msnbc is celebrating black history by profiling game-changing black musicians and film directors throughout February.
Michael Uzowuru, 23, is a music producer from Cypress, California. He recently chatted with msnbc about Kanye West, playing basketball with President Obama, and being a black kid with a funny last name.
Describe who you are and what you do in one breath:
I am a person, a human and I’m also an artist who likes to express himself in many ways and trying to connect with people and make them feel good.
Who are your creative inspirations?
I’m influenced and inspired by such a wide array of musicians and genres from Elliott Smith and Nirvana to Kanye West, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Afrobeat, Fela Kuti, Björk.
How did your family, neighborhood and community influence your music?
Where I grew up in Orange County is very diverse so I’ve had so many different cultures and upbringings that it comes out in my music. My mom raised me, she’s Nigerian. My mom came to America in the late 1980s and got a pardon from either Nixon or Reagan. She became an American citizen and got her medicine degree and moved us to Cypress in Orange County … it was predominately white and Asian. It was hard being the only black kid … I had a weird last name but I did learn a lot.
How far back can you trace your family history?
I can trace my history back about 200 years or so. I’m really curious to know if maybe somewhere down the line any of my ancestors weren’t Igbo or Nigerian, or even African for that matter.
What’s your earliest childhood memory with music?
My mom randomly just bought a Yamaha upright piano that we still have today … In first grade I started playing the trumpet. My mom made sure that anyway I wanted to express myself she allowed me to do it.
What flavor does your artistry bring to the music game?
I think it brings another layer of expression and another layer of feeling and melody. The artist doesn’t always have to bring the melody or bring the emotion – I think that’s one thing I’m good at. A lot of my songs don’t really need vocals or a feature, rapper, or singer … [I make] very melody-driven music.
If you had to choose two songs to play on repeat … forever (only one can be yours):
Who are the most underrated and overrated artists right now?
I don’t believe anyone could be overrated, I just know how art works. People like what they know for such deep rooted sociological reasons. Kid Cudi is very underrated … Vic Mensa is underrated too.
What’s your take on the hip hop feud between Iggy Azalea and Azealia Banks?
I think that discussion around Iggy Azalea and her role in hip-hop is valid, especially considering how much of black music/culture has been appropriated. I think there should definitely also be a conversation on some of the racist and transphobic things she’s said and tweeted before. It’s unfortunate that the conversation is being centered around Azealia Banks, because she’s notorious for saying problematic things and it takes away from the validity of what she did have to say in regards to hip hop and being a black woman.
It’s award season, what do you make of the Grammys?
The Grammys is a really great institution for acknowledging people for their greatness, but at the same time the way art and creation is, it’s very hard for me to feel that a Grammy can really validate an artist. You have people like Frank Ocean with the best album of that that year, who should’ve won in any [category] he was up for. Him not winning in no way takes away from who he is … When you leave it up to a committee of people they are subject to what they know and what they don’t know.
If not a Grammy, what is your greatest form of validation as an artist?
Artist to artist relationships. Recently, I hung out with Kanye. He told me that he really liked my music and was a big fan. That was extremely validating. It inspired me. Something like that is huge … bigger than a Grammy can be at times.
You blogged about an experience where you were assaulted by a police officer, can you tell me more about that?
It’s hard to talk about the whole experience, but I will say that that police officer apologized because he just attacked, really brutally a young [kid] – I was 19 at the time. He realized he didn’t mean to do what he did to me. It’s hard to be attacked and physically harmed for doing absolutely nothing … When we’re given the chance to grow we can do great things, we can choose the course of history. We’ll never be able to reach success … if we’re not allowed to live.
If you had a chance to talk to President Obama, what would you say?
I would honestly want to play basketball with him, if we’re going to be real.
The president plays [nearly] every day, your game needs to be tight.
I honestly think I would beat him, even though I don’t play every day.
If you had to rewrite history …
I’d change and eradicate all the instances in history that aided to and sustained a racial and gender based hierarchy.
What are your memories of Black History Month as a child in school? What do you make of it today?
From first grade to high school, I remember Black History Month being the same thing every time, the same people highlighted, the same stories being told. Everyone in the class looking to me as the voice of the black community. Now, for young people, I have young siblings, I’d hope and I’d wish that we progress as a culture and we’d teach a more diverse and a more wide array of topics for Black History Month. Right now they are teaching my little brothers about George Washington Carver, how many times can you teach someone about George Washington Carver?
The project you are most proud of?
A song I made with Vic Mensa the first day we met, “April 13”.