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I Was Depressed Whilst I Wrote This - My Journey With Kembe X

On May 25th, 2021, I interviewed Kembe X via Zoom, and it’s currently December 25th, 2021. Seven months, and I still haven’t managed to table this article. How apt it is that in the midst of my attempts to present something suitably potent I cycled back into a depressive episode so fearsome in its severity, I couldn’t even bring myself to message Kembe and apologise for my lack of effort. When I finally did on December 22, he replied:

Appreciate you reaching out yo. I understand fam. It's tough times. For everyone so I’m not tripping or offended or anything like that. And I also get that me saying that can only bring u so much comfort.

I shouldn’t have doubted he’d understand. His stunning 2019 album I Was Depressed Until I Made This is just as evocative as its title, which is no easy feat. It’s not lip service, it’s not clickbait. As we move through this interview and this article, Kembe’s experiences and how he’s made sense of them, both musically and philosophically, will reveal someone who provides a unique and valuable perspective on living through turmoil and how to stay centred whilst everything around you fluctuates.

I’ve been listening to this interview regularly in the past seven months, and despite the fact I’ve been in therapy since the age of six, Kembe has provided words that unlocked new thought patterns that have calmed and energised me during some of my darkest moments. There is no greater praise.

When I decided to start making music, it was people that were making music when they were in pain, and they were able to translate it honestly and in detail. It sounded dope to me, and made me wanna do it… Even people that don’t make music about what they’re truly going through on their deepest level, they have artists they listen to when they’re going through those types of things, ‘cause there’s nobody that turns up through everything. There’s nobody that’s partying through everything.

It’s fitting a song like “Dolomite” would drop mid-pandemic. A spiritual successor to “Voices”, "Dolomite"'s beat relays this unabashed joy, and the 'stream of conscious thought' lyrics plus the celebratory video is juxtaposed against the much darker music Kembe has been dropping recently. “Staring at J Dilla” has an early-2010s playfulness about the production before Kembe goes IN, rapping about everything from his own future demise to evocative descriptions of oral sex.

Then we have “Outside Freestyle”, an existential romp through the deepest conjurings of Kembe’s inner philosopher, from hitting a Brinks truck to exploring the impact the truth can have on one’s psyche. By juxtaposing the light and the dark, Kembe provides new ways of progressing through extreme emotions on both ends of the spectrum.

“Staring at J Dilla”, that’s just definitely about how looking at this poster of J Dilla made me not worried about dying, while I was high as fuck in the studio. And obviously “Outside Freestyle” has these very deep dark moments

Like most great art in the realm of dark psychological states, Kembe’s music often prompts me to dive deep into introspection. I’ve been sick my entire life, I’ve been medicated since the age of eight. My primary school teacher didn’t call me “retarded”, but he used to yank me around my school by my earlobe, a practice frowned upon now but seen as astute discipline for a student who, by all accounts, just didn’t grow right. These experiences draw me to “Voices” by Kembe:

“Very few friends, was socially starvin'
Didn't mean shit, was chillin' without 'em”

Kembe’s early life was hardly Disney+ material either. He dropped out of his first school because he didn’t appreciate homework, his second school was “like a daycare,” with five teachers supervising 200 students, and he claims his third school was the worst of them all, with people actually breaking into the school to beat the students up. By his mid-teens, he was in his fourth school, cutting class so often it made sense to just… leave. So he did.

He attempted to “test out” via his GPA, but that was too low, so he left anyway and engaged in independent study — promising his mother he’d attain his GED as soon as he was old enough. (which he did at 17) The parting gift the schooling system provided him was a meeting with Chance The Rapper, who was handing out mixtapes one day whilst Kembe was watching a football game.

…Juxtaposition of the things that have gone seemingly perfect for me, and the things that make it seem like I have amazing luck, and bad luck, and how relatable that is, how just even perceiving things like that is human, we feel both, whatever good shit or bad shit happens.

There are both moments of serendipity and mishap in Kembe’s story; meeting Chance The Rapper is just one in a long line. His connection with Isaiah Rashad, TDE heavy-hitter and owner of a genuine 2021 AOTY contender (The House is Burning), seems serendipitous on the surface.

