“As an artist, I only exist because of the people. I want to be of service to them. I want my success to be our success.”
The artist formerly known as YC the Cynic is taking a giant step forward on his new album Negus – one so big that it necessitated a whole new name, Kemba.
The Bronx native has always made music inspired by acts like Mos Def and Goodie Mob, who are lyrical and not afraid to address crucial contemporary issues. But he felt like his original rap name, bestowed at a young age and tied to the more traditional boom-bap sound that he established on his early releases, no longer fit this new material. The songs on Negus, while having no shortage of great raps, also allow a whole other side of his inspirations to shine through – their sense of melody.
“I’ve been YC since I was 12 years old,” he says. “I outgrew it. I was limited by the sort of Golden Era brand that I built as YC the Cynic. Now I’m able to let my true inspirations and influences show through melody as well. Starting new as Kemba feels like the next step in my evolution.”
Kemba’s story starts in the Hunt’s Point section of The Bronx, where he was the middle child of a single mother in an R&B-filled household. His older brother, himself an accomplished rapper, was the one who first brought hip-hop into the house, and started his younger sibling on a new path.
By the time he was nine, Kemba was already writing raps, and he never looked back. The ability to rhyme was his one relief from childhood teasing over severe eczema, which lasted well into his teens.
“My childhood memories are covered with scabs and palm-fulls of cocoa butter,” he recalls. “I remember all the trial and error I went through. I remember vividly times I’ve gotten out of the shower and didn’t put the petroleum on fast enough, so I had to carefully get back into the shower before my skin cracked and I started to bleed. From first grade to my junior year in high school, I was the kid with the reptile skin. The one redeeming quality I had was that I could rap.”
At 17, Kemba faced another, even more serious obstacle – a tumor in perhaps the worst spot for an aspiring rapper, his jaw. He faced constant surgeries (“If I wrote a “Through The Wire” for every time my mouth was wired shut, I’d have a concept EP,” he jokes), and doctors told him he’d be lucky to be able to talk at the end of the process, never mind rap. But Kemba made it through and continued working steadily.
As YC the Cynic, he released critically acclaimed projects like Fall FWD and 2013’s powerful GNK, the latter of which earned near-universal critical praise as “one of the best projects of the year” for its “lyrical mastery” and the artist’s “smooth, yet complex, flow.” But Kemba’s new moniker marks a new phase, one that was inspired by the same events that would cause a protest movement that shook the country.
The Black Lives Matter movement, and the police violence and political corruption that inspired it, are at the core of Negus. Songs like “Heartbeat” and “Greed” deal smartly and passionately with matters of literal life and death to Kemba and his community.
“When I started writing this album, the plan was for it to have a lighter mood than GNK,” he reveals. “Then Mike Brown was killed. Then Eric Garner, Akai Gurley, Freddie Gray, and over and over again. I couldn’t write about anything else at that point. I felt my life was in danger. And so were the lives of the people I love.”
The album also focuses on Kemba’s personal artistic revolution. The single “Already” was written well before the name change became public – as, Kemba says, “my way of setting it in stone.” The track’s accompanying video takes sharp aim at a music industry that keeps its artists in an endless stage-to-prison pipeline.
Kemba’s roots in hip-hop’s birthplace of The Bronx come through in everything he does. He is a co-founder of the noted local hip-hop organization the Rebel Diaz Arts Collective, which runs a community center in the South Bronx with lectures, classes, and more. That mission to return something to the community is forever a part of Kemba’s mission.
“The Bronx is the place that made me who I am,” he explains. “I feel an obligation to give back to the people here. I want to help and also shine the light on people better equipped to help.”
With Negus, Kemba has made an album that reaches both back to his neighborhood and out to a wider world fighting for justice in new and exciting ways. And he does it with those rarest of qualities, radical openness and honesty.
“As an artist, I finally learned where my art and my life meet,” he says. “I finally learned to be completely open and honest, baring my soul and insecurities, because that’ll make for the best art, and the best artist.”