Gabe ‘Nandez’s story is almost too complicated to write. Born Gabriel Fernandez in White Plains, New York, to a Malian mother and an Argentine father, ‘Nandez has never belonged to one place or culture. His father, a UN worker, took positions around the world, from Abu Dis in Palestine to Port-au-Prince in Haiti; the family would follow him. ‘Nandez’s first musical love was rock, and his entrance into performing music was through the guitar, where he idolized legends like Jimi Hendrix.
More than 20 years later, and after moving to New York City from Montreal in 2016, ‘Nandez is an acclaimed rapper, with a co-sign from Jeff Weiss (the patron saint of hip-hop writing) and his Passion of the Weiss imprint. On July 23, he released his newest project, Diplomacy. The record swings through numerous styles of hip-hop, blending at times with other genres, but consistently featuring ‘Nandez’s smokey voice delivering dense, tightly-woven lyrics—almost entirely in English.
You would never be able to tell his first language was French unless ‘Nandez said so—which is precisely what I learned last month when I sat down with him on an uncomfortably hot summer’s day in Manhattan, seated under an umbrella-covered table in Union Square Park to discuss the record.
From our conversation, I found Gabe ‘Nandez to be as enigmatic a person as he is an artist, preferring to cloak himself in unassuming mystery. Despite his meticulous lyricism and air of secrecy, his new project reveals a willingness, if not a need, to be honest about his personal life. Take, for instance, the ninth track on Diplomacy, “Lil Bro,” a message to ‘Nandez’s deceased older brother, Frédéric. He, too, was a rapper. “Big bro, know you’re right there, I know you tried,” ‘Nandez raps.
Gabe’s brother’s passing inspired him to follow in his footsteps and carve out a career in hip-hop. In 2019, at age 25, he’s as close as he’s ever been, releasing a music video for Diplomacy’s lead single, “ID,” on the popular No Jumper YouTube channel. ‘Nandez doesn’t thirst for fame or status per se, but his ambition is as big as the world he’s preparing to travel.
Our conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
DJBooth: You rap in your first language, French, on “Scroll,” but the majority of your raps are delivered in English. What inspired you to rap in English?
Gabe ‘Nandez: French is the first language I learned at home. Somebody asked my mother not long ago how I learned English, and I didn’t even realize I kinda just started speaking it. They were like, “Yo, how the fuck did he learn English?” ‘Cause everything was in English: music, TV. When I started rapping seriously, I was no longer in the French system. French being my primary mode of communication kind of went away after I moved to Tanzania, at age 13. I didn’t even tell people at the new school I spoke French.
What inspired you to start making music?
I was obsessed with guitar; I wanted to be like Jimi Hendrix and shit. At 11, it was like “I’m gonna be a famous musician.” Now it’s evolved into something deeper than “famous musician.”
How did hip-hop come into play?
I had an older brother who rapped, and he passed… and I remember, just being at the funeral, they played one of his tapes, and it was just him getting these bars off a capella. I’ll never forget that moment; it was so real, you know? And this was when I just moved to Tanzania, around 13. Around that time I started kinda getting into rap more, and then it naturally happened. This vision I had for myself kinda built itself.
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Rap became a passion and a platform. I felt like he was trying to do what I’m doing. So it was like, “I gotta do this shit. The fuck else am I gonna do?” It was, like, the clearest sign. It was like a fairy-tale.
Your music feels very much in the tradition of New York hip-hop. How important is New York to your musical identity, or your identity as a person?
That’s the school of rap I studied and lived with the most. I don’t know if it’s because I’m from here that I have an inherent bias towards it, but I always gravitated towards the East more. I was watching this Freddie Gibbs and Madlib interview on Hot 97, and even Madlib was like, “I just always listen to dudes from the East.” So it might just be a taste thing… I can relate to it more; it gets fuckin’ cold as shit, you listen to Mobb Deep. I can’t listen to Tha Dogg Pound in the winter in New York, no disrespect. But being from so many different backgrounds, it’s hard for me to feel like I fully belong anywhere.
How important is messaging and lyricism in your creative process?
I’m trying to deliver a message. I’ll spend hours on two bars, just like, “What am I saying here?” I’ll say some deep shit, obviously, but I’m very message-driven because I understand the power of music. I remember being in quote-unquote “developing” countries and seeing in the middle of fucking nowhere, a barbershop, and it’s called 2Pac Barbershop, and seeing graffiti of 2Pac on the wall. So we know the power of this shit. By the time I was 18, I’d seen so much culturally, and I was like, “Okay I have this gift, it’s my duty to use it,” and so that’s why the main thing is the message.
I’ll never be that guy who’s just making mindless shit. Can’t do it, I’ve tried. I’m doing what the fuck I know I’m supposed to do, which is make message-driven shit, use my platform to try to uplift people.
What kind of messages, or general impact, do you want to deliver with your platform?
The shit that’s being communicated through rap and pop culture, a big part of it, is not cool. It’s just not. There needs to be a balance. That’s not hip-hop culture. Pusha-T said on the last album, a bar that stuck with me: “Real n****s bring balance to the game I’m in.” For someone on that level who’s been behind the scenes and seen it [all], for me to hear that on his record, it just reinforces what I think.
Diplomacy is the title of your new album. What do you hope to do with this record?
“Diplomacy” is a project title and idea I’ve had since 2016, and I’ve worked on three different drafts at this point. The album is pretty personal on a lot of songs; initially, that title kinda sells it as “political,” and in a way, the personal is political, so in that sense, I guess it is. That song “ID” contains political-isms. But I’m not trying to sell a particular political idea ever. I believe in freedom.
I guess my music is about emotional gains for people and restoration of confidence. I can’t pinpoint one thing the album’s about; I got a lot of shit off my chest. I was a serious drug addict for a long time… I think people can make emotional gains from that. Abuse and addiction are being pushed. People can make personal gains on, “Wow, that guy got sober,” even if you don’t know me.
Also, just general emancipation. Not only from drugs but from abusive relationships, toxic environments. Just, reaping strength that’s in everybody [and] not being afraid to emancipate and speak the truth. That shit is hard; sometimes, you end up hurting other people. I know that was hard for me in my life; even in saying some of the shit I said on the album, I peeled a layer off.
If you were to communicate to someone who Gabe ‘Nandez is, what would you tell them?
Gabe ‘Nandez is a talented guy who is flawed... but Gabe is a fucking G. Gabe is gonna do the right thing. Gabe has done wrong things, but in all those times, has tried to make those things right. Gabe is not sneaky, Gabe is honest. That doesn’t mean Gabe does the right thing all the time.