Zay found Kembe via the latter’s Youtube channel and they formed a fast friendship which turned fortuitous when Zay signed to Top Dawg Entertainment in 2013, a year after they’d released "good kid, m.A.A.d. city" by Kendrick Lamar and propelled themselves to the peak of the hip hop conversation. All of this sounds like I’m writing a Showtime biopic. Kembe’s perspective on this part of his career is far more sage:

Working as consciously as you can, doing your absolute best all around, that’s definitely very very important to the outcomes... When I was 15 I felt like, ‘oh if I do this, this will happen.’ And now I know, it’s not that simple, and I would drive myself crazy being like that. If I’m being thorough and doing my absolute best, and working and being as aware as I can, then I can get as close as I can to things going exactly as I intend them to. That’s the best I can do.

When Isaiah Rashad was whisked away to L.A. by TDE, it was Kembe he wanted with him. Zay’s words were “do this with me”, but it wouldn’t happen for another 5 months, which sounds like a long time in hindsight, but remember Zay's TDE debut "Cilvia Demo" wasn’t released until January 2014.

We now see TDE as monolithic in the transition from the underground to the mainstream for quality hip hop & R&B in 2021, but in 2013 they had only released 1 album that had charted in the top 80 on the Billboard 200. (the previously mentioned "good kid, m.A.A.d. city") Sitting at home you might think “why in the WORLD would you not immediately fly out to L.A. to record with TDE?!” but it wasn’t that simple.

Kembe was beginning to earn semi-decent money out of music, making $500-$600/week selling feature verses (that’s about $26k a year, not bad for a hobby) and he had already begun touring, which any independent artist will tell you is a huge step forward in legitimacy and bank balance. Kembe was actually riding in the trunk of someone’s car on the way home from a gig in Detroit when Moosa called him.

Moosa is a beautiful presence in this story (Kembe calls him a “big brother”). As part of TDE, Moosa flew Kembe out to L.A. and has been his manager ever since, providing support and guidance alongside his services.

I pretty much have a group of people I run my decisions by, especially Moosa. He doesn’t make the answers for me, but he’s gonna give me a hard time if he thinks I shouldn’t do something.

If you’re feeling “where did I hear that name recently?”, the FADER cover story on Rashad by Jeff Weiss, revealed Moosa as one of the heroes of Zay’s recent torrid four year period. The eldest son of Anthony Tiffith (AKA Top Dawg and founder of TDE), Moosa is in everything — tour managing Schoolboy Q, discovering Zacari as a saxophonist, helping produce records, hand-delivering prospective mixtapes to Top for approval — Moosa is part of the lifeblood of TDE, keeping it circulating so the hiatus’ doesn’t prove terminal. He recognised Kembe’s ability early, and his prompt helped Kembe overcome this quirk of his own character:

I either think way too hard about something, or not at all. I like to err on the side of caution.

Kembe is far more than the sum of his Rolodex, and I hope to prove that to you by the time you finish reading this article (and if not, read it again, you missed the whole point). But it is kind of cool to hear him relay his experience with a label that’s become almost mythical in its story in the nine years since Isaiah Rashad was signed. From living with SZA, Isaiah Rashad and Chris Calor to staying in the house where Ab-Soul recorded a lot of "Do What Thou Wilt", a place Kembe told me felt like “being in an incubator for a year and a half”. He told Black With No Cream:

It was unlimited bread, we’re going to strip clubs all the time, strippers coming over. All this shit that was cool, but speaking for myself: I was intimidated by what I needed to get done. I was also intimidated by life in general. By being in that house and under that pressure, and also having access to drugs, trying to be cool and serve my purpose with these people. I just did that shit wrong. Even private time didn’t feel private.

How do you stay centred amongst the maelstrom? There is a stage in life when we discover we must take accountability for what happens to us, good and bad, and it can come when we’re eight or 80, but it does come. We clamber to take credit for our wins and scramble to shirk responsibility for our losses, but this is self-defeating – a loss is merely an opportunity to analyse and progress. Social media is so hyper-focused on celebrating milestones whilst clowning mistakes and vulnerability that it’s tempting to conceal huge swathes of our personality and life experience in order to present the most “Instagram-Ready” perspective on our lives, and Kembe is open and honest about his thoughts on this process:

I learned very fast how to take accountability, so what would keep me centred is the idea that ok, everything that I do, and most things that happen to me is my responsibility… Since I was 15 I looked at things like, what am I doing wrong? What mistake am I making here?
I’m a polarising person, I know that. The things that translate very well in person, and the personality traits that translate well in person, don’t translate as well to somebody that’s not sitting in the room with me. So I might say some shit that has everybody in the room laughing, and then tweet it, and people will be like ‘what the fuck? I follow you for music’. The shit is just water under the bridge now, now it’s something for me to figure out how to bounce back from.

