On the Road for the Record: NNAMDÏ (Quarantine Edition)
Joining the long list of festivals and musicians who have been put into dormancy by the pervading effects of COVID-19, the multi-instrumentalist and rapper, NNAMDÏ—whose second studio album, Brat, dropped April 3rd—is Staying the Fuck Home. But he’s not succumbing to complacency.
As a long-time member of Chicago’s DIY music community, NNAMDÏ is well aware of the career-stalling—and even, career-ending—potential this pandemic has for him, for his fellow Chicago musicians, and for the independent music scene writ-large. While he’s weathering the storm, he’s thinking up ways to help others do the same.
A week before the release of his newest album, Milk caught up with NNAMDÏ to talk about these ideas, his day-to-day in self-isolation, and his wanting to break from the title of “Chicago’s weirdest rapper.”
What’s up, how’re you doing?
Trying to stay busy. Trying to keep it together. Trying to deal with the impending doom of the economic crisis.
Have you been sheltering-in-place?
Yeah, I’ve been chilling at home. I have a few roommates which is nice. I can’t even imagine having to live by myself right now. But I don’t really leave much anyway when I’m not on tour. So it’s not that different for me. It’s just the surrounding weight of the world that makes it worse.
What have you been doing to keep busy? What’s an average day look like for you right now?
I’ve been working on a lot of music, trying to go on walks around the block and the park by my house. Facetiming people a lot—that helps.
Are there any themes that you’ve constructed this playlist around?
Self-isolation, because that’s topical. Other than that, not really.
Who are some of the artists that you’ve put on this playlist?
Some Frank Ocean. That is crucial. I’ve been listening to a lot to this new Porches record that just came out. I like to listen to Enya when I’m alone. It’s pretty calming music—ethereal sounds. I listen to a lot of thrash, too. It doesn’t put me in a brooding mood.
I’d love to talk with you about what music means to you right now. Are you listening to music for solace? As an escape? For catharsis?
Pretty much anytime I listen to music that I’m not working on is when I’m running. I’ve been running pretty much every night just to clear my head and get some cardio. When I do that, I try to listen to stuff that’s upbeat, that’ll let me get into a rhythm. I like kind of intense music while I run to keep my energy up.
So this is where thrash comes in?
Yeah, I listen to Converge, this band Daughters, Rage Against the Machine.
Any songs, in particular, you’re spamming?
The song “Dropout” by Converge is definitely a song I’ve listened to a few times on my runs. Something about when the drums come in at the end is very intense.
What role do you think music can play in this time of mass anxiety and isolation?
I think it’s important in giving people an escape from the bombardment of all the things they’re seeing. Especially if you’re on social media all the time, I think it’s good to take a break and listen to some songs. It’s a good way to soak in some positive energy or to get out some emotions. You can listen to some music and get some anger out. Or get a good cry in. It’s a lubricant of life—it helps things go easier.
You said you’re working on music yourself. What’s the process like in self-isolation? Has it affected how you’re making music?
I’m usually good at forcing myself to finish stuff, but I think the first few days when everything was so intense and there was a lot of uncertainty about what was going on and when things are going to get better—and that feeling of uncertainty has made it difficult for me to finish things. I’m finally getting to the point where I feel like it’s okay if I don’t finish things, and now that I’ve made that acknowledgment that it’s okay, it’s been easier. Acknowledging that It’s alright for me not to finish allows my brain to relax more.
I stay up very late, even before this isolation. I usually go to bed around four or five. But now, I’m staying up to seven or eight, usually. I’ll go on a run anywhere between midnight and three, and after that, I’ll have the energy to actually work on music for a few. During the day, I tinker around and read and write. I normally don’t get that much sleep anyway.
I’m sure that’s good for touring.
Yeah, I don’t know if it’s good for my body in general. But I can’t help it. I wish I could sleep longer.
Obviously this pandemic has had a big effect on the music industry, specifically with touring. But how is it impacting the Chicago DIY scene?
Everything’s closed down, but it took a bit to get there; there was a lot of misinformation on how bad it was. I had a bunch of friends playing SXSW, and I was going to go down, hang, and put on a showcase with this other label, Windspear Records—it was going to be the first showcase of my label Sooper Records, so I was really pumped about that. But my label partner, Glenn, hit me up and was like, ‘This Corona shit is serious.”
Not much had happened in the states at that point, he was just talking about all these other places canceling events, but he said that we should really be thinking about this. I was just like, “Yeah, I’ll think about it as it comes, but I don’t want to foreshadow things I’m not sure about.” But then SXSW got canceled, which is a huge thing for a lot of Chicago folks. So many of my friends from Chicago had tours routed around that. When it got canceled, I was like, “That sucks, but I’m still going to go to Austin and hang with the people that are going in that direction.”
