INTERVIEW: The world owes Africa a lot, I am paying back with my music – Kelechi, Nigerian-American rapper

Hi brotherKelechi – often referred to by his stage name, says as he anxiously adjusted his seat so his head could perfectly fit into the frame of his webcam. He is dressed in a grey sweatshirt and his braids stood just as fine as they were in many photos splashed all over the internet. 

I looked down at the lower right of my laptop screen, it is 3 minutes past 9 pm in Lagos, Nigeria; about 3 minutes past 4pm in the Atlanta studio, where Kelechief is. I smiled and was grateful for tech wizards who made moments like this possible. 

On the other end of my screen, Kelechi had assumed a perfect position and burst into an apology for missing the interview we originally scheduled a day earlier. “I was really sorry about missing yesterday’s interview. I had to join an emergency studio session,” he says with a sorry look that explained his helpless situation. 

It was easy to understand. Kelechi has been in his elements and he has been doing a series of recordings, productions, performing, networking and doing other things necessary for his next album – Going home.  

Soon we dashed into the interview and for the over 50 minutes of our chat, he revealed how this particular moment in his life and career had been one he had wished for. 

For years, Kelechi, had sacrificed a lot in his quest for purpose. He changed his college major three times before he gave up and left school. He stayed years without a full-time job to pursue this music thing. 

Now the pieces are forming, the ingenuity of remaking popular Nigerian songs are paying off and now Kelechief is no longer that Atlanta rapper that won $50,000 on his first project, but a budding international artist. A Nigerian-American digital artist.

Now his purpose is simple – unify the global Black experience through his digital creations. Be it music, drawings or videos. 

I know people say, Afrobeats to the world, Africa to the world, I agree with that but the world owes Africa a lot. It can be Africa to the world but also the World to Africa. So we make sure it comes full circle, that’s the point of this album, the world to Africa.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

  • How has life been?

It’s been so good right now. Right now we are kind of putting a wrap on some projects that are going home. I just released like a short virtual concerts, I am tying loose ends before I quickly get into my next project. 

So yeah things are good right now, things are great. Look at my manager, my elder brother, he has got a baby on the way. So life is beautiful right now. 

  • Obinna, star artiste manager has been playing a key role in your career so far 

Obinna and I have gotten closer over the last 2-3 months. But he’s been a fan for a while and we’ve been in this kind of communication, just talking maybe, like 5-6 months. You know I’m making an intentional move. I’m being intentional about reaching back home and the music industry but especially the Nigerian music industry, you got the place really good. Just trying to get past online and you got to make sure you have someone on the ground. You got to make sure you have someone who can speak on your behalf for certain things. So that was someone we were looking for and Obinna and I were talking at the time you know he was like hey I want to help you know as far as it’s management, agency, everything, he just wants to help.

You know we had met some of my family back home,  we linked up, clicked up. 

  • And he is very resourceful in terms of Nigerian music. I mean..

He’s got a lot of likes, a lot of people know him and everyone speaks well of him. He’s got a good reputation meaning he does good business. 

  • So let’s do some unmasking, who is Kelechief? 

You know Kelechief is just I always say it’s hard to say I’m a rapper or a just singer. I always tell people I’m just like a multidisciplinary digital artist. Because as much as I rap, as much as I sing, I also edit videos, I direct videos, I do graphical stuff, graphics designs. 

I got what it takes to be an artist in 2021. 

I guess that everyone does, people are in a kind of blessed situation but I’m just an artiste that does a lot of things to make sure I can make music

  • You grew up in Atlanta

Yes, I grew up in Mayweather which is like 20 minutes to Mayweather super close and me and my family spread out through all the cities. 

  •  Were you born there and have you ever been to Nigeria? 

I was born in America and no, I have not been to Nigeria yet 

  • You really don’t have a choice than to be here at this point

I really do especially now, there’s a big dimension, a big pull, people pulling me to come but I’m going to make sure I come very soon

  • So what was growing up in the U.S like for you?

Growing up in the US was interesting because being a Nigerian-American is like you growing up twice or you growing up in two places. I tell people it’s like I grew up in a small Nigeria, a tiny Nigeria in our community. You navigate America as a Blackman; you know and you navigate like you are home. I grew up thinking it was half and half but what I’m realising now is it’s both, it’s 200%. You can’t really be half of anything. That’s what I’ve grown to figure out.

