For Bronx rapper Kemba, making an album in the midst of the social upheaval of the Black Lives Matter movement was natural. After all, he came up through the radical hip hop community center, Rebel Diaz Arts Collective, so combining art and politics was second nature. However, it was one particular journey that crystallized his vision for his latest album Negus— a trip last October to where the movement really found its footing and took off, Ferguson.
“That was the first time I saw young black people leading the movement,” Kemba remembers. “It was inspiring. My brother G1 made a mobile speaker system setup and we chanted to instrumentals. I’ve been to a lot of protests that only serve the purpose of feeling good that you’re seemingly doing something good, and when police say stop you stop. This wasn’t that. It was crazy to witness and be able to just do whatever we could to assist. I learned a lot there.”
Those lessons show up all over Negus, a record that goes from personal tales like “Caesar’s Rise” to overt social commentary like “New Black Theory,” without ever losing a sense of being engaged in the world, or ever forgetting that wordplay, allusions, and rhythm are pre-eminent.
“Picture God grabbing Adam by the Adam’s Apple/Just as atoms having at the apple/Now those atoms got you grabbing at your fuckin’ Apple tablet, packing up/Because there’s a black man in all black, passing,” goes a typical head-spinning passage.
“New Black Theory,” of course, is inspired by Pharrell’s now-infamous use of that phrase (“The New Black doesn’t blame other races for our issues…The New Black dreams and realizes that it’s not pigmentation: it’s a mentality and it’s either going to work for you or it’s going to work against you. And you’ve got to pick the side you’re going to be on.”) The comments met with intense pushback in the press and, of course, on social media.
Kemba’s song and impactful video talk about the lived realities of racial profiling and ask, mockingly, “Who’s the New Black now?”
Kemba calls Pharrell a “legend,” but says that he “just shook [his] head” when he heard the super-producer’s comments.
Negus is Kemba’s first project under his current name. Previously, he went by YC the Cynic. “YC” is a childhood nickname whose meaning even now the rapper still refuses to say (“I promise it’s underwhelming,” he pleads. “The mystery is more interesting.”) The name change came about for a few reasons.
“I got the name YC when I was around 12 or so,” he explains. “Of course, as I got older, I identified with it less and less. I wanted to create something that I could move forward with for the foreseeable future.
“Another reason is I felt like the name was limiting the type of music I could make. YC The Cynic came with a preconceived notion, and I felt like I couldn’t talk about certain parts of my life with it. The last reason is that I started releasing music at 18, just figuring out my sound and how to write songs, but in the business first impression means a lot and people lose interest quickly. So, I changed it.”
While the change was, he admits, “nerve-wracking,” it seems to have worked out great as the Bronx rapper recently scored a major co-sign: A last-minute invitation from a friend to a Kendrick Lamar show in Brooklyn a few months ago ended up with Kemba, who had shared a bill with Kendrick years before, onstage rapping to the sold-out crowd. “Kemba. Remember that MF’n name. Kemba,” Lamar punctuated following Kemba’s cameo (in full below).
Kemba took the attention from that appearance and ran with it.
As a result of the show, he says, “I’ve been meeting and working with a lot of people behind my favorite music. It’s so much fun. I’ve been making the best music of my life so far, and traveling outside of NYC to perform a bunch. I can see the beginnings of what I’ve always wanted to happen, so it’s been awesome.”
Kemba has a new material on deck, including work with Chance The Rapper’s “No Problems” producers, Brasstracks. He’s currently on the road as part of the Pigeons & Planes-sponsored No Ceilings tour, where he’s joined by rappers Boogie, Kaiydo, and Michael Christmas. It’s Kemba’s first major tour, and he’s loving it.
But he’ll never forget his native city.
“I’d honestly love to be at the center of [the NYC rap scene],” he says. “There are so many sounds in NYC right now, and I’d like to be someone who can mesh with them all and unite the city even more.”