Nnamdi Ogbonnaya Loves Being Chicago Rap's Oddball

Apr 11, 2018
Originally published on April 11, 2018 9:06 pm

Nnamdi Ogbonnaya has eclectic taste, and you can hear it in his music. "I have a very Muppet-like energy when I talk that can go from zero to 100, real fast," the rapper says.

The Chicago native has spent most of his life performing. At 27 years old, he stitches together a mix of genres from his upbringing, from screamo to math rock to hip-hop, that matches his oddball personality. As he explained to All Things Considered in a conversation at this year's South By Southwest music festival, this mashup of influences all comes together on his most recent album, DROOL.

Ogbonnaya describes his sound as a little hip-hop, reggae, and jazz combined with the many styles of Nigerian music he heard around the house growing up and his father's vinyl collection of "the wackiest Christian rock." As far-reaching as those influences are, Ogbonnaya's work hits a lot closer to home, touching on love, relationships and his family.

Ogbonnaya's parents came to the United States when his brother was a baby, with not much to their names. His father balanced working with a full-ride scholarship to school; his mother worked and raised four children. Ogbonnaya's father now has two PhDs and runs an online ministry.

His family's hard-earned success is part of the reason Ogbonnaya got his electrical engineering degree at University of Illinois at Chicago, even though he says he was "very depressed" at school. Any chance he got, he channeled his frustrations into music. "Sometimes your goals seem unrealistic, but then you pursue them, and you see how attainable they are if you actually work at them," he says.

"I used to think that I was good for nothing / Never grow up to be nothing / I used to think that way," Ogbonnaya rhymes on the "Think That Way." He calls that song "a battle in my mind of trying to understand life from my parents' perspective and trying to form my own perspective."

Becoming part of Chicago's DIY music scene likely wasn't the path Ogbonnaya's immigrant parents imagined for him. Though he says he's not sure how his parents view his music career, he's still drawing inspiration from their work ethic.

"A lot of musicians forget about the people that they grew up with or people that have helped them," he says. "I think my dad has influenced me into wanting to be greater than I think I can be. Without relationships, none of this matters."

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Nnamdi Ogbonnaya has eclectic taste, and it shows in his music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET GO OF MY EGO")

NNAMDI OGBONNAYA: (Rapping) Oh, I poked the nono and they scold the wood, Gipetto. Rigormortis after coitus - you know they don't want to let go. Buddha rubbed the belly, R the Kelly. Make them echo loud. Get up off that. Get up off that. Let go of my ego now (ph).

I have a very Muppet-like energy when I talk that can go from zero to a hundred real fast.

CORNISH: The Chicago rapper is also a multi-instrumentalist, and he's played in more than a dozen bands. There was a punk band, a screamo band, a grime core band, among others. At 27 years old, he's come up with a sound all his own.

OGBONNAYA: I would describe my music as a little hip-hop, a little bit of rock, a little bit of jazz. My parents would play all sorts of different Nigerian music. My dad especially - he had a very big vinyl collection of the wackiest Christian rock and (laughter) like, reggae. And I'm influenced by all of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET GO OF MY EGO")

OGBONNAYA: (Rapping) Get up off that. Get up off that. Let go of my ego.

CORNISH: And as wide-ranging as those influences are, Ogbonnaya's work is also very personal. He raps about his family. He raps about depression. He raps about love. We recently caught up with Ogbonnaya at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas. He told us about the responsibility he feels to his parents, Nigerian immigrants who came here to give their kids a better life.

OGBONNAYA: So they moved here with a baby and nothing, and my dad got a full-ride scholarship to school and just worked, and my mom was working and had three more kids.

CORNISH: His parents' hard-earned success is part of the reason why Ogbonnaya got an electrical engineering degree. But he realized that what made his parents happy was making him miserable.

(SOUNDBITE OF NNAMDI OGBONNAYA SONG, "THINK THAT WAY")

OGBONNAYA: I was very depressed in school. I did not enjoy it at all. So any chance I got to write music, I would just eat it up. And I feel like that's why this music is as dense as it is just because I was overthinking all the things in my life...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THINK THAT WAY")

OGBONNAYA: (Rapping) I used to think that I was good for nothing, never grow up to be nothing. I used to think that way.

...But that a lot of it came out of just, like, not wanting to be in school and wanting to be on tour but of not knowing if that's even an attainable thing because sometimes it seems unrealistic. Like, sometimes your goals seem unrealistic, but then you pursue them, and you see how attainable they are if you actually work at them.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THINK THAT WAY")

OGBONNAYA: (Rapping) God damn, I finally got what my daddy was trying to say when he screaming, yelling, and I just tried to ignore it. He said, you should be the one to lead (ph).

"Think That Way" is a battle in my mind of trying to understand life from my parents' perspective and trying to form my own perspective because they're kind of more focused on me getting a good education and going into a field that is actually something I can make money in. But in the end, I have to make my own decisions, and I decided to go real hard into the music. Like, I really dove into it, which I still don't know if they're down with.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ME 4 ME")

OGBONNAYA: (Rapping) Nnamdi - get the name right. I was born a legend - Hugh Masekela, young Mandela (ph).

It's always interesting to meet other first-generation people because there is a bond of having parents that struggled to make it so you get to a certain point, which is always why I'll pay them the respect and, like, love them because me being a musician to someone that comes from where they came from is kind of a crazy thing to do (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ME 4 ME")

OGBONNAYA: (Singing) I want someone that'll love me for me. I'm not the person that you think I ought to be.

I feel like a lot of musicians forget about the people that they grew up with or people that have helped them. I think my dad has influenced me into wanting to, like, be greater than I think I can be and without relationships, none of this matters.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ME 4 ME")

OGBONNAYA: (Singing) I just want to - want to be loved. I just want to - want to be loved.

CORNISH: That was Chicago rapper Nnamdi Ogbonnaya. He's on tour now.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ME 4 ME")

OGBONNAYA: (Singing) I just want to - want to be loved. I just want to - want to be loved. I just want to - want to be loved. I just want to - want to be loved. I just want to - want to be loved. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.