Born Tobechukwu Dubem Nwigwe in the Igbo ethnic group – Tobe, as he allows people to call him, is of Nigerian descent from the Alief neighborhood of Houston, Texas. As a matter of fact, when he went on tour he always recognized himself as “Tobe from the SWAT” – South West Alief Texas. He’s great at the cypher and his act is all about family – even to the point of calling his audience members “cousins”. He performs with producer/rapper LaNell “Nell” Grant, who can create music for accompaniment wherever they are. Fat (born Martika Ivory Rogers), his wife, is also always with him as a constant collaborator and features in many of his songs. They are known as The Originals.
What gets me about Tobe is that his music gets into adult themes but also can hold onto a certain nostalgia while never becoming wildly vulgar. This is quite a departure from mainstream hip-hop and rap. He has spoken at Harvard about the impact of social media on the music industry, after all, this generation of artists no longer have to rely on record labels for promotions and pushing their craft. They can present it to their audiences through social media. That is what he and The Originals have done.
Just listening to them all together, is an experience from the heart, but also listening to them talk about their music and one another and how they’ve made this group and affected so many people around them is inspiring. I know they are successful, but I’ve never heard them on mainstream radio, so I just had to include Tobe, Nell, and Fat in my listing for Untapped Sound.
Nwigwe grew up in a bi-cultural situation. He was a first-generation born in the U.S. to Nigerian parents. So he got both the Nigerian cultural experience in his home and close neighborhood while getting the Black American experience while in school and at outside activities.
Tobe played high school football and then college football at the University of North Texas. He was being considered for draft by the NFL. However, a torn ligament left him unable to continue to play football. And for that, I am grateful. I don’t listen to rap often, but I really enjoy his music – and had he gone into the NFL, we might not have any.
So, he took what he had and founded the nonprofit TeamGINI, a name derived from “Gini Bu Nkpa Gi?” which translates to “What’s your trouble?” in the Igbo language. TeamGINI aims to help families in need by giving them gifts that aid them in gaining financial literacy and independence. The Originals (Tobe, Nell, and Fat) came together while working with Nwigwe’s nonprofit TeamGINI.
It was only after encouragement from the Christian, motivational speaker Eric Thomas, that Nwigwe began focusing on music in earnest.
He began recording #getTWISTEDsundays while he and his girlfriend (now wife) would twist each other’s hair. The freestyle rapping by both was edited and released on YouTube beginning in 2016. This gained him a large following on both YouTube and Instagram.
Nwigwe appeared on the BET Hip Hop Awards 2018 Cypher.
In 2019, Nwigwe and The Originals performed on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert series with a backing band.
In 2020, Nwigwe went viral on digital platforms for his song “I Need You To (Breonna Taylor)“.
To many, his demand for the arrest of Breonna Taylor’s killers which was retweeted by Diddy, LeBron James, and more, then caught the attention of the Black Lives Matter movement and its allies — helped him be recognized as more than an indie, niche MC. Soon after, he wound up placing on Billboard’s genre sales charts. As EBONY.COM explains:
“With hip-hop having been unfairly judged by some for losing the social consciousness of its golden age, many took note of Nwigwe’s political messaging and the woke music of Lil Baby, H.E.R., DaBaby, YG, and others.”
Nwigwe has his own take on that work –
“I don’t think it’s a political thing,” he says of recording the song. “I think it’s a human decency thing. I say it like it’s gangbanging: I don’t care about what side you claim. There are certain things that happen in life that’s just fundamentally wrong. And if you try to say it’s not wrong, you’re a wild person. Like something inside of you is off and it needs to be fixed. [Police] wrongfully murdered somebody. Motherf–kers murdered a lot of Black people and nobody atones for it. Nobody that’s held responsible; nobody held accountable. That’s terrible, and something needs to be done about it. And it ain’t gon’ happen unless people say something and do something.”
He said God gave him the vision to do the song as a public service announcement. He performed his songs “Try Jesus” and “Eat” at the 2020 BET Hip Hop Awards. “Try Jesus” reached No. 4 on the Billboard R&B Digital Song Sales chart.
