Tobe Nwigwe Uses Hip Hop to Teach Self Determination
“I grew up listening to Fela Kuti, who was like the James Brown of Nigeria […] But I never, ever in my life thought about doing music, ever.” Tobe Nwigwe sits on a bench in the middle of a popular Houston streetwear shop, framed by sneakers and Supreme shirts, to tell me about life growing up in the SWAT*, and how a first generation Nigerian –American discovered a hidden talent that changed his life.
*Southwest Alief Texas
If not evident from the opening quote, Tobe’s personality is deeply rooted in his Nigerian heritage. He is one of five children of immigrant parents, raised in the Alief neighborhood of southwest Houston. “There were seven of us in a two bedroom condominium,” he recalls. Nwigwe’s childhood was fairly standard for an immigrant family from one of Houston’s rougher neighborhoods; low on money, short on opportunity. But young Tobe would develop a special talent early in life that paved the way for a better future.
Tobe’s first skill was hitting people; both on and off the football field. Though as he puts it, “I was trash in football all through little league.” He tells me how a “physical altercation” in the fourth grade gave him the confidence to excel in both a violent sport and a violent community. He eventually earned a scholarship to play linebacker at the University of North Texas, where a season ending injury his senior year derailed a potential NFL career. After football, the young man from Alief searched for a new purpose in life. Through his faith he was inspired to start a nonprofit organization he named Gini Bu Nkpa Gi, “but you can’t pronounce that,” he says. “So we just call it TeamGini.” TeamGini has a simple mission; to help people find their purpose. The phrase literally means, what’s your purpose, in Igbo. Nwigwe is obsessed with the concept of purpose. More specifically, with helping others find their own. His organization uses “edu-tainment” to teach low income middle and high school students in the Houston area leadership skills, responsibility, and financial literacy. It was through his work with TeamGini that he developed a relationship with Eric Thomas, the popular motivational speaker and “hip-hop preacher” whose YouTube videos boast tens of millions of views.
Eric and Tobe developed a strategic partnership a few years ago. From their shared focus on community improvement and enlightenment through entertainment, the pair began working on various projects together. That was how mere happenstance led Eric, and his business partner, to discover Tobe’s untapped hip hop potential. “Long story short, CJ just happened to be scrolling on Facebook and saw me doing a freestyle with my family. After that he told me I needed to be doing music” Despite his reservations, CJ and Eric convinced Tobe to pursue a career in hip hop. Soon he would become the debut artist for their new label, ETA Records.
In a town known for breeding hip hop talent, Tobe Nwigwe’s music stands alone. His sophisticated lyricism and raspy baritone vocal style are somewhat out of place in the city of candy cars and purple drank. While Houston hip hop has been prolific in the past, the city has largely lacked artistically driven lyrical voices that can remain relevant in the age of Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole. In discussing his musical influences and favorite artists, I found it interesting that Tobe did not mention a single Houston rapper. Instead, stating that his two greatest musical inspirations are Lauren Hill and Andre 3000. “I always want to speak honestly about who I am and where I come from,” Tobe says. “Whenever I do music I always want to make sure I say something when I say something; if that makes any sense.” The Alief rapper goes on to say that much of what is considered “positive music” in today’s hip hop industry would be considered “corny” by the members of the communities with whom he has developed a rapport. He aims to bring a refreshing level of authenticity and street-cred to his music while still delivering a message of self improvement and positivity.
I finish my interview by asking Tobe what he wishes to bring to both hip hop culture and the city of Houston through his music, his organization, and his life’s work. He gives me a one word answer.
I guess you could say he has found his.