Following the release of his superb new album Perspective, and the subsequent single and video for the politically soaked Hell No!, we were blessed with the opportunity to interview artist and songwriter Wembi – to find out more about his creative process and his hopes for the future. Here’s how it went.
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Hey – thanks for the interview! Congrats on the new single. What can you tell us about Hell No! What inspired you to write the song, and what do you hope that people take away from it?
Well, first off, thanks for having me and for your compliments on Hell No!. I really appreciate it!
Hell No, is a fun, upbeat and exciting song with a little bit of attitude and some sarcasm thrown in it for laughs. It has a great vibe and I have noticed that once people hear it, they kind of immediately connect to it too through the beat, the awesome bass guitar rift played by my musician friend James Reilly and of course, the catch phrase Hell No. The song is not about being angry. It’s about feeling outraged at the audacity that someone would have, in disrespecting you in a relationship and it’s about deciding to put an end to it by making a statement of independence, self-respect and dignity.
Hell no! is when you reach that point inside of you where you say “I ain’t gonna take this – Fill in the blank- anymore!” and you decide to move into action to better your Life. I think a lot of people can relate to that feeling because people don’t like to be taken advantage of by anyone especially by people who have no morals, sense of respect for others or integrity.
I wrote Hell No a couple of years ago when I was working on the second of my three self-produced albums called Second Chances. I wanted to write a song that would make a statement about what values were important to me at that time. Honesty, respect and integrity were and still are important to me. Then Hell No came through in a matter of minutes. I had the beat, the chords, most of the lyrics done but at the last minute, I decided to keep it off the Second Chances album.
Here is the best part, by waiting a few more years to release the song, Hell No has taken on a new perspective as a I, along with many other people I think, have gone through witnessing the social and especially the kind of political changes in the past two or three years that we never thought we would ever see in our lifetimes. In light of that, my hope is that some people will find in Hell No a message or an inspiration to bring about change they want to see or that they believe in. The change I hope to see through Hell No is to encourage people to express their outrage at being lied to and to use their power to, for example, mobilize and go vote.
Was there a conceptual thread throughout the Perspective album, and if so – how do you know when you’ve fully captured the essence of what you were trying to communicate?
Yes, there is always a thread in all of my albums. The thread is about being honest, authentic, socially aware and about caring enough to want to bring about change. My goal is to take the listener on a journey throughout the album. The real challenge and frankly the fun part to me, was to convey these elements in different styles and genres of music that I like, all in one album so that there would be a little bit of something for everybody. I finish the album as I always do, with a short positive and optimistic song. This is to symbolize that despite the emotional ups and downs that we go through in our individual lives, the Future, no matter how bad the Past was, can always be bright and hopeful.
How do you find the songwriting process when there’s a specific sentiment you wish to express – how do you know when to roll with poetic references, and does it bother you when listeners don’t interpret the song in the way you intended?
Because I taught myself how to play the piano at a young age, I don’t follow a particular methodical formula in my writing process for songs or lyrics. I have a little bit of a style or sound that I like, but it is not based on a strict form that I follow every time. I never know what direction the song I am creating, will go into until I begin writing some of the chords or melodies. The lyrics or poetic references come afterwards often inspired to compliment the melodies.
Now, there is song on the album called Ring that Bell. I wrote that song months after watching a very dear and long time friend of mine, suddenly afflicted by breast cancer, go through all the painful challenging stages of chemotherapy. We lived thousands of miles apart yet we stayed connected throughout the entire ordeal because she has always been like a little sister to me. My sincere gratitude for her life coupled with the determined fire I sensed in her every day as she gave cancer the best fight she could, were the inspiration and the sentiment that led me to write that song.
As to whether it bothers me if listeners don’t interpret my songs the way I intended them, it doesn’t bother me. My music may not be for everybody, but those who do appreciate it, let me and their many friends, know that they like it and that is plenty for me to be happy about. My friend fortunately is in remission now and we are all truly grateful for it. But it doesn’t always end up that way for everybody so we must all do what we can, to help in the fight against cancer.
