We use music for many things. To forget our problems and to dive even deeper into them, to escape and to feel at home, to help us dream big and to ground us. And so of course there are just as many different kinds of musicians, and the greats have the ability to be all of those thing at once - Superman and Clark Kent, the superhero and the everyman.
When I talk to Kelechi, I hear an artist who has the potential to be great for exactly that reason. So who better to kick off our special session of the Top Prospects series with A3C than with the Georgia native who's already been both a corporate contest winner and a student loans accumulator, a deep thinker and Nintendo 64 player?
This is Kelechi.
Kelechi grew up in Marietta, Georgia, an area just outside Atlanta that he describes as a place where trouble is a short step away, but, "You have to look for it." The son of Nigerian immigrants, he grew up in a household that was powerfully tied to his parents' native culture while also deeply embedded in average American life. "I feel like I'm just as much Nigerian as I am an ATLien. It's just as big a part of me," he said, and that duality extended to music. While it's tempting to play up the African-Atlanta musician connection, the truth is that his father was just as likely to play Boyz II Men and Celine Dion in the house as Nigerian artists. There's no easy explanation for why Kelechi fell in love with music, no musician relative, no impassioned family member who played him all the classics. Music was just always in him, waiting.
The rapping started in middle school, fueled by Eminem, 50 Cent, even a heavy Cassidy phase that was then replaced with Common, Lupe and Kanye. Recording consisted of little more than funny diss tracks he'd send back and forth with others, maybe the occasional video game-related song - "My first song was from the point of view of Mario and Luigi and Yoshi, I was trying to take people's heads off with bars" - but it was enough to spark an obsession. College was little more than a reason to keep his parents happy while he made music. "I knew I was obsessed with making music, but I didn't know how to make that a career," he said. "I really thought, if I do rap songs and put them on the internet, someone will give me one million dollars."
It took some proverbial dues to be paid, close calls and twists of fate for Kelechi to begin to recognize the business of being an artist, and once he did helped arrived from a very unexpected source. He entered a Green Label contest on a whim, but weeks later was surprised to find himself with $50,000 from the company and orders to make an album. In some ways it was a surreal experience to go from a home studio to the kind of album budget reserved for those with deals, but when opportunity knocked Kelechi opened the door and put opportunity in a bear hug.
The result is beforethequarter, a project that in the vein of his heroes J. Cole and Childish Gambino contains both catchy music and real attempts to personally connect with listeners. Kelechi is the product of a generation pushed to believe they could be anything they wanted and are now confronting the truth of what that means:
"A lot of millennials are pissed off because we heard , 'You can be what you want to be.' That hard work will get you there. But circumstances matter, there are things out of your control. We're taught to think we'll get what we deserve, but then we get to this point where we're 23 and we have student loans and we're broke and mad. I make music for post-graduation people who are trying to figure out the world."
A fortuitous meeting with Patrick Corcoran long before he was Chance the Rapper's manager has placed Kelechi within texting distance of that camp and watching their independent success has spurred him to think the same way. Opportunities are opening, calls are being made, and especially now that the Green Label turbo boost has run its course and Kelechi's gathering himself to record his next album, a label deal can feel tempting. The possibility isn't off the table, but he also sounds determined to chart his own course. "At times I want to, when I think about money, but then I know my worth," he explained. "We can figure it out without a label, there's no doubt in my mind."
Kelechi is both the child of immigrants and America's native son, a rapper raised on both 50 Cent and Lupe, a young man straddling the lines between corporate and major label pay days and true indie hip-hop hustle, an artist who can both write about heartbreak and destroy a freestyle. It's as impossible to guess his future as it is to define him now, but we'll be watching. Even the sky may be too limiting.
NOTE: We've partnered with A3C for this upcoming group of Top Prospects. Over the next two months we'll be unveiling four other selected artists, culminating in what's sure to be the greatest musical performance in the history of human kind during the A3C festival in October, along with a boat load of other great content we're currently in top secret production on.
TICKETS: Tickets to our A3C TopProspects show are now on sale. You can cop tickets to just the TopProspects show here (a festival pass will also get you in), or get a $20 discount on a festival pass by entering the code 20topprospectsa3cwhen you buy.
By Nathan S, the managing editor of DJBooth and a hip-hop writer. His beard is awesome. This is his Twitter.
Original illustration by Joshua Hayden aka JHAY. Follow him on Instagram.