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Nnamdi Ogbonnaya Loves Being Chicago Rap's Oddball

As a co-founder of a Chicago label and a member of 15 different local acts in the last decade, Nnamdi Ogbonnaya is a veteran of the city's music scene.
Tojo Andrianarivo
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Courtesy of the artist
As a co-founder of a Chicago label and a member of 15 different local acts in the last decade, Nnamdi Ogbonnaya is a veteran of the city's music scene.

Nnamdi Ogbonnaya has eclectic taste, and you can hear it in his music. "I have a very Muppet-like energy when I talk that can go from zero to 100, real fast," the rapper says.

The Chicago native has spent most of his life performing. At 27 years old, he stitches together a mix of genres from his upbringing, from screamo to math rock to hip-hop, that matches his oddball personality. As he explained to All Things Considered in a conversation at this year's South By Southwest music festival, this mashup of influences all comes together on his most recent album, DROOL.

Ogbonnaya describes his sound as a little hip-hop, reggae, and jazz combined with the many styles of Nigerian music he heard around the house growing up and his father's vinyl collection of "the wackiest Christian rock." As far-reaching as those influences are, Ogbonnaya's work hits a lot closer to home, touching on love, relationships and his family.

Ogbonnaya's parents came to the United States when his brother was a baby, with not much to their names. His father balanced working with a full-ride scholarship to school; his mother worked and raised four children. Ogbonnaya's father now has two PhDs and runs an online ministry.

His family's hard-earned success is part of the reason Ogbonnaya got his electrical engineering degree at University of Illinois at Chicago, even though he says he was "very depressed" at school. Any chance he got, he channeled his frustrations into music. "Sometimes your goals seem unrealistic, but then you pursue them, and you see how attainable they are if you actually work at them," he says.

"I used to think that I was good for nothing / Never grow up to be nothing / I used to think that way," Ogbonnaya rhymes on the "Think That Way." He calls that song "a battle in my mind of trying to understand life from my parents' perspective and trying to form my own perspective."

Becoming part of Chicago's DIY music scene likely wasn't the path Ogbonnaya's immigrant parents imagined for him. Though he says he's not sure how his parents view his music career, he's still drawing inspiration from their work ethic.

"A lot of musicians forget about the people that they grew up with or people that have helped them," he says. "I think my dad has influenced me into wanting to be greater than I think I can be. Without relationships, none of this matters."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Christina Cala is a producer for Code Switch. Before that, she was at the TED Radio Hour where she piloted two new episode formats — the curator chat and the long interview. She's also reported on a movement to preserve African American cultural sites in Birmingham and followed youth climate activists in New York City.
Miguel Perez is an assistant producer at KERA. He produces local content for Morning Edition and KERA News. He also produces The Friday Conversation, a weekly interview series with North Texas newsmakers.
Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.