Kemba’s “Molotovs at Poseidon,” a highlight from his 2013 LP, GNK, is a prime example of how much control the 25-year-old has over the spoken word. The Bronx MC strings together quotables, spitballing fantastical imagery (“Go ahead and fire your gun, you’re shooting at Zeus”) and absurd hyperbole (“I reversed the Earth playing ‘Skip To My Lou'”). The boasts are easy to remember, but that belies just how difficult it is to perform multisyllabic rhymes and consonants in succession.
Yet Kemba — born Matthew Jefferson and formerly known as YC the Cynic — was hardly able to perform the song at last year’s South by Southwest festival, alongside the Bronx hip-hop collective Rebel Diaz. Seven days before the gig, he blacked out when he got jumped by unknown assailants while on his way to a show featuring Los Angeles rapper Fashawn. When he came to, Kemba visited his friend’s house and the friend’s mother, naturally a little worried, suggested he go to the hospital. Kemba knew he suffered a nosebleed, but he brushed off the suggestion at first. “I thought she was just being a mom,” he tells me in a park in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, on a Saturday afternoon in June. The doctors’ reaction proved it was good advice.
“They were like, ‘You sure you just got jumped? It looks like you’ve been in a car accident,’” he recalls.
Kemba, whose lanky figure slouches on a bench as he tells his story, says he suffered about ten microfractures in his face that night, and they hadn’t fully healed by SXSW. Even so, he took the stage with a swollen face, still tasting blood in his mouth. Kemba’s usual feats in rhyming became a physical endurance test. “My words were super-slurred,” he remembers. “I couldn’t move my mouth fast enough to say the words, and I had to power through it. That was like some 8 Mile sh**t. I never felt that kind of limitation.”
But Kemba has faced more than his fair share of difficulties: growing up in the impoverished South Bronx, trying to advance and finance his career, and at least one serious health scare. Not that long ago, the rapper’s mouth was wired shut after doctors found a non-cancerous tumor. The surgery was a success and he’s since recovered, but it was obviously a trying experience; now that that’s all in the rearview mirror, though, Kemba’s able to focus on his art and promoting his fourth album, Negus, which he self-released in July.
The new full-length comes three years after Kemba’s relative breakthrough effort, GNK. Soundtracked by the ghostly production of upstate New York’s Frank Drake, that album proved the young MC was one of the Big Apple’s finest. Colored by an accent that’s stuck somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, his verses blend tight rhyme schemes with pro-Black, acerbic wit — imagine if Ralph Ellison could rap. “Negus,” named after the Ethiopian word for ruler, proved how adroit Jefferson was at expressing heady ideas, using historical allusions and sober delivery to flesh out his African lineage’s richness (“Marcus Garvey did the Garden in embroidered scarves”). The song remains a brilliant dissertation of the Negus/Niggas dichotomy, and it was released two years before the term became a cultural talking point, thanks to Kendrick Lamar’s beloved 2015 opus, To Pimp a Butterfly.
The Negus LP, which shares its name with that 2013 song, doesn’t stray far from GNK’s radicalism and New York’s bars-over-melody lineage. The covers for the advance singles (drawn by artist Ivan Merlin) focus on figures Kemba perceives to be pernicious to the black community: “The New Black Theory” features Raven-Symoné, who’s now known for her wrongheaded comments about being black in America, and “Greed” is fronted by the Clintons, who’ve been frequently derided for pushing the 1994 Crime Bill that doomed countless African-Americans to prison. The album’s cover, meanwhile, features a Merlin drawing of 12-year-old police-brutality victim Tamir Rice, because, as Kemba explained on Twitter, “he looked just like me.”
Jefferson grew up the middle child of three, raised by a single mother in the Bronx’s Hunts Point, which is part of the poorest congressional district in the country. His mother struggled not only to provide through secretarial work, but also to keep her son out of the streets after school. He gravitated toward hip-hop thanks to his rap fanatic older brother, developing a soft spot for Timbaland’s sidekick, Magoo (“He reminded me so much of Q-Tip — his voice and his flow. What more could you want?”), and Eminem’s turn-of-the-century peak. He was participating in neighborhood ciphers by the time he was a teenager, but pursuing one’s passion isn’t as simple as it ought to be in the South Bronx.
“I had a curfew: I was 16 at the time and my mom makes me come home at 9 o’clock,” Kemba says. “And I see on the news the next morning that somebody got shot [in Hunts Point].”
Kemba entered the city’s open-mic circuit when he was 17 and quickly earned props from some of NYC’s modern luminaries. Queens scribe Homeboy Sandman became a fan after watching Kemba perform during a gig he hosted at Manhattan’s Nuyorican Poets Cafe. “Talent from all over the world passed through that open mic,” Sandman says via email. “No one there ever blew me away like YC.”
His skill on the mic also led him to his current position left of hip-hop’s mainstream. By the late-’00s, internet hype had upstaged IRL buzz as the genre’s main means of breakthrough success. And although open mics are still havens for agile wordplay, they aren’t necessarily incubators for focused, concise songwriting. As promising as Kemba’s first two projects (2010’s You’re Welcome and 2011’s Fall FWD) were, he says it wasn’t until he linked up with Frank Drake in 2012 (who up to that point had only produced for his rapping older brother, Cole King) that he figured out how to package and hone his lyrical rhetoric. “[Kemba’s] older stuff is straight rap,” Drake says, “not much of a message like it is right now.”
GNK wasn’t necessarily a commercial triumph, but it did earn Kemba some attention and accolades. He didn’t get to enjoy the newfound acclaim for long, though. In September of 2014, a year after GNK’s release, doctors found the tumor in his jaw. This wasn’t his first such growth: Jefferson missed his high school graduation on account of a tumor that had to be removed via jaw surgery. “I’m the strong one in my family, so everybody thinks I had a straight face for everything,” he says about receiving the news as a teenager. “When my mom saw me tearing up, she just broke down.”
He describes the second surgery as more of a “punch to the gut.” That time, the doctors elected to use a more aggressive procedure, removing a portion of his jaw and replacing it with bone from his hip. The resulting scar is still visible on his left jaw.
As part of the healing process, Kemba had his jaw wired shut for a few weeks, but asked to have the wires removed a few days early in November 2014, so he could do a scheduled Q&A and performance at the University of Michigan. When the doctors heard his request was coming on behalf of a hip-hop show, they reacted harshly. “They said, ‘If it was singing, then maybe. But if you rap, forget rapping, you’ll never be able to talk again.'” The docs explained that the aggressive mouth movements required to rap would rip apart the surgery work, but they didn’t clarify if the damage would be permanent or not. Shaken, Kemba kept the wires on for two more weeks.
When dealing with the medical trauma, Kemba preferred solemnity. He offered few updates to family and friends, including Frank Drake, who was as much as a concerned friend as a musical collaborator.
“I was always hitting up, asking him, ‘If there’s anything you need, I’m here for you,'” Drake says. “He would say, ‘I got it, man. Thanks, thanks.’ We never really talked about it.”
Financial shortcomings also compounded the health issues: Kemba had to work as a delivery guy for the on-demand food service Postmates to help pay for the making of Negus. He’s hesitant to discuss those days in detail, but he speaks with conviction when he explains his reasons for taking the job. For one, Kemba is a rapper at his core, and he refuses to let money come in the way of being who he is. The other is his hard-working mother, his biggest source of strength.
“Seeing my mom work herself to the bone, into this depression, how dare I say, ‘I don’t want to work to pay for what I want to do,'” Kemba says. “My biggest fear is not being successful quick enough for my mother to enjoy it.”
Kemba and Drake still have some mountains to scale after reaching a new summit with Negus; the producer says that they already have their minds set on a follow-up album. But as it stands, Kemba’s latest effort isn’t just a reward for his perseverance. It’s also a testament to the struggles of his family, a paean to the beauty of African-American life in spite of the violence it regularly faces, and a tribute to the deceased 12-year-old on its cover. Or, as he puts it on the Lauryn Hill-referencing album cut “Testament”: “Even after all my logic and my theory / I gotta say ‘my nigga’ so my niggas feel me.”