Bri Steves, Kemba, Lute & Thutmose talk with Wilkine Brutus about how the Rolling Loud festival helps get their message out.
Rolling Loud Festival, the preeminent hip-hop festival in Miami, is back to giving rap heads a three-day long marathon (May 11– 13) of diverse music within the genre—enough mood swings for the old heads and young bucks or the knowledge-seeking-guru and drink-sippin’ turn up aficionado. J.Cole, Travis Scott, and Future headline the fest along with some of the most noteworthy, up-and-coming names in the game.
To celebrate the Rolling Loud Festival’s jump off, we snatched four artists who are on the rise away from their busy schedule to get a behind-the-scenes insight on why their music represents an eclectic, substantive voice in hip-hop: Lute (May 11th), Kemba (May 11th), Bri Steves (May 12th), and Thutmose (May 13th).
Below, a brief breakdown of each featured talent:
Lute, a rising artist out of Charlotte, North Carolina, exemplifies the introspective artist, waxing poetic over downtempo beats—he has a profound story to tell. And it caught the ears of J. Cole, who signed him to Dreamville Records. Look out for live performances of “Morning Shift,” “Still Slummin’,” and “Juggin’” from his debut studio album West 1996, Part 2, a follow up to his West 1996 mixtape.
Kemba, formerly known as YC the Cynic, is a conceptual lyricist from the Bronx. His multisyllabic, thought-provoking rhymes may sound familiar because he’s been in the game since 2010. Negus, his 2016 album, made quite the wave, to—which culminated in an appearance on the Music Hall of Williamsburg stage with Kendrick Lamar. Look out for possible live performances of “Already,” “LoveGoes” and “Caesar’s Rise.”
Bri Steves, a Philly native, is keeping the fire burning in the flourishing new music scene out of Philadelphia. She’s a charismatic singer/wordsmith whose versatility is on full display on SoundCloud, Fader and Revolt TV. Look out for live performances of “High For Me,” remixes to popular joints, and her 2018 single, “Jealousy.”
Thutmose, the Nigerian born-Brooklyn raised rapper, fled Nigeria to Brooklyn after the infamous Lagos nuclear plant explosion. There is a keen sense of optimism in his melancholic soundscapes, with a message that seems to probe human vulnerability with sheer confidence. Look out for performances of “WuWu,” “Still I Rise,” “Blame” and his latest 2018 single, “Ride With Me.”
Okayplayer: What type of message are you trying to communicate with your music?
Bri Steves: I want women to feel empowered, sexy, be outspoken and fearless.
Thutmose: I’m usually trying to evoke emotions through my music, although there are times where I want to tell my story or make a statement about the times we’re living in. But the majority of the time I am trying to connect to the emotion of the listener. We’re all humans and go through similar life experiences, so for me as an artist, that is the biggest thing for me—being the voice for the people and showing how much more we have in common than we know.
Lute: That we are greater than our circumstances and to make do with what you have.
Kemba: I don’t think I could ever make music with one message in mind. There are billions of people, having hundreds of thousands of experiences each, and most of us wonder if we’re the only ones having them. I’m just here to share some of my own.
OKP: Does your experience on stage affect your music-making process? Can you share a memorable live performance that challenged the way you see your own music?
K: A little… it is hard not to be affected by it. I watch everyone’s live shows and study. I remember watching a million Prince, Michael [Jackson], James Brown, Frankie Lymon, Sammy Davis Jr. performances. More recently, I have been watching a million Frank Ocean performances, plus a million Skepta performances. Those two are so far on opposite sides of the spectrum that they both give unbelievable live shows. Frank has people literally sobbing, while Skep is a two-hour wall-to-wall mosh pit. So good.
TM: My experience on stage definitely affects the way I create music, more so on the production end. I like to treat my set as a ride, so knowing when to slow it down, when to pick up the energy, and how to interact with the audience to get the most out of them.
BS: How people related to my more vulnerable records—the ones that are hard for me to write—helped me grow into opening up on other songs. The first time I performed “Til’ It’s Gone,” (a Donnell Jones’ ‘Where I Wanna Be’ sample flip) — people in the audience cried. It is a song I wrote about my ex cheating on me and feeling devastated, but knowing I had to move on.
