In the Studio with LA-Based Artist Jahlil Nzinga
In the Studio with LA-Based Artist Jahlil Nzinga
WORD BY : NOAH PHAM | PHOTOS BY : ANTWAN VU
You may know him best as Stunnaman from The Pack, a Bay Area music collective, which he co-founded at a young age, paving the way for many rap groups to follow. But the stardom and studio sessions left Jahlil Nzinga at a plateau in this chapter of his career, leading him to shift his focus and seek a new creative outlet.
For five years now he’s been pursuing a career in visual art, leaving the packed-out recording studios to days spent solo with his paint brush and spray can. WestwoodWestwood took a visit to his studio out in Hawthorne, California to learn more about this big transition and how Nzinga’s building out a new sanctuary.
So you were born Keith Jenkins, then you were Stunnaman and now you’re Jahlil Nzinga. Take us through the origins of all these alter egos.
Jahlil is actually my middle name — it’s Keith Jahlil Jenkins. Stunnaman is a nickname I got from people around my neighborhood. I used to be a little flashy. I went back to Keith because I felt like I was getting older and more about being myself. Then with Jahlil Nzinga, it was me starting a new chapter with my art. I wanted none of my visual work to be associated with the music. I wanted it to have its own life. I used Nzinga, my mom’s last name, because I wanted to be able to give her something to be proud of. I wanted to keep the family name going and put it on the wall.
How many years have you been doing visual art?
Five years now? Since I did my first show in Oakland. Shout out to Good Mother Gallery. They gave me a chance and I’ve been rockin’ ever since.
Yeah it’s the Jementhal brothers that are running that gallery?
Yeah exactly exactly. They’re good guys. That’s dope you know about them. You’re tapped in.
Let’s start with your early acting career, before you picked up a paint brush.
I got into acting through my mom. She had a theatre group for over 20 years in Oakland. She’s always been really adamant about putting me in creative spaces. When we were young, me and my brothers and sisters made sure that no matter what, we had some form of creative shit going on. My mom, got it early; she really understood that I was going to be able to be my own boss if I knew about the power in creating things. I always respected it like that. Used to do a lot of shit with her, a lot of acting with her. And then I got into music; I started a rap group when I was fairly young, 15 or 14, with some friends of mine that I was skateboarding with at the time. Skating is a big part of my life as well. We went on to make a group called The Pack and that had its success and that went pretty well and then it was time for me to do something else. I got in pretty early with the music stuff, age-wise, so I’m really fortunate. I did a good thing with the raps; so we were able to be here for a long time, or be respected for a period of time, which is a longer time than people get to have. You know because they say we changed the rap game.
You guys were one of the first groups for Internet rap.
Man! Don’t quote me. I didn’t say it! They said it! Ha … We were allowed to be around for a long time. But it was wearing me down. It was time for me to do something different. I’d reached a goal being a young guy who was like, “I wanna get in this. I want MTV. I want BET. I wanna reach a certain pinnacle.” And I did! And I think it was a level of plateau. I’d done it and it was time to do something else. I’ve always been involved with art in a weird capacity but I just didn’t take it seriously like I do now.
You’re still taking off!
Yeah man, things are going really well. There’s a lot of people right now that have the courage and fortitude to chase the dream of being a creator, but it is not friendly. So I’m blessed to have a little bit of love in this situation.
You said you started The Pack around 15 or 16? And then you kind of left the music scene at what age?
Yeah, around 26-27.
So during this time were you ever dabbling in visual arts?
I started a bunch of clothing lines, designing and shit. We started Preschool Clothing and I helped this guy named John who did this brand called Easy Lifestyle. But that shit was more or less a Zumiez/Pacsun-type brand just tryna run some money up. Tryna get some bread, doing a lot of designs for them, and that was fun. It was on Karmaloop for a while.
From being a teenager in a recording in a studio, writing songs, working with producers and audio engineers, to being a visual artist, working with buyers and galleries, how would you compare the two experiences?
I think the biggest difference for me was the room for the youth in music. There really is no room for youth in visual art. I’m 31 right now so I was an old rapper, but I’m a young artist. And there really is no capacity for the youth as far as innovation, creation, etc. Art is really old in all aspects: gatekeepers, techniques, people’s points of view. What is viewed as beautiful, what is viewed as amazing, everything is old. With music, they need the youth. It’s what propels it. But this art thing is an old dinosaur. It doesn’t need the youth to survive.
How are they similar?
There’s gatekeepers in both and people are kinda shady. I got a little bit more peace in creation right now because I’m in my art studio and it’s just me. There’s no buffers; no 85 cooks in the kitchen. When I go to make a song, I need a producer, bam there’s already someone else there and an engineer, bam another person. If you’re on a bigger scale you got songwriters, you got A&R’s, then that record gets passed on to a label; a label then puts it out to distribution. There’s so much to get this thing done when really it’s just you at the end of the day. It’s a person that created this. So for me it’s a lot more peaceful to have created this thing alone in the studio. I can just do my thing. If you wanna come see it, you can come see it. If they like it, they like it.
What’s the most difficult part of transitioning from music to visual art?
It’s being taken seriously in the capacity by your peers. Fortunately, I’m able to live off of visual art; I’m not doing anything else. It’s a huge blessing. But at the same time, you have a lot of peers that are not in the best position or they had been in the industry before you and have some type of animosity towards you because you did come out of nowhere. I just want to be taken seriously for my love of art and my commitment to a situation. It puts a little block in front of me when people want to know my history, when they hear that I come from a musical background and that I didn’t go to school. It kind of turns some people off. It’s almost as if I got more hurdles coming from a successful place rather than from being a fucking bum, sleeping on a couch for ten years. I think they would accept that more than when I say, “Hey, I’ve been grinding. I’ve been getting to it.”
How would you describe your style?
Free. I’m trying my best, because once one thing becomes popular, you can become a schtick. I’m really adamant about not being put into a box: “Oh he does this; this is his art.” I’m more into making different things, still surprising people, like, “Yeah I did that too.” I compare it to fashion; seasons come and seasons go. Charcoal might be really hot to me but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be my thing forever. I think a lot of artists get into this thing, like they gotta do this one fucking thing. My style is free for sure.
If you had to describe your visual art as a genre of music, what would that genre be?
That’s a great question. I don’t think it would be a genre. A genre is like the schtick I mentioned before. It would be more like a playlist of everything I’ve learned and ever felt. I put it all into one thing.
Where do you find inspiration?
I just try to look for the weird shit. I try to go as left as possible. I look to the people that get the process, that take a forward approach and then divert it. We know what is successful but then go and throw a fork in the mix. Anyone that is about that is where I draw inspiration from. It’s a longer journey; it’s taking the stairs instead of the elevator. We could go and do what’s popular and cool. We could make a buck. I choose the other way.