Thutmose Experiments With Genres While Honoring His Nigerian Roots

Apr 12, 2019
Originally published on April 12, 2019 6:16 pm

Thutmose is the name of an ancient Egyptian pharaoh, but it's also the stage name of Nigerian-born rapper and songwriter Umar Ibrahim. After immigrating with his family to Brooklyn, N.Y. at the age of 8, Thutmose grew up caught between the America he was experiencing and the America he imagined. "The hip-hop, the R&B, the aggressiveness of New York City, the diversity — it was such a culture shock and I was a rather quiet kid," Thutmose says.

But in the midst of all the chaos, the sounds of Kendrick Lamar and Jay-Z helped the young musician make sense of the world and inspired him to make music of his own. Thutmose's debut project, Man on Fire, out now, gives a brief glimpse into the young immigrant's story.

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Introduced to the scene through SoundCloud, Thutmose gained notoriety with a freestyle over Kendrick Lamar's hit record "HUMBLE.," and used that momentum to release his own songs. His early experiences with New York stuck with him and influence much of his music.

"I was merely observing people, observing cultures, making friends, having crushes for the first time," Thutmose says. "So it's just a lot of new experiences for me, good and bad."

One of his first memories in the United States was when a SWAT team raided his family home and put a gun to his father's head. Young Thutmose had to quickly learn how to remain calm and cope. He has used music as his outlet to experiment and process such events and this ingenuity shows. This is a theme in Man on Fire.

"Hip hop is rooted, was birthed in New York, so there's a history of flipping your story into something positive" Thutmose says. "We're still here. Everybody's alive. Everybody's living, doing their own stuff, trying to chase their dreams. Trying to keep the energy positive and optimistic because that's the only way, I feel like, to really live a good life."

Man on Fire is out now via TH3RD BRAIN.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The rapper Thutmose recently got an opportunity that offered great power and great responsibility. He landed a song on the soundtrack of the Oscar-award-winning film "Into The Spider-Verse." It's called "Memories."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MEMORIES")

THUTMOSE: (Singing) Memories - it's going to take some getting used to. Memories.

CHANG: And that nostalgic vibe is all over his debut album, "Man On Fire." To make the album, he decided to look back and pull from his childhood.

THUTMOSE: My real name is Umar Ibrahim. So, like, my dad is - side is, like, Islamic. And my mom's side is Christian. So, like, all the names they gave us were, like, named after religious soldiers, people who were, like, higher up and made an impact. So it was always, like, just contemplative. All right, cool. You're going to grow up to be somebody - and just was, like, you know, have a vision and impact the world and also use your power for good.

CHANG: Thutmose moved to the States when he was still young. And that experience has seeped into his sound and into his words.

(SOUNDBITE OF THUTMOSE SONG, "MAN ON FIRE")

THUTMOSE: Born in Nigeria. Moved to New York - Brooklyn - when I was 8 - right between 8 and 9. And my whole life pretty much changed.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAN ON FIRE")

THUTMOSE: (Rapping) Barely turned 8, daddy brought me to the states. Few months later, older brother caught a case. Life's so funny 'cause you live, or you learn. Or you might sink. Then you burn. I've been reminiscin', thinkin' 'bout the old days. Never had the freshest gear, so I got stressed in the hallways.

And it's like a culture shock - the hip-hop, the R&B, the aggressiveness of, like, New York City, the diversity. I was a really quiet kid, making friends having, crushes for the first time, which is a lot of new experiences for me, good and bad - I guess influenced who I am today.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAN ON FIRE")

THUTMOSE: (Rapping) Not a saint. Lord, forgive my soul. I've been to places where you should not go. Crooked cops and criminals all together trying to steal my soul. If the fire keeps burning, are you still going to roll?

How I bring it into my music is, like, my music at times can be very experimental. You know, I grew up in Brooklyn as a teenager. Our friends - your friends doing crazy stuff. But the more older you grow, you kind of, like, learn, like, all right. We all feel the same way. We all love. We all hurt. We all get betrayed. You know, we all get excited. So it's just, like, finding my way to, like, open that up. As for me, I feel like if I really want to connect to somebody on a deeper level, I have to open up about myself 'cause I know they can probably relate to it, as well.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRESSURE")

THUTMOSE: (Singing) They tried to get me under pressure. But you know I never settle. I got my eyes on the medal. So you know I'd never let up.

At first, it was so weird performing certain songs. That was of, like, uncomfortability. I had to, like, knock off 'cause my brothers and my sisters come to a show. So it's like, I'm talking, like, my life, stuff that happens to all of us, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRESSURE")

THUTMOSE: (Rapping) When I was 9, SWAT team came rushing in. Daddy on the floor - they put a gun to him, ever since been running from the government. Lessons as a kid to be a better man.

So, like, I have a song called "Pressure" where I talk about me moving to New York, SWAT team raiding my house, looking for my - certain family members.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRESSURE")

THUTMOSE: (Rapping) New to this country, I was growing up, still wasn't strong enough, took some of my innocence and burned it down. Life's not fair. I learned that way too quick.

Growing up, I never really got the chance to, like, really sit down and, like, think about it, like, how I felt. But to me, I always looked at it like, I guess it's normal 'cause, like, maybe this happens to everybody, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRESSURE")

THUTMOSE: (Rapping) Look here, dad. I'm a man now. I know the world is scary. I can't back down 'cause everything I learned back then made me sharp. This is coming from the heart, paranoia from the start. A wise man once told me...

So it's like, your mind can't be stuck on this. You're just like, I'm here, so I'm trying to figure out, how do I even go to school, try to look nice, so the kids don't roast you? You're trying to figure out, how do I talk? How do I, you know, engage? But now we kind of just laugh at it. We make jokes out of anything. That's how I cope with a lot of stuff. I just make jokes about it or just laugh about it. Hip-hop is rooted - was birthed in New York. So it's like there's a history of, like, flipping your story into something positive. And then, you know, we're still here. You know, everybody's alive. Everybody's living, doing their own stuff, trying to chase their dreams. So we try to keep the energy, like, positive and optimistic - you know? - because that's the only way, I feel like, to really live a good life.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WUWU")

THUTMOSE: (Singing) What's up with you? Won't stop loving you. How you want me to?

CHANG: Rapper Thutmose on his debut album, "Man On Fire." Producer Christina Cala caught up with him at the South by Southwest Music Festival.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WUWU")

THUTMOSE: (Rapping) Tell me what your view is. She from Malibu. She want to hang out with the cool kids. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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