By Virginia Lowman
For Houston rapper Tobe Nwigwe, the key to success is simple: Be consistent. This guiding principle has transformed the tenacious spitter from an internet sensation into a hip-hop powerhouse with a fan base that includes Jidenna, Sway Calloway, Erykah Badu, and Michelle Obama, to name a few. Nwigwe’s music isn’t just about mental release; it’s a movement, an elevation that is equally healing and culture-shifting. Music just happens to be the vehicle.
A former college athlete who once had dreams of going pro, the first-generation Nigerian American was met with skepticism when he decided to pursue music. “You did four and a half years of college to become a rapper?” he recalls his mother’s response during a chat with MTV News. The pushback wasn’t opposition to art, but opposition to a life of struggle. “Nigerian parents [think], hey, we made it over here. That’s a big enough risk for you to do something safe. You don’t have to take risks [or] do anything that’s going to cause you to struggle,” he says. He details this experience in his hit “I’m Dope,” which recently made the former First Lady’s 2020 Spotify Workout Playlist: “My mama thought I was a joke, but Ms. Badu told me I’m dope.” (Yes, the neo-soul queen DMed him last year.)
Pursuing a path that felt true to him was more important than leading a life of safety. “I feel like the message in what I’m doing is a necessity in my culture,” he tells MTV News. “I don't want to limit anybody from really resonating with the actual message. I strive with every bar, with every design, with every angle of the video to make it to where it's unique, different, and everybody [can] receive it all. Old, young, you know what I'm saying? My people. I strive for that.”
His community has been a dominant aspect of his ethos ever since the rapper first appeared on the radar in 2017 with his weekly Instagram series, #getTWISTEDsundays. In the simple but intimate videos, Nwigwe would sit on the floor and freestyle over classic beats like Tupac’s “Ambitionz Az a Ridah” while his then-girlfriend, now-wife Fat sat above him on the couch, twisting his hair. They weren’t dolled up. There were no fancy filters, no cliché drip — just tube socks, slides, and Black love. Beyond being his uniform, these are three things that have, in many ways, epitomized who Nwigwe is as an artist.
Turning his music into a family affair, Fat along with producer LaNell “Nell” Grant make up Nwigwe’s team of creative partners. The women are involved in every aspect of his projects, from choreography to visuals and production, infusing a softness into his emotionally dense work. Together, they create art that serves both as an homage to Blackness and a spiritual awakening, offering a reflection of culture that feels, in his words, “hella Black.”
His approach to music is refreshing. Lyrically, his bars embody the grittiness of Black manhood, the experience of being first-generation Nigerian American, and the pain of Black history, all working in tandem to address the nuances between the Black experiences in America — as lived by those who were brought here involuntarily and those with an uncomplicated lineage to Africa. “As a first-generation-born Nigerian American, I honestly and genuinely have two different experiences,” he tells MTV News. “When I went to school, I had a completely Black African American, non-Nigerian experience. And when I went home I had a full Nigerian experience. I literally can understand and relate to both cultures.”
Lines like “I grew up a lil booty scratcher named Dubem / Son of Ifeyanyi who'd remind me to be prudent / In my studies ‘cause life get ugly when you ain't smart” from his song “Searching” juxtaposed with “Unfortunately authorities don't consider minorities priority / So my hood got disorderly conduct in a construct that they ain't build” from his song “Kick Rocks,” or “I grew up melancholy ‘cause I ain’t / Realize that the hemoglobin in my skin / Was connected to a lineage that never ever had to penny pinch” in “Against the Grain,” speak to Tobe’s duality. The former taps into his Nigerian lineage and his family’s praise of academia, and the latter two reference his Black American experience. This kind of layered consciousness creates a bridge between two cultures that history has robbed of one another and force-fed their differences rather than their similarities.
At the same time, his cutting words still manage to have a lightness about them. It could be the bravado and confident cool with which he delivers his popular ad-lib, “OUU,” his uncanny ability to blend lyricism and melody, or his producer Nell’s savvy in lacing his message over trap and pop-oriented beats. Or it could be how he balances strife — the weight of systemic oppression, drug warfare, losing friends — with wisdom and grace (literal and biblical) gained through love, growth, and transformation. You can hear it on “Slow Down,” a downtempo new song Nwigwe released on Valentine’s Day. “You must slow down and reconsider what you know now,” he sings. “I know life ain’t easy, and it sure ain’t fair / But what got you here won’t take you there.” The track and the accompanying video reveals Nwigwe as he is: clean, authentic with old-school flair, and family-oriented.
That’s what sets the rapper apart: his music is unapologetically faith-based — but the objective, he insists, is not to convert. “My whole approach is to meet people where they are. I understand clearly, my call on my life ain’t to convert nobody to what I believe,” he says. But Nwigwe has mastered the art of persuasion, telling the listener how it is, and also how it could be, offering conscious rap that doesn’t get lost in the minutia of struggle or the grandiose flex. “I just tell people what happened with me, what happened in my life because I was one way and I’m not that way anymore,” he says. It’s more than light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel rap. It brings light to you, regardless of where you are in the tunnel.
While the heroes of conscious rap, like Common and Mos Def, are exalted — and rightfully so — others in the genre rarely make it into the mainstream; though he’s still navigating the underground rap scene, Nwigwe seems to have found the key to changing the landscape. Having amassed a cult social following, he is reclaiming rap as a shape-shifting force, making purpose popular, and highlighting music’s ability to burrow deep in the psyche to yield cultural change, creating music that reminds people they were “made to do what no one’s done.” Consistently carving his own path in the music business as an independent artist, he’s proven that knowing who you are and remaining true to self leads to influence. And, as he sees it, “influence impacts how you do life.”