As you can see, he’s done all of this on a record label pretty much made for him by the Christian motivational speaker whose voice pushed Tobe to keep his integrity – Eric Thomas’s ETA Records. He doesn’t disparage anyone who has signed contracts with the big industry giants at all, but he’s done this all independently and I think that says a lot, even if Nwigwe is humble. I think a lot of his success comes from keeping his collaborators a tight-knit family and even seeing their fans as such. What he does, he considered a bit too niche for mainstream and he likes keeping control of his music as well as his merchandising.
STYLE & INFLUENCE
As far as a musical influence, I’m not sure there is one in particular. I know that a lot of Tobe’s music comes in part from his lived experience and radiates advice and encouragement.
Nwigwe’s family has always played a large role in his art. Though Tobe Nwigwe is the name credited on the songs, Fat and Nell are always involved in the production of the songs. They operate outside of the industry’s record label system. They have no publicity representation or managers. Instead, this trio handles all of their own personal and professional business. That goes for everything from designing their outfits and booking gigs to watching each other’s children.
Nwigwe has even said in his songs that if he can’t bring his wife and children to a gig, he won’t go.
Nell gives him instrumental influence and production while Fat is the ear of opinion – letting them both know what flows well and sounds good to her. She also adds in her own raps to many of the songs. In my opinion, they influence one another, promote one another, and keep one another going.
Tobe Nwigwe also has a close relationship with God, which I feel lends some influence on his art. He grew up Catholic and in a New York Times interview says that his relationship with God is used as a way to channel his instincts. He is very much focused on giving purpose to people, especially people of color – who need it most.
COLLABORATIONS & CONNECTIONS
He is a featured artist on Paul Morton’s album Paul, released on August 9, 2019, by Morton Records and Empire Records.
His music has garnered a lot of attention, including Michelle Obama, who put his song “I’m Dope” on her workout playlist.
Nwigwe has collaborated with many other artists, including television host Anthony “Spice” Adams, Paul Wall, Duckwrth, Big K.R.I.T., D Smoke, Black Thought, Royce Da 5’9″, Bun B, and more. “Father Figure” is one example of a collaboration he has out. He collaborated on “Juice” with Paul Wall.
So much of Tobe’s work is on video on YouTube and found in his links below, not just on these mentioned EP releases. So be aware of that.
- Pardon My Lateness 2014
- Tobe from the SWAT 2017
- The Originals 2018
- More Originals 2018
- Three Originals 2019
- Fouriginals 2019
- Tobe from the Swat: The Live Experience 2019
- The Pandemic Project 2020
- The Pandemic Experience: Live Global Broadcast 2020
- Cincoriginals 2020
Nwigwe’s The Pandemic Project was released in 2020. They didn’t stop with their little performances all through the quarantine and so of course they had fun with a Quarantine Series.
For Apple Music’s Juneteenth Remembrance project, Tobe released “Passing Through” which has more gospel undertones than other more recent songs. It’s just one more testament to how versatile he is as an artist. The song itself is a reminder that things won’t be bad forever. According to his beliefs, things on Earth are temporary and paradise awaits those who keep going to see it. The song speaks to the strength, particularly of Black people, who need to be resilient through hard times.
“Fye Fye” featuring Fat (while Nell is doing what she does best and hitting that instrumentation) was released in June 2021 to great acclaim. The energy in this song is infectious! He has stated that his goal is to “make purpose popular.” And I hope he never strays from that.
Similar Sound: For the rhythm or for the voice? Hmmm… This is difficult. Especially when you toss in the fact that Tobe is usually accompanied by his wife and his producer. I would say D Slim is similar and maybe? But without that accompaniment, it’s not as much a celebration of love. Someone told me he sounded like Paul Wall (he’s collaborated with Wall), but I disagree.
FIND OUT MORE:
As always, if you want to share more, or feel I’ve missed something, let me know by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.