If Kemba’s name doesn’t ring any bells, perhaps his face and voice will—he first turned heads as the precocious teenaged rapper YC the Cynic over a half-decade ago. The cerebral Bronx native impressed on records with J-Live, C-Rayz Walz, and Homeboy Sandman prior to his last album, 2013’s GNK.
“It ain’t been that long since there was niggas in the Bronx zoo,” Kemba raps early on Negus, his new album three years in the making and the first released under his new stage name. A measured, trenchant record about blackness in America, Negus arrives midway through the hottest summer on record, if measured in tension and blood if not in mercury. Featuring clips of harrowing newsreels, Trump speeches, and 2Pac manifestos, it’s a visceral listen as well as an exceptionally musical one, produced by Frank Drake. The bleak soundscapes are spare and eerie, with most of the melodies transmitted via Kemba’s lone vocals.
Negus is as affecting a listen as you’ll hear this summer, one which favors reflection over aggression, doesn’t default to polemics or rallying cries, and lingers long after its running time has elapsed. I caught up with Kemba on a rainy night in lower Manhattan where, on a Yankees travel day, all TVs were tuned to the Democratic National Convention. If this summer’s made us a nation of cynics then Kemba was ahead of the curve, but he’s committed to leaving that part of himself behind. —Pete Tosiello
You amassed a following as YC the Cynic. Why the name change now?
Kemba: I’d been thinking about it for the last year-and-a-half or so. I got the name YC when I was maybe twelve. I was born in a time—there’s a lot of examples of this—but it was an interesting time, in that it was pre-Internet life. Later on, everything was Internet. But when I came up, it was the same rules as it was in the nineties—you came up through the open mic scene, you had to be a great lyricist, good performer, and another rule that was pretty prominent was your hood, where you came from, they named you. So I was given the name YC. It wasn’t like, “I know everything about you and I’ma call you YC,” it was just the name that I got. And I stuck with it because those were the rules.
So fast forward twelve, thirteen years later, I’m a whole different person. And that name didn’t describe me or what I wanted to do anymore. Another reason is that, at seventeen, when I started doing open mics and started creating this brand, I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know how to make music, I didn’t know what I wanted to be for the rest of my life. And I made a lot of mistakes. I built a brand that wasn’t built to last, it wasn’t who I could be for the rest of my life. It was just this sort of golden era backpack thing.
So do you feel like this is a fresh start for you?
Kemba: Yeah, that’s why I did it. I hope it is. I know it’s difficult to get people to forget.
You want them to forget YC?
Kemba: Yeah, a little. I’m not naïve, I’m proud of what I’ve done, and I do want the benefits of having put in a lot of work. But I just wanted, sort of the benefit of the doubt. And even if I don’t get it, I’m confident that fairly shortly—and it’s already starting to happen—there’ll be more people that know me as Kemba than as YC. The style of music I wanted to make, I couldn’t see myself making as YC the Cynic.
One of the biggest surprises about Negus for me was how musical a record it is. Most of the songs have intros, outros, and multiple movements, and it’s rarely just you rapping over a four-four beat—you’re singing as much, if not more, than rapping. How challenging was that?
Kemba: It wasn’t challenging at all. It’s kind of been a progression, and that goes along with why I wanted to change my name. It’s something, not that I’ve always wanted to do, but that I’ve grown to want to do. And with this new name, I just felt the freedom to give it all I got. Even when I wasn’t singing on this album I was really focused on melody and music. There’s a lot of singing from the producer Frank Drake and his brother Cole King on the album as well. It was really a team effort, we did everything together. I was probably the driving force behind all the singing—there was one point where I wouldn’t rap, and Frank would get frustrated and try to reel me back in.
I read that it took a full three years to finish this record. Why?
Kemba: Life happened. I had three surgeries on my jaw, so that was a long recovery with constant checkups and, really, fear—fear of hurting myself again. Having surgery on your jaw is fucking scary as a rapper, you know?
Yeah, I broke my jaw too a few summers ago. How’d you do it?
Kemba: I didn’t break my jaw, I had a tumor.
Shit, I’m sorry.
Kemba: It’s all good. It was benign, not cancerous, thankfully. So that took a large chunk of time, and Frank’s life situations, his working five days a week, it was just really difficult to get everything together. I really wanted to go from this dark album GNK to make something more melodic and musical and it just wasn’t happening at first.
Do you think that was more a reflection of what was going on in your own life or what was going on in our country?
Kemba: I don’t think anything was ever light or musical in this country, but I think it was just me needing some sort of contrast. So for a good long time, I’d say maybe six months to a year, there was just nothing, nothing valuable coming out. It just wasn’t happening. And then there would be a lot of weekends where Frank had to work or I couldn’t make it, so it was just a long process. Time flies.
Do you consider Negus a protest record?
Kemba: No. I consider it…I don’t know. It’s sort of…a reaction. This outpouring of built-in, pent-up frustration.
I definitely sensed that, but while it’s a dark record I don’t think it is unilaterally angry.
