Christian hip hip artist Kevin Elijah Burgess discusses resistance, freedom, and his new album
Christian hip hop artist Kevin Elijah Burgess, aka KB, launched onto the scene back in 2012 with his debut album, Weight & Glory, which peaked at number four on the U.S. Top Rap Albums chart. In 2015, he followed up with Tomorrow We Live, which also reached number four on the Rap Albums chart. Now he is releasing his third studio album, Today We Rebel.
On the record, KB looks to redefine the meaning of rebellion. His mix of gospel and hip hop leads him down a path that explores his ethnicity, as he weaves African drums with church music and trap. Lyrically he looks to examine the relationship between freedom and resistance.
ARTISTdirect’s Christopher Friedmann caught up with KB to to discuss his new album, learn about his songwriting process, and find out about his most grounding moments.
Christopher Friedmann: We’re talking because you are about to release your new album, Today We Rebel. Just to start, how is the mood in camp?
Kevin Burgess: Everybody is excited. I was able to bring on a team that I actually had the privilege to help start, called Native Creative, and to work with my marketing team at Reach Records, and we’ve just been able to brainstorm and come up with all these ways to tell the story. That’s how we feel about this project. It’s not just a collection of songs, pick a few singles, and drop it, but this is a story, a narrative that you have to be brought into for it to make sense. Songs are interconnected. Everything, down to the high hat, is intentional in every song, so everyone is very much excited about sort of marketing that to the world.
I think the spirits are high. The reception has been very, very strong, and it’s felt on time. It just felt like it’s spoke to a lot of where people are at right now. So, yeah, I think the spirits of the camp are high for good reason.
CF: Your last album, Tomorrow We Live, was a critical and commercial success. Did that create any added pressure stepping into the studio this time around?
KB: I don’t think so per se. I think more because it feels like it was so long ago. For whatever reason, I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting older or just stuff is happening a lot, but it just feels like years are getting longer now, like one year feels like three years. So I was like, “Man, Donald Trump has been President for three years now, right?” [laughs]. But anyways, I think I’ve really just beat the drum. When I drop projects, I drop burdens, you feel me?
I dropped this project, every song, interview, freaking tour, everything that I do after this will be beating this drum. I want there to be no equivocation of what I meant for that season when it comes to that season for my followers. I feel like the length of time doing that has just made me hungry to start a new season, so I haven’t as much felt the pressure.
I think in addition to that, the record industry is changing so much, in terms of record sales. People don’t really care about first week sales anymore, and I’ve seen that as a benefit, like cool. I remember when Tomorrow We Live came out, we had a goal for what we wanted to do the first week and we ended up exceeding it, but I remember the pressure of like, “Man, what if we don’t hit the goal? Blah, blah, blah.” I think now it’s more just about the message getting to the people. I love the directness of that. It takes it away from sort of the appearance in a first week debut.
Anyway, I feel like this season sort of stands on its own, and the pressure has been pretty minimal.
CF: You clearly have a respect for the craft and you make a unique mix of trap and gospel. Can you take us through a bit of your songwriting process and how you mix these things and where you grab your ideas from?
KB: Musically, I think this is part of the gift God has given me, that I just appreciate so many styles of music, and I’m mostly interested in where it came from. My wife is Afro-Latina, and so I’m heavily entrenched in the Panamanian and Colombian culture, and also, I’m a black man from the hood, so that is often synonymous with church and gospel.
What I’m finding is that a lot of the roots of what we do is when I think about Spanish music, a lot of the drums are African in descent and obviously it’s the same with gospel music, a lot of the expressiveness, the expression, and the sensation is from an ethnic place.
I think first and foremost, I have really tried to hone in on my ethnic identity. My racial identity is important to me, but sociologically and historically, race is a created concept. It’s not real. It’s hard to navigate. Ethnicity is what’s real. That’s where you live, the land that you’re from, your culture, how you were shaped. And I find great power in trying to connect with my ethnic sounds, so a lot of what you hear with the trap, that’s like I’m a young man in 2017, how could you not love trap? So that some of the current. Then some of the gospel-ly, more musical things that you’re hearing, is me really trying to hone in on my ethnic identity, and bringing in some of the musicality of who I am. This music is my blood. This is how I’m producing records, how I’m shaping this is deep.
The other thing is that I’m down with people. I will not become, no matter how big or small I become as an artist, I will never become disconnected from the people I’m making music for. I don’t spend all my time on my tour bus. I don’t spend all my time in green rooms. I spend my time with elites. They are the elite people of society. I spend my time with the people, so that shapes me as well.
CF: I understand you worked with a number of producers on this project, including Cobra, Halo Hitz, and Cardec. Could you tell us about a single moment from the studio that kind of sums up the entire process?
KB: Believe it or not, a lot of the music that was created this time around, given the changes in my team… I worked with the same team, but my team was just a lot more stretched because they had other projects going on, so I really had to take an executive role producing this, so to be honest with you I had a moment where I was writing… I recorded myself for most of the album. Probably 90 percent of the album I recorded myself. Most of the production I credit to Joseph’s A&R, but this project is really me. I’ve had a hand in everything, which probably wasn’t healthy, but it certainly ensured that… This album’s success is done for me. It’s already successful. I successfully communicated what I wanted to say to the world. It’s done. The hard part’s out the way.