  • What part of Nigerian culture were you exposed to while growing up?

Well, simple things like food or traditional customs like not taking or giving things left-handed. And then the big things like the ceremonies, the parties, the wedding, the wake (wake-keeping), the prayers, the church, it’s a lot. 

And it’s those things that you don’t even know that just help spell you differently than all your friends outside. In so many things. You know, you don’t even put it together in the moment until you look back and realise okay we didn’t really grow up with the same upbringing. It’s funny that even now as an adult people ask me like have you seen this movie or that movie , might be an American classic movie and you start to realise a lot of the media you consumed was from your parents, so there are a lot  American classics that I don’t know, I totally missed . I didn’t grow up American in that sense.

  • Nice I guess you must have consumed a lot of Nigerian music content while growing up?

Yes, I consumed a lot of Nigerian and African music growing up subconsciously. My dad was the one playing all the music, so he was playing the Sunny and the Felas and all that in the house. But that early on, I was a kid, so I wasn’t really forming my own music taste. And what you hear in parties is whatever was really popping back home would get over to the State. When D’banj had a huge moment there, he was a huge moment over here, P-Square huge moment over here, David, so those are the huge moments here. 

But then, for me personally when I was growing up, I almost associated it with even though that is my culture, that’s my parent’s culture. So when I grew up, I moved on to my own,  I started following my own music taste. It really wasn’t until early 2019 when a DJ from Dallas, She’s Kenyan, hit me up and said she was putting up a personal project, she was hitting up different artists from all around the world and she sent me a pack of beats and that was when I made a track, it was the easiest song I have ever made and we all played the song over and over.  I was like Wow and it’s not that I never experiment, I had done like a few like Afrobeats and Afropop songs before that I hadn’t released because I wasn’t really happy with them, but that record, I was particularly happy with it because it did something, it really did something. 

So afterwards I was like let me keep trying because I’m not the kind of person who boxes himself into making this kind of music. It was really like It felt good to make such so I kept on doing it and that way for probably like 5 or 6 records. That was probably like June/ July 2019.  

  • And how’s the Nigerian Market received you so far?

Mehn, It’s been so positive. I think that there’s a degree of some questioning, which is valid. Like you said, music is a universal language and people hold music very sacred so there’s been some kind of like, who is this guy? For the most part, I can say it’s good, it’s good as long as people like it. I think my music sounds good and some lots of Nigerians would agree and I appreciate it.

  • I see you do a topnotch Storytelling, how did that style get into your music? 

Maybe because I’ve been doing music since I was like an adolescent and you know, all adolescents feel misunderstood and I got into music through poetry and I think that your attempt to tell your own story is an attempt at being understood. So that’s really it. Being misunderstood just trying to make me understood. 

And what I’ve realised through trying to make people understand me is that I’ve gotten a greater understanding of other people because like we are all human, we are all going through mostly the same things, you know.

  • Do people comment on your pengame and how you connected with them through your track? 

Oh all the time, all the time. Like  just recently somebody said, you know, I woke up having a terrible day and then they came across my Blessed freestyle. I believe she is Nigerian girl. I said ‘I’m too blessed to be stressed’  and she was like yeah, I felt that. I moved on from having a bad day.

I don’t really say anything, people don’t know, I’m not a super super smart guy. I tell people what they already know or need to hear.  So you know, sometimes it just takes  something in the right voice and in the right melody and with the right tempo to make someone just, you know, feel what you’re saying. So yeah, people let me know. They let me know.

  •  What kind of artist and who do you sing for?

Man, I’m an artist and I just want to make something that’s true and resonates with me. Because again, if it resonates with me, I do business with someone. But it’s like, who I sing for, I mean just Black people all around this planet. Not just Black people who are in the states, not just Black people who are in the U.K. not just Black people who are on the continent. If your skin is dark, I’m speaking to you if I can,. that’s the reason I make music, so that it makes Black people feel better. 

  • When people say stuff like I’m doing this for Black people or support Black-owned businesses, there is that element of struggle in that conversation. Are you singing for people who are struggling to get by in life? 

I mean not even, not even necessary, I don’t even see it as necessarily like a struggle. Even in Nigeria, I see there’s a degree of disorganisation to the country but there is still joy, people are still happy cos they’re still trying. That’s a part of the black experience globally. Just as much as struggle, just as much as there is pain, happiness and levity, and joy and triumph are just as important.

