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In conversation with Nnelg

“The music you make is like the theme song for the journey. Like when you’re playing Zelda and get to a new level, you get a new theme song.”

Celebrating the diverse and multi-faceted pool of Amsterdam talent, Calvin Klein Jeans and Glamcult have come together to capture creative individuals in the new season’s workwear finest. We caught up with rapper and founding member of Smib, Nnelg, to reflect on his journey and artistic growth in the industry. Read the interview and make sure to come by DOLLEBEGIJNENSTEEG 5 to experience the Calvin Klein exhibition and brand-new Glamcult Store from March 3rd to the 12th!

Hey, how are you today?
Good! It’s the first week of getting back into my schedule because I was ill. So I’m having a good day.

Can you tell me about your journey, when you started your music career and where you are now?
Yeah! It started as something fun, just making music and hanging out with friends at the same place (de Oudeschans). There was a point when Georgy and Ray Fuego, alongside KC, released their mixtape and it just started to get traction. So I wanted to see what would happen when I released mine. At that time, I was studying commercial economics at the HVA so I knew a lot about putting a product out in the market you know, so I thought about packaging, presentation, emailing the blogs and whatever. It just caught them a bit off guard that there’s this artist that’s from such a chaotic movement, that’s so fluent in his emailing in how he speaks and whatever. It was such a contrast.

What made the movement chaotic?
The way the shows were. Everyone there was ganging up against the system and just rebelling. When we have shows kids end up with wounds, cuts on their heads, and bloody noses. I’m a calm person myself but there’s just such an energy that comes out when I’m performing that ignites this.

I didn’t think that that upload on Soundcloud would end up in me performing for people. But since we’re from Amsterdam, me and my brothers from TNO, there’s just this spark of creative energy that all uplifted each other. I just stuck around, kept practicing, then got in touch with other artists like Idaly and Bokoesam. 

And you never did any musical training?
No, I’m self-taught. Ever since I’ve made the choice to stick with music and drop out of school, I figured I would educate myself by being a student of life instead of a student of HVA.

You’ve changed your name recently… I was wondering what was the moment that you knew you’d shifted fromm yung Nnelg to… (not so yung) Nnelg?
Like every album that I made, it comes from an urge that I feel for a certain time to work on myself, to develop… and in that period the music you make is like the theme song for the journey. Like when you’re playing Zelda and when you get to a new level, you get a new theme song.

New level, new endbosss. Was there a specific one that you had to conquer to be able to close this period?
I think I’d call it vulnerability as a person and as an artist. But this vulnerability is not like an endboss that I needed to beat, it’s something I just need to touch. It was always things I would only realize months after… Yeah, its only now you ask me about it actually, that I’m reflecting haha. It’s like a whole journey. Sounds pretty cliché but that’s really it.

 I’m really curious about your new album! Can you tell me anything about it?
It’s coming really soon. The album is about internal growth in a way that hopefully will inspire my generation and the next generations. I’m born and raised in the Bijlmer. I tried to make the album like a movie you’re stepping into. I tried playing with archetypes… I talk about the food we eat, people I know, and places in the Bijlmer. But I hope that the kids my age or younger will recognize their story through the picture I’m trying to paint and that it can create a form of understanding for people who are outside the Bijlmer and have a certain view of what the Bijlmer is. I’m really trying to make people feel seen.

The more vulnerable songs are from a POV of a second-generation Ghanaian in Amsterdam southeast, about how I was raised… so those are songs that are a bit more vulnerable. That was a bit scary. Tapping into that vulnerability wasn’t the hard part, because it was a real emotion. But then the decision to add it to the album is really intense.

