words by Evan Gabriel
photography by Bryan Allen Lamb and Bridges
“If I had my choice I’d just spend my days in the woods, making things,” rapper and producer Kweku Collins says from South Carolina, where he is visiting extended family with his mother during our phone call. His allegiance to nature is recognizable in the cover photo of 2015’s Say It Here, While It’s Safe EP, his first release on independent Chicago Hip Hop label Closed Sessions. In the photo Kweku stands shaded underneath a canopy of sunspotted trees, and on the EP he emerged as a distinct, promising voice in a Chicago scene crowded with talent. Last week, the 19-year-old released his debut album, Nat Love, where he draws meaning from past experiences anchored by the most colorful pillars of the human experience: fate, love, and hope.
The songs on Nat Love wane from individualistic idealism and teeter towards an emphasis on altruistic, universalism. “My word is powerful painless, Ima treat all them with kindness,” he sings on the smokey everever (oasis1). Fragments of the past, like doobies on dirty beach towels, emerge but fade before the memory feels too specific. Kweku has a knack for writing relatable parables with hummable refrains and colorful details, and while Nat Love is tightly wound around his own personal crafting, it’s a reminder of common human experiences. By the end, it’s hard not to read the album as a message of unconditional love, like on the standout Stupid Roses, where Kweku makes peace with soured relationships over a snappy D’Angelo loop.
Kweku grew up just north of Chicago, skateboarding and climbing trees on the south end of Evanston, Il. He first sensed his prowess for the spoken word around 3rd grade after a teacher encouraged him and helped shape his strength as a writer. The youngest of six, Kweku’s house was filled with musical instruments that his father Stephan Collins—an African and Latin percussionist, and the author of a children’s book, The Chronicles of Timothy Tabbis—continually exposed him to. Through his father’s teaching, Kweku has been playing music as long as he can remember. By the age of four, Kweku was accompanying the elder Collins onstage during performances.
Kweku began rapping his freshmen year of high school, and by the spring of his senior year, he was trading emails with Closed Sessions founder, Alex Fruchter [who for full disclosure has contributed to Greenroom as a writer]. Around the same time Kweku self-released his Worlds Away EP from his bedroom, Fruchter and Closed Sessions co-founder and Soundscape studio engineer Mike Kolar hosted him for a meeting. It was the teen’s first time in a recording studio, and the unfamiliar space left him out of his element. For one, the room itself was unbearably cold. “Months later, I found out that [Mike] cranked the heat all the way down to try to figure out if I was a little bitch or not,” Kweku says with a laugh.
Kweku now calls Soundscape studios his second home, and the close-knit label team a family. “It’s only been a year, but I feel like those are my brothers,” he says. For most trips to the studio he hops a bus or train, where headphones and the passing scenery free his mind to wander for the hour plus commute to Closed Sessions’ headquarters in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood. Even within the alternations--between Evanston and Chicago, between local and national recognition, between being a carefree teenager and a professional musician--Kweku’s inspiration comes freely, tied to no specific setting.
As a debut album, Nat Love details the reactions of a young man trying to make sense of his place in the world, but a mature understanding builds from the first delicate piano chords on Nat’s Intro. “I think that’s all anybody’s trying to do. Where is my place? And if you don’t have one you’re always trying to find one. Even just realizing where you are now is your place, it’s still finding that,” he says. Still, knowing your destination is nearly impossible without evaluating where you have been. Lighthearted but earnest in its reflection, The Rain That Wouldn’t Save is reminiscent of sitting on a porch and rewatching episodes of past love. Idealized memories, where he recounts nights that he “didn’t come home, where I came with the light or I slept with the sun,” filter out over acoustic guitar strums.
Kweku finds strength within his vast vocal range. His curious adlib in the closing of Ghost sounds less like a space filler and closer to an endearing call to attention, like raising a talking stick around a campfire. The album’s production often grabs dense piano chords and inserts sparse trap drums, but the backdrops are always tailored to his rapping and singing style. His strong, bellowing voice can be reminiscent of Wyclef Jean and Damian Marley, but he doesn’t use this as a crutch. The point where the instrumentation and Kweku’s songwriting come together like a glove is Vanilla Skies. In the beat’s churning redolence, a weight feels lifted. Cream colored clouds push into the frame and abundance is near. “You can’t see my thoughts,” Kweku sings, “but I can take you there.”
