It is not too common to see an artist casually walking around the crowd before hitting the stage for a show. However, for Bronx rapper Kemba, this is common practice. “I like to catch the vibe,” he told me. Kemba, formerly known as Yc the Cynic, certainly caught the vibe of the Powerhouse on Friday night, delivering a passionate performance that catered to the intimacy of the small crowd.
The concert, hosted by Matt Ezersky ’22 and Annie Martin ’22E with WAMH, kicked off at 10 p.m. with an opening act by Boston-based rapper Dezmond Dane. The Powerhouse was a comfortable venue for Dane, who described the sound of his songs to me as “coffee house music,” inspired by artists such as Chicago rappers Noname and Saba. Breaking the ice by calling the crowd closer to the stage and introducing himself, Dane dove into a set of introspective tracks that cultivated a focused listening experience, distinct from the moshpit-fueled shows that have become commonplace in mainstream hip hop.
After beginning his set with some upbeat tracks like “Elevator Music,” a song featuring impressive lyricism over a jazzy instrumental, Dane announced the beginning of “sad boy hours,” transitioning into a more mellow period. The highlight was Dane’s performance of “Monaco to Paris,” in which the crowd listened closely as he painted a vivid picture of a relationship overseas.
The time in between Dane and Kemba’s sets was occupied by Kemba’s tour DJ, DJ Charlie Hustle. Hustle, who told me he first met Kemba a decade ago at a similar college show, was able to produce an energy shift in the venue. As a few more students trickled in from other parties on campus, Hustle energized the crowd by spinning a short sequence of familiar rap hits, building anticipation for Kemba.
My initial introduction to Kemba’s music came a few weeks ago at Rolling Loud New York, where he delivered a spirited performance in front of a packed festival crowd. Despite playing for only a few dozen people in the Powerhouse and having just completed a nationwide tour with Maryland rapper IDK, Kemba brought the same energy he had when I saw him in New York.
Kemba’s set began on a high note as he stormed onto the stage and jumped immediately into a lively rendition of his New York anthem “Deadass.” During this song and throughout the rest of the concert, I was impressed by Kemba’s sharp and consistent delivery.
Many rappers today elect to perform their