What do you think makes a truly memorable or striking song – what are the qualities that let it reach out in a profound way?
In my opinion, there has to be Honesty, authenticity, an emotional connection. Having a good melody and on the appropriate song, a good vibe or beat are definitely bonuses.
If you could only listen to one song for the rest of your time, which would you choose, and why?
LOL, that’s a tough one. From a subjective point of view, I’d like to say it would be one of my songs, of course 🙂 But objectively, it’s a very tough question to answer for a songwriter/arranger/ producer because I am a fan of great music. When I listen to a song, I listen to how the whole package was put together and the emotion it creates and there are just too many great songs to choose from.
If I chose one, how do I leave off Bob Marley’s Everything’s gonna be alright or Michael Jackson’s Man in the Mirror, or Jeff Buckley’s awesome rendition of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah or Elton John’s Circle of Life but performed by Carmen Twillie and Lebo M, or Fort Minor’s Remember the name or Lady Gaga’s I’ll never love again or Kiana Lede’s Ex, Adele’s Water under the bridge, Brenda Russell’s Piano in the Dark, Boyz II Men End of the road, Billy Joel’s Leningrad, Jean-Jacques Goldman’s La-bas or Ayanna Winter-Johnson’s version of Sting’s Roxanne…? So, too many great songs would be left off and that just wouldn’t be right.
Other than the single, which song from the album means the most to you personally, and why?
Since they are all original works, it would be like asking a parent which one of their children in their favorite one and why. LOL. They each have a very deep and personal connection to me. So I’d encourage your readers to listen to each one of them with perhaps a special attention to Ring that Bell (where I had an awesome collaboration with a long time great musician friend of mine, Les, who added actual choir bells to the song.) Puerto Rico, Seductive Eyes, Upendo (which is the word for ‘Love’ in Swahili.) It is a soulful song I wrote and that I partly sang in the African language of Swahili), Lake Tanganyika (a rock/ Neo soul instrumental piece I wrote and where I had the awesome contributions of my musician friends, James Reilly on base guitar and Bryan “ Stew” on Drums), Birth of a Movement and Hopes and Lies.
Is live performance an important part of your plans, and if so – what does a live show involve or look like?
Yes! I enjoy performing live because it is always fun connecting with an audience in person. They are having fun, I am having fun, I put on a great show to make the event memorable and it all translates into something really special. I am planning a couple of live events as well as some Facebook Live events for fans. So stay tuned, subscribe to my site and I will keep everyone posted.
If you could perform at any venue or event in the world, which would it be, and why?
As an indie music artist, any indie festivals like Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago or the Underground Music Showcase would be great venues to be part of. But so would performing at the iHeartRadio Music festival or a large scale mainstream event like that.
What are your thoughts on contemporary music, mainstream and indie alike, and what are your hopes for this genre and style going forwards?
There is a lot of great music being produced by many indie artists that unfortunately does not get the coverage it needs because they are not signed by a mega rich record company that can promote them effectively – or the indie artist did not have access to the resources that would make the song reach its full potential. Many indie artists don’t have corporate budgets available to them, so there are compromises that need to be made which can affect the potential of the song at the end.
As to the state of contemporary music and mainstream, I do like some songs I hear on mainstream, but there could also be a little more variety and exploration of works supplied by the indie music scene because there are a lot of hidden gems in the indie scene that deserve to be played to a wider audience.
My hope is that people will listen to indie works similar to mine in Perspective and get the buzz going. I am sincerely grateful for what establishments like Stereo Stickman, CDBaby and platforms like Fiverr do for Indie artists like me. They are absolutely vital in providing valuable resources and in helping to keep the spirits of many indie artists alive and motivated. So thank you guys and keep up your great work!
If you could sit down to lunch with anyone at all, past or present, who would you invite – and what would you ask them about?
