Nigerian-American rapper Tobe Nwigwe Sidesteps the Music Industry Matrix for the Win
Story By Miles Marshall Lewis
Photography By Cary Fagan
Talk with Tobechukwu Dubem Nwigwe awhile about the music industry and the 34-year-old rapper will show nothing but diplomacy. “Everybody don’t have a vision for how they wanna brand themselves and present theyself to the world, and a label can help you do that,” he’ll say, his bronzed poker face half-buried beneath a thick, gruff beard. He never presents his success story in terms of Tobe Nwigwe versus the industry ; the writer responsible for “Try Jesus” doesn’t spin any David and Goliath comparisons.
But over the past five years, the Nigerian-American MC has charged to the top of hip-hop without any help from the deep pockets or wide connections of a major label. Instead Nwigwe has relied on the strength of a tight-knit team mostly made up of family members . And his approach has earned him fans from Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, and Dave Chappelle all the way to Michelle Obama—who added his confidence-boosting “I’m Dope” to her Twitter-shared workout playlist last year . Everyone who’s spent any given weekend eagerly awaiting his #getTWISTEDsundays song drop (frequently complete with choreographed visuals) knows that the Goliath in this scenario is actually the 6-foot-2-inch rapper himself.
“I started this not having any foreknowledge of the industry at all,” Nwigwe says while adjusting a camouflage bucket hat during a Zoom call from his Houston home. “As I continued to fix the plane while flying it, I started meeting with these labels and asking them very blatantly, ‘What can you do that I’m not already doing? What can you bring to the table?’ A lot of them didn’t really have much to offer, and the stuff that they did have wasn’t really valuable to me.”
From his cream-colored sofa, Nwigwe hands off his adorable younger daughter, 14-month-old Sage Isioma, to an off-camera assistant. “This is how the quote-unquote ‘industry’ works, and they haven’t figured out a new way to do business,” he continues. “Independence and owning my stuff—owning my ideas, owning my everything—is the way for me. For somebody like me, who has a very specific niche, it wasn’t necessary. I’m just very practical; it didn’t make sense.” He flashes a gold grill smile and laughs softly.
Instead, in 2014, Nwigwe signed with 50-year-old Christian motivational speaker Eric Thomas’s start-up label, ETA Records . “Eric’s voice and his messages really helped push me while I was playing ball,” he says. (Considered for the NFL draft while playing football at the University of North Texas, Nwigwe was forced to switch career tracks after suffering a torn ligament in his left foot.) “He was a major factor in me doing music with integrity and character and being able to succeed at a certain level. ’Cause I ain’t never seen an example like that.” Since 2017, ETA has dropped Tobe From the Swat, The Originals. (2018), More Originals (2018), Three Originals (2019), Fouriginals (2019), and last year’s The Pandemic Project and Cincoriginals. His hustle, along with a complex lyricism that’s filtered through more traditional Southern rap tropes, has made Tobe Nwigwe fans out of collaborators like Paul Wall, Black Thought, Big K.R.I.T., and loads of others.
What moved Tobe Nwigwe from dominating his own self-professed niche as an indie MC to achieving even greater mainstream recognition was the viral YouTube views of last year’s “I Need You To (Breonna Taylor).” He’d already performed an NPR Tiny Desk Concert in 2019 and been added to Michelle Obama’s playlist in January 2020. But his 44-second demand for the arrest of Breonna Taylor’s killers last July—retweeted by Diddy, LeBron James, and more—caught the attention of the Black Lives Matter movement and its allies, landing him his first two placements on Billboard ’s genre sales charts. With hip-hop having been unfairly judged by some for losing the social consciousness of its golden age, many took note of Nwigwe’s political messaging and the woke music of Lil Baby, H.E.R., DaBaby, YG, and others.
For Nwigwe, the song was less cultural nationalism than common sense. “I don’t think it’s a political thing,” he says of recording the song. “I think it’s a human decency thing. I say it like it’s gangbanging: I don’t care about what side you claim. There are certain things that happen in life that’s just fundamentally wrong. And if you try to say it’s not wrong, you’re a wild person. Like something inside of you is off and it needs to be fixed. [Police] wrongfully murdered somebody. Motherf–kers murdered a lot of Black people and nobody atones for it. Nobody that’s held responsible; nobody held accountable. That’s terrible, and something needs to be done about it. And it ain’t gon’ happen unless people say something and do something.”
