In the back seat of an eight-person passenger van speeding on I-90 between Boston and a haunted rock club in Ithaca, New York, Nnamdi Ogbonnaya (who records under the solo moniker NNAMDI) is tooling around on his laptop. I’m seated to his left. He tilts the screen so I can make out his project: On Photoshop, he’s deforming his own face, total body horror-style, but, like, fun. Before him there are three horrifying NNAMDI illustrations—disembodied heads—and he’s pulling his own eyes wide and his mouth big, exaggerating his features to enhance the cartoonish image. It’s 2017, and I’ve known this guy for two days. (Our first meeting was at a falafel joint called Pita Pockets, so clean you could eat off the ground, in the indie rock haven of Northampton, Massachusetts. I note its sterility because within a few seconds of getting his dinner, he promptly dropped his sando and chowed down regardless.) I couldn’t help but think this dude is absolutely off his rocker, I’m a fucking square, and this tour is about to be a blast.
“I used to do that all the time!” he says, laughing at the Photoshop memory when I bring it up five years later. “But at some point I was like, ‘I guess people need to know what I look like.’” Now that he’s grown in popularity, they absolutely do.
We were on the road with Vagabon, the music moniker of Laetitia Tamko. I was tour managing for the first and last time; it turns out my tolerance for unsolicited advice from mouth-breathy sound guys is zilch. NNAMDI was drumming for her—we traversed the Northeast from New York, eventually landing in Chicago for a music festival. At the time, I knew of NNAMDI, but I wasn’t yet familiar with his solo music. I knew he was one of Chicago’s most beloved DIY musicians, a prolific guy who had no interest in genre loyalty: By the time I met him, he had been in 15 bands in eight years, playing in basements across Mexico and Europe in his hardcore band Itto, opening for Tortoise in his jazz-fusion project Monobody, and releasing a series of outsider post-punk hip-hop EPs, much of which possessed lyricism touching on his lived experience as a Black, Jewish, first-generation Nigerian-American. (Oh, and at some point in that time, he also went to school for electrical engineering, a plan B he knew he’d never use. To paraphrase Tunde Adebimpe, another first-generation Nigerian-American musician and the mastermind behind TV on the Radio, who gets the best quote in the ’00s indie rock documentary Meet Me in the Bathroom: Telling your immigrant parents you want to be an artist is like coming home in clown shoes. I’d add that courage can often look a lot like insanity.) NNAMDI’s 2020s solo music is the intersection of all those influences and identities, which makes it a total pain in the ass to describe. “Art-pop is what my friend calls it,” NNAMDI says, either fully unaware or unbothered by the fact that it is also the title of a 2013 Lady Gaga album. “It sounds bougie as fuck, but I don’t know how to describe it. I don’t say ‘weird’ anymore. It was to give people a way out—if they don’t know what to say, they can be like,” and he adopts a nerdy, nasal voice for the rest of the quote, “‘Yeah! His stuff is weird!’”
“It’s...unique?” he says, offering a generous but ultimately useless alternative. “If you say ‘experimental,’ everyone expects every song to have underwater saxophone in it or some shit.”
In a phrase: NNAMDI was, and remains, eclectic as hell—the kind of innovative musician recognized as your favorite band’s favorite band before the general public gets on board. (“Musicians and comedians fuck with my shit,” he says with a laugh. “Everyone else will find it when they find it.”) His music is so future-seeking in its prescience, but also hella goofy, it’s hard to appreciate if you’re the kind of listener who only really enjoys genre epithets. Not that I’m biased or anything. But listen, gender is a construct, sexuality is fluid, music is agnostic, punk is an ethos, and the best things in life are hard to define. So call his shit whatever you want. Just don’t call it math rock. “It makes me want to vomit,” he says of the term. “But I did it to myself.” He rolls his eyes, no doubt referring to the asymmetrical time signatures he likes to noodle around in on guitar.