So I think that the global black experience varies. We focus too much on the hardship my brother but there is more to life than hardship. And as much as struggle, unfortunately, has been a part of our history I really look forward to a future that has more joy, has more triumph and has more positives because we deserve that, you know. Yeah. 

  • You left College for Music, what made you make that decision? 

I was at a certain age where I really had the choice to either do what other people wanted me to do correctly or I could do what I wanted to do incredibly well. 

  • What course were you studying then?

I was studying English education but I changed my major like three times. It was English education and then it was something else and then radiography which was like x-ray stuff. And then I kept changing it because I really wasn’t honest with myself. I wasn’t supposed to be there. So I’m like maybe this one and I’m like no, maybe that one and then you know.

And then after changing my major three times, I realised I’m probably not supposed to be here. There was one day where I think some of my financial aid to pay for school didn’t go through and they were giving me an extension. I called my mom, and I said there’s no need for this extension because I’m not going back. I remember this clearly because my mum wanted me to go back to school as school is what we knew, it’s what she came here to do. But then I think as my music career progressed, she went from being scared to being my biggest fan. 

  • Leaving school now makes you feel sort of pressured to make this music work, right? 

Yes, 100 percent and I still feel this pressure now. I don’t feel like oh I’ve made it, I’m still figuring it out, you know a little more attention now.

  • What’s the projection for you? Where do you see yourself in the next 5, 10 years? 

I mean, you know, before the end of this year, my projection is to make sure I’m on the ground in Nigeria, I don’t want anyone to be like oh that Kelechief, he’s an American. He’s an Atlanta rapper or anything like that. 

My projection within the next one year is definitely a show in Nigeria. We have a confirmed date but I don’t want to say it. And then just making sure I can expand my network, you know that’s the most important thing. I can’t put this on a 5-year but I know that we are going to be on the ground in Nigeria and that’s the most important thing.  

  • I put out a tweet that you are a Grammy material. I saw some of your projects and I was impressed with them. 

I appreciate

  • Is a Grammy win something you are looking towards at some point? 

Like, It would be amazing to be gracious and appreciative but a Grammy list is not on my list of objectives. My objectives are to tell my story, to connect with people and make music that people enjoy. That’s number one; number two is to create some sort of unified black experience because I have cousins who I talk to. There are things about the States that they don’t understand, they have missed, and I know that there are misconceptions about Nigeria that people here have.

And I feel like I’m in the perfect position to be able to help both sides, understand each other, you know. So that’s what I want to do. So those are two most important things and if I get a Grammy along the way, then I can grab it and appreciate; but I don’t want to put myself in a position where I’m a failure if I don’t get a Grammy.  I have other things I’m trying to do, oh. 

  • Which artists do you look up to?

I look up to so many African artists. I look up to WizKid, I look up to Burna Boy, I look up to Dave, I look up to Blaqbonez, I look up to Buju, I look up to Ladipoe, I look up to all these guys,  they are killing it. They are all doing so great. I look up to Amaarae, she is so great. You know, there are so many amazing artists there that I respect and  look up to. I’m inspired by everybody.

  • What does music mean to you?

I’m passionate about music because this is the thing, music is keeping these (studio) lights on right now. When I dropped out of school and was confused, music helped me beat that confusion. When I need to say something in a conversation, I can say it on a mic, I can figure it out on music. So music is everything. I’m extremely passionate about it. 

  • What pain do you go through in the background to make music?

I’ve been in this box all day, I was editing a video, recording, and at the end of this interview we are going to be having recording sessions and it’s 4pm, ask me if I have eaten today.. 

  • Have you eaten today?

I’ve not eaten today, the answer is no.

  • It’s almost 10 pm here in Nigeria and I’m working too . This creative work is crazy I mean

Yeah. It’s funny, even my younger sister jokes and says if you do an album you’re going to die, If you don’t do an album you going to die. It’s like 14 songs on it. I recorded all 14; I produced 6 and mixed all of them. So I recorded and mixed all the 14. That means there needs to be artwork for each song, guess who made the artwork? Me. 

