Kemba, the rapper formerly known as YC the Cynic, was struggling to write a follow-up to his acclaimed 2013 album, GNK. At one point, he felt like he didn’t want to rap anymore—he even flirted with the idea of recording some samba tracks. Then, he went to Ferguson, Missouri, and participated in the protest marches that followed the fatal shooting of Michael Brown.
Kemba and his crew from the grassroots Rebel Diaz Arts Collective were energized by the scene they witnessed. After a producer named G1 fashioned a moving sound system out of a wooden handcart, they blasted songs by Lil Boosie and N.W.A while the crowd chanted along. The event kick-started Kemba’s creative juices, and Negus, his new album, sprang to life.
Though the atmosphere in Ferguson was politically charged, Kemba rejects the idea that he makes political music. He sees his music and his message as personal, not political. Negus backs up this assertion. The production—from Frank Drake and Cole King—marries the abrasive electronics of Kanye at his angriest with kind of melodic synth swirls that pop up throughout the Dungeon Family catalog. Over that rich sonic fabric, Kemba uses his gravelly baritone to take stock of his place in the world around him.
We spoke to Kemba on a sweltering New York City summer day about reigniting his artistic voice, the leadership dynamics of 2Pac and Trump, and his issues with labeling music as “political” and “conscious.”
What were you trying to achieve when you began writing Negus?
Oh, man. I began it three years ago, and I wanted to make something light and fun ’cause GNK was pretty heavy. I wanted to stray away from that, But for the first six months, nothing was coming out—I couldn’t make one good song. I even tried making some samba stuff—like, I was singing over it. I needed to change and do something different.
Were you trying to make party songs?
Not party songs, but upbeat songs, or even more personal songs. I was trying to write about relationships, and I wanted to write more about myself and my life, and it just wasn’t happening. I wasn’t inspired to make anything. Me and Frank Drake were isolating ourselves in the studio upstate, trying to force ourselves to stay away from distractions and create music, but it wasn’t happening. That was around the time when I went to Ferguson, which caused a wave of inspiration to hit us both. The mood of what we were making drastically changed after that; it became dark and moody and very heavy.
What do you remember about your trip to Ferguson?
It was a defining moment for me, and I wasn’t even involved. I can’t take credit, I was just there. I went with the Rebel Diaz Arts Collective, this organization that I’m a founding member of. The moment we went to the rally, the moving sound system was embraced by everybody. We came up playing “Fuck Tha Police,” and that was the start of a revolution— some moments it was a celebration of life, some moments it was a rebellion. We were just walking up the street with thousands of people playing music, and everybody chanting to instrumentals.
It was just super powerful to see young people doing it. You hear about the civil rights movement—that was way before my time. And everything after that seemed like things organized by older people—people my parents’ age. But this was organized and led by young people that were doing things differently and saying, ‘This is not your daddy’s civil rights movement.’ It was like something I could feel and be down with. It was a brand new sort of rebellion.
Did that inspire the line in the song “New Black” where you talk about ‘all the civil leaders looking docile’?
Absolutely, man. You know, the people that I learned from, like Rebel Diaz and Claudia de la Cruz and Rosa Clemente, they put me onto a lot of game. And it’s real, man. People grow older and, not necessarily docile—although some do—but people get older and they don’t go out as much and their priorities change. So then you have the ones that don’t do anything anymore, and they just kinda pimp the whole movement for money and personal gain. They do appearances and they get paid for it, but they don’t do any actual work. That’s what I’m talking about.
“New Black” also samples a line from another type of leader, 2Pac. What’s your relationship with his music and his image?
2Pac, for me, was always a figure and less an artist. I don’t love 2Pac’s music. Of course, I like the songs that everybody likes, but I’m not gonna say he’s my favorite artist. But 2Pac as an idea? Incredible. The idea of an artist that can be from where I’m from and have such a revolutionary mind, and a drive to create positivity among specifically black people, but also never feel the need to denounce one thing or another—you can do both at the same time, even though it’s seemingly a contradiction. I admire that, and I think it makes it easier for everyone else to be a human.
How would you persuade a younger hip-hop fan to go back and check out 2Pac’s music and message?
If it was young people I’d just be like, ‘Yo, this is Kendrick Lamar’s favorite artist, you have to listen to him!’ But, at the same time, young people are gonna be young people, and it doesn’t matter. I’ve heard people say, ‘I don’t wanna hear Jay Z.’ That’s how it happens. Things move on.