One moment that really put that on the head for me, well actually it was two moments. I had two moments when I was writing songs when it was so deep, so real, it wasn’t like I found a beat in my email and just started writing to it, and was like, “What do you all think about this?” But it was like so me that I wept while I was writing it. And I think I had that moment with “Don’t Nobody Own Us” and I also had that moment with “Art of Hope”, where it was like this is… I’m baring my soul in this stuff. It’s just me. I built a studio at my house, so just me up in my studio, my family sleeping downstairs, and just in the late night baring my heart out. That really defines this album.
CF: You said, “To me, resistance carries with it a certain posture. But I’m trying to infuse a spiritual element into it. I’m so free that it comes across as an act of rebellion.” Can you tell us about how you view the correlation between freedom and resistance?
KB: There is a German philosopher named Hegel, you’re probably familiar with his whole master-slave paradigm, where essentially there’s two individuals wrestling and it’s at the point where one of them says, “You know what, I value my own security. I value my own well-being to the point that I’m going to give in and stop fighting,” and it’s the person who outlasts the other person who, at that moment, becomes the master, and the other is the slave. And obviously it is a lot more deep than that sort of summary, but man there is a lot of truth in that.
The idea is that freedom is achieved through resistance and not giving in. It’s like the famous words of Malcolm, “Liberation is only achieved through death,” and it’s like the person who is willing to resist to the point of losing their lives is the free person, and that’s what I think Hegel was getting at, and I think there is a whole lot of truth to that, that we are going to find ourselves in a situation where our freedom is going to be demanded and we’re saying, “No, for us to be free is to resist that being taken from us.”
For example, during the Freedom Ride in the 60’s, the famous ride from Nashville to Birmingham, where these white and black people got together to protest segregation, and the white people sat in the front of the bus, and the black people sat in the back, and they were met with, obviously, massive resistance. There was blood everywhere. Most people, I think it was like 80 percent of people that day disagreed with what was happening, and they felt like they should have found another way to protest the segregation on buses, the segregation in society, and one of the dudes, like John Lewis and others who, all of them, they took the blood, they went to jail, and they got out and kept fighting. That is freedom. That’s what I mean, they go hand and hand.
CF: This album certainly contains some political commentary. How do you view the voice of the artist in today’s society?
KB: I just read a study and the study was saying that most people meet their understanding of who God is through pop icons. That the music that pop icons make is where people gain a sense of understanding of the world, and it’s a big part of the nurturing of a person’s world view, the music that they are listening to, or the icons and their opinions and things in that nature. So to me, I believe we have been given a platform as artists to help shape the direction of the world.
You think about dictators like Mao, who when he takes over, what is the first thing he does? He kills all the artists because artists are able to communicate the deepest feelings of individuals in ways that no one else can. And they also give direction and guidance and allegiance. I can be more influential in a person’s life than their pastor, parent or teacher. I will fight pretty hard against anybody that says otherwise. That’s the reality. These people are spending thousands of dollars on you. I’ve seen these numbers. I can’t believe, people are flying from other continents to come see you. I’ve experienced this. There is something to this.
So anyway, I’m getting off… I’m getting angry just thinking about this [laughs]. But the fact of the matter is we have a responsibility to speak into those things that consider the audience is multi-faceted. I’ve got to realize that I can’t just throw things out if I want to be understood. I have to massage and explain, even though they are going to be rejected by some, but to do the work of using my platform to help fight for good. That’s what folks have been doing for a long time and all my heroes, artists like Nina Simone, these are the people I look up to because that’s what they did.
CF: Over the course of your career you’ve had a fair breadth of experiences, but I was wondering if you could tell us of the most grounding moment that you’ve had so far, a moment that reminds you why you do all this?
KB: It’s going to be hard for me to say the most, but I’ll definitely give you one. I had a night where I performed and I thought the concert was terrible. The sound wasn’t working right. Everything was just off. I felt off. There are some nights when you get on that you just don’t feel like… like you’re trying to be yourself, but you’re not yourself.
And this dude came up to me afterwards in tears and he said, “KB, I was driving by this church and decided to just step in.” He was dropping his son off, he was dropping his son off at my concert, and he’s an older man, like 45. He was like, “I don’t want to hear you rap, so I was just going to drop them off and keep going, but I was going to drop them off and go kill myself,” and he was like, “I had the materials in the car. I was dropping my kids off for the last time, and I was going to kill myself. But something told me to come in and listen.”
And he did and he said that he felt like he met with God that night. And then we were both emotional at that point. I’ll never forget that, and that seems to be a recurring thing, that you just don’t realize. One of my favorite quotes is that, “Everybody is fighting a battle that you know nothing about, so be kind.” I think we, in a special way as artists, get to really join that battle with people and help them win. That’s why we do what we do.