And there are videos, the small videos you put on social media for each. I was the one who made them. I got to save money so I put a lot on myself. My brother is my manager, he is trying to make me do nothing, he’s trying to take things off me. So it’s really really fun, it’s a lot of fun but it’s also a lot of hard work. 

  • You have more than twice mentioned your mum, brother and sister, how instrumental has your family been in this journey?

Well, I literally would be nothing without my family. If you listen to my old albums of maybe 2015, 2016, my mum is all there, she’s saying a prayer on my first project. My mum’s voice is on all project than it’s not. We always talk you know and I’ll just take little pieces and create skits from our talks. My family means everything.

There is another thing that people don’t realise. When a family leaves Nigeria and comes to the States. Let’s say one out of many children leaves and goes to the States, I didn’t really grow up with first cousins because all my first cousins were back in Nigeria so it really made my nuclear family very tight. 

  • You remake a lot of Nigerian music, is this pure marketing?

It’s a marketing strategy, but it’s also what I’m on right now. Like I’ve been making music for like 11, 12 years now and this is the first time that I’ve ever been, like okay, let me intentionally put my bees out there.  I think I’ve been like that a little maybe not shy but looks like there’s a degree of, I’ve always wanted my marketing to look mysterious maybe not mysterious, but I was like trying to be too much of an artist to be like, that was it but now, especially knowing what I’m trying to do and who I’m trying to reach, it’s a bit easier to authentically, figure out ways to market  and be fun but also show people like Hey like this my pen is very serious I do this and I know that I do this  very well, you know, come check out what we got going on.

The good thing about it is, you know, I get to kind of be a part of whatever moment that’s happening right now, when I dropped Blessed, it was what everyone is talking about on Twitter, then I dropped Kilometre freestyle a week or two after.  

  • Yes, I saw the Kilometre freestyle, and I liked it 

It’s a marketing strategy, but it’s also like it’s a way to just be having fun. And I don’t have to drop a new song every time I’m working. Let Me Ride this way other people are doing, I’ll ride their wave and my project is coming out before the end of this summer. 

  • What should we expect from your new album?

What can I say without saying too much? Um, there would be vibes on it like vibes you’ve never heard of, I will be in African regions you’ve never heard me in. And again the point of it is that unification and I know I keep bringing that up.

The real point at the core of this is the unification and I’ll say this – I know people a lot of time say, Afrobeats to the world, Africa to the world, I agree with that but the world owes Africa a lot. It can be Africa to the world but also the World to Africa. So we make sure it comes to a full circle, that’s the point of this album, the world to Africa.

  • Should we expect any of Wizkid, Davido, Burna Boy on the project?

You know I gave Wizkid a call, we’ll see if he returns it. Laughs.

Well, Amaarae is on the album, Blaqbonez and I talked, it could happen, you know he’s releasing his album right now, if he has time to reach the studio, that will happen for sure. And then I’m trying to think there’s a Nigerian-American artist, his name is Tunji Ige. He’s American but he’s Nigerian and he is really good, he’s on the album. There is a Zambian artist, he is really really cool, he is on the album. 

I’m trying to touch some continent and I’m trying to touch the world. Like I’m trying to get enough of the regions in Africa, and some Africans in the state and Africans in the UK. This would be my most collaborative project..

  • What do we call your fans? 

Chiefs, all my songs, all my freestyle, for my Chiefs you know.

  • What message do you have for the Chiefs? 

My message for the Chiefs is first of all thank you. And every time I sign off on most of my videos, even though I send our those letters like yesterday, I just say I love you if you give a fuck, I love you if you care. That’s number one, thank you. 

But number two is you people need to be ready because we are about to be real and  we need to be on the hands for real and we are about to bring them to the village with all the Chiefs. That’s the message. I got for them

  • You said you’re coming to Nigeria but you don’t want to leak out when? Can you give a clue to when to expect you, this is June already 

You know if people are listening, I’ve already told them when.

This December, I’ll be in Nigeria. But honestly, I will be in Nigeria in late November. Probably I’ll be in the village and I got to see a lot of family. And I’ll probably be in Lagos in December, Whenever the exact date of the show.

  • When did your parents get to the US ? 

My parents came to the US in the 80s. They came separately then they met here. They met in Alabama. They went to college in Alabama. They had my older sister in Alabama then they moved to Atlanta and then had the rest of us, my older brother, me and my younger sister.

  • How old are you?

I’m 29.

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