Again, there are so many interesting people to choose from the Past that choosing one would just not be enough. Would have loved to talk to Mr. Nelson Mandela, Ghandi, Jesus or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But today, the one person, I’d be honored to have lunch with that I have not met yet, is a Nobel Peace Prize winner named President Obama. I would be interested in understanding how he managed to maintain his values and dignity in a changing and at times, difficult journey through Life as well as know what continues to motivate him today. If the person has to be a musician, it would most likely be John Legend.
How important is networking and building lasting relationships for you as an artist, and how easy or difficult do you find it in the age of the internet?
Networking is very important in my opinion and the age of the internet has made it even more valuable than ever. It is the key to success in any industry in this day and age. The world is so interconnected now, that in my experience, you can accomplish a lot more by building solid relationships and thanks to the internet, reaching out to large numbers of people across the world that share the same interests and goals as you do. I am currently working on a couple of projects and half of the people working on it with me are people I have gotten to know through others that I value and respect.
What are the main values you want to bring to the music world?
The music industry has a unique platform because regardless of age, gender, culture or nationality, people listen to songs that inspire them or define a time in their lives. The day Music no longer is that source of inspiration, will be a sad day.
Music brings hope and gives meaning to people’s memories. My hope is that the industry as a whole doesn’t take the listener for granted and continues to be creative and authentic. As an artist focused on social awareness and activism, I try to leverage the music platform I have as a vehicle for raising awareness to things that I think matter.
Does your creativity manifest itself in any other ways than music?
Which of your lyrics – single lines or couplets – comes to mind if asked to name a favourite that you’ve written for this album?
My lyrics from the song – Puerto Rico.
“An island known for love of Life… A Place you call ‘Home’… Puerto Rico…Heroes came from far and close. People like Mayor Cruz and Bravo and many more too”
In the midst of seeing the images of the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria in 2017, I wanted to remind people through those lines, of the natural cultural beauty that many of us associate with the island of Puerto Rico and of the connection that we all have as human beings, when we talk about a place we come from and that we call “Home”.
I also felt the need to recognize the many heroes, some not even from the island, who did the human decent thing which was to reach out with genuine care and do whatever they could to provide some relief to those affected by the disaster. Plenty of ordinary people out there, do extraordinary things every single day and they should be recognized.
How do you manage to balance complex ideas and emotions within the walls of a song that you hope will connect with a broader audience?
I try to keep it simple, honest and emotionally relevant to the audience that could relate to both the idea and the emotions. In Ring that bell for example, it was very hard to revisit the fears and concerns that I had for someone I knew who was dealing with a life changing disease like Cancer. But what I wanted to share were the lessons learned through the ordeal and perhaps give hope to others going through this challenging and serious ordeal.
When dealing with cancer, these emotions are not limited to the patient. They are felt by their loved ones too and at times, even the caretakers who are rooting for the patients to return to a normal disease-free life. There is a whole complex support team and I think a lot of people can relate to that.
What’s something about you that most people don’t know?
I am an American who also speaks French as fluently as a native French speaker 🙂 But I will say also that although I am a realist about Life, I am someone who sees the glass as Half Full. There are problems to solve in this world, but I believe that we currently live in a unique time in history where a large number of people across many cultures and countries, are interconnected via social media, share common interests and tastes in music and want to see some of these universal problems resolved for the benefit of all and I, for one, am determined to doing my part in seeing them through.
What’s the bigger picture – where do you hope to take things over the coming months and years?
Well I definitely am going to continue to promote the songs off the album Perspective because in this day and age, there is a an appetite and an audience for this type of work. Through my music, I also want to collaborate with people who want to be involved in Change that makes a difference in their lives and that of others in their community or the world. I want to be involved in bridging the gaps while remaining honest, authentic and working with people who are committed to doing the same things.
Is there anything else we should know?
Yes, I have plenty of projects in the works and so stay tuned. I ask your readers to let me know what they think of the song Hell No! or which song on the album Perspective connects most with them.
Big thanks to Stereo Stickman for spending some time with me today. This was fun!
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