AP Breakthrough Entertainer: Tobe Nwigwe lives with purpose

NEW YORK (AP) — Tobe Nwigwe didn’t expect to be nominated for best new artist after he submitted his music to the Grammys, but he’s learned to embrace the unexpected.

“I felt like it was going to add to our underdog story,” explained the Houston emcee. But bringing his index finger and thumb closely together, he added, “That underdog story’s about that small now.”

Nwigwe has become one of music’s most buzz-worthy rappers despite no major label, booking agent or marketing machine. He has already performed at the BET Awards, headed an NPR Tiny Desk concert with more than 4 million views, was featured on the “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” soundtrack, and whose “I’m Dope” song earned a spot on Michelle Obama’s 2020 workout playlist.

The first-generation Nigerian American, whose latest release is the EP “moMINTs,” is a breath of fresh air to hip-hop, welcomed by celebrity admirers like Beyoncé, Dave Chappelle, Erykah Badu and Jill Scott, who called him a “genius.”

“My purpose specifically is to be a conduit to the realization of purpose in other people’s lives, in whatever vehicle God would have in me,” he says. He adds he could be an Uber driver and still be on top. “The what I do ain’t as important as who I am.”

Nwigwe has been named among The Associated Press’ Breakthrough Entertainers of 2022, joining other honorees like Iman Vellani, Tenoch Huerta, Stephanie Hsu, Danielle Deadwyler and others.

Lauded for his creative rhyming styles, Nwigwe built his following through social media with virtually no radio play. His #getTWISTEDsundays campaign gained attention by delivering stunning visual content, including music videos with gorgeous cinematography and syncopated choreography.

Songs like “ FYE FYE” featuring his wife, Fat, and “Been Broke” featuring Fat, 2 Chainz and Chamillionaire, showcase his high-energy swag, while records like “Try Jesus” and “Make It Home” highlight his soulful artistry. “I Need You To (Breonna Taylor),” his 44-second song calling for the arrest of police officers who shot and killed the 26-year-old Black woman while executing a drug search warrant, went viral, gaining the attention of celebrities like LeBron James and Sean “Love” Combs.

Fans have fallen in love with his family-first approach. It’s not uncommon to hear Fat, a portrait artist with no previous music aspirations, featured on his songs or see their children in music videos. (Fat is currently pregnant with their fourth child.) Hardly using profanity, his Christian faith is often infused in his rhymes, though he’s far from being labeled as a gospel rapper, intentionally aiming his message toward as wide a base as possible.

Nwigwe cites an eclectic group of artists as influences, including Nigerian icon Fela Kuti, Lauryn Hill, Andre 3000, The Notorious B.I.G. and ‘70s soul. Hometown heroes such as Fat Pat, Lil’ Keke and the Color Changin’ Click, the popular underground group led by Chamillionaire and Paul Wall in their early years, also make up his musical DNA.

Nwigwe’s original dream wasn’t to rock the mic, but to rock quarterbacks. A standout middle linebacker at the University of North Texas, a foot injury ended his NFL dreams. With no back up plan, he eventually founded a entertainment-centered youth nonprofit organization in his Houston neighborhood. However, his career path detoured after connecting with motivational speaker Eric Thomas, known as “the Hip Hop Preacher,” when Thomas and business partner Carlas Quinney recognized a special talent in the “edutainer” and convinced him to pursue music.

These days, it’s not just major music labels who are courting Nwigwe, but Hollywood, too. Thanks to a real-life friendship with comedian and fellow Houstonian Mo Amer, he co-starred in Amer’s critically acclaimed Netlflix series “Mo,” and he landed a role in the upcoming blockbuster film, “Transformers: Rise of the Beasts” — his first acting job. Director Steven Caple Jr. reached out and “he did not care that I didn’t have no acting experience. I was like, ‘This is insane!’”

Nwigwe is gearing up for his Houston homecoming show at the end of the month. In January, he’ll perform at the inaugural Black Star Line Festival in Ghana created by Chance the Rapper and Vic Mensa.

As Nwigwe garners more attention, some may wonder how much longer his small, close-knit team can handle the incoming demand. But he isn’t worried, saying they’ve never been allergic to hard work.

“I tell people all the time, just die empty. Just don’t leave no potential on the table. Just do everything that you can do with every single day that you got,” he said. ’Tomorrow’s not promised — live like it.”

__

Gary Gerard Hamilton is an entertainment journalist for The Associated Press. Follow Gary at: @GaryGHamilton on all his social media platforms.

___

For more on AP’s 2022 class of Breakthrough Entertainers, please visit: https://apnews.com/hub/ap-breakthrough-entertainers

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.