“Look...if you had one shot…” OK, we’ve all heard the Eminem song. Still, there’s a big difference between rapping in the shower and getting on stage with Kendrick Lamar. From a freestyle alongside K-Dot at a secret Brooklyn show in 2016 to cosigns including former President Barack Obama and more, the artist formerly known as YC the Cynic has evolved into Kemba, an emcee with a lyrical prowess that harkens back to hip-hop’s Golden Age. Vivid Seats spoke with the introspective Bronx native about his path to stardom, the inspiration for his music and more.
Vivid Seats: Before you were followed by Obama on Twitter, back when you weren’t even Kemba from the Bronx, you were rapping. How did you get started?
Kemba: My older brother was rapping in the late ‘90s - early 2000s. I was a big fan. To me, there was no difference between him and the people on the radio. I wanted to do that. I was 9 or so. I haven’t stopped since.
VS: The video of your freestyle on stage alongside Kendrick went viral years ago, but the cosign remains. What did that mean to you then and how does it inspire you today?
K: It was a sigh of relief. When you’ve been grinding for so long, sometimes it feels like you’re only moving laterally, and the glimmer of something brand new wears off -- sometimes creatively. sometimes even the way people view you. It’s like your ceiling is low. That moment renewed things for me. It meant everything.
VS: Your sophomore album Gilda, which debuted last year, was your first major label release. I appreciated the focus on your work -- as opposed to a glut of features -- but I was pleasantly surprised to hear Portugal. The Man on a track. How did that come to be, and what did you learn from working with artists outside of hip-hop?
K: John actually reached out. I knew their music because of a song on FIFA 14. We’re mutual fans. They asked me to open up for them in two of their back-to-back New York shows. It was incredible. Their live show is super well thought out. I learned a lot watching them. When I was writing “The Feels,” I was building tension to the point of almost making people uncomfortable, and I knew that vocals from them would be the perfect relief.
VS: Your new song called “Pisces” is another example of the juxtaposition between the boastful rap often found on the radio and your honest take on the genre. How has the transparency of your music helped you find solace while dealing with the hardships you’ve experienced?
K: I don’t know if there is solace. I know that’s a pessimistic answer. I think the transparency is me constantly venting. I think, if I found peace with everything, I wouldn’t be able to write about it. And I don’t like artists that don’t seem honest to me. I would hate to be disingenuous. I probably just have less of that kind of pride that’s uncomfortable showing vulnerability.
VS: Many artists are fiercely loyal to their hometown. As a resident of the Bronx, how is the borough different from others?
K: When it comes to the five boroughs, the Bronx is an outcast. You hear people mention my borough in a negative light all the time. I think that brings us together. There’s a special loyalty within the people of The Bronx. And I didn’t even mention that we’re the birthplace of hip-hop.
VS: We know you’re inspired by your family and your city. What artists push you forward?
K: Frank Ocean is the person I’m most constantly inspired by. His writing is legendary. Of the newer artists, I really appreciate what Smino is doing. He has a mastery of his voice like few. IDK has an attention to detail that I really respect. He respects the craft. Saba is a writer that doesn’t take any lines off. But in the last year, I’ve listened to way more Burna Boy than any other artist. He sounds so honest. Like these incredible melodies come so easy to him. These are qualities I really pay attention to.
VS: You’ve cultivated a great fan base. What should your fans expect next?
K: Consistency. A lot of new music. I want to break the cycle I’ve had, where I put out an album and disappear for three years. You can also expect a range of emotions, sounds, and styles. I’ve been working hard on getting a real control of my voice, just so I can actually deliver the ideas in my mind. Now I feel free. Creatively.