Chicago Musician NNAMDÏ: “Everyone should use their skills in order to help people”

Original photo by Jess Myers. Handmade collage by B.

Chicago musician NNAMDÏ dropped two powerful releases in the last few months. The latest being EP Black Plight – which raised over $10,000 for not-for-profit organizations eatchicago.org and assatasdaughters.org. And the other being LP, BRAT (released in April), an exploration of needs and wants as a human being and of reaffirming life purpose that brings you joy while helping others. Both are timely releases, both just might have you taking a look at your own place in the world and remind you to ask; how I can help those in a place with less privilege? Good art engages and entertains; great art changes you—NNAMDÏ’s genre-bending, breaking and blurring songs – fusing math-rock, hip hop, pop, R&B and more – definitely did this for us.

How are you?

NNAMDÏ: I’m doing OK, Bianca. I just got home, I was at this food drive and we were giving out meals and food to people.

That’s wonderful, I love how there has been so many positive things happening in the community of late, it’s been a rough, crazy time.

NNAMDÏ: It is a crazy time. It’s really been putting into perspective the things that are important. During all this community building, donating groceries is important, especially now, so many people are suffering and can’t go to work or haven’t gone to work for a long time, it’s intense. It got me thinking, there’s always people going through it, this community building energy needs to continue even after all of this. I’m really trying to check myself so I keep the momentum going after things start to look up in the future.

You’ve mentioned that lately you’ve been learning a lot and seeing a lot of community building and positivity amidst all the turmoil that’s been happening right now; what are some of the things that you’ve been learning?

NNAMDÏ: I feel like I’ve always been for the reform of law enforcement… when you grow up in it, I think a lot of people have ingrained in their brain that it just is the way it is, which is not a great way to live. I’m learning from people that have always been pro community based programs and teaching. Especially in Chicago, there’s a lot of conflicting views where the money goes towards police departments, almost half of the city’s budget is spent towards police. There was couple of years ago where they were planning on building a $90 million cop academy and everyone that I met were against it. There’s been a lot of people in Chicago that are police and law enforcement abolitionist so I’m just learning from that; it’s always been a part of my mindset but I was never actively involved. I’m trying to learn from people that have been doing it for a long time.

Last week you released the ‘Black Plight’ EP with sales raising $10,297.78 with proceeds split between eatChicago and Assata’s Daughters and 2K of the total going directly to people in the community that are in immediate need of food and housing assistance; why was it important for you to make this EP now?

NNAMDÏ: There’s a lot of anxiety going on in my mind and it was forming into physical stomach aches, everything has been piling on for a lot of people this year and like most people, I just didn’t know how to handle it. I feel like it just needed to be done, I forced myself to finish it the week that all the shit went down. I’d gone to one protest but I get a lot of anxiety in those situations. I felt this was my best opportunity to use the skills that I have to help anyone. It felt really important so I pushed myself, I went pretty deep down the rabbit hole trying to finish this; it was going to be five songs but I realised that wasn’t going to happen. I did what I could and made sure it got my point across. I think everyone should use their skills in order to help people, music is one skill that I have.

I can relate with getting anxiety when going to protests. I used to go to them all the time but it started to get so overwhelming for me to the point of panic attacks.

NNAMDÏ: It’s wild to me that so many people can just chill in that situation, there’s so many different sounds, especially in something like this protesting violence; there’s horns and people on megaphones and people honking and chanting. It’s very intense. At any moment I’d look around and be like; is this person yelling a chant or are they yelling at some other person? Or is this person honking because they’re in agreement with what’s going on or are they honking ‘cause they’re mad at something? Also, just being engulfed in a huge crowd of people is never something I’ve really been into.

Same! Was there any significance in having the first song ‘My Life’ on the EP kick off with a drumroll?

NNAMDÏ: No. Musically it just happened how it happened honestly. It all just came together. I didn’t really put that much thought into how the music was being placed or where things were going, I just did exactly what felt right to me and felt like it needed to sound like. It’s very much a projection of emotions felt at that point in time.

Last week was also your 30th birthday, Happy Birthday! What did turning 30 mean to you? Did you get reflective?

