“Remember the name, Kemba… remember that name…”, as Kendrick proclaimed back in the day to an audience behind the closed doors of Brooklyn’s Music Hall of Williamsburg in December of 2016. I got a chance to talk to Kemba before opening up for the brass ensemble known as Brasstracks back in February at the Crescent Ballroom in Phoenix. I started off by asking Kemba to flesh out some of the details of his acapella freestyle, which is when I first caught glimpse of this rising name, and how all of that came to fruition. Here is some of that interview in brief:
Me: A lot has happened within the rap community since then. We’ve lost the likes of Mac Miller and XXX to name a few, but we’ve also seen a lot more younger and newer faces come to the foreground bringing new rap sounds along the way. Did Kendrick reach out to you? Or –
Kemba: No, that was completely random. My friend (Nikisha) invited me to a show in Brooklyn. Kendrick was doing a show for American Express, and so it was a small venue – like 300 people.
Me: So it was behind closed doors, essentially an if you know you know type deal?
Kemba: Yeah, sorta. I think it was like a first come first serve type basis, and people in the industry were also there – publications and stuff. So, yeah, I got there, I had just done a Hot 97.5 interview and freestyle with Rosenberg a couple days before, and I met a lotta people there, including Scotty Beam who is not there anymore. But I met her, and she was at the show alongside some people from Hot 97.5.
Me: So was this at the time you were still going by your old name (YC The Cynic), or did you make the switch before?
Kemba: I had just changed my name that same year (2016) I believe.
Me: So what led to the change, just a new page in your life?
Kemba: Yeah, I think I was just ready for a change of pace. I didn’t like the kinda pigeonholing that my old name came with. I wanted to do new stuff, much more mature and personable stuff.
At this point of the interview we were interrupted by a very kind gentleman who asked, “Veggie Bowl?”, which we then got excited about but alas, it was not our veggie bowl.
Me: You’re like, “I’ll take that” –
Kemba: Yeah, that was like exactly what I wanted to order but – Uhm, yeah but I just wanted to pick a name I could grow and evolve with.
Me: So why Kemba?
Kemba: It was a name that I worked out with – it sounded like it had African roots, it was youthful – and so I was just workshopping stuff.
Me: You didn’t use the “Wu-Tang Name Generator” did you?
Kemba: No, I did not get my Gambino on haha.
We got to talking about his album, Negus, and the story behind the name and why he chose it:
Kemba: I chose the name Negus because I really liked the meaning behind it, and the proximity to how close it sounded like the N-word, and I like the juxtaposition of the two. And I think it fit perfectly with the story I was telling and the way the album played out with the skits in between.
Me: How do you feel about the state of rap where it’s at right now? Are you with it, or more like how J. Cole put it, “The real one’s are dying, the fake one’s is lit”. Do you think that is true in a sense or is J.Cole just tryna flex?
Kemba: I think in a sense, I don’t think it’s any different than it has ever been. I think the music is easy to consume, and that it is high energy and fun-
Me: – and there is definitely a time and a place for that turn up vibe –
Kemba: 100 percent. Anything you wanna find exists, so I love the state that music is in right now.
Me: It’s definitely a melting pot of sorts right? You got punk like how hard hitting “Rage Against the Machine” was back in the 90’s hitting now in the form of new-age young rappers
Kemba: But at the same time, the people at the top are there for a reason – still very skilled, talented, emotionally relatable musicians. So yeah, I don’t have any issues with how it is right now.
Me: There is definitely a polarizing opposition between “Alright you’re either with ‘real hip-hop’ or how it is right now” –
Kemba: But I think either way, like – for lack of better terms – if you’re on the far right or far left, I feel like you’re kinda dating yourself in a sense. If you can’t see both sides, then you can’t really last long.
Me: So, you mentioned those at the top are there for a reason. I know it’s a pretty cliché question, but can you name a few of your favorite rappers?
Kemba: I mean I like everybody! I feel like I like everyone’s favorites – I love J.Cole, I love Drake, I love Kendrick. I like everything, man. I like it all. You don’t want to get left behind.
Kemba and I had the opportunity to talk on behalf of rap, upbringings, and anything that was going on at the time of that conversation in the adjacent room to the stage – veggie bowls included. We talked about J. Cole’s halftime performance at the All-Star game, low-key politics, being Scorpios, Mick Jenkins and Kemba collab from back in the day? And of course all of our favorite rappers.
The atmosphere as he came on to the stage was smooth and silent as the introductory horns of “MIDDLE CHILD” blared, reminiscent of the afore-had exchange of words. Kemba appeared front and center mic in hands among eager anticipation of his first song, which I believed was the banger of a single “Deadass” preceding some standouts from Negus like “Already”, leaving the crowd to bop along, myself included.
The entirety of the concert was full of great energy from start to finish, with Brasstracks finishing off strongly as the headliner of the night. It was a night full of great music and conversation as well as a packed house amid the rainy streets of downtown Phoenix – both Kemba and Brasstracks bringing it down as the rain fell around.
Name of Reviewer: Max Serventi