Nashville's Namir Blade seemed to emerge out of nowhere with the fully formed vision of Aphelion's Traveling Circus, a concept album with an elaborate sci-fi narrative, witty, theatrical skits and prismatic musicality released on the respected indie hip-hop label Mello Music Group in late September. In reality, the 28-year-old, singing rapper and multi-instrumentalist producer has spent the better part of his life finding — or, more accurately, fashioning — his artistic identity. He's one of several ascendant hip-hop music-makers who attended Nashville School of the Arts — Ron Gilmore, Jr., A.B. Eastwood and Bryant Taylorr did too — and Blade's imagination and chops are spoken of with affectionate awe by peers in his city's booming scene. And it's no wonder.
Long before he formed a rap crew in sixth grade, he obsessed over figuring out how to recreate the score from the video game Chrono Trigger on his keyboard. Then he detoured into hardcore bands and whimsically lo-fi acoustic singer-songwriter fare , before circling back to an exhilaratingly nimble flow and slyly streetwise yet thoroughly otherworldly outlook on early solo releases under the moniker Rain and his output with Super Struggle Bros, a duo featuring another local emcee, Jordan Webb.
Blade talked with World Cafe Nashville about the singular journey he traveled to reach the point where he's both ahead of his time and in step with his moment.
Jewly Hight, World Cafe: There's a line in one of your songs about hearing your mom play Missy Elliot, which seems like the stuff that would have been popular when you were growing up, but that wasn't necessarily what you paid attention to at a young age. What was so fascinating to you about the soundtrack composed for the video game Chrono Trigger?
Namir Blade: My mom was listening to Missy Elliott, Timbaland and Mary J. Blige ... All that music was cool, but I felt the f*****g magic of music for the first time probably when I was playing video games and I heard that soundtrack. I used to go to sleep and have dreams about that soundtrack. That's how good that s*** was. I became obsessed with that and the other Japanese composer [Nobuo Uematsu] who does all the music for Final Fantasy. I just kinda emulated that whenever I played piano, because those melodies were infectious. So whenever I'd sit at the little keyboard that my mom bought me, I'd just peck away at the keys. I was trying to learn I think, like, "Ode to Joy" or something like that, but I'd always end up trying to play the video game theme song.
You must have been a kid who really spent a lot of time in your mind. What else fed your imagination?
I watched a whole lot of TV when I was young, 'cause my mom, she worked a whole lot. ... Capitalism, baby. She was pulling hella shifts at Vanderbilt and I'd either spend time over at my granny's house, just being babysat by my aunt or my uncle or something. But the constant through all of that was there was always a TV. I was always looking at TV. All I cared about was just watching cartoons.
What was some of the first sci-fi that you got into? And do you remember the first musical examples of Afrofuturism that you encountered?
My first example of sci-fi probably was Star Wars, to be real. I definitely wanted to be Darth Vader. Everybody on the good people side, they just seemed lame to me. It was like, "Death Star, blow up planets. Let's go." He had a red light saber. His color was way cooler, and he was the one in all black. Later on, I found out that that's James Earl Jones' voice. So I was even more hyped. ...Titan A.E. was when I first found out about the melding between science fiction and anime, and Akira. Those were the two joints that made me be like, "Okay, I like space and I like animation. And both of these shows have pretty dope soundtracks." I kind of leaned away from live-action science fiction and pretty much did a nose dive into animated science fiction.
As for Afrofuturism and music, I would have to say when I found out about Parliament Funkadelic. 'Cause my peoples used to listen to that.
How alone did you feel in your interests? Were there other kids who were into what you were into?
I was a really, really isolated child, as far as all my peers. From kindergarten probably into high school, everybody just made fun of me, because I wore extremely thick glasses, because I'm essentially blind. ... As soon as I came to school, it was just like, "Bro, you weird, and you a dork, and I hate the way your glasses look. We all hate you." And I was just like, "Damn, it's like that?" ... Even with the few friends that I had, they didn't necessarily understand what I was on. So for the longest time, I didn't have any kindred spirits. And then I was 15 and I went to Nashville School of the Arts, and that's when I made friends with damn near everybody in that school, and that was the first year that I got to wear my contacts. It was a school full of little, weird art kids. I got them, and they got me. It was the best.
When did you start rapping and singing and writing songs that had lyrics?
I got serious about rapping and singing when I was in sixth grade. ...I wrote this s****y rap about my mom's ex fiancé's truck. ... "N-A-M-I-R represent G-M-R, tricked-out car." I thought I was flowing, too. I was talking about all this s*** that I didn't have, like cars with TVs. So I wrote that rap. And then we were in band [class] and people were freestyling, and I popped in and I think I spit a Gorillaz verse. Word for word, I stole that s***. It was a verse from "Clint Eastwood," but n****s wasn't hip to Gorillaz. So that worked to my advantage and I was just rapping them bars like they were mine. I just saw the reaction that I was getting from people and I knew. I was like, "Yo, I want to be a rapper." So I started writing my own s***, 'cause I was like, "Eventually the jig will be up. I can't rap these bars everywhere."