Given that we are living in a time of magnified, heightened racial tension, Kweku is beginning to address these topics more. The tensions between gangsters, police departments and everyday citizens caught in the middle unfold from an omniscient perspective on 1:30, Curbside. The lyrics read with the mellow political undertones of a Jimmy Cliff song: “Power makes a good soul go wrong…Power knows no right or wrong, cause if you run the streets, then they run the world,” he sings. Kweku is mixed-race, and cites a need to first unpack the issues from a very basic, human standpoint. “Fuck the color of your skin. This person is a human being. This person has a heart, eyes, love, family, hate, happiness, all this,” he says. While he doesn’t see one specific fix all, he knows that any progress towards true integration cannot begin without ubiquitous compassion. “As long as you can respect that and understand that, that really, fundamentally, we are not different from each other, then we can start having the conversations across the racial and political lines.”
Although it has long been responsible for pivotal figures in hip hop, Chicago has been the fulcrum of sensationalist, often negative press related to rap music during the last half decade. The Drill music climax of 2012 unearthed a heap of national headlines depicting many of the city’s longstanding problems with gangs, drugs, and most notably, gun violence being rapidly perpetuated by rap and rappers themselves. During that time, hip hop coming out of the city hastily got labeled as good -- Chance, Vic, Mick -- or bad -- Drill. This false binary led to pale, uninformed comparisons. Mostly, the bad press just made it tough for artists pushing music that fit neither extreme to break through in significant exposure.
“It’s just that people’s perspectives are limited in a certain way. There’s a lot going on in Chicago right now from all different angles; from writers, blogs, magazines, artists themselves, everybody’s doing their thing,” Kweku says. “And I think there’s a niche for everything now, to where the art that deserves coverage is starting to be paid attention to,” he says. Because he isn’t chasing a sound or acting as an extension of a certain Chicago style, he is free to make tracks that reflect his own journey.
Thanks to the groundwork that Closed Sessions has laid since launching in 2009, more local artists are in better positions to get their music heard by audiences across the country, if not the world. “The resources outside of just musicians are finally catching up,” said Fruchter in a recent interview with Windy City Live. In January, BBC Radio’s Boiler Room series summoned Closed Sessions to play their first New York City showcase. Producers and Closed Sessions signees BoatHouse and Odd Couple, along with Kweku, all performed individual sets. Watching the performances, there are quiet moments of connection, warmly supportive of Kweku’s description of the label as a family. “Everyone was nervous. Right before I went onstage Mike was like, from the jump you have to bring it. Halfway through the second song, I was able to spot everyone on the team, and we all looked at each other and we all knew in that moment like, we got this,” Kweku says. “I really thrive off situations like that. I think for anybody, when your back is up against the wall, you have to come out swinging.”
As many of his peers gear up for spring semester finals, Kweku is fully absorbed by his ambitions to make his art his livelihood. Transitioning from a student to full time musician happened fast, but within a year of signing to Closed Sessions, Kweku’s personal growth has been focused by a sense of benevolence in his music. “That’s a huge adjustment to make but not an unwelcomed one. It’s like those choose your own adventure books,” he says of making music his job. In 2016 he’s won his largest praise yet. So far, Nat Love, has landed glowing write ups from marquee publications like Billboard, Pitchfork and MTV News.
Finding the comfort to express yourself in an honest way that resonates with others is tricky. For his age, Kweku’s ability to tap into keen memories of listeners is astute. From trusting himself on his journey, he has gained an altruistic outlook on the world, and the contagiousness of this outlook is the album’s payoff. In the way that last summer’s Say It Here While It’s Safe pledges unencumbered honesty, Nat Love fights for selfless love. At a glance, the songs center around a man trying to make sense of his place in the world. But the longer you listen, Kweku’s allusions toward universal understanding become clearer. It’s not a light undertaking, but he knows that nobody’s path has been easy. After all, journeys are universal. “The most important part is being in a place where I can be secure with who I am,” he says. “Even if you’re in a situation where you’re uncomfortable with the situation, as long as you know who you are then really, you’ll be fine.”