Poetry matters. Brooklyn’s Asoh Black! rests his laurels on this principle. Pressing play on Asoh’s debut mixtape, Black Ocean.: Season One, we are greeted by minimalistic “High School Raps.” The furthest from sophomoric in nature, Asoh, 24, sounds incensed as he recalls traumas and triumphs in equal measure. Less than a minute into his debut, the audience realizes Asoh Black! takes each word more seriously than the next. The pared-down approach of this intro track gives us the sense Asoh Black! is the real deal, privileging language and writing over hiding behind deluxe productions. This is him, take it or leave it, but don’t pretend you don’t respect it.
As Black Ocean. goes on, we get the full depth of Asoh Black!’s versatility. “Foolie,” the song he is best known for, packs classic Brooklyn swagger over a spiraling beat. “Boarding Flights” is a more traditional contemporary rap song: bouncing synths, melodies, and success talk. Still, Asoh manages to pack his unique brand of soul into the song. We hear his conviction, and we love it. Deep cut “Staying Sober” stands as one of the most important on Black Ocean., the one where Asoh Black! croons over lightly sparkling production. It’s the one where Asoh Black! smartly lets us in on his battle with his demons.
Beyond music, Asoh Black! just got his master’s degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. With a degree in one hand and his blooming talents in the other, Asoh envisions a particular future for himself, one where he raps well into his 40s, while also pursuing as many business ventures as possible. For all-time, his music will remain pure, and the diverse portfolio will keep him fed. In the meantime, Asoh is dedicated to growing comfortable with his creative expression—by the sound of Black Ocean., he’s well on his way.
Our conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
DJBooth: When did you first fall in love with music?
Asoh Black!: I know that moment vividly. I was sitting down with my older brother, watching 106 & Park, and the video for Kanye [West]’s “Good Life” came on. I saw that, I fell in love. Kanye was the guy that brought me into the sphere of hip-hop because I grew up in a household [that] was very Nigerian. You couldn’t listen to rap at all. Whenever we’d get in a car, it was Radio Disney—some trash shit. My older brother was the first to get into hip-hop, and I remember him showing me that video. Then, I pressed him to show me more music from Kanye, he showed me “Hey Mama” and it was up from there. To take the vocabulary and use it as a weapon, to drive home a message or prove your knack for being clever, is a skill and it’s powerful.
How did that power lead to you making your own music?
I started getting into poetry in sixth grade. It gave me a sense of pride because that type of art was powerful. When I transferred from art and painting to writing poetry, it made me feel… Smart as shit. When I got to high school, I met some of the boys I run with now in my collective. They were more advanced when it came to hip-hop because I had not been acclimated to that world. We would have [freestyle] battles at lunch and then we would take it home and start dissing each other on Facebook. Being inclined to figurative language, because I write poetry, made the transition to rap seamless. People started to realize I was getting good.
I first started making music when my homie had a home studio. It was the first time any of us had tried to create music. He wasn’t my best friend at the time, [but] he still opened his home to me and gave me that opportunity to create in his space. From there, I got acclimated to recording in a studio and going through the motions of what it means to create a song. That guy is now one of my right-hand-men, his name is Sndwn.. He produced over half [of Black Ocean.].
Then, I went to college and got into live shows. I started touring around a bit and going to different colleges. Every step of the way, [music] gave me a sense of pride.
You just completed a master’s degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. How did you balance music with such a rigorous venture?
[It was] hard as shit, Donna, let me just tell you that. I got my master’s in Technology Commercialization and Entrepreneurship, with a specialization in Supply Chain Management, and I got my undergrad in finance. How I balanced it? Music was, [and] still is, therapy. I needed it. I don’t know how I would’ve been able to get through that master’s program without it. RPI was a predominantly white institution, and it was easy to feel isolated and invisible. That allowed me to find my comfort, find my identity, and retreat in my room to record music. If I was stressed because of papers or something that had me depressed, it was easy to turn that into a therapeutic moment with music.
It was challenging, but I would tell myself: I need to do this, I don’t have a choice. As great as the degree was, ultimately, my life is for this music shit. I couldn’t let the college experience dilute my attention or take away from my focus [on music]. It wasn’t easy.
How did the master’s degree, and the politics of race and space on campus, shape the way you approach making music? Was there a sense of urgency to the music?
I wouldn’t say that race on campus pressed urgency into me making music. It was more so age. I [have] a baby face—that’s gonna help me in the industry because this is a young man’s sport. I know that once you get to a certain point—even though it’s kinda changing these days—in music, [you have to ask:] Are you too old to be doing this? Are you connecting with the audience? They’ll easily undercut you for the younger artist. That made me wanna blow up when I was in college.
Now, I’m telling myself—even though a n***a still young as hell—realistically, time nor success is linear. I can’t judge my success off of the benchmarks other people have been hitting before or after me. There are no smooth shots at success. You could struggle for 10 years, and in your 11th year, you get discovered. God laughs at the man who plans. I can’t be doing anything other than putting my best foot forward.
I love the way you open your debut mixtape, Black Ocean., with really impactful, straight raps. What inspired that decision?
I like to describe my shows as energetic. I’m someone who’s jumping up and down; I dance; I’m over here singing. There’s a lot I have to offer as an artist, [which] can sometimes allow people to forget I’m a lyricist. I grew up in this poetry shit. How you actually take the language and make it into art is, for me, one of the most important things a rapper has to offer. Sometimes that can get diluted by the other facades an artist has to put up. So [“High School Raps”] was me saying: I’m gonna give you guys a project where you’re gonna be taken for a ride. There’s gonna be differences in sound, flows. I like to keep everything versatile, but I wanted people to remember... Above all, I can rap.
What’s been the biggest demon you’ve faced while putting together the debut?
This debut mixtape is the first time I offered a cohesive collection of songs. The only demon I faced was the pressures of time, man. Doubt sinks in like a motherfucker. You don’t know what to believe. You may have those goals like: By 20, I wanna be an XXL freshman and then 20 comes and you’re wondering if you’re even good at this shit. You’re imposing pressures on yourself that aren’t justified, just because things take longer than you anticipate. You build that demon of doubt upon yourself. That was one of the biggest things I struggled with when I was creating this [project].
In the beginning, the doubt was creeping up on me. It stemmed from confusion: What do I say? What do I create? Knowing my urge to always be versatile and offer new styles, new flows, and things that keep me on my toes… It took a toll. I had confusion in the direction I wanted to take [the project] because I knew wherever I took it, had to be my best step. “Do I try to make a mainstream sound?” “I see ‘Foolie’’s working, do I make that?”
It took a lot in me to mitigate that doubt and say, “Fuck it, I’m just gonna create the best thing that feels right to me.” My friend, Sndwn., was like, “Dude, don’t be afraid to throw away songs.” We got to a point where we were comfortable in our creative expression. We had a good amount of songs we could build [into] a whole body of work.