Kemba: It’s mostly because I’m passive-aggressive. I’m more likely to say something clever than be directly angry about stuff. But it is angry. I guess my way of showing it is to just show how stupid it all is. But yeah, I feel like the album is less a protest record—for me, in my opinion, you know, if somebody thinks it is, then more power to ‘em, take what you will from it—but I think it’s just like an outpouring of pent-up frustration that I hope will make people more emboldened, more confident, when they hear it.
I’m hesitant to bring this up because it’s a reductive—but perhaps inevitable—comparison for an album about race. To Pimp a Butterfly came out when you were about halfway through the Negus sessions. What was your reaction to Kendrick’s record?
Kemba: I was like, fuck! He literally learned the word negus at some point and put it in a song. And I was also disappointed in people’s response to that album. I always felt—and I haven’t been quiet about it either—I felt it wasn’t direct enough.
It’s funny you say that—a criticism I’ve heard from both writers and artists is that it’s an oblique survey of ideas without a coherent argument or message.
Kemba: It doesn’t really take a side.
And I think some people felt it wasn’t angry enough.
Kemba: And I think the reaction to that kind of looked over that—people said it was everything and more. That was really frustrating. And I don’t mean the music itself—the music is fucking brilliant. But that reaction bothered me.
I read you went to Ferguson in 2014. How did you end up there?
Kemba: I was a founder—a local founder, I was like, sixteen, so I wasn’t doing a lot of heavy work—but I was part of a community hip hop organization called the Rebel Diaz Art Collective. And I still am. Rebel Diaz really took me from a kid from Hunts Point who was just learning about himself, and finding who he was as an artist as well, and introduced me to what was going on in the world.
My first time performing out of New York, they took me to Georgia to perform at the School of the Americas protest. Seeing people that had been tortured, crazy like. Most of what I know politically, the foundation was set by them.
So when Ferguson October happened—that was after Mike Brown was killed, the following October, when everyone went back—they invited me, and it was pretty life-changing. I’d been to a million protests by that point, but I’d never seen them led by youth, and it just showed me what was possible for myself.
How did the atmosphere in Ferguson compare to those you’ve experienced in New York City?
Kemba: It was different. The community in Ferguson was unafraid like I’ve never seen. They were willing to stand up to police. They were with it. They were willing to stand up to the few elder activists that weren’t passing down knowledge but looking down on them. They were willing to stand up to those people. It was crazy, man. And they were willing to fight back. That’s not that ordinary in New York, and it damn sure wasn’t before Ferguson. Ferguson kind of changed the tide.
Do you think that’s because the NYPD is such a huge, impenetrable presence?
Kemba: It could be. But I also think it’s a matter of just the area. New York is so huge and such a business. The interests are really spread. You’d need a lot of people to shut things down in New York. So it’s different in that instance. So many people with so many different interests, a large area, it’s hard to make an impact.
I think the criticism that To Pimp a Butterfly lacks a clear message is valid. What message would you like Negus’s listeners to walk away with?
Kemba: I think it depends on the person, but I just want people of color to listen to it and feel like they’re not alone. I want them to listen to a song while they’re getting dressed and walk outside with a puffy chest and their head held high like, fuck that. A song like “The New Black Theory,” I want them to just walk outside with no fucking fear in the world. Like, “What!” you know? That’s what I’d like them to take away from it.
Everybody else, I just want them to…I don’t know, I just want them to listen to it and find a new perspective or think about something that I said, and I hope that it sparks a new idea, changes a mind, or strengthens an opinion that they already had.
Is there anything on this record you think people will find divisive or offputting?
Kemba: Of course. Everything that a black person says that’s about black people is seen as divisive to people who aren’t of color. I think we’re used to it at this point. I’m unapologetic.
I was struck by the gospel influence in Negus’s third act, and it made me think of the gospel elements of Kendrick, Chance, and Kanye’s latest records. What do you think resonates about gospel music and black Christianity on records like these?
Kemba: It’s less about religion and more about how influential gospel music is to all of us. As a musical genre it’s so influential to hip hop. I used to be forced to listen to it. I’ve never been a super religious person, but gospel music was in my house every Sunday morning. I feel like it’s such an unknown, underrated influence.
I can’t say gospel was an active influence—I didn’t seek it out. But as a kid, everything gets to you. You just hear things and you know you like it, and that’s kind of the case with these songs. I didn’t seek it out, I didn’t tell ‘em this is what I wanted, if anything it’s like a trickle-down effect. I heard “Blood on the Leaves” when I heard it. And Kanye was probably influenced by gospel.
Do you feel like this is a make-or-break record for you?
Kemba: I feel like there’s no possible way for me to fail. As long as I keep going, it’ll build. I would only be in danger of failing if I had a time limit, if I said to myself that if I haven’t found success at thirty then it’s over. This album did a lot better than the last one, the last one did a lot better than the one before, and I’m learning how to be more efficient, and how to get results more every time.
Growth is exponential. Growth is not one person at a time, growth is one person loves the record, and they tell two people, you know? So I’m not scared of this ultimate failure. I know I’ll have some fails. But I’m not scared of losing.