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Through Grief and Growing Pains, Kemba Creates 'Gilda'

Sep 20, 2019

Grief can feel like a new world emerging, swallowing up the reality you once knew and expanding into something entirely all-consuming. New York rapper Kemba used that monolithic feeling to create his major label debut album, Gilda, a record that pays tribute to his mother who passed away two years ago.

Kemba's mother raised him and his two brothers in The Bronx, N.Y., a place that gave him little choice but to be immersed in hip-hop

"Coming from The Bronx, I was forced and raised to study the history and different artists' technical abilities," he says. "Whether it was similes, metaphors, inner rhyming, I know all of that stuff, but so do a lot of other people. I think my perspective is what makes my music unique."

Kemba says his mother helped shape this perspective. The rapper remembers her as a fighter and a self-starter, equally determined to improve herself and shed light on others around her. "I really learned from watching her," Kemba says. "In my older years, she went to and finished college and got her master's."

Kemba also remembers his mother was also always by his side. When he was diagnosed with a tumor on his jaw as a teenager, she was with him every step of the way — even as this setback drew his rap career into question.

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"They told me I shouldn't rap," Kemba remembers. "They told me my jaw was so weak that just movement could rip apart the work that they did. That was the first time my mom saw me in a vulnerable way. I was always the strong one of the family, and that just made her break down even more."

Gilda is named after his mom. Her legacy runs deep through the album, through avenues that are at times heart-wrenching ("Exhale" feat. Smino) and other times, dizzying and chaotic ("Dysfunction.") Now, with a major label debut, there isn't anything stopping Kemba from sticking to what he knows.

Kemba spoke with NPR's Audie Cornish about the themes of Gilda, and the emotional labor that went into making it. Hear their conversation at the audio link.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

For the rapper Kemba, December 16, 2017 was one of the best and worst nights of his life. Here's the scene. Earlier in the night, rap superstar Kendrick Lamar pulls Kemba up on stage during a concert.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KENDRICK LAMAR: Come up here.

KEMBA: All right. (Rapping) Lived through a culture shock, but died in a genocide. My city is gentrified...

CORNISH: He starts rapping, and he just wows the crowd.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LAMAR: Kemba. Remember than name, Kemba.

CORNISH: But later that night, Kemba got a text on his phone.

KEMBA: On the train, I found out that my mom passed. It was just, like, a emotional roller coaster, you know, having that kind of loss at the same time. You can't really fully be happy. You can't really fully be sad.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAPTAIN PLANET")

KEMBA: (Rapping) Who's that peeping through my psyche? Who is that telling me I can't do it?

CORNISH: Kemba's victories have often been bittersweet. After the success of his 2016 self-released album, his next one seemed poised to hit big. But as he started thinking about how he wanted that album to sound, his mother died. And so he switched gears.

KEMBA: This album was hugely inspired by the time of her passing. Like, everything is through the lens of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAPTAIN PLANET")

KEMBA: (Singing) Yeah, yeah. I guess I just dream. Yeah, yeah, yeah...

CORNISH: Kemba's new album is called "Gilda." That was his mother's name. She was a single mom of three boys, and she kept them in line.

KEMBA: My mother was a secretary at the school that I went to. From, like, prekindergarten to eighth grade, I saw every single day (laughter).

CORNISH: As a mom, I'm totally into that (laughter).

KEMBA: It was a nightmare. I couldn't do anything. I couldn't do anything wrong.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EXHALE")

KEMBA: (Singing) You going to need to grow up fast. Let my moms tell it. If you can't do it, no one can. Let the wrongs tell it.

My mom was my main influence. You know, she was everything. She was our protector and our provider. I really learned from watching her. Like, in my older years she went to and finished college and got her master's because she never could because she had kids.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EXHALE")

KEMBA: (Rapping) I feel more pressure for my moms than from the blogs, yeah. I feel...

She was just incredible. She used to create her own, like, award ceremony events for amazing women that she knew in her life.

CORNISH: Like, she would give them awards?

KEMBA: Yeah. Like, she organized whole events. Like, it was well attended (laughter). It was, like, legit award ceremonies. You know, at 17, I'm just like why do I got to go out (laughter)? Why do I got to go out the house on a weekend? I just want to play video games. But looking back on it, this is, like, incredible stuff, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EXHALE")

KEMBA: (Singing) I just exhale it.

So I kind of learned from watching her, just, like, this incredible work ethic.

CORNISH: I was reading that as you started to make your own music and experiment with your sound, doctors found a tumor on your jaw.

KEMBA: Yeah.

CORNISH: And you actually missed your high school graduation because you were in surgery.

KEMBA: Yeah.

CORNISH: Where was she in that process? Like, how did you process that moment?

KEMBA: She was right by my side. You know, she was my rock in that moment.

CORNISH: Did you worry that your rap career was over, kind of before it started?

KEMBA: Yeah. They told me that I shouldn't rap. Like, they told me that my jaw was so weak that just the movement could literally rip apart the work that they did. It was rough. And that was, like, the first times that my mom kind of saw me in, like, a vulnerable way because I was always the strong one of the family. It was, like, a real vulnerable moment for both of us.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE FEELS")

KEMBA: (Rapping) I feel like my family tried to be family. Offered a shoulder. Then once it was over, it's like they don't know me. That could lead to pure insanity, hate for humanity. I could have called them, but s***. My momma died. I'm traumatized. I'm not all right...

CORNISH: Why was it important for you to be vulnerable in your music and to let all of that show?

KEMBA: I think I didn't really have a choice. That was the only thing that I could write about. Like, no matter what happened, no matter what production I was sent, no matter what the sound was, the thing that always came out was something about my family. And so I couldn't fight it. I had to kind of lean into it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE FEELS")

KEMBA: (Rapping) I found myself recently dreaming about being a kid again. Broken and beaten, cut open. I'm peeling my skin again. Devil been creeping increasingly thinking about ending it. All my immediate family really attempted it. I had to there. You need me. No people, no witnesses. Maybe...

CORNISH: You know, this is an interesting moment in hip hop, I think, because you can be, like, Jay-Z or Drake - right? - or Kendrick Lamar, literally winning, like, the Pulitzer Prize. Or you can be doing "Old Town Road" - right? - for TikTok. And what is it like for you as somebody who is basically trying to get into this business, doing it, in a way, the old-fashioned way - putting out an album, that album being focused on music, being conceptual, being lyrical?

KEMBA: I think - it feels good. I feel like this is a good time. I feel like I'm able to do exactly what I want. And I feel like there are people that will receive it. So I feel comforted that now is a time where I can be vulnerable - because that wasn't always super accepted - and that I can do exactly what I want, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WORK IN PROGRESS")

KEMBA: (Singing) I am not a finished product. Only judge me when I'm done. Young and black and from the projects. Got a lot to overcome.

CORNISH: It feels weird to do this, but I'm going to back to the start, which is the song "Work In Progress."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WORK IN PROGRESS")

KEMBA: (Singing) I got my head in clouds. I got my feet on land. My homies fell too deep. This is the quickest sand. I know that I am not a finished product. Got a lot to overcome.

CORNISH: Is that where you are now?

KEMBA: I think "Work In Progress" is more so a song that I made because I knew this was going to be the introduction to me for a lot of people. And I wanted to really start it off by saying look, man, I know, like, our nature is to hear artists and be inspired and take their words as, like, fact. But I'm just trying to figure this thing out.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WORK IN PROGRESS")

KEMBA: (Singing) I am not a finished product. Only judge me when I'm done.

Look; don't judge me (laughter). Like, I'm just trying to improve along the way.

CORNISH: Well, let me say to you, look, man, you're doing pretty good.

KEMBA: (Laughter).

CORNISH: Yeah, you got a lot going on, and you're surviving.

KEMBA: Thank you.

CORNISH: Do you think your mom would be proud?

KEMBA: I do. I do.

CORNISH: Kemba - his album is called "Gilda."

Thank you so much for speaking with us.

KEMBA: Of course. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALIVE")

KEMBA: (Rapping) Are we still the same? Young and ducking protocol. Homies made me know the law. Momma made me know it all. Taught me I should hold the door. Rumors put me overboard. Tumor took my lower jaw. Only made me want it more. It's a miracle I'm... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.