When Tahj Malik Chandler, better known by his stage moniker Saba, first came on the scene with his GETCOMFORTable project in 2012, he was a quiet teen from the West Side Chicago neighborhood of Austin. A gifted student, Saba had graduated early from a nearby suburban high school at 16 with a 3.9 GPA.
By the time his sophomore project ComfortZone came around in 2014, Saba seemed to be breaking out of his shell, bragging in his raps, “They wanted me to speak up and I took this s*** overboard.” The project would prove to be a giant success for the emcee, giving him the opportunity to tour around the world, perform at Lollapalooza and even gain an MTV VMA nomination for his role in Angels, a track he worked on with fellow Chicago native Chance the Rapper.
With his latest work, the 22-year-old is anticipating even more epic results. Inspired by the death of his uncle in 2015, Saba’s Bucket List raises the question of what we would try to achieve if we could do anything within our limited time on Earth.
Recently, EBONY.com spoke with Saba about his latest project, what impact he hopes to make with his music and career, and what’s on his personal bucket list.
EBONY.com: You’ve been gaining a lot of notoriety since ComfortZone. What has that been like for you to be expanding your fan base across the U.S. and around the globe?
Saba: When you’re trying to do your best, consistently trying to put out what I thought would be the best quality music I could put out, I can’t say that I’m surprised by it. I feel like we’re earning that recognition. It’s still early, but it’s a blessing to be able to do what you love. As awesome as it is to have more fans than I did with my last project, the mindset is the same–to put out the best that I can put out.
EBONY.com: What’s the concept behind the Bucket List project and what inspired it?
Saba: For me, Bucket List has taken on a few meanings. It was inspired by the death of my uncle. It was one of those things like, shoulda, coulda, woulda. I had only seen him once in the last seven years and I grew up under him. So for me, it became a literal bucket list–what do you want to do before you die?–because my uncle didn’t get the chance to do a lot of what he wanted to do. Then I started to look at it from the city perspective, especially being on this side of the city. A lot of our dreams are shut down before we even establish them.
For me, just pursuing art as my career choice, I’ve been shut down numerous times from different people. But, that underlying dream has been fueling my energy. For me, I wanted to make a project to inspire people in parts of the city and parts of different cities that are like it, where dreams are consistently shut down before you can even get them out.
EBONY.com: Let’s talk about the collaborations on your album. Who were some of your favorite people to work with?
Saba: Making new music with people that you already have that connection with and have relationships with just makes making music fun. From working with Pheolix, to working with Noname, to working with Joseph, who’s my brother. I just like working with people who are close to me. Working with Jean Deaux, who’s my cousin, or working with Twista. Twista and my dad go super far back. So for me, I just like working with people who are close to my heart, and I like their art. I’m a huge fan of the people I work with and that’s what makes the final product the best.
EBONY.com: Some people might describe you as a socially conscious rapper. When you make your art, are you intentionally setting out to incorporate some sort of message, or are you just speaking to your experiences, and that just happens to sometimes be political?
Saba: I think the term “conscious rapper” is really 2004, and I think the music I make is too new for a term so dated. My idea of what I’m writing, a lot of times, is just to tell the truth and not to sugarcoat it. I think “conscious rapper” is only one side of that truth. I think that there are many layers and many sides to different people’s truths. I think people say that coming from a good place, but also a semi-ignorant place to the fact that there are other truths. It’s not just like you’re a conscious rapper or you’re a trap rapper. You can tell both sides.
EBONY.com: Changing subjects a bit, one argument that I often see people who are anti-Black Lives Matter say is, “Well, why aren’t they protesting the Black-on-Black violence in cities like Chicago?” As some who grew up in Chicago, do you have any thoughts on those types of comments?
Saba: I feel like most people who would reply to protest with “but what about…” I think they misunderstand the point of the protest in the first place. I think it’s an education thing. To a certain extent, I can see why they feel that way, but I think they need to understand systematic oppression. You need to break it down all the way, which is something some people aren’t willing to do at this point. People are pissed off.
If a cop shoots a kid, I think it should be the simplest thing for people to see why it’s wrong, but some people just don’t see it that way. Instead of seeing a victim, they want all of the victims of police brutality to be someone who’s high or who’s stealing, to take away the humanness.
EBONY.com: As an artist do you feel you have a responsibility to use your platform to speak to certain issues that we are currently facing, whether that be something like police brutality or gun violence in Chicago?
Saba: I wouldn’t necessarily call it my responsibility, but I do think it’s important to speak up and speak out. As an artist, you have a following, you have a sense of community that you can create through your music. I think for me, I do want to speak about certain things—a lot that have to do with my personal experiences, with being on the side of the city that I’m on, and experiencing the injustices that I have faced and that the people that I know have faced.
Every artist isn’t going to use their platform to do that. Some artists are going to use their platform to do the exact opposite. At the end of the day, they are providing for their family and trying to better the people around them. I can’t be mad at that, as much as I wish people could see how much control and power they have.
People in hip hop are repping the s*** out of where they’re from and that’s inspiring the people where they’re from to think like those artists. How that artist thinks and portrays himself affects that neighborhood and many neighborhoods like it. You can do great things just by putting great things into the music.
Ebony.com: So what’s on Saba’s bucket list? What are some things you want to accomplish within your lifetime?
Saba: You know how on ancestry.com you can find where your relatives are from? I want to see what country they’re from. I think I want to do it this year, actually. Past Chicago, and maybe some of the South, I don’t really know where my family is from. I think having that sense of identity would really affect me.
I’m trying to dunk on somebody in real life and not in a video game. I’m tall enough and on a good day, I can get up there, so I want to dunk on somebody.
I want to have an art gallery. I used to want to be an artist, like a painter or a cartoonist, doing something with visual art before I got into music. I want to get into that and show my artwork.
I want to write a book.
EBONY.com: Do you know what you want the book to be about yet?
Saba: Oh, absolutely. The book is going to be about my relationship with my father. Well, this is one book specifically. I don’t know if I’ll write more than one book. But, it’s going to be about lessons and stuff that I learned from my dad. We kind of have an odd relationship, but we’re super close. I’d write about the way he taught me things unconventionally, even in him not being there, and learning from that.
EBONY.com: So, what’s next for you?
Saba: I guess that’s up to my fans and my soon-to-be fans. My destiny is in their hands. It’s kind of scary to think about it. I’ve got a bunch of shows coming up, but I don’t think that’s what’s next. What’s next is something grand, something amazing, something great.
Check out Saba’s Bucket List (above) and catch him in a city near you.