At the end of “Caesar’s Rise,” you sample a line from Donald Trump telling a reporter, ‘I’ve always had a great relationship with the blacks.’ Why did you pick that quote?
Because Trump is a character. I picked that specific one because it fit the song, and that line was about talking shit, and that’s what he does—he talks shit for a living. That specific sample fit so well, because it was him talking and then a black woman responding.
Even if you don’t like Trump’s views, do you see why so many people are willing to follow him right now?
Yes. I think Donald Trump speaks to people that had those feelings and were afraid to say it, and didn’t have an outlet to say it, and didn’t have someone huge to stand behind. He makes it so much easier to be bold about their beliefs. I feel like there’s a whole network of television that breeds people like that—like, Fox News’s viewership believes things like that. These people are not born like that, but they’re raised like that, and they get it from parents or television or both, and then everything else—like real life and the internet—tells them they can’t be like that. And then Donald Trump makes it okay to show that in public. It just amplifies their beliefs so much.
What do you think 2Pac would say about Trump’s message?
I think 2Pac … I don’t know. I’m sure he wouldn’t like them. I can’t predict what he would say specifically, but I’d imagine he would have a statement on Trump. He was always smart about how he expressed himself.
We’ve been talking a lot about political issues, but “Caesar’s Rise” opens with you rapping, ‘Please don’t call me conscious/ Don’t call it political/ Please don’t deem this lyrical…’ Do you get annoyed if you’re tagged as a conscious or political artist?
I’m super annoyed. I still am. I think it was important for that to be the first thing said on the album, because I’m not talking about politics, I’m not talking about politicians, I’m not talking about policies. I’m talking about people that look like me, or that I know, getting killed. There’s nothing political about that. That’s not more or less political than your favorite song, you know? If it talks about drugs, I’m asking you where the drugs came from. There’s nothing more political in my song than in your song, but I’ve seen too many times where the label ‘political’ or ‘conscious’ is used to make people shy away from [the music].
It ends up being used in a negative way.
Yeah, like, ‘That’s too political. I’m good, I want to just listen to something dope.’ Anybody that’s talking about anything that’s not your normal mainstream topics gets hit with ‘conscious’ or ‘political,’ even if it’s really not. Somebody getting killed is not political—that’s life. So, yeah, that’s why I get upset at the title.
After you got back from Ferguson, where did you end up recording the album?
We recorded upstate in Mechanicville in New York. My producer is from upstate, and I met his brother, Cole King, who has a studio up there. We both decided that, living in the city it’s tough to focus. And doing the business end as well, that drains my creativity completely. So I decided I’m gonna do the business stuff during the week when everybody’s working, then every weekend we’re gonna leave the city and leave the distractions and get to work. We did that for the majority of weekends for three years.
What sort of stuff were you listening to while recording the album?
We pushed ourselves to be more influenced by what was happening in music at the time. Kanye’s album was out. Lupe’s album came out while we were making it, and we really loved it. They’re huge fans of James Blake, and got me into him. And Kendrick’s album came out. We were just letting our influences hit us.
Is it hard to be influenced by other artists without it seeming like you’re copying them?
Yes, totally. I think it’s like growing up, really: When you’re a baby, you kinda soak up everything. Then, as you get older, it gets increasingly difficult to do that. When you’re older, they say you don’t really change—it’s like a hardening process. I think it’s the same thing for a music career. For the first few years, I was just sounding like Homeboy Sandman—he was one of my first big influences. So I sounded like a mix of Cassidy and Homeboy Sandman.
The production on the album sounds more expansive than your previous projects.
Yeah, I love the idea of making an album that flows well and feels good thematically and seems like a journey when you listen to it. That’s my favorite part of creating an album. We were able to do it for GNK, and that was the idea with the skits and the intro and outro on Negus. The sound itself is a result of Frank Drake just getting better, and also Cole King getting involved. They’re both influenced by Dilla, but Frank is 60 percent influenced by Dilla and Cole is 40 percent influenced by Dilla, and they’re both influenced by Kanye. So it’s super soulful, there’s Dilla-sounding parts on the album, there’s Kanye-sounding parts, then there’s Danger Mouse-sounding parts.
Do you want to break down what the album title means?
The title Negus—when I learned about that word, I loved it, and I just wanted to expand on it. I loved the juxtaposition between ‘negus’ and the n-word. I wanted to flesh it out and create the storyline. The album is kinda about this boy who is trying to mature in life and develop and be the best he can possibly be, but it’s also about the dangers of that. The skits are from a documentary about children in this really radical school. I think that’s kinda the theme throughout the album.