I loved when you released your older work – What Else? Even though we already knew your new style, we got to hear this bursting creativity, freedom, and fun in there that I really enjoyed. What made you decide to publish these songs later?
It was my birthday and my five-year anniversary of the album! You can very clearly hear that there were no expectations, no image that I was holding up. I think it was cool that we managed to embrace that goofiness, that fun in an industry that was very serious and very masculine. The bursting energy, that’s definitely something that was different then – my energy now is more like a laser, its sharper, I know better what to say, what to do because of my experience. And I work with producers who are fully focused on producing and into music theory and that kind of stuff. So that brings another level of professionalism to what you’re making. But there was something that we’ll probably never get back… that innocence, it was carefree… the studio sessions were almost like parties you would just chill and drink beers and wines and whatever, and maybe we’d go laser-gaming and come back to the studio. 

I see you’ve been travelling a lot, what was your favourite destination so far?
It has layers. I can’t give one answer… is multiple okay?

I’ll accept it.
Personally, I really love Ghana, since 90% of my family lives there and I speak the language. The weather is super nice… you just move with the rhythm of the day. I’m in touch with the creative industry there, the guys from Free the youth and stuff, it’s just so dope to feel that creative energy in the native tongue where my parents are from. Ethiopia is very dope as well. 

The food must’ve been so nice.
The weather was nice as well. They have very high mountains – here we’re used to pretty flat landscapes so I think that was impactful for me. I also really liked Bali – I was only there for 6 days but the atmosphere was so nice. I chilled with locals, I was with a fisherman – we caught a fish live in the moment. When you’re with people that don’t speak English… and you don’t speak their language either, you communicate through vibes. I really like that space. Your energy just says what you need to say. It’s just such a state of no bullshit. 

– just vibes.

It’s funny you say that this country you can’t communicate with, as a word artist.
Haha, true. It just gives me so much space. You don’t catch onto a conversation, you can’t read the signs, you just observe.

It’s just you and your mind!
Really, sometimes I wish I could just turn off my understanding of language.

What’s your fav thing about Amsterdam?
Friends and family. They’re very important.

Solid answer. What makes someone stand out to you?
I’m very sensitive to people’s aura, or their vibe, and energy. That thing that you carry that you can’t see but can feel – that’s what makes me connect to someone. I like to connect with calm, sincere people. In that state of calm, there’s a lot of confidence. You don’t need to be loud to get attention, and if you don’t get attention, that’s cool as well. 

What would your dream collaboration be? Doesn’t have to be music, can be anything.
It would be a couple! Dead or alive right?

It would’ve been very dope to collaborate with Virgil Abloh, I was very inspired by him, just his mindset and his doing of things would’ve been a dope process to be close to. The second person that would be my dream collab would be Kendrick Lamar. I think a studio session with him would be so inspiring. And I would love to be around Steve Jobs…

Really? Why?
I read his autobiography and there’s just so much feeling and thought put into the design of an iPod. iPhone, iPad… people take that for granted… a piece of glass you can watch TV on, you can call with it. At the time it was so revolutionary, now we just think airdrop is normal. 

What is something more people should know about you that they don’t?
Hmm. I box a lot. I’m going to fight in a match on the 17th of march. I’m feeling all the feelings that come with getting into the ring together to fight someone. One day you’re really confident, the other days you’re like… what if it goes the other way?

And what if they beat you?
It’s part of the game.

Would you actually be able to feel that way or would you be sad?
Maybe I’d hold a grudge and want to fight them again. But the plan is a one-time thing. 

Last question, what makes you a million-dollar baby?
I think my lens of viewing things is more optimistic – glass half full. Seeing so many opportunities, and options to do something, build something… from pure intention. I think that grants me the 6 zeroes already without having it in my bank account.

Nice, million-dollar mindset. 

Calvin Klein Jeans will take over the Glamcult Store from March 3rd-12th!

Launching with a bang, come by the store and see the full exhibition of Amsterdam creatives alongside the Calvin Klein Jeans pre-spring ‘23 collection, New Utility.

(From March 18th onwards, we return to the Glamcult curation)

Art Direction by Glamcult
Photography by Piet Oosterbeek
Styling by Pykel van Latum & Rogier VlamingGlamcult
Makeup by June Peters
Modelled by Daniel Smedeman
Photography assistance by Andrea Amponsah
Styling assistance by Evita Shrestha
Shot at Studio Mucha