... We formed a rap group [with two schoolmates] and we called ourselves One Five. ... We'd get on three-way calls every day. I had a Panasonic keyboard and a drum machine and I would play beats on there and then play live piano, 'cause I didn't have no way of recording myself, except for a s****y tape recorder. I'd usually write the chorus and we'd get on the phone and talk to one another about it. And we'd look up record labels in the phone book in Nashville and call them.
That's a pretty ambitious approach for sixth grade. If you were already so serious so young, what came next?
Just a lot of work. Because I was actively writing, coming up with concepts when I was really young, but we didn't have a foothold in the scene until high school. That's when we started performing at teen nights and friends from high school's birthday parties and s*** like that.
There was still a decade or so between your high school involvement in the scene and this album.
Oh yeah. It took me forever. That whole decade between the s*** that I was doing then and what I'm doing now, I was essentially just doing anything that I could, musically, to find myself. My junior, senior year of high school, that's when I stopped rapping and I got into playing piano and bands in Ripley, Tennessee. Then I came back and went to college at MTSU and I was doing acoustic music and trying to maintain like some semblance of rap s***, so I could keep my sanity, so I didn't fall victim to the Nashville monster.
Were you studying music at MTSU?
I was a recording industry major, yeah. I ended up dropping out the same year. 'Cause some dude told me, "Yo, if you get this degree, the only thing you're ever going to be able to do is run sound at Music Row for a bunch of bands and genres who you hate, or you going to have to be a live sound man for a bunch of people you hate. If you're a musician, just be a musician. I promise you'll get further." And I was like, "Yeah, you're right."
I heard the track "Flowers" from one of your earlier albums, where you start with this suave, spoken "Hey girl" intro, then you say you're joking and you throw in little, tongue-in-cheek placeholders: "Rapper things, rapper intro." What sort of self-awareness do you feel like you bring to hip-hop idioms?
That's from my first album, Scatterbrain. That whole album was me trying to prove to everybody that I could rap better than them.
That was all the s*** that I was taught to do by my peers and people above me rapping. It was just like, "Hey, you've got to talk on the intro." I came up listening to a bunch of Young Jeezy, a bunch of DJ Drama mixtapes. So on the intro to all of them s***s, you just hear rappers talking. You understood what they were talking about, but it wasn't really super epic intro s***. They'd shout out the producer, and then they'd laugh. My favorite s*** was, "You already know who it is." They would do that s*** on their debut album. And I was just like, "Whoa, we do not already know who it is."
That s*** was pushed heavily on me. It's like, "You have to rap about this." And I didn't necessarily want to rap about that. 'Cause I rapped about that s*** for the longest, when I was just young and wild out here. But as I got older, I was like, "I don't want to be young and wild no more." My friends are like getting shot and going to jail and getting killed and doing bids. And it's just like, "We ain't invincible no more." ... So I was like, "No, let me just be extremely self-aware of all these things and how seriously people take themselves in rap, and just rap about s*** that I love and that I enjoy and that I'm really, really familiar with."
I read that you spent a few years writing and recording Aphelion's Traveling Circus on your own. I picture this period where you were a homebody, endlessly tinkering, well before this quarantine time. What was the process actually like?
Oh, that's super accurate. I've always been a little homebody, which is hella contradictory, because I'm supposed to be a rapper and I'm supposed to be out and social and in everybody's face. But I really hate that s***. I got extreme trust issues. I don't trust like that. My safe place is at home, 'cause all of my favorite s*** is at home. And when I'm at home, I get to control who I see, who I'm around, versus whenever I'm out and about, anybody could pop up and just f*** up my day. But at home, I'm the emperor. Even before quarantine, I was kind of quarantined, spending a lot of time in the house, making music, working on things, watching things to help me make music and just playing, practicing different instruments, coming up with different concepts in my head, playing hella Dance Dance Revolution. And then quarantine came and it just amplified everything.
How did the central narrative take shape? Were you looking outward and thinking about how dystopian storylines were reflected in the state of the world, or were you looking inward, reflecting on your life, projecting yourself into fantasy worlds?
