After binging emoniFela’s first official full-length album Day Camp for Dreamers for a few weeks, I’d come, without realizing it, to associate her with sun. As she could probably tell you, her music is a playground to disappear to, to get lost in: sonic aluminum slides hot to the touch, primary colors looping into one another, the humming conglomerate of separate commotions and movements. So when I heard her warm voice on the other line, I just assumed she was sitting under the L.A. sun.
“It's actually raining today,” she said, “but we need the water and food is growing so I'm happy.”
This type of thinking is indicative of emoniFela’s art and demeanor. Deriving her name from Nigerian afrobeat artist Fela Kuti, her music is both a message to herself—the personal, the individual—and a force against oppression. It is impossible-to-place experimentation between hip-hop and R&B with heavy punk and funk streaks, and something else altogether. Although it feels reductive to place it within one genre, or even 10. Regardless of its musical cousins, it grasps the world’s challenges, but celebrates the mantra—and title of one of her tracks—“Dream Big Think God.” To listen to Day Camp is to experience the freedom staying the hell out of your own way.
VMP: You dropped your first project at 15, but when did you first start making music?
emoniFela: I started for real for real as a poet, I was really into the poetry scene, and after a while poetry is like, you either start competing for money or you just get lost in the sauce, unfortunately. For me, I was like, “I need the money. I need something more.” But that's all kind of shallow, for real. When I was 14, I was like, “Nah, I'm not really a competitive person, I'm not gonna do slam poetry,” so I started doing it on some beats. I think the first track I put down on record was over a Little Brother/9th Wonder beat for “Lovin' It,” and then I started meeting some local producers, just kind of networking. D.C.'s a small place, so it's not hard to connect with people. From there the mixtape songs led to original songs, led to, “OK, I think I'mma really do music now,” and I've been doing it ever since… That was like 13 or 14 when I laid my first actual rhyme on a record.
When did you start on poetry?
Oh, shit. That's just been always around. I would be a little kid and they draw. You see a little kid and they dance? I've been the little kid that's writing. It started with stories and then started rhyming, so I think the earliest poem I can really remember… nine, 10, maybe in that range. That's when I wrote my real first poem, and then read it to my mom and she was like, “OK!” Then I started reading it to other family members and I actually met a teacher who was really why I got into poetry, and I'm still friends with her to this day... She was a poet and she took me to my first open mic. So all of this happened at a very early age, I was still in elementary school, so that's as much as I can remember. I just don't ever remember a time that I wasn't writing, I'll put it to you that way.
And when did you start performing as an artist? Was that right away when you were making music at 14?
The benefit of coming up in the poetry scene and coming up in a city as small as D.C., for lack of a better word to be conscious or to be of substance was a really popular thing, it was great, it was amazing, so there was a plethora of places to perform. And not only did poets go there but promoters went there, artists went there, all kinds of people would be at these places. So just through the poetry scene I started meeting people and sending them my music, and then somehow I convinced somebody to let me perform and then a year later I ended up getting the band. It was just a real organic evolution, it wasn't anything rushed or premeditated, it was just as it happened. And then, mind you, these places are 18 to 21 and over, so I'm getting snuck in or sneaking in and performing in venues that were for adults, so it was a really big deal for me, I would go hard on the local performance, or on performing at a local level I should say.
I read from an article a while back on you that early on in your career in D.C. you were opening for some pretty big names like Ursula Rucker and Afrika Bambaataa.
Yeah, I've been fortunate to work with and open for some really cool people, but as far as the early days, I think about it now and the story is really blurry to me, I don't know how I ended up in these places where I was able to get on these types of things. I think one of the reasons was I'm a youngin’, so being a young person on the scene, it opened a lot of doors for me, and people actually saw that as something special. Ursula Rucker, when I was maybe 13, invited me to come open up at her album release party up in Philly. Then there was an MTV rap celebration in DC with Afrika Bambaataa and Guy Special Ed and a lot of old school cats, and that happened maybe when I was around 14. I remember doing a J Dilla tribute with his mom and a bunch of DC cats at XM studios when I was like 15. So it's just this gradual, “OK, wow, organically something's happening,” and I'm just getting invited to perform and open for lots and lots of random people.
