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When Kemba arrives at Urban Myth Studio in Brooklyn on a late summer afternoon in August, he wants to make sure everything is perfect for his album playback. The idea behind shooting this Youtube visualizer is that Kemba’s friends and fans will come to the studio, spaced out by the hour, to hear Gilda for the first time and react to it on camera. Understandably, Kemba’s issue with the studio’s speakers is that the sound gets muffled at times, not crisp and clear enough to play a new record that he’s worked on for several years.
After making some adjustments through an app on his iPhone, Kemba settles for a slightly improved sound while his day-to-day manager works on an improvement, making calls to a nearby equipment rental store and to friends who could lend their speakers for a day. The first arrival is an artist named Cast from The Bronx. Kemba simply instructs him to do what feels natural. He then presses play and leaves the room, allowing the fan to experience his upcoming release without any distractions.
As the opening track plays, Kemba steps out into the hallway and sits across from me. On September 20, the 28-year-old rapper born Matthew Jefferson will be releasing Gilda, his Republic Records debut that shares the namesake of his mother. Executive produced by Brasstracks, it’s a time capsule of Kemba’s state of mind during a very painful life transition. He’s more open and vulnerable than he’s ever been on his latest album, as he works towards peace and tranquility in order to grow as an individual. Whether it’s capturing the exhaustion of dealing with family conflict (“What a Day”) or facing his insecurities of being a successful rapper without his mother (“Dysfunction”) or simply not having any faith in humanity (“Nobody I Can Trust”), Kemba goes through the good, the bad, and the ugly. Eventually, everything is going to be okay.
The genesis of Gilda, using music as therapy to get through a difficult time, is something that many people can relate to. Kemba and I share losing a parent in our 20s. My dad died in 2014 when I was 26, while his mother died in 2017 when he was the same age. Though it affected us at different moments in our lives, there’s a bond in talking about what we went through in order to get to this point of acceptance, even if you’re not completely 100 percent again.
“The music was the main thing that helped. I’m not good at talking to people about stuff,” Kemba says. “I don’t know, you kind of just keep trying every day. You’re never really completely over it and you can be happy with your life and still think about that. I would say the main thing that helped was the music and the support of my friends.”
On “Dysfunction,” Kemba paints those feelings with his lyrics, using a distorted voice to work through his toughest thoughts of being lost and feeling guilty as things slowly return back to normal. “F*ck a doctor, what’s the point of it? / Cancel all appointments / Life is just a coin to flip / I lost my mother to a motherf*cking stroke / Maybe I could have avoided it / Sh*t, maybe I could have avoided it / This is dysfunction,” he raps.
The inspiration behind “Dysfunction” was isolation, taking time away in order to find yourself again. Kemba tells me he had plenty of friends who were there for him, but his relationship with some of his family members was distant. He says it was because his mother had a “layered relationship” with certain people.
“Me being a kid, I would go years without talking to them,” he says. “She had her whole life to have relationships with them. But me, I’m a little kid, so I don’t really know you.”
“We never really had a relationship. There are multiple family members like that,” he adds. “And then, the situation that happened with my mom, she unfortunately had a stroke but she was in a coma for a long time. That situation leads to varying opinions, and it’s hard to keep your emotions out of it. So that strains relationships with family.”
When making hard decisions for a loved one, everyone who rightfully cares wants to have a say. Similar to the pressures he had faced when making a difficult call for his parent, I recount to Kemba about having to decide whether to bury my father or to cremate him to follow Vietnamese Buddhist traditions, considering opinions from family members I have never met before. Many insisted they knew what was best for him, but I was his son, his next of kin.
“I’m scared that we’re getting super real and super morbid but it’s nuts,” he tells me. “If you could think about how it would feel like in a situation where your mother is in a coma and you have people saying, ‘You know, it’s not going to get better. We gotta do this.’ It’s f*cking hard. It’s hard to look at those people the same way. It’s hard to not feel anger or feel something where people say, ‘It’s done. We can’t wait much longer.’ It’s f*cking straining. And then the funeral stuff too, it’s a lot.”
Kemba shows comfort in speaking about the finer details of his mother’s death because that’s how real it was for him. At the end of “Dysfunction,” he shares voicemails from various people trying to check in on him. One, in particular, is a reminder: “Just want you to know, you don’t have to do this alone.”
But even so, there’s a major burden left behind. It’s up to the survivors to sort out debt, inheritance, and tie up any loose ends before anyone can really move on. If a parent doesn’t leave a will, someone has to hire a lawyer and settle their estate through probate court, an expensive process that can take months, even years. The whole ordeal is a fast track to being an adult — prepared or not. But it can also be very overwhelming when someone that was once depended on is no longer here.
Kemba agrees that losing his mother, whom he had a close relationship with and lived with until the day she passed, was his introduction to adulthood.
“I think in the simplest sense,” Kemba says. “She paid the rent. She often times cooked. She was always there when I went to the hospital. She was the ultimate provider. If she’s not there anymore, I literally had to learn to do everything at once and for myself. I didn’t know how to pay a bill. I didn’t know how to do anything. I didn’t know how to cook, I didn’t know how to survive and be home. I was kind of thrust into a world. I was old enough, but it was a f*cking culture shock.”
After an hour or so, Cast finally finishes the album and comes out of the studio, ready to share his assessment of Gilda.