The strongest connections are constructed through the purest forms of expression. Allowing someone into your mind, into your fears, into your insecurities, and giving them the safe space to inhabit their own vulnerabilities, the places they hide from. When I see another person struggling with the same things I’m trying my best to run away from, I feel less alone and isolated. Kembe X the musician, the person, the artist, the persona, the social media presence, these are all the same person, and how rare is it to encounter someone inhabiting their true selves in every aspect of their lives?

The ethos, the Kembe X ethos is being centred enough to continue. From going place to place for four years, five years, but getting out albums and being able to tour, and picking up drug habits and having them fall off, going in and out of these difficult mental states, the thing I’ve been able to cling to, what brings me back to reality, is when I realise I’m not, Me Kembe, I’m not the happiness and elation and mania and extreme positive feelings that I am having, Kembe is not depression, Kembe is not anxiety, Kembe is not OCD, Kembe is not insomnia, Kembe is not drug addiction or alcoholism, I’m just experiencing these things that are very fleeting. Depending on what my thought pattern is and how I am telling the story, that is the story of how I’ve been feeling

Remember this. You are NOT your illness. You are not defined by the mental states you cannot control or transform. You still exist separate from them, they are not your identity.

Vulnerability is a rare commodity in hip hop. Charlie (my podcast partner and owner of The 5th Element Podcast Network) and I did an entire 70-minute episode praising the vulnerability Kanye West showed on his groundbreaking 2018 album "ye." 18.3% of Kanye’s bars on that record dealt with mental health, and I decided to analyse every No. 1 hip hop album from the start of 2017 to March 2019 for their mental health content.

27% of Kembe’s "I Was Depressed Until I Made This" is explicitly about mental health, but in truth, after speaking to him and understanding his story, his entire discography could be placed in this category. It isn’t just the “explicitly” that applies to Kembe X’s music - the joy, the instruction, the value, the power, the energy exists well beyond that.

When I sit down and write, even if it’s something lighthearted, you can tell I put thought into it, it’s not gonna be like a boppy song, first and foremost, it’s usually going to be something that has a unique combination of emotion in it. Because that’s my palate, is like the stronger emotions and how they can mix, how that can feel walking around being half angry and half excited about the same thing. It’s kind of like Cudi, how people say Cudi makes happy-sad music, but it’s more so like the mechanics of it, that I write about, that I talk about, that I juxtapose.

2016’s "Talk Back" was wholly unique in its lane that year, an album lyrically and emotionally dense, claustrophobic even, as Kembe releases the pressure that had built up in both his professional and personal life during the mid-2010s. The opening track, “Buried Alive,” is a slow mournful romp featuring the refrain:

I’ve been doin’ somethin’ wrong
Nothing keeps me up this long
I’m ready to die

That’s just the opening. Whilst "I Was Depressed Until I Made This" receives most of the mental health plaudits, "Talk Back" is even rawer. His off-handed nonchalance and supreme confidence on wax weren’t matching his personal life. In 2017 he “gave up” — he didn’t want to do music anymore. His SoundCloud from this time is barren. "Talk Back" came out in 2016, and between then and 2019, Kembe dropped just two lead songs. He disappeared from our view.

I had a friend get murdered, I had a pregnancy scare — that was when my other relationship was on and off. All those things started piling up... 2017 and 2018 I had recorded even more music, so although I was talking about and thinking about quitting, I don’t do anything else... I started driving Lyft for a bit before the pandemic, but my idea of quitting rap is putting out all my music indiscriminately. It’s like there’s these rules that I’m playing by. Maybe I shouldn’t be, but I just know there’s some balance between putting every last song on SoundCloud and seeing what happens, and being super meticulous.