Do you think being around all those big names and in the scene at such a young age molded your approach now? Do you think you learned a lot of stuff coming out of that?
Absolutely. I'd say, if anything, there's two sides to everything. There's the side of you gotta first have the confidence and believe in yourself, which is something that we all have in some areas and we don't have in some areas. And for me, I was never shy. I felt comfortable around adults. I was never trying to be an adult, but adults felt comfortable around me as well. So to be able to share the stages with seniors and also people who are 10, 20, 40 different levels higher than me—legends—I remember opening up for KRS-One when I was 16, and that was the moment when I was like, “Oh, this is crazy.” To be revered and respected enough at an early age to share the stage with these people absolutely molds you and changes your perspective, which is, in a nutshell: I've never felt a pressure, I've never felt that I needed to do something different in order to succeed. It might take a little longer, but I'm OK with that route because so far it hasn't led me wrong since I was young. My record since I was 13 has led me, based on my own decisions and my own belief in myself, and also obviously the belief and support of family and friends, but just thinking like, 'Yeah, I am good enough to do this, and I'm good enough to do this with people that have been doing this since before I was born.' It's a good thing, it's a humbling thing. It's an indescribable thing, but most importantly it's just the wisdom that you gain from being around these people is something that you don't necessarily gain being on the in-scene right now. You gotta have some old school knowledge in your life, so I really appreciate those days, and the closer I get to my album release, the more I'm thinking about them.
So you’ve been making music and performing for a big portion of your life. Has your creative vision changed a lot over time?
Yes and no. On the no part, I'm still the same weirdo that I was when I was younger. I love telling people to stay weird. The ambition of my album Daycamp for Dreamers, is just don't let go of yourself. So the same silly, playful angst I have now, the same consciousness I have in my writing, the same swagger, I guess. I don't even like that word for real for real, but we'll call it what it is, saying swagger is there. But what has changed is my finesse and my way of going about it, and I think when I was younger I was a lot more—I didn't have as much of a control on myself in terms of how I delivered music and what I was doing, whereas now my visions are a lot more clear.
Over what period of time did you actually write the songs on Day Camp? Were they all written recently or was it over the span of your life?
About 85 percent of it was recent, about 15 percent of it are songs that I started on over the past two years. I came out to L.A. and I was doing shows and just jammin’ and working with other people and writing, but I was also going to school, I was going to art school, and I had one foot in and one foot out. Then I graduated in 2015 and between that period I started working on some songs, but what really got the engine going was, maybe last year, I was like, “OK you either take a shit or get off the can, so it's time to do something with these songs.” So I finished those songs, started playing them for a couple homie producers, and then they followed through and gave me a few more beats and the next thing you know, the album formed out of nowhere. It was rather a long and quick process.
You mentioned always having this huge sense of self-esteem and confidence, and you talk about that a lot on this record, about thinking big. It definitely comes across a lot in your music. How do you maintain that? It sounds like it's something that you were just born with and have, but is it ever hard to maintain it?
I would say it's more of a personal thing, it's more of speaking to myself. The one thing about music and doing it as long as I have been, at some point when all your homies around you are much bigger than you or you're seeing people go on tour and making money and putting their music out and people loving their music, after a while that starts to get to you. There's been more than a few times that I wanted to give up, no matter what I've done, there's never been enough. It's not enough until my album's out. It's not enough for me to open for somebody, it's not enough for me to work with somebody until my album's out. So even a song like “Adjustment,” I went through a hella low period, I was partying a lot and not doing shit with my life, so I thought of that line one day, “If you get your shit together I don't mind”—me telling myself, “You can go for it. The better half of you really doesn't mind. I want you to be better, I want you to do more.” So the idea of dreaming big, or even the opposite, a song like “Self Esteem”: “I don't really care about no self-esteem,” and that's kind of reinforcing my ideas about not necessarily having high self-esteem.