“The first half was very internal, really personal,” he says. “Super different from anything you’ve done. It felt like letters, mixed with bits and pieces of scattered memories. One of my favorite lines was ‘how could you love me / you don’t remember me?’ That was insane.”
“Thank you, man,” Kemba replies.
Kemba established himself as a staple in New York’s underground hip-hop scene beginning in the late aughts, already a young veteran who put in years grinding as YC The Cynic and earning blog placements on sites like RockTheDub, NahRight, 2DopeBoyz, and Pigeons & Planes. He got into hip-hop because of his older brother, who was an aspiring MC named Marc Bucannons, and was later anointed YC The Cynic by his brother’s friends in Hunts Point after rapping on stage at a yearly BBQ. To this day, he still won’t share what “YC” really means.
“I just love the feeling of expressing myself and impressing people,” Kemba says, explaining why he wanted to become a rapper in the first place. “The feeling of impressing people with things I said was the first thing that drew me in after wanting to be like my brother. And that sustained me for a really long time. Before I was ever like, ‘I’m saying something that’s important to me.’ Like, that came later. Saying something that was worth saying, came way later.”
With Eminem being a huge influence on his rap style, his lyrical ambition is evident on early mixtapes like 2010’s You’re Welcome and 2011’s Fall Forward, where he’s rapping over a mix of instrumentals and original beats. Kemba was also doing a lot of open mics around the city, tapping into his gift of wordplay and building his fanbase through a traditional route of proving he could wow a crowd. That was how Homeboy Sandman discovered him, who “showed love” ever since they first met. Sandman went on to introduce him to Hot 97 radio personality Peter Rosenberg, another industry figure who took an instant liking to him early on.
“To me, there was stepping stones from the open mic scene. I don’t think that exists anymore,” he says.
After establishing his name in the open mic circuit, a turning point in Kemba’s career was releasing his final project under YC The Cynic called GNK, inspired by his interests in activism and the political messages of Bronx hip-hop duo Rebel Diaz. “That project was the first time people started to see me as a real artist and not just this open mic artist who wants to rap about how good he is at rapping,” he says.
The decision to retire YC The Cynic came from a need to think of a name that was more representative of the art he was making. As YC The Cynic, he felt boxed in as a backpack rapper who couldn’t evolve and didn’t have the potential to make other types of music. So after workshopping several names for a year straight, he finally settled on Kemba.
“I ultimately decided on Kemba because it sounded like it had African roots and it sounded youthful and it sounded strong,” he says. “I just asked my friends to call me that for like a month. Once it felt good, I still waited another six months and then I said, ‘F*ck It.’ I’ma do it and it was scary as f*ck. It feels stupid that it was so scary because it was the best thing that I ever did.”
In his second career as Kemba, there were a lot of accomplishments his mom would be proud of, and some she was able to experience, including his profile boost in 2016. After gaining a positive reception for his emotive album Negus, Kemba made headlines in December for freestyling acapella at a surprise Kendrick Lamar show in Williamsburg. He impressed K. Dot enough to say, “He was kicking some real motherf*cking sh*t. Keep going. Kemba, remember that name.”
After going through such a traumatic time in his life, Kemba will be remembered for his strength in the face of death and hardship. When Gilda releases, its honesty will be appreciated by rap fans looking for music that comes straight from the heart. He’s taken special care and attention in making sure his mother’s spirit is felt throughout the album, like how the intro is an homage to her music tastes, getting features from Jagged Edge and RL of Next because she was big fans of them.
On “The Feels,” with Portugal The Man, Kemba examines his own guilt about not being a good son and wishes he was more attentive to her near the end of her life. “I don’t love you unless I am broke or I’m injured / You can hide your intentions / There ain’t nothing like a mom’s intuition / I wonder if there was a sign and I missed it / If I went harder to listen / I would have some suspicion / But instead I’m caught off guard, I’m calling God for assistance / Need divine intervention,” he raps.
The Eric Bellinger-featuring “Alive” brings the album full circle. Though his mother isn’t here physically, she’ll always be a constant source of empowerment for him. “I’m still here shocked that momma died / when you look at my eyes / she’s alive, I’m alive, I’m alive,” he sings.
Back at the studio, before Kemba guides his next participant to hear Gilda, I ask him about an old quote. He said his biggest fear is not being successful quick enough for his mom to enjoy it. But now that she’s watching over him, does he think she’s proud of his progress?
“I know she’s proud of me,” he says. “I know that she helped make it happen, too. At the same time, I define that as a failure and there’s nothing I can do about it. That’s something that I keep with me. I have to use it as fuel. I have to spin it in a positive way for it to not eat at me. That is a definitive thing that I was not able to accomplish and I can’t turn around or redo. I definitely remember saying that and I still feel like that was the goal and I couldn’t accomplish it. It’s interesting, you don’t really hear the story of, ‘Yeah, I set this goal and I couldn’t accomplish it.’ What do I do next? What do I do after I failed at this goal? I don’t really know where to look at for inspiration on it, so I’m kind of just going along.”
“That’s a terrible way to wrap this story,” he says with a laugh.
“At the same time, when this music comes out, it’s going to change for you again, but you shouldn’t look at it as a failure,” I respond. “There are people that are going to be like, ‘Thank you for sharing your story because I have that same story.’”
“Yeah, I know exactly what you’re saying,” he says. “I hope so.”
Gilda is due on September 20 via Republic Records. Get it here.