NNAMDÏ: Aww thank you! I feel like I was too distracted with everything going on in the world to care. A lot of people think of 30 as this crazy benchmark but it never really felt that way to me. It never really felt old to me. People are like, oh thirty is over the hill; but it’s never really felt that way to me at all. It’s such a crazy thing for people to think. I feel like the situation that a lot of people are in made me realise that I have it really good, I live in a comfortable house and can afford groceries. There was no room for any sort of conflict or crisis because I feel I’ve lived a very privileged life compared to a lot of people that are doing a lot worse off than I am right now. It feels the same being 30 [laughs].

I had a “milestone” birthday last year and I didn’t feel any different either, I’ve been doing all I do, things like doing interviews and making zines for over 25 years since I was fifteen and now I just feel like I do everything better than I ever have and I have a better perspective on the world and things; you can totally rule things at any age.

NNAMDÏ: Yeah, you’re kind of settled into most of the things that you’re into, there’s always room for surprises and improvement but, I feel like most people should be comfortable with themselves by this point, hopefully. Luckily I think I’ve reached that point a few years back.

Speaking of surprises, that’s something I love about your music – I love listening on headphones so I can hear everything that’s going on – there’s always so many surprises in your songs and I never know where it’s gonna go! It’s exciting.

NNAMDÏ: Thank you.

What is the importance of music and art in your life?

NNAMDÏ: It’s the most important thing, it’s pretty much all that I think about [laughs]. It’s so interesting just getting into people’s brain and witnessing the world through other people’s eyes and you can present things in whatever way you want—it’s a maximum expansion of people’s imagination and emotions. It teaches people in a way that is very different from what we learn in school and through teachers. It teaches people a different emotional connection and appreciation for humanity. It’s engulfed in everything that I think about [laughs]. It’s pretty much everything to me.

Totally! I know the feeling. Did you have a moment when you realised music is what you were meant to be doing with your life?

NNAMDÏ: Yeah, I still think I’m having that moment [laughs]. I feel anything involving entertainment, I wanted to be a comedian or actor when I was little – I still do – music has been the medium that has allowed me to express myself in the broadest form. I get real silly with it a lot, I can get real serious with it, I can also make happy fun songs. It’s allowed me to most comfortably express myself and a range that I wasn’t able to do through any other medium. It’s definitely something that I’m going to do until I can’t do it anymore.

Yay! That makes me so happy. You’ve mentioned that putting out your latest album BRAT was very therapeutic for you; how so?

NNAMDÏ: A lot of it has to do with the way I was thinking as I was going through the recording process and learning what’s really important to me. If I had to stop everything, if I couldn’t do music anymore; what’s important to me? Interestingly enough, I feel a lot of musicians are feeling that because of the [Corona]virus and not being able to tour, they have to really focus on; what will I do if I’m not working? What is the thing that actually brings me joy outside of what I have to do all of the time? It’s a lot about that. Also, realising that making art is not a selfish pursuit, even though it can feel like it when you have bigger problems in the world, it doesn’t feel like as an immediate solution. I feel like I’m constantly reminded of how important it is. It always shows itself in a different way like—no, this is important! Even after I put on the EP I’m like, OK, art is important! I don’t really need a reminder anymore but I feel any empathic artist goes through that, where they’re like; am I doing enough? Is this just gassing myself up? Does this mean anything to anyone else or am I just doing it because I want to do it? Both are important, you should do things that you want to do and do things for other people. That was a lot of what I was thinking while making this album and it helped me realise what else is important in my life. Things like making time for people that make time for me was a big thing on that record and doing whatever was in my ability to reach people.

BRAT has such a cool flow to it; how did you go about arranging the run order? Did it take you a while?

NNAMDÏ: It didn’t really take a while. The order just falls into place once there’s chunks of songs written. It wasn’t really a task it was more fun, like a Sudoku puzzle [laughs]. I feel like that’s such an important part of records, the flow of it, you can have all great songs and you can put it in a different order to have a different effect. It’s very important.

I love how with your album if you listen closely you realise that each songs is connected to the next whether in theme or sounds etc. It takes you through all these emotions and unfolds, it’s kind of like a movie in a way.

NNAMDÏ: Yeah, thank you.

In regards to BRAT I’ve read that you were stubborn in some of your decisions regarding it; what were they?

NNAMDÏ: I think I’m just stubborn in general when I’m working on my own music, that’s part of the reason I make solo music. I was in a bunch of bands for so long, and I always need an outlet to be solely in control of everything. This was the first record that I mixed with someone else, I mixed it with my bandmate – I play in this band Monobody – he has a studio, it’s where we recorded everything. I think there was a couple of moments where he wanted me to re-record a couple of things and sometimes I was like, no, we’re just going to keep it like that. Other times I was like, he’s absolutely right! I could do this better. I wasn’t stubborn the whole time [laughs] but I think it’s important to be stubborn with your art sometimes. I feel like a lot of people start a project with a specific intention in mind and then the more people they add to the mix the less their original intention shines through. I never want that to happen!

I wanted to ask you about the song ‘Really Don’t’, at the time of writing that you’ve said that you weren’t feeling that great; what was getting you down?

NNAMDÏ: [Laughs] Everything about life. Shit is hard and sad and things are fucked up a whole lot. Sometimes things feel out of your control. It was one of those times that I was in a dark place and I was letting my thoughts get the best of me.

Following that track there’s the song ‘It’s OK’ and its theme is that, it’s OK not to feel OK. That’s something I feel is important to talk about, ‘cause often people feel that they have to be happy all the time. When you are feeling down; what are the things that help you?

NNAMDÏ: Music a lot! Lately though it’s been less music and more funny shows, I watch a lot of Netflix shows, that’s been what cheers me up lately. I’m really into comedy. The beautiful thihng about comedy is that a lot of it comes from pain [laughs]. I feel that’s a good way to escape if you’re feeling down, because you can see the humour in your situation even if it’s not a humorous situation.

Where did the name of your album BRAT come from?

NNAMDÏ: It came from my brain! [laughs]. It wasn’t the original name, it wasn’t the first name that I thought of. As the songs progressed I realised that more and more songs were talking about my wants and my needs as a human… that’s where the humour comes in, I was like, all these songs are about me, me, me! I’m gonna call it BRAT [laughs].

What was the idea behind the cover image?

NNAMDÏ: That was another thing that came pretty quickly, it was the first image that came into my head when I thought of the name BRAT, me wearing a tiara on a blue background. That stuck with me through the recording of the whole album. Sometimes I’ll have an idea and it will evolve over time, it’ll be like, maybe the first idea wasn’t great but I think it’s really cool when an idea stays with you the whole time, then it’s like this is what it definitely needs to be!

One of my favourite tracks on the album is ‘Semantics’. I love how that song really builds. There’s a line in the song: fuck the world in every language…

NNAMDÏ: Yeah [laughs]. That song is like a giant puzzle. I tried to make a bunch of lines that could be perceived in different ways like, I remember I did the full line where it could mean something completely different, every syllable. It will be interesting to explain one day, maybe someone will go and digest it and be nerdy and figure out some of those lines.

You’ve set me a challenge now!

NNAMDÏ: [Laughs] Oh yeah!

Do you have a favourite track right now?

NNAMDÏ: Honestly, I like them all. I feel like they all stand on their own. The only song that isn’t meant to be a song by itself is ‘Really Don’t’. ‘Really Don’t’ without ‘It’s OK’ is complete insanity. It’s so depressing beyond the point of redemption which is not something I want to put out in the world but, the two of them together is a good combination.

Do you write songs or do something creative every day?

NNAMDÏ: Yeah, more or less. I would say I do two days of being creative and then one lazy day [laughs].

Do you find when you’re trying to have a lazy day that your brain is still thinking of creative things?

NNAMDÏ: Oh, yeah. My thoughts don’t stop. I’m still always taking notes and will write little things down, so it never really stops. I guess sometimes it’s just me trying to actively do a song.

I wanted to end by asking you a question that you asked people online not too long ago; comment one thing you’re grateful for?

NNAMDÏ: I’m really grateful for health, being healthy is a big blessings. I’m grateful for people. I feel like there’s so many beautiful people that have beautiful minds. I feel like we can do anything if we really try and that’s pretty amazing!

Please check out: NNAMDÏ bandcamp to get Black Plight EP and BRAT LP via Sooper Records. NNAMDÏ on Facebook. NNAMDÏ on Instagram.

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