Meet Siimba, an Ethiopian Emcee Melding Brooklyn Rhymes With a Global SoundscapeBy Cassidy Kakin | Posted August 8, 2017
Remember that video from about a year and a half ago featuring a robed rapper hanging out with a bunch of rare lions in South Africa? Trust me, if you saw it, you’d remember.
Unlike many artists who experience a memorable internet moment and who are really good at making fun videos but really horrible at making quality songs, Siimba has a lot to offer listeners beyond gimmicks. On his succinct and enticing debut, Zemenay’s Gemiinii, released last month, the Ethiopia-raised, Brooklyn-residing rapper and songwriter delivers 11 tracks that prove it.
Sonically, the project has a timeless feel that makes it hard to place. Zemenay is undeniably rooted in hip-hop’s golden era of dusty sampling but also features a kaleidoscope of global influences. From keys to drums to hooks, the album's aesthetic is dripping in swagger, begging to be played loudly in a Cadillac through high-end Bose speakers.
Tying together an album which touches on a large swath of human experience is Siimba’s voice. Powerful and buttery all at once, Siimba’s vocals are as expressive as they are laid-back. Think Attention Deficit-era Wale. While his melodic range isn’t going to win him a spot on American Idol anytime soon, Siimba is able to leverage precise control and unique tonality to create layers and harmonies that resonate on every return engagement.
In its best moments, Zemenay’s Gemiinii possesses that rarified “it” factor, that “just plain great music” feeling that has propelled artists like Chance The Rapper and Anderson .Paak beyond their hip-hop roots. There are only so many rap fans on the planet, but anyone can appreciate the songwriting of Siimba's “Lost Souls” or the dark, brooding textures on “Miind Over Matter.”
Don’t get it twisted, though. There’s plenty of impeccable rapping here too. But throughout Gemiinii, you realize that Siimba sat down to write these songs as a whole, building from an emotion or moment and using emceeing as just one weapon in his musical arsenal.
With so many smooth instrumentals and soulful vocals, it’s easy to get lost in the constant groove of Siimba’s debut. Don’t let that delicious exterior distract you from the nuanced, informed and uniquely delivered content that gives every track on this project immense replay value. With Zemenay’s Gemiinii there’s no need to choose between smooth jams and deep, introspective content; embrace Siimba’s Gemiinii duality and you’ll get hearty portions of both.
I recently spoke with Siimba about independent artistry, what he’s learned so far, his debut album, and continuing to kill lames.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Zemenay’s Gemiinii was in the works for a long time. Start to finish, describe the timeline for this release.
It’s been more or less done for a year and a half, damn near two years. I’m like halfway through my next one already at this point. It was just an issue of getting it out. And yeah, it should have been out already, to be honest. I spent a lot of time thinking about how to get it out there. At the end of the day, I think it’s just a good album, and I’m making so much more music now, I just had to say, "Okay, I’m just gonna release it."
Why do so many indie artists hold on to music and have these “indecisive” moments?
I think artists overthink shit. 'Cause you have this idea of how you want your art to be presented, and you, of course, want it to get the maximum amount of exposure. But ironically, the best way to do that is to just get it out there. When you put too much thought into everything that goes into releasing something, it can stifle the creative process. And I think a lot of artists don’t realize that you’re gonna make better shit, you’re gonna get better, you’re gonna keep going. My goal moving forward is to create the best music I can create and then just put it out there.
You've called Zemenay’s Gemiinii a sonic series. What do you mean by that?
I called it a sonic series cause if you look at it, it’s a series of events that take place essentially in a chronological order, first off. A lot of people approach projects like they’re trying to create a movie, like they’re just gonna come forward with one big chunk of something huge. But the way I like to see my stuff is more like a TV show, it comes at you in episodes, you feel me?
Walk me through a few of these “episodes.”
A song like “Bloody Roses,” I’m trying to be reflective here, and looking back at all of this violence. And then the second song, “Lost Souls,” it talks about how all of that violence can evolve into really losing people and people dying, losing homies. Up to “Deniial Riiver,” that one’s about that feeling of being so in shock that a homie is dead that you keep calling their phone, and you’re still in shock even after the funeral, you just keep calling. I lost a lot of homies like that, close homies. As time’s moved on it’s kinda fucked up but I’ve just gotten used to people dying, “Deniial Riiver” is about one homie where that just wasn’t the case.
That’s some heavy content for an album that, sonically, is laid-back and chill.
A lot of my music, no matter how it sounds sonically, has a lot of dark undertones to it. It’s pretty introspective, about me looking into myself and the experiences I’ve been through, and how they affect me. Growing up, I guess I’ve been through a lot of the things that are spoken about in hip-hop today, I’ve done a lot of things these other rappers talk about. I approached this on the album just focusing on how these things affected me. I try to really bring out the negative aspects of all of that, to go alongside some of the more glorified things we hear people rapping about all the time.
It’s not all dark, though. I heard some positivity peeking through the clouds.
The project itself starts off really dark and then progressively gets brighter. If you can see songs in colors or in shades, I wanted to start super dark and then brighten up. And I think you see an evolution in this project of me trying to be more positive. All of these actions are what’s leading me to—quote, unquote—try to do the right thing, you feel me? It’s reflecting on things, and it’s me growing up a little bit. A song like “Mind Over Matter,” I’m reflecting on things like violence and trying to have a new perspective, like there’s no need for me to be violent, to hurt another young black man out here, just for the sake of being violent.
Is that, essentially, what this album was really about for you? Growing up?
Well, what do you think? You’re the writer [laughs]. The album is essentially about duality. My mother’s name is Zemany and I’m a Gemini. There’s a duality in that sign, there’s a duality in my music. And there’s a duality in my personality. I think some people see my music and think I’m this righteous dude, but I’m really not always like that. This project is me trying to have some balance, trying to hold myself accountable and be a good human being but to have some balance with everything negative I’ve seen in my life.
Tell me more about your mother, Zemany.
The type of kids me and my brother were growing up, the trouble we’ve been in, that's stressful for any parent. That can break a mother, you feel me? Your mother’s the one that worries about you the most, she held you in her stomach for nine months. Even in the animal kingdom, there’s videos of lions starving and trying to eat their cubs, and the mama lions just killin' the males. It’s like that, mama love is different. In this project, I’m trying to grow and find my balance to make my mom smile at the end of the day.
That’s beautiful. Last question, what’s else is on your plate?
I’m gonna keep killin' lames. [Laughs.] We gave them some time to breathe, to chill, now it’s murder season. 2017, 2018 and beyond, we killin' lames forever.
Stream Siimba Liives Long's debut project Zemany's Gemiinii below.