I'd probably say the latter. When I was really young, I used to do online role playing. It's essentially writing a cooperative story with people that you meet online. ... So I spent a lot of time on that website, and my favorite story lines, they were always science fiction and dystopian and took place on different planets, different galaxies, or on earth after the war was ended. We'd pretty much just type out the storyline and develop characters and act out the roles of those characters in different scenarios. Growing up and doing that, it just perpetuated me living in my head. So the whole idea of the sci-fi, dystopian thing is pretty much as old as time to me, because that's always been my favorite thing to do. Eventually that role-play site died. ... I still needed an outlet for all of that, and I was writing short stories, but they weren't really going to go anywhere and everybody liked my raps. So I was just like, "I'm gonna just put this s*** into rapping."
How do you feel about the future that you depict on the album?
The circumstances suck a lot. But at the same time it's a beautiful future. There's a lot of beauty and a lot of tragic s***—and I say this as a person that's had a lot of tragic s*** happen to him and having to be forced to see the beauty in it all. From a young kid, I was shat on, misunderstood and isolated. Yeah, it sucked a lot, and I have a lot of past traumas due to coming up how I came up, but I was able to use those to create beautiful music and become an ultimately beautiful individual as an adult. I felt like everything kind of takes that shape, especially with the future.
In the specific world where Aphelion's Traveling Circus takes place, the powers that be f****d up the earth so bad that it was irreparable. People have to move into domes and s***. And what the rich did was they manufactured a planet to orbit the Earth to essentially give them all the comforts of being on earth without actually having to be on the planet ... They left the quote unquote low-class citizens, the disenfranchised, on earth to essentially work in factories, to manufacture parts and components to keep this artificial planet afloat around the earth. They're like, "Maybe if you work hard enough, you might be able to afford to come here and live with us."
A lot of people in this particular universe, they were just like, "Alright, f*** it. We'll do that. And then other people went to distant galaxies and distant planets to figure out who they were, which is something that I think is hella beautiful. Because despite the s****y circumstances on Earth, who's to say that there isn't another planet and another galaxy that has a lot of beauty in it, that can essentially just reconnect you with the wonder that you felt once upon a time, when Earth was a place that filled people with wonder. So it's a dark future, but a lot of light overtones – I don't completely give up on humanity.
It's such a musically immersive and transportive album, and it showcases a lot of skill as a technician, arranger and producer, but there's a lot of humor too, especially in the skits. What aspects would you say are a product of meticulous craft and what was the result of freewheeling experimentation?
Half of it I tried to be really technical, 'cause I released all these other things, but this is the first album that I feel like has the potential to corner the attention of the world. I kinda thought to myself, "What do I want the world to know about me?" Obviously, I want the world to know that I'm a skilled and capable musician, and I'm capable of creating damn near anything. But I also wanted to have an underlying message, and I wanted to let them know, "Hey, I know how to have f*****g fun." With the arrangements of all the songs, that's where I was kinda just like, "I'm going to lean heavily on skill." Then with the rapping and the overall songwriting, I can have a blast with that. Most of those songs came from just doing freestyles.
This seems like a resurgent moment for Afrofuturism, particularly because of how Jordan Peele and Misha Green and Janelle Monae are breaking through with sci-fi and horror work that places Black imagination front and center. Does this feel like good timing for your album?
My buddy Tank, he did the vocals on "Homesick" and he was also the ringmaster on all my skits. He put me on to how Janelle Monáe was doing the whole Afrofuturism thing. Because back then, I was on Erykah Badu, Thundercat, Flying Lotus, by way of Sun Ra. Sun Ra, he helped me understand music and just what it means to be a so-called Black person. I used to listen to his Berkeley lecture and fall asleep to that s*** every night, because there was so many good gems. He put me on to the James Baldwin book The Fire Next Time, a bunch of really amazing books. And he made that movie called Space is the Place, which was an amazing movie. That was the first time I really got to see, like, Afrofuturism and Afrosurrealism brought to life in a film that seems like it was during the era of Blaxploitation films. Just seeing all of that have a resurgence now and how people are interested now and how Black people now, we have the freedom to put ourselves in the future, we have a vision of ourselves in the future, one that we'd been denied for so long, due to our circumstances, it's like, "Hell yeah." I'm hella happy that I get to at least add to the conversation.
I kind of felt that eventually the s*** that I was doing would catch on, which is why I didn't release music for the longest time. Before this release, I had at least three to four albums. I was just sitting on 'em. And I was just like, "Should I release?" Because it always seemed to me like the world wasn't necessarily ready for the music that I was making, and it sucked. Yeah, as an artist, you want to be ahead of your time, but being ahead of your time means that in the present, nine times out of 10, you won't be able to be appreciated. ... Then this opportunity came along [to release the album on the indie Mello Music Group], and I kind of just took a look at everything that was happening and everything musically that was happening. And I was just like, "You know what? I think I could do this. I think that this will be received well. And I think this'll be something that helps take me to the next level of my career." And at the very least, I'll just turn heads and break necks with this s***. Nobody's really doing it quite like this.