward to future music.

Smart plan. You mentioned videos, it seems like you put a lot of energy behind your videos and the concepts. Tell me about creating them and how that all works.

I don't even feel like that, I feel like we shoot them during some 20-30 minutes. It's really just location so, the first one, "SoundCloud," goes through all the songs on my SoundCloud. I'm in a classroom because it's called Sermons but sermons are supposed to be like lessons, and we use the classroom setting to just further advance that.

Number two, "Summer Forever," was me alluding to the project a little bit and using a lot of summer lyricism in order to promote summers.

Number three, "Focus," is a shout-out to a huge collaborator of mine, Deem Spencer. He’s one of the first people when I started making music, we would just sit in a car and write together. Focus is also like, sermon, lesson, so I shot that one in a classroom too.

And then Juice was different. We used a different videographer, and that one is a shout-out to the producer of Fly Away. His name is Henneysee, so I was just in a basement with crazy lighting and smoke, with a bottle of Hennessy and drinking Hennessy while rapping about peer pressure of being at a party and drinking; and also alluding to the fact that I'm not a rapper that would normally have alcohol, and gold chains, and women in their videos, but this is what peer pressure could lead to. So those are the four different ideas of the Summer Sermons, little hints of ideas that might be on summers, and getting people ready.

Speaking about summers more directly, my first thought was specifically New York summer, which has so many connotations. What is New York summer to you?

New York summer is just like hot, steamy subways. It's things being hotter than they need to be. I feel like there really isn't a beach in New York as much as other places. A lot of times people just travel outside of New York and go to different places like amusement parks and things like that. Or even go to their summer job. That's summer for me, that's what I was doing at some time, just cutting it loose working. It wasn't any type of vacation.

Why is the EP called summers?

It's called summers because I started it last summer. I started it in July, but every song is also an experience that also formed in the summer of last year. So last summer, the majority of the performing of the songs, and the experiences I had. I was writing down the experiences that I had and over the course of a year I formed those ideas and experiences into songs.

Do you have a favorite from the seven tracks?

I'll give you a top three.

Let’s go top two…!

Okay - "onetime" and "asylum." "onetime" is a true story about my brother and the experience I had with him. My brother was involved with my family, and then he went to Penn State, and really peaced from my family. I haven't talked to him in like eight years because he just hasn't been there. *Starts rapping* “I got a brother named Zeke, a sister named Flo. Also, I even got a brother named Abe, I don't even know his phone number, or even know where he stay.” Which is true, I don't know. He hasn't been to family holidays or anything like that, we don't get any type of contact. We don't know what he's doing, we know he's alive because he posts on Facebook, but we he won't friend us or anything like that. It's kind of really fucked up. The most fucked up part is that my parents co-signed his loan, so they still had to pay for it. They have been trying to get in contact with him. Because of that, it's kind of ruining the dynamic of the family a little bit, and the morale. I put that song right in the middle, number four, because that's the most heartfelt and the most vulnerable song in the project. It’s just shit that my family has to deal with and the fact that my mom has a son that she gave birth to, but she don't know where he is, but she still has to pay this student loan. It's fucked up, but, that's "onetime."

"asylum" is a song about police brutality. It's probably my favorite production on the album. Whenever I perform that track, that's the song that people are like, 'What was that?' I usually have everybody put their fist up, and it's something that people walk away remembering, and it's usually the one that gets the most positive feedback. That's probably why it's my favorite, because I like to see the reactions to it, and also it's just a song that has a lot of substance to it. Not really wasting any words with it.

Have you put out an EP before?

No this is my first debut.

But you've been on the scene a little while?

I want to say Distant is what made people start talking a little bit, and I want to say that's like two years ago? But I've always been the artist that people know to perform unreleased songs and then they are asking 'Where can I find this music.' But I never really linked up with the engineer to properly mix and master them. So I would have these songs that I wrote, and I was known mostly performance artist, I would write these songs and I'd be constantly rehearsing, rehearsing, rehearsing them and they never were recorded. I would just perform all these songs and people would ask, 'Where can I go online and listen?' I was like, 'You could go online and listen to Distant.' That kind of increased my draw a little bit because people knew that they had to come to a show in order to see those specific songs. But it also decreased morale of people because they wanted to go home and listen to those songs that they really connected with. That's why this EP is important, because I like these songs, I like performing them, but they also could just go home and listen to them.

So what are you hoping for this EP? Do you have any goals for it?

I hope to just reach audiences outside of New York and travel a little bit. I feel like I've been performing in New York for a little over a year and a half, and seen the majority of venues I need to perform at, and every time I go to a show it could be a majority of the same people. I know America is a big place, and it's very diverse, the ideals and morals of everybody. So I want to reach out of nowhere places, and travel to them, having them be able to connect with it.

I do feel like audiences outside of your hometown will have a good majority of your core fans, and fans that are not afraid to really express their support. I feel like if people grew up with you and knew you as the person that you grew up with, they'll see how you're growing, but it's like you're still that same person they went to high school with. If someone is exposed to the music, and connects with it, and they're not someone I know, they're not afraid to share with a friend, they're not afraid to support it or buy merch because they don't know me personally. So I definitely want to increase the amount of fans I have of people that I don't know personally, but they know the music.

Do you think you'll have a few more EPs, or do a full album soon?

I'm working on my full-length album. It's almost there, it's like halfway done.

Wow, okay!

That one I want to have a full rollout for, do like skits and maybe shoot a little short film for it. I feel like I will set up the connections that I need to connect with in order to make my full-length more a body of work, an album rather than a little EP.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

Hopefully that track with Kendrick. I see myself being able to tell my mom, 'You don't need to worry about money.' Buy them a crib. Really just overall, reach the masses of people that I need to meet. I feel like in five years I could see a majority of the world. Have a second album out. The thing is, when that question is asked, you see where yourself is going to be, but I'm also trying to see where the world is going to be in five years. We might have a new president in five years, the way technology advances might be different in five years. I feel like they might have virtual reality music so it's a hard question. I see the way that people listen to music differently, and even in three or four years, the way artists make music and the way they distribute that music might change.

Finally, because I can’t get away with not mentioning this....You always wear a very eye-catching crystal necklace, what’s the story behind it?

I've been wearing a pyrite on my neck for like the past nine months. My friend Rain was part of this group that was in for Dope Rebels, and he's always been a… I'm not going to say a spiritual advisor. He's a vendor, he's like the person you see selling crystals and stuff like that. We had a show a year ago and I didn't have any crystals, and he was like, 'Yo take this pyrite, and wear it,' and I was like, 'Alright.' He's like, 'It has grounding properties, and it has properties that knock off energy that you don't need in your life.' And I was like, 'Alright, whatever, I'll wear this crystal.' Meeting him, during that, I was just very like, 'whatever, I don't really believe in all that shit.' But, ever since I been wearing it, I feel like things just been happening that need to happen. I don't know if it's just the crystal, or is it just me meeting who I need to meet. It’s also just a conversation starter, people come around like, 'What's the crystal on your neck for?' I honestly just like it, and it's just cool. But, whether or not that's true and whether it's blocking the people I need to block, I feel like I'm meeting a lot more people that I need to meet, and I feel like negative things have been happening less frequently to me, so maybe that's the reason. The majority of the reason, I just think it's a cool necklace, so I like to wear it.

Come out to Akinyemi's EP release show for summers at Brooklyn Bazaar (Brooklyn, NY) on Sunday, September 17 at 8:00 PM - Get tickets

summers is out now on all platforms.

Connect with Akinyemi online

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