The song moved so many people, I couldn’t believe it. Before that moment, I hated writing super-vulnerable records because I didn’t want to revisit the pain. But in seeing and living through that pain, it echoed in so many other women just like me, and I felt like it gave us all a voice. I learned then that talking about my scars as an artist was something I had to continue to embrace.
L: I remember being backstage with Murs in Denver at one of his concerts and him telling us stories of his journey, and then seeing everything he told us unfold on stage. It inspired me to have my best show the next day.
OKP: Artists face the tough task of attracting new fans and/or keeping their core audience satisfied. Do you rely on their expectations or suggestions to influence your music? Or do you always prefer to take risks with your art?
TM: I always listen to my fans but I don’t let that impact my music too much. I’d rather take risks with my art and let them consume it. I study audiences a lot and put myself in their shoes when I watch other artists and try to figure out what I like and what I’d want. With that said, there’s still a middle ground that has to be met with art with having elements that listeners would want but still being innovative and mixing in new elements to showcase how creative you are.
BS: I don’t focus on the audience when I’m creating. I make my music for myself and then I share that personal side with the world. Music to me is like venting, and you can’t put barriers on how it comes out. I speak my truth, and take risks with what feels right. Either you’ll get it and like it or you won’t.
L: I like to take risks… yet at the same time I create what I like in hopes that someone out there can relate. I don’t create to keep up with the times nor do I pay attention to my followers count, I just like reading the messages that say my music inspired them to do or be something. I just care about the music… the music that I want to create.
K: I make whatever I feel in the moment. I think supporters are loyal for the most part, but also fluid. You’ll pick up new listeners every step of the way, every time you change as a person and as an artist. You’ll probably lose some too, and that’s fine. The alternative is being swayed by outside influences. That’s pretty trash.
OKP: Hip-hop and R&B have overtaken rock as the most popular music genre. What do you believe has been keeping the culture so internationally relevant?
L: People are no longer afraid to take risk…. though people may not understand it or agree with it, but mumble rap has evolved hip-hop culture in a lot of ways.
TM: What keeps rap and R&B alive, in my opinion, is how versatile the music is these days. You can find a sub-genre within rap or R&B that combines with every other genre that you can name, which means there is a song for any and everyone.
K: We’re the voice of the voiceless. You don’t need years at whatever prestigious music school or a wealthy, well-connected parent to be successful in this industry. For one, it’s like basketball, which is quickly growing because anyone can play it anywhere with anyone (or even by yourself). That makes it relatable as hell. Plus, seeing people that grew up like we did (or worse) is inspiring. People who grow up in those situations are usually the most creative… maybe I just made that part up [laughs] but I think it’s true.
BS: Hip-hop and R&B has a soul. There’s culture and perspective behind it, which is why it makes sense for it to be the #1 genre. Everything about the culture of hip-hop is young, innovative, and constantly changing. Any genre that speaks for the youth is the one that’s most relevant because it speaks for an era. Hip-hop and R&B was never less relevant to me, personally. It’s just getting the recognition it deserves again.
OKP: Give us one quote from a song or an interview by your favorite artist that made you question your life?
BS: [I don’t think I’m arrogant], I just don’t feel like arguing with you about stupid shit.’ Jay-Z said this in an interview. This is the quote that I come back to most often when I’m met with adversity in the industry because it reminds me to avoid feeding into the negativity of others. Whenever I receive a “no” or a “that won’t work” response, I just let people think what they want. The best decisions I’ve made came from trusting myself instead of other people’s opinions.
K: I don’t know if it made me question life itself, but the first line that came to my head for this question was, ‘My time will come, yours too. I’ll gladly go before you.’ This was from Gnarls Barkley. That line has been stuck in my head since the first time I heard it. It’s so simple, kind, and loving… but [it is] also the most selfish thing you could say.
TM: [For me it is] Tupac Shakur, where he said, ‘They got money for wars, but can’t feed the poor.’
L: “Every now and then… I wonder if the gate was put up to keep crime out or to keep our ass in,” from Cee-Lo when he was in Goodie Mob.
Wilkine Brutus is a writer based out of Miami, Florida. He currently serves as an editorial and video contributor to EBONY, and has made television appearances on BBC News and West Palm Beach, Florida’s news channel WPTV. You can follow him at @wilkinebrutus.