That friend was one of the first Kembe made at high school. He heard the news after a three-day magic mushroom bender. The day prior to the murder, he posted a song about losing friends to death, and the only person who replied was this friend:

This inspired Kembe to refocus on his music and actually record an entire album, "For the Love of God", which never saw the light of day. When that was passed over by the label, Kembe’s downs began to outweigh his ups, and staying centred became a trial.

I feel like I have confidence, right or wrong. My confidence is a mood. I’ve done things right and made good decisions, like I said, me being confident has made me make bad decisions and good decisions. Some bad decisions have turned out fine, and some good decisions, or what I thought was good decisions turned out to be bad decisions. Everything is such a toss-up, There’s no science or rules to life. There is like the closest thing you can do to almost absolutely have it go somewhere in the realm of success, but I count on my fallibility and also my wit and circumstance.

Moosa stepped in again. He flew producer Kal Banx out after meeting him via IDK, who was playing Moosa music produced by Kal. Kembe recognised the message – Moosa believed in him and was eager to help the young man return to making music consistently. It was a conversation with Kal Banx that delivered Kembe a sobering understanding:

I used to have an insecurity about being ungrateful because I felt like I didn’t know how to express gratitude the right way. But just from having conversations, I realised you just have to be thankful… It led to where I’m at now.

Kehlani also offered him some wise words. She simply said: “You know, if you don’t want to make music, don’t, because it’ll drive you insane”. So Kembe stopped. And almost as soon as he did, his creativity returned. He was able to make his conceptual opus "I Was Depressed Until I Made This".

I was doing my press run in 2019 and I was telling this lady ‘I don’t care anymore.’ I guess she was telling me not to say it cause it sounds like I’m giving up, but it’s very the opposite. When I say I don’t care, I don’t care who is gonna take it wrong, or who isn’t gonna get it, or who it’s not for, cause it’s not for them.

None of this album is performative. None of it is an attempt to hop on trends, to ride waves, to create anything other than Kembe’s best work. We get genuine emotion filtered through the lens of Kembe’s sense of humour and his life experience.

It was hardly smooth sailing though. While most of the breakthrough concept record was made “coming out of a very dark, depressed place,” some of the album couldn’t escape the attractive clutches of substance.

‘Limb’, “Anyway” and ‘Still Callin,’ I was still pretty down. I was still getting drunk as fuck every day, taking Xanax every day. Going through life drunk and faded. Crying all the time and shit. Not crying enough.

What Kembe delivers on this album is worthy of celebration. Depression is an insidious toxin that seeps into every corner of someone’s life, sucking out joy and pleasure and motivation. The world is robbed of its colour, replaced with a grey hue that permeates all emotions and interactions. Kembe’s descent into a dark state is eulogised in “Voices.”

I remember when I dropped ‘Voices,’ I had red hair, I looked like I was going through it. I seen people say ‘he’s gone mad.’ ‘What happened to him.’ ‘The song sounds like Trippie Redd.’ But that song, if you’re paying attention, is one of the most vulnerable songs I ever made. One of the most on-topic, specific songs I ever made, and probably as a defence mechanism, I made that song sound so different than what I was actually saying.

This is the song that best summarises Kembe X’s entirely unique artistry. Wolf produces a genuine earworm that samples “People Get Ready” by The Impressions, the Curtis Mayfield track that Martin Luther King Jr. assigned as the unofficial anthem of the Civil Rights Movement. Kembe’s vocal inflexions are upbeat and almost jaunty, perfectly matching the rise and the warmth in the production. His lyrics are about as far from jaunty as definitively possible:

Voices in my head, push me to the edge
I didn't take my meds, smokin' dope instead

The song details the madness Kembe had found himself amongst. Nine years on from those early conversations with Isaiah Rashad about art and fashion, eight years on from his arrival on Forbes' “Best Free Albums of 2011” list, Kembe’s psychological descent was complete.

I started drinking heavily. I stopped smoking weed cause I started having like schizophrenic type episodes.

This is directly referenced in the first verse of “Voices”,

I am psychotic, fake idiotic

These are not topics for the faint of heart and thus this is the brilliance of Kembe X. Rather than smash listeners with 13 straight songs about dark psychological states, Kembe sprinkles his wisdom and life experience into listenable music, creating the perfect mix of depth and digestible content. Consider that only 27% of the album is explicitly about mental health, leaving 73% for other more palatable subject matter. The uneasiness of that 27% hangs over the entire record though, painting the picture of a man existing within and despite the dark mind-states.

