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October 6, 2017 Anna Selle
All photography by Anna Selle

We caught up with Kemba after his set at The Bay in Lincoln, Nebraska for the city’s annual music festival, Lincoln Calling.

A message of resilience comes across in your music. What’s the power and importance of resilience?

I think resilience is one of the most important qualities you could have. Resilience is what created hip hop. Poor people not being able to own instruments and making the best of already recorded music to make something new is resilience. The whole culture is based on resilience. Anyone who grew up poor and found success has had to be resilient. So really, it’s a difference between life and death. Either you’re resilient or you don’t make it.

Kemba at Lincoln Calling. Photo by Anna Selle.

The most recent album you made was inspired by a trip you took to Ferguson. What about that experience moved you to write about it?

I’ve been going to protests and marches and things of that nature since I was 16. But I’ve never seen something that was more the people than the organizers. More of a community coming together than just organizers coming together. I had never seen a protest led by people my age. So that was super inspiring. If they can do it, why can’t I? And not do exactly what they’re doing, but just be a leader. Age is not an obstacle. It inspired me in that way. It incorporated hip hop so much, and that was super inspiring to me. We were chanting to instrumentals. People were freestyling. It was crazy and incredible, this raw youthful energy. It wasn’t the standard ‘we’re gonna march in the street until the cops tell us to move to the sidewalk.’

What drew you to take part in those protests?

I’m one of the founders of a hip hop art collective. The short answer to that is, my mentors were going. And of course everybody was watching the news and saw what happened with Mike Brown. If that’s who you are, you’re gonna wanna go. And if that’s in you, you’re gonna wanna go.

You use your music and your voice to speak to invasive societal ills. Why is it important for you to do that as an artist?

I just write whatever’s on my mind and whatever’s on my heart. My new album is going to have nothing to do with any societal ills, not in that way. It’s not gonna have music inspired by protest or social injustice in that way. For me, art is like the only release that I have. I’m not this super outgoing, expressive, or emotional person. Whatever’s on my mind has to come out through music or I’m gonna go crazy. I’m not making a big statement. I don’t believe artists have to make political statements. But for me, whatever I see that I’m moved strongly by, I have to write.

Kemba at Lincoln Calling. Photo by Anna Selle.

Your live show incorporates some projections and vignettes, including one of a teacher and a young student discussing race. How does that relate back to your music?

I found that in a documentary from the 1960s and I thought it was cool to see this radical teaching. People thought it was radical but it was really just teaching people to love themselves, despite the constant brainwashing they’re gonna get in society. So when I saw that, it was super powerful, and it was one of the main themes of the entire album. I want to bring that same experience to the stage.