HOUSTON — Tobe Nwigwe has spent five years as an independent rapper and singer on the Houston scene, building an audience — including fans like Erykah Badu and Michelle Obama — with weekly song drops that unfailingly arrive with a brand-new video. His plan has always been consistency, not virality. But sudden, unexpected fame arrived last month after he released a track that called attention to the police killing of Breonna Taylor in Kentucky.
“I need you to,” Nwigwe sings as the track opens. Then in his typical sober rumble, he raps, “Arrest the killers of Breonna Taylor.” The entire song, called “I Need You To (Breonna Taylor),” is 44 seconds long, with spare production. It was reposted by Diddy, LeBron James, Madonna and Amy Schumer. “Try Jesus,” a ballad he released at the end of July, has become even more popular. It has more than a million YouTube views and helped him land his first two placements on Billboard’s genre sales charts.
On a recent morning Nwigwe, 33, was at work as usual, shooting a video for a song called “Eat” in his sea-foam green living room, wearing a sea-foam green outfit and a gold grill. He was surrounded by his usual production crew, including his wife, Fat, 32; and their best friend and producer, LaNell Grant, 31, known as Nell. As the camera moved around him, the rapper held his arms out so that Ivory, 1, his eldest of two daughters, could join him. Baby Fat, as she is affectionately called by her family, looked around, a sly smile on her face, and finally wiggled her way onto the set.
Nwigwe’s family has always played a large role in his art. Though Tobe Nwigwe is the name on the songs, Fat and Grant are inextricable from the final product. Operating outside the label system, with no publicity representation or managers, the three handle all of their personal and professional business themselves: designing their outfits, booking gigs and watching each other’s children.
“Because I do this with my family, I don’t even want people that I don’t know like that around my family,” Nwigwe said in an interview the evening before the shoot. “I don’t believe in somebody who didn’t help me build everything —” he added before Grant finished his sentence, “come in and take.” In sweats and their signature white shin-length socks, the three sat in swivel chairs, ribbing one another with inside jokes.
Hip-hop wasn’t always on the agenda for Nwigwe. “I thought I was going to be the next Ray Lewis,” he said as he rocked Ivory to sleep. He grew up Tobechuwu Nwigwe in the Southwest Alief neighborhood of Houston with Nigerian immigrant parents and focused on sports, though his family hoped he might become a doctor, lawyer, engineer or pilot. An N.F.L. prospect, he was a linebacker for the University of North Texas, working out twice a day, plowing through bodies and cheating on his homework, until he experienced a career-ending injury.
Grant, who went to the same high school, thought she might make the W.N.B.A., and instead became a high school English teacher, taking production classes in her off hours. Fat, (born Ivory Rogers) from Grand Rapids, Mich., had an idea she might be an artist, but felt sure that she was supposed to move to Houston. The three came together while working with the “edutainment” nonprofit Nwigwe founded to help Alief children figure out their purpose. After finding validation and financial support from the motivational speaker Eric Thomas and his business partner Carlas Quinney, they began focusing on music in earnest.
In 2017, Nwigwe began making videos and dropping weekly singles on YouTube and Instagram for what he called #getTWISTEDsundays. In early releases, he sits on the floor of his living room rapping while Fat, with her gently chiseled stoicism, twists his hair or folds laundry. As the music grew tighter and more stylized, so did the sets (fields, gyms, warehouses, caves) and the outfits (gold mesh robes, brocade tunics, tie-dye sweatsuits).
The videos have always been very personal, intermingling conversations about topics like Black men’s experiences with PTSD and child rearing, candid moments of the group on tour and even Nwigwe’s proposal to Fat. “This is what life looks like all the time,” Nwigwe said. Grant laughed exuberantly as she explained that she and her husband, Cory, live at the Nwigwe household part-time, patting her belly and announcing herself in “baby season.”
The music has also always had a spiritual element. Nwigwe said he wrote “I Need You To (Breonna Taylor)” because he had a dream in which God told him to. “Make it Home,” another recent release, is a slow, soulful ballad that wishes an idyllic afterlife upon his crew. “This for the nappy heads in heaven/With a nappy head Christ by they side/Yeah, may your streets be paved with gold/Yeah, hope my whole hood makes it home.”
Nwigwe, who grew up Catholic, describes his relationship with God as a way to channel his instincts, which, like his football skills, stray combative. “Try Jesus” illustrates the point: “Try Jesus/Not me/’Cause I throw hands.”
Today, he diverts this energy into collaboration with his team. When there’s an atmosphere he wants infused into a song, he gives Grant a few descriptive words to translate into a track. When he wants a dress or a tunic designed — right now, inspired by his trips to Nigeria and Japan — he pieces together ideas on Pinterest and sends them to a local Cameroonian tailor. The only thing Nwigwe does entirely alone is writing and freestyling.
The group is so locked in to its own rhythms and systems that when record labels come calling — Nwigwe said he had been contacted by Mass Appeal, Roc Nation and Sony — executives don’t quite know what to offer them. “They have someone call you and say, ‘Anything we can do,’” Fat said.
Nwigwe’s response? “What can you do for me that I’m not already doing?” The question is, what can you do for an artist who has built his own beautiful, efficient engine, fueled by his family and best friends, without giving up ownership or profit?
“Fifty million dollars!” Grant said with a cackle. But then she got serious, explaining that the label system might simply not be right for them. “I don’t know if what you do translates to what we do,” she said.
“The thing about us,” Nwigwe said, “is we’re not lazy.”
The Nwigwe engine revved as the “Eat” shoot carried on. Three dancers called the Black Angels Collective ran through their choreography in tiered sea-foam tulle pants. Grant took a steamer to her and Nwigwe’s linen outfits. Fat twisted Ivory’s hair and touched up her lipstick. And Nwigwe reminded everyone to keep their vibe up, to yell the lyrics if they needed to make it feel more real.
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