Not unlike the whiplash shifts in his rhyme topics, a conversation with Nwigwe can go from social activism to a lighter subject like the jollof wars (as in which African country rules the rice dish, Nigeria or Ghana?) in a heartbeat. With a father from Awka and a mother from Uturu, Nwigwe lived his whole life in the Alief neighborhood of Houston as the child of Nigerian immigrants. “Factually speaking, Nigeria’s jollof is just way better than Ghana ’s,” he opines predictably with a big laugh.
Nwigwe says the following about his bicultural upbringing: “I feel like it’s the foundation of a lot of my viewpoints. I was the first generation born in the U.S. So when I was at home, it was a full Nigerian experience. When I went into the community and to school, it was a full Black American experience. I have a unique crossover that’s extremely genuine. One of my goals is to start collaborating with more Nigerian artists, because I feel that’s necessary to bridge the gap between the U.S. and home.” Recent Grammy-nominated Pan-African projects such as Beyoncé’s Black Is King and the Kendrick Lamar–curated Black Panther: The Album (featuring the likes of Afropop stars such as Yemi Alade, Babes Wodumo, Sjava, etc.) prove that ears would be wide open for it.
As a thirtysomething father of (almost) three, Nwigwe admittedly reflects sometimes on the challenges of raising children in an American society still so heavily oppressed by white supremacy, especially when he’s got options—namely moving his family abroad. But he demurs when asked about relocating to his parents’ homeland. His last visit there was during his first year of college, but he says the next place he wants to go to in Africa is Ghana.
“I feel like the people of Ghana are very laid-back; the environment is just chill. I love Nigeria with all my heart [but] we are very aggressive people,” he says, laughing hard again. “Ain’t nobody like, ‘Just chill; take it easy.’ It ain’t a take-it-easy atmosphere. I feel like Nigeria’s like a New York. A lot of go-getters in Nigeria. And Ghana’s like a more laid-back type of environment.”
Father’s Day falls on the same date in Nigeria, Ghana, and the U.S., and with millions of dads the world over about to be celebrated, Tobe Nwigwe—expecting his first son by the end of 2021—leaves the Zoom call with some final thoughts on Black fatherhood. “Don’t believe that your kids are on your team,” he advises, laughing one last time. “Me and my wife, we on the same team. Our children are on their own team. They think about what’s best for them. We have to mold them not to be trash individuals. I’m not even playing. Having kids really made me believe that we born in sin and shapen in iniquity,” he says, paraphrasing Psalm 51:5 from the Bible. “Where did you get, at 1 year old, trying to deceive me? Who taught you how to try to deceive somebody? Kids ain’t on your team. You got to mold ’em.
“My message for Black fathers is, keep showing up. Keep being everything a father is and should be. And keep showin’ ’em that we love to take care of our kids too. Because it’s been a drastic ploy to make it seem like there are none of us around.”
EDITOR-IN-CHIEF & SVP, PROGRAMMING MARIELLE BOBO
CREATIVE DIRECTOR RASHIDA MORGAN-BROWN
PHOTOGRAPHER CARY FAGAN
PHOTOGRAPHY ASSISTANT RUBEN DION
STYLIST TOBE NWIGWE, CARMEN JONES
MARKET EDITOR ALEXANDER-JULIAN GIBBSON
GROOMER JOYCE ESE
SET DESIGN JOSH ALLEN
VIDEO JUSTIN STEWART
AUDIO JAY BUTLER
MOTION GRAPHICS RODRIGO BRAGA
EXECUTIVE PRODUCER TRACEY WOODS
PRODUCTION ASSISTANT DIANA DANG
COVID COMPLIANCE OFFICER REESE HUSSAIN
LOCATIONS HOUSTON BOTANICAL GARDEN AND PRAUPER STUDIO
CLOTHING CREDITS: ALL CLOTHING ON TOBE NWIGWE AND LANELL GRANT BY CHUKWU [ THE MINT COLLECTION ] ; ON FAT NWIGWE: GREEN SATIN MATERNITY GOWN BY SALWA ATELIER.