But slowly, everyone I knew was like, “We can’t go.” Then more things got canceled and all these other cases started showing up. Pretty much everyone had to cancel everything, which is for the best, but it sucks when it’s your main source of income. I know a lot of people are going through that with different jobs as well.
I think it’s going to have a lasting effect on what music is going to be produced in the coming years. Some artists are just not going to be able to support themselves on music alone. Having to take up other jobs to make ends meet is going to leave a lot of indie artists unable to make music like they were.
Do you know if the Chicago music scene is doing anything to rally the community together?
Yeah, I’ve been talking with a handful of people to organize something that would be helpful for the community: the bars, the venues, and the musicians. We’re definitely working on things. I know a lot of people are doing their own individual things, but I’m really trying to put together something bigger, where we can raise funds for people.
What do you have in mind?
A digital festival, but hopefully making it interactive. I know there are a lot of people live-streaming, and it’s convoluted now that everyone is doing it at all times. I’m just trying to figure out a way to make a digital festival appealing and lucrative. It’s still in the beginning stages. My main thing is making it accessible, interactive, and not something that’s just thrown into the wash of these other streams.
I think there’s an opportunity here to experiment with what concerts can look like and how they are consumed. So you said in an interview that one of the reasons you went to the University of Illinois for an engineering degree was to please your parents. What do they think of your music career now? I know they’ve been apprehensive in the past.
There’s no apprehension anymore. They know that it’s here to stay. I’ve also grown up in my own life and music, so I think they see that it’s more serious now, where before I may have seemed all over the place and unsure. But now there’s no uncertainty in my mind anymore, and I think that’s made them realize that this is 100% what he’s going to do. I’m able to sustain myself on music, which I wasn’t able to do five years ago, and I think that was their main issue.
Whatever I do, they just want me to be able to support myself. I don’t think it was an issue of me needing to do engineering. I think it was an issue of me doing something that will guarantee I’ll be able to support myself. I’m a first-generation kid. My parents moved from Nigeria. They definitely didn’t want to move across the world to have their kids do something and suffer from it. They have good intentions.
Do you have a strong affinity with your Nigerian roots?
It’s definitely there, but not as strong as it is for others. I only visited for the first time three years ago. I’d been hearing stories about it, but I didn’t really know my relatives. I’d just hear stories. Though, they knew me. Since I was a baby, my dad would go every year and tell them all about me. They’d be getting updates on my life, but I wouldn’t be getting updates on their lives. So it was very strange. But it’s definitely a part of my life. Both my parents spoke the language, cooked the food, told us about the culture.
Why did it take so long for you to visit home? Do you consider Nigeria to be home?
No, I consider it home. That’s where 90% of my family is. My parents are the only ones who moved here. I think it had to do a lot with timing. Usually, when my dad’s trips would happen, I was in school. They wouldn’t line up with summer breaks or different programs I was a part of, like band. But he was adamant, especially as I got older, he was like, “You need to go, you need to go.” Until finally, I was like, “I should make some time for this.”
It took too long, but we made it happen.
When did you decide to start pursuing music full time?
I always knew I wanted to do some form of entertainment since I was little. I didn’t know what field it would be in. I started playing drums in the fifth grade, but I was also very into comedy and acting. Music just kind of took over above all the other things I was interested in. I always wanted to do it, but it never seemed like a feasible thing to do. I didn’t know any other professional musicians, so it was just something I saw people on tv and the radio do. It didn’t seem like a real thing.
But I think when I got into college and got out a little more, meeting other people that were doing it. Some of my friends started doing it full time, and I was like, “Well, they’re doing it, so why not me?” It was a long process. It wasn’t, “I’m going to do music now.”
I think right before I put out my last record, I was like, “I don’t have time to do anything else if I really want to do this.” So about four years ago, I put myself 100% into this and just made it happen.
A lot of people call you “the weirdest rapper in Chicago,” but what would you call yourself?
I want to be known as a renaissance man, who dabbles in everything and hopefully brings a creative nature to whatever I do. I think calling anything “weird” is usually a lazy description, for not being able to really pinpoint what’s going on., in my opinion. But I also don’t think it’s 100% wrong. Definitely sometimes it could be considered weird, but usually, it’s just lazy.
What are some of your long-term goals with music?
I want to play all the bigger festivals, like Lollapalooza and Coachella, also AfroPunk, Bonaroo. I want to do a late-night appearance — SNL or something within the next year or two. And to get to a point of sustainability where I easily help other people, where I can just put my name on something and someone’s like, “Oh? NNAMDI likes that? I’m gonna check it out.” Like for other artists. Because I think it’s such a huge deal for bigger artists to be like, “I like this thing,” and then have a bunch of people go check it out. I want to be able to get to that point.
Interview by: Kedar Berntson
PHOTOGRAPHER: Tim Nagle
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