KOTA the Friend has a heart as golden as his rap name. At 26, the Brooklyn-born, Manhattan-based rapper has a string of impressive singles, three moving EPs, and a debut album all under his belt. His jazz and soul-rooted stylings are prolific in delivery and methodical in approach. Since picking up the trumpet at a young age, falling into a rabbit hole of music videos and free beats, Kota has emerged on the other side of his musical upbringing a well rounded and altruistic artist.
“I wanna show people there’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” KOTA tells me over the phone. “On top of that, I want to hold the light. I’ve been through a lot, we’ve been through a lot, but it’s always gonna be okay. I’m trying to give people, kind of, a map to get out of depression.”
This is the thesis behind KOTA’s debut album, FOTO, a concept album that’s meant to showcase the “pages of [his] life,” as if they were a photo album. While his previous three EPs—Palm Tree Liquor, Paloma Beach, and Anything.—were about wading through a fog of depression, FOTO is about achieving mental clarity and finally taking a step out of the fog.
“It’s me saying that it took me a long time to get over [depression], but we made it out,” KOTA explains.
He continues: “I’m living the dream right now [laughs]. I still take the train. I do what I want. I go where I want, when I want. My family is good. I’m only growing. More people are listening to [my] music, and I’m happy. I’ll have to create a new goal at some point, but as far as the real goal, I’ve already accomplished it.”
We call that surviving and thriving.
DJBooth’s full interview with Kota the Friend, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
DJBooth: When did you realize you loved making music?
KOTA The Friend: I always enjoyed playing music, when I first picked up the trumpet when I was seven years old. I loved watching music videos and listening to beats and writing my own raps and things like that. I was developing skills without being trained to do it. When I got to college, I started a little rap group [Nappy Hair], with me and my friends, and ever since then, I’ve been making music.
How does your background in cinematography impact your approach to music?
It affected my career more than anything. When I started actually doing video, I kind of looked at everything like a mini-movie. I was always putting visuals out. They were just these really cinematic visuals because that’s how I saw things. It created a lane for myself that wasn’t really being taken by anybody. It all took off through the visuals.
Earlier this year, you told RESPECT. that your previous EPs were about wading through a fog. How does the fog relate to your debut album, FOTO?
This new album is kinda like the first step out of the fog entirely. The first three projects were compilations of songs and uncertainty and getting through years and years of traumatic experiences, and life-altering things. This album is the product of that but in the best way possible. It’s me saying that it took me a long time to get over [depression], but we made it out. Now, everything that happens, happens with a purpose. It doesn’t happen because life is taking over. Things are happening because I’m making them happen the way that I want.
What was the most important experience that shaped the album?
I’d say a big one is meeting with record labels. All year, we've been meeting with labels and different companies, and it kinda gave me a glimpse into what the music industry was—and I didn’t like it. That really pushed me to get the album going, create a concept, and talk about some things that I felt like needed to be spoken about, and create an album that’s about freedom. About ownership. It allowed me to dig deeper into my past.
Your son’s on the record, which is sweet. How much of an influence is he on your music and the way you navigate the industry?
Oh, he’s my biggest inspiration! [When] he was about to born, that’s when things came off the ground for me. I wanted to make sure that he was taken care of. I didn’t play any games after he was born. He loves me, loves to be near me. So it takes sacrifices when I go on tour and things like that, but I stay on my path because I know he needs me. That really keeps me away from all the negative things that don’t serve me. He keeps me grounded. He keeps me on the right path.
It’s so funny because I don’t think anything is a coincidence. When I think of the word “photo,” I’ve always been a really sentimental person. My mother will tell you that I could look at photo albums all day. I like pictures because it brings me back to that time. I like feeling things. I feel like people like to feel things. This album is like a photo book. It’s like flipping through the pages of my life. The stuff that makes you sad, and the stuff that makes you really happy. It’s my version of a photo album. I really wanted to bring people closer to me. I want to show them that this is what’s really been happening, and this is who I really am. I’m ready to bring you back home to Brooklyn, New York.
Incidentally, in 2017 you said, “I’m just being really honest and digging deep into who I am.” Who are you on FOTO?
On FOTO, I’m a man that has a child, takes care of his family, is relied upon by a lot of people. I have matured beyond what I thought was possible; beyond what I saw in other people, [or] what I saw when I grew up. I’m kinda like this vessel of possibility because I’m getting farther than anybody that I’ve known personally. I’m talking about as far as spirituality goes, and mental clarity. That’s really what’s important to me, and that shows through any project you hear from me. That’s my biggest thing: mental clarity. It’s really the beginning stages of that person who’s just reached mental clearness.
What I love about FOTO is how downtempo and contemplative it is. How do you balance the melancholy without sinking into those dark tones?
That balance is my strength. Mixing the really calm sounds, but keeping it bright… That’s who I am as a person. I produced most of the album myself. So those sounds, that’s how I feel. That’s how I hear music. It’s naturally something I do, without even thinking about it. The lyrics? I try to make them hopeful. I want to make hopeful music. I wanna show people there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. On top of that, I want to hold the light. I’ve been through a lot, we’ve been through a lot, but it’s always gonna be okay. I’m trying to give people, kind of, a map to get out of depression and get out of the stand-still position that a lot of people are in right now.
Is there a pressure that comes with being that light for your fans?
No, I don’t have any pressure because I really am who I am. I don’t just say things to make the song. If nobody likes the album, then I’ll still make another one. I make the kind of music that I feel I have to make at the time. When fans come up to me, and they’re crying, and they’re telling me how much the music has changed them, it doesn’t scare me. I [make music] so somebody could feel that way.
During an interview with UpcomingHipHop, you said “authenticity is my whole thing.” How did you maintain authenticity on FOTO in spite of your growing success?
I keep it because I don’t sell out. I don’t care about how much money I have. I just care about being genuine. My whole life it’s been: How do you stay genuine, even when it comes to matters of God? Every relationship that I have is beautiful because it’s based on the fact that I love this person. That leaks into the music; that leaks into every part of my life. I love people for who they are; I don’t need things from you. I need you to be you. So I make sure my music is authentic as me, and I’m authentic as it. It keeps me happy. And from that interview, it’s only gotten better. I’ve only gotten more secure with myself.
In 2016, you said your goal was to “be able to make a living off of making music that allows me to reach people, live off the grid and take care of my family.” Is that still the goal?
I’m living the dream right now [laughs]. I still take the train. I do what I want. I go where I want, when I want. My family is good. I’m only growing. More people are listening to [my] music, and I’m happy. I’ll have to create a new goal at some point, but as far as the real goal, I’ve already accomplished it.