What I wanted to make clear is that, I knew when I named the album ‘I Was Depressed Until I Made This’ people would cling onto the word ‘depressed.’ The message and the title is not about that.

It’s right there in the album title: I Was Depressed UNTIL I Made This.

That particular depression spell began to dissolve when I had a good day, and I noticed it. That was a big thing too — I noticed that I had a good day. I was like, ‘damn, if I just pay attention to when I do come across some joy, if I just pay attention to that, the longer I’m able to sustain that feeling, then I’ll look up and I’ll be happy.’ Not necessarily happy all the time, but I’ll be used to being happy. I’ll remember what it feels to be happy.

This is so key, there are a few things more important in mental health recovery.

What is the opposite of depression? It’s going to be dependent on how you experience your illness. For someone who feels a deep sense of apathy and lack of motivation, energy and purpose will be the antithesis. For someone who feels genuinely sad and has endless negativity running through their inner voice, warmth and positive emotion is the opposite.

One key aspect of recovery from almost any chronic psychological issue is replacement — if you didn’t have depression, what would you have? How would you feel? If you’ve never experienced that before in your life, you have to create something brand new, and it takes energy and hard work. This is the knowledge that took me 14 years in therapy to fully internalise and understand. Kembe is giving it to you for free.

I am not depressed but Depression is a location. Joy is a location. I’m not always cognizant of that, I’m not always looking at it like that. As soon as I look at it like that I’m free, I’m free from the clutches of whatever direction this feeling is trying to pull me in. I know it’s a feeling, and I’m me, we’re separate things and we’re just sharing space right now.

Kembe thinks differently, he prompts abstract questions about self-concept and value systems. When he speaks about his experiences on social media and his attempts to grow a following, he withdraws slightly and comes back out more defiant:

I want people to understand my mood when I laugh. A lot of these darker things I talk about, I sincerely laugh at, however dryly. It’s like the concoction of emotions that come together, I feel like even my tweets and the things I say sometimes, the way that I be feeling when I say these things and the way they come off to people are so different because the things I find funny, and the way that I put shit together in my head to make decisions is probably like… I’m a little bit of an asshole, I kind of see everybody like that, I’m lenient with people because I know I’m not the only asshole.

It feels like everyone is more than just a little bit of an asshole on social media. This self-awareness from Kembe came at an opportune time for me. After taking a few (much earned) days off from social media, I came home from a short holiday and almost immediately felt the negativity swirling around me. It dragged me in, and I let it. And I sat there and realised I’ve been choosing to let it drag me in every day for the last 3 and a half years. I need to change my emotional connection to what I do online, and it’s not easy. You want to give people as much of you as possible, but not so much they can hurt you with it.

I have a lot of fans of my music that aren’t necessarily engaged with me on social media. It’ll be people that recognise me in public, that don’t follow me but have all my music on their phone. That’s a major label’s nightmare I would assume, to not be able to pinpoint the demographic and see what these people look like. The social media thing for me, I’m polarizing, I’m the type of person that doesn’t prefer to be around a whole bunch of people and social situations, but once I get in them, I can become the life of the party. I’m more likely to overshare, and having people oversharing with me. It’s something about me that’s captivating to people I want to figure out. When you’re busy being yourself it can be hard to grasp how you’re being perceived.

Kembe is beginning to flood the marketplace with music again. In 2021, we got seven new tracks and a couple of videos. New music is imminent, and not just a slew of loosies. There are multiple projects in the works, themes being explored, concepts being fleshed out. It’s audacious, but that’s never stopped him before.

I have the idea for like this College Dropout / Late Registration / Graduation sequences that’s like, the first album is Be Happy, the second album is I’m Happy and the third album is I’m So Happy, because I think regardless of the content of those projects is, it gives off the tongue and cheek like, you know what everyone’s doing, trying to look happy even when you’re not. These ideas can be fleeting though. This year I'm just going to keep my head down and keep making & releasing my best material until an idea truly solidifies.

Follow Kembe X's journey

Check out the entire interview on Youtube


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