“I just want to push to be human.”
Kembe X has found his voice; he knows who he is and he’s back to loving music. After settling into one of the rooms of The Alter, an understated studio tucked away in the guts of Los Angeles, Kembe’s rediscovered passion becomes immediately clear. By embracing the daily mix of sadness and happiness instead of looking to escape it, Kembe’s found his pocket–a place that shows life as the real, complex, and beautiful thing that it can be if you tilt your head a little and look at it from a new angle.
At 24, Kembe has faced many personal doubts, and even clashes with alcoholism, forcing him to step outside of himself and the music to uncover a new sense of purpose. Since working alongside fellow Illinoisian juggernauts such as Chance the Rapper and Alex Wiley early in the Chicago scene, Kembe’s career has developed in ways no one could’ve predicted, encouraging a sharp shift in perspective as he steps into a new chapter of his life. With the support of his close friends and fans around the world, Kembe is back and ready to make his best music yet.
“Life is only a roller coaster if you consider the harder parts a bad thing,” Kembe tells me. “It’s not ups and downs, it’s just this and that.”
Instead of avoiding these battles, and his emotions, Kembe now sees that the celebration of his daily victories can bring him a sense of contentment. With that, Kembe’s new work begins to ring with an air of authenticity only seen in flashes throughout his past discography: “I was trying so hard to make something that people would like and in a weird way I feel like I accomplished that more than ever when I stopped trying.”
During our conversation, Kembe X the rapper began to fade and Dikembe the person stepped forward. This unapologetic display of his real self is a projection of the very courage he hopes to help his listeners find in themselves.
My conversation with Kembe X, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
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When you were working on this project, what was your mindset like surrounding your intention? Did you think about how making these songs helped you out of a dark place so maybe they could do that for others or was it something different?
It was something like that, but it wasn’t really about showing it to people and fixing them. I wouldn’t say this music is meant to be like, “Go get your shit together,” it’s more about just bringing it out of them.
Like a lot of my songs, like “Voices” is a song that I may like kind of flow stream of consciousness, but it’s about me dealing with a fucking freak out. Like a schizophrenic episode.
I don’t have schizophrenia or psychosis, but for like a 10-month stretch I would wake up every morning and hear, like voices. Like different variations of my voice… All talking about random shit in my head and at the time people around me were telling me like, “Kembe you gotta start talking more about your story.” That song is me trying to piece together my childhood and my family, and my relationship with my uncles and my dad and my role models who were like drug addicts and former drug addicts.
And then there are other records [on the album] where I’m kind of talking about just being an alcoholic and why I’m an alcoholic and accepting it. I don’t want to be preachy, but I don’t want to push to be relatable either. I just want to push to be human, which is relatable. I think the most relatable thing for me is seeing someone that is standing up for some shit, that like I don’t necessarily like and I don’t fuck with, but they’re standing up for it ‘cause that’s like courage to me.
To be able to look at the crowd and say something different.
Exactly. That’s really all I want. That’s what I want to inspire people to do. Who are you? What do you care about? I owe it to myself and the world to not be an echo of what the next person is.
So, realizing that you got to get it to a place where people can fully understand what you’re trying to do?
Absolutely. In a way, I’m simplifying my message more than ever. Because I used to like really think I had to be like complicated to be dope. I used to want to be looked at as a lyricist, and now I don’t want it to be like that. I want to be looked at as a poet. When people say shit like, “This artist changed my life” or “Saved my life,” or “This album helped me through a hard time,” it’s not because the n**** flow was crazy and his metaphors were on point. It’s because the message was given in a way that just resonated with them.
From the textbook to the teacher.
I want people to feel like I’m they weird friend. I want all of these strangers to feel that way and be like, “Yo this n**** is cool as fuck, but in a very strange way.” I want people to be more comfortable in discomfort. That’s our generation’s biggest weakness, it’s very rare that you see people talking about embracing the discomfort that comes with life. But I feel like life is only a roller coaster if you consider the harder parts a bad thing. It’s not ups and downs, it’s just this and that. So, I’m happy right now but it’s like if you believe that happiness is what life is, you’re going to be devastated when bad things happen.
Like for example, after Talk Back came out I had a pregnancy scare; she didn’t end up being pregnant but I was shook. I broke up with my girlfriend and I stopped smoking weed, and I started drinking heavy, and I just stopped being confident in music. I didn’t stop like thinking I was tight and I kept making tight shit, but I just stopped loving it.
I just stopped going to make music and one day what really put me in that place where I thought “I’m done” was I linked up with Kehlani at this hotel–this is maybe April 2017–and I was telling her this and she asks “Are you sure you want to make music?” I wasn’t really mad or anything, but when I left I was thinking to myself that I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to keep making music.
I felt like, at that point, a part of me died. Not to be funny, but I think that part was the piece that gave a fuck about what people think.
I was trying so hard to make something that people would like and in a weird way I feel like I accomplished that more than ever when I stopped trying. And it feels crazy to go through something that you read about. It sounds like a story that I’ve heard before you know, but for me to go through it, it kind of put me in a space where like: “Okay, I’m not going to criticize my music while I make it anymore.” Now I’m making 10-times more music than I did back then.
Just letting it come out, then going back and looking at it afterwards?
Yeah that’s the way I do it. “Do I like this? No? Okay, cool.” You know I used to be like, “Do I like this? No? Damn do I suck? No? Then why did I make this and what’s wrong with me?”
But now it’s like, “I don’t like this whole song, but I really like this part”’ And it’s made me so much better. I used to sit up and try to be like figure out a dope way to say something, like how my uncles were my only male role models besides my dad and they were all drug addicts, but they read the Bible. And now I just say, “My role models growing up was junkies reading psalms.” I just say it.
Even when I’m in a studio with people, trying to help them write songs and they’re like, “I want to say something like that,” I’m like “Then just say that.”
What is it about just saying things that makes you feel like it makes a message hit harder?
People didn’t listen to Dikembe, right? So I put on this mask, this Kembe X mask, and I’m standing on a stage in front of the whole world to say something into his microphone, to watch how many people don’t stand up. This is basically like yo, “Stand up if you feel me.”
Everyone’s not going to stand up, yeah, but a whole lot of fucking people are going to stand up and those people are gonna be surprised that this dude feels them. But they’re also going to be relieved that all these other people stood up too. So I just want people to feel like how I feel when I listen to old Kanye West, or when I listen to Kendrick Lamar. I can’t explain my whole life and vision and viewpoint on one project, or even two or three projects. So, like all this shit is things that I want to cultivate and learn how to talk about over time. Starting simple is where I start my journey of where I think that will resonate with people.
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Starting his journey with the release of a handful of singles including the track and visual for album cut, “Voices”, Kembe continues on his path with an all-new visual for his fresh song, “LFTFF” – streamable everywhere now.