“I Don’t Think of Myself as a Musician”: An Interview with Chino Amobi

Sam Ribakoff speaks with Chino Amobi about growing up in Richmond, Virginia, Amobi's latest LP, 'Paradiso,' and science fiction.
By    May 17, 2017

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If Chino Amobi’s Paradiso came out just a couple of years ago you could get away with calling it a “soundtrack to a dystopian nightmare” or something like that, but Paradiso came out this year, 2017, and it’s a perfect soundtrack to our present reality. Over the course of a little more than an hour, Amobi—joined by almost the entire roster of radical experimental producers and DJs from Amobi’s NON Worldwide collective like Rabit, Elysia Crampton, and Faka—lays down a gauntlet that ricochets between spoken word poetry, intense industrial jams, beautiful ambient patches, dystopian pop rock, and a whole lot more.

Paradiso is an opera for the the internet age, utilizing the full spectrum of musical power to express emotion, and taking stylistic cues and ideas from across time and space to forge a collage that acknowledges the violence of the past and the darkness of the present, but points towards a future that’s a little brighter, a little more progressive, and a lot more black, brown, and queer. I talked to Amobi over the phone from Richmond about Virginia, history, progressive visions of the future, and his label NON Worldwide. —Sam Ribakoff


Are you in Richmond, Virginia or New York right now?


Chino Amobi: I am in Richmond.


Did you grow up in Richmond?


Chino Amobi: Yeah. I grew up right outside the city in Chesterfield, but I’ve been in Richmond for about eight years.


I know very few things about Virginia other than what Clipse, The Neptunes, and Timbaland have taught me, and that there are statues and monuments to the Confederacy everywhere.


Chino Amobi: Yeah. I’m in school now getting my masters in graphic design, and my school is on Monument Ave., and that’s where they got all those Confederate statues. Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, all the fun guys. It’s pretty wild.


What was it like growing up around that?


Chino Amobi: It’s different. It definitely creates this double consciousness. It’s like this fracture. I grew up around all these kids who have family members, great great great grandparents who served on the Confederate militia, and they talk about it like they’ve moved forward, but there’s this heritage that they’ve inherited which I’m aware of. As an outsider, and my parents being from Nigeria, I think that affected how I see America from this kind of outsider’s perspective, even though I was born in America. I always feel that I’ve been in between two states in terms of identity.

I mean that Confederate legacy, I see it as not only a legacy of the south, but America as a whole. It set the conditions where a lot of culture was born out of subjugation in the south. A very dark history that created a culture that is very specific to the south. Right now it’s kind of like this weird neutral space, it feels kind of like a void to me. It’s historical but ahistorical at the same time…Virginia is in this between space in America, where there’s pockets of blue and red and everything in the middle. It’s amorphous like the musical styles down here. It’s got a grit to it, but it’s flexible and fluid. At the same time it’s still got a strong history that underlines every sort of statement.


So when you started making music you weren’t tied down to any sort of regional style?


Chino Amobi: Yeah, exactly. For example, Virginia Beach with Missy and Pharrell and Timbaland, they were innovators in a real distinct way. Like people associate Virginia Beach with a real distinct sound, but Richmond doesn’t have that kind of identity, besides this colonial legacy.


Is Richmond more static, or is it malleable to an artist with a strong vision?


Chino Amobi: I think both. Gwar for example, and Lamb of God, those dudes came out of Richmond. Richmond also used to be notorious for punk shows in the ’90s, like the hardcore scene. And there are cats that I know here who have been doing hip hop for a minute. Back in the day I used to perform at this place called The Palm Whole, and that was ran by a guy who is now known as Lil Ugly Mane, and him and a couple of other guys forged this really dope experimental scene. And then there was this very specific, early 2000s, Dan Deacon-esque electronic music scene. There were less people of color in the scene.

I remember going to shows and me and my friend would be the only black people or brown people at these shows. Now, it’s changed. I go to shows and there’s a lot more diversity going on. There’s a lot less restrictions between genres now. A lot of the kids were in middle school and high school listening to Salem and Odd Future and Arcade Fire. The code switching is a lot faster now. Noise shows used to be a lot less diverse too, but more people are finding diversity in these spaces, especially women of color, and women in general.


Why do you think so many kids are attracted to that noise scene?


Chino Amobi: I think that there’s a lot of freedom in it. At lot of the kids came up on a lot of different things, and they have a lot of fluidity and flexibility right now to forge these sounds together in ways that weren’t happening on a more national level. The internet plays a big part of it in terms of people being exposed to a lot of different things that they otherwise wouldn’t have been exposed to. Also, the way that noise isn’t an easy commodity, and a little bit more queer in a way, that allows young people to express themselves in a way that I think people just weren’t open to before, even like three years ago. I think things are opening up in ways that I get excited about.


Whenever I read something about your music writers almost always describes it as harsh, or loud, or militaristic, but there’s a lot of beauty in your music, too. Do you think that describing your music as harsh and all that stuff is a misnomer?


Chino Amobi: Yeah, I think people just get lazy, or they’re unable to articulate the excess of diversity. It’s a lot of different sounds going on, and a lot of different references that I pull from. I mean, those things that you mentioned are there, but there’s softness and harshness and beauty and destruction, like anything that people experience in life. I’d like to express the full range of emotions. The West in general, especially in terms of trying to sell music, there’s a classification that happens that negates a type of excess in order to market it. People who are listening to music right now are very savvy though, and hungry for complexity and multitudes of thought. It’s like a deeper conversation.


Yeah! And if you listen to a lot of classical music and opera there is, like you said, a spectrum of sound and emotion from real quiet points to huge chaotic noise


Chino Amobi: Exactly, exactly. But, to talk about those things in that way, classical music is always written about from this academic standpoint, but with music made by people of color, you don’t get that intense discourse. Like people such as Julius Eastman are almost totally ignored.


Yeah, and then a lot of black music gets talked about in terms of pop music, or rhythm, or exotica.


Chino Amobi: In a lot of ways, black music has existed in terms of resistance to a sort of hegemonic definition of what it is and what its function is. Those are things I think about when I’m working on my music. How does this resist or run counter to the conversation around what black music is? Like for Paradiso, I wanted to create a “design fiction,” like design fiction being what science fiction is to science, questioning what is, and speculating on what could be, and how that informs what is.


What’s the way you envision people listening to this album?


Chino Amobi: I want people to view it as a space they can walk into and interact with and experience in a visual way, and in a transformative way. The concept of transindividuation is something that I was trying to highlight and expound upon in terms of the album’s multiple characters, and ways where I become those characters and those characters become me. The album is really a southern gothic, but it’s a southern gothic that extends beyond the Mason-Dixon line into the global south. Voices that have been excluded from the world of design, and the world of critical discourse.


You mean like their cultural figures and ideas being excluded?


Chino Amobi: Yeah, and being viewed as primitive and not contemporary in certain aspects of sound, music, and design.


And your collective/record label NON is really shattering those misconceptions. Some of the artists on NON are really out there and futuristic but still hyper contemporary, like they’re hypermodern.


Chino Amobi: Yeah, they’re building their realities in a way that immunizes them. That’s where I think the strength of sci-fi is, sci-fi’s strength is in writing the future, and then the future becomes real. In many ways, this world that we’re building begins to manifest itself physically in ways that motivate me to continue the practice. The thesis becomes concrete, and I think that’s a place where sound’s power lies, like it’s able to break through the world of fiction into the world of reality, especially sound made by people of color. It’s very much like magic. I think about that a lot.


That’s interesting because I think in the world of politics and art, there aren’t a lot of people envisioning a future that isn’t the status quo, or nostalgic, or regressive, or destructive.


Chino Amobi: Like a certain type of imagination gets swept under the rug, or isn’t considered political, because imagination often times is looked down upon, and not brought to the forefront of culture, but in many ways that’s where the culture really is, that’s where the realities lie. I think the true politics is the life that you live. Every action you make is political. I tie it to culture building, and flourishing, on both local and global levels.


How did you find FAKA, by the way?


Chino Amobi: That was through Angel-Ho, who’s from South Africa, and they’ve known each other for awhile.


What’s their story because they definitely have that hypermodern futuristic sound?


Chino Amobi: Yeah, definitely, but also, I think music made by queer people of color has the ability to transcend time in a linear way, like it can break through time and space, and FAKA’s music has that quality. Like, the music is futuristic, but also entrenched in ancient rituals as well. It’s very powerful.


There’s a lot more vocal work, both singing and just talking, on Paradiso than I think has been on any of your other work.


Chino Amobi: Yeah, I don’t think of myself as a musician. Narrative is really dope to me, because it allows for collaboration in ways that are important to my practice, but often times language gets in the way of profound human emotions, or like, words. The music offers nuance.