It's about—care about yourself, but you don't have to care about the idea that if you don't have this certain level of confidence or you don't have this certain level of arrogance or this certain level of talent, then you should feel bad. All that shit's subjective, for real for real. So I try to remind people of themselves. This whole album I'm talking to myself. The song “Time” is literally about me always being late, but it comes across like something super deep. But it also is more of a declaration of, “Yeah, I'mma get myself together, but stop tripping.” Like, “Alright, there's more shit in the world going on. You just gotta work on your time.” It's a simple message. Just get your shit together. Dream big. A simple message: dream big. Do it. Think god, think creatives, think creation.
That’s an important way to conceptualize self-esteem or confidence. Because it’s really framed as something we need or should strive for.
We all humans, we all have love. Who the fuck is anybody else to judge you and tell you, “Yo, carry yourself this way.” Carry yourself whatever damn way you want to!
So obviously, dreaming is a big theme here, but I love the title Day Camp for Dreamers, how did you come up with that part?
It came literally out of a dream, which is how the dream thing started. But also, the essence of me telling people, “OK, you gotta remember this, remember that.” I imagine, if there was a place that adults could go, that's pretty much what I dreamed of: a place adults could go that reinforces the dream. Kids have learning centers, science fairs and art classes. For adults, we have it too, but you gotta pay $200 for it. What if there was literally a center, a place or a camp, a day camp—since we all have jobs and kids and we probably can't go away—what if there was just literally one day that somebody gave you and said, “Look, let's focus on your dream. We gonna change your life in 12 hours.” So that was kinda where it came from in a loose perspective, but just imagine that place that your mind could go and be anything. So the idea of a day—how much can you do in a day—the idea of a camp, a place that we get together that ultimately is supposed to provide a certain experience, and my experience is reinforcing the dream. And by reinforcing the dream, we start opening up again. We not zombies no more. We need a lot more poets and fucking healers, we need a lot more cool people, we don't need all these zombies. When I say “cool,” I mean kind. We don't need just the cool people or the corporate. That's all we got. There's no middle ground, there's no room for it, and I'm trying to create the room for it. Or not create it, I hate saying stuff like that … Do you, and I support that. How can I help you with that? And if more people said that, we'd have a whole lot less bullshit in the world.
You touch on a lot of social issues and get really deep into discussions of them. So on one hand, there's this balance of being playful and hopeful, but on the other end, there's this really powerful tone, angst, more serious discussion. I think especially right now in our country, it's hard to find that middle ground. Is that something you're conscious of, finding that balance? And how do you find that balance in between this discussion but also having this hopeful element to it?
As far as the angst, that goes back to your earlier question in terms of the differences and how that changed. Angst has always been there, the political has always been there, the aggression has always been there, it's just a lot softer now in terms of how I deliver it. I'm very conscious of speaking something, saying something, but saying in a way that my intellectual homies can understand it and my homies that legit don't give a fuck about anything and just wanna sit on the block. I think YG's “Fuck Donald Trump” song was one of the most brilliant things ever, because a lot of times the deep doesn't go deep, it doesn't make it past the surface. Sometimes it's just the simple messages that people get. So I'm not out for people to understand me—again this is a personal collection of stories—but it would mean a lot to me if people were inspired. To inspire people you have to be able to deliver something across the spectrum. I don't shy away from being emotional. I'm a very emotional person, I'm a very sensitive person and I'm a very passionate person, so I can't help but write the way I write, no matter what I'm talking about, whether it's myself or it's somebody else or it's police brutality or love, you gotta write from deep so that I can feel good about it. When I feel good about it, then it's gonna resonate.
Are you working on anything else coming up?
As an artist, I'm already working on the Part II of this. There won't be a Part III but there will be a Part II, so I hope to put it out next year. That would be great. I'm looking forward to finishing this project. Other than that, the wave is just now beginning, so my goal is to get on tour and to work with some people that I'm long overdue to work with in terms of friends and people I really admire and respect but just have never had the moment where it was like, “OK, let's do this.” That's the wonderful thing about putting out an album: People get to know you and then it really just expands everything and you get to work with people differently and all that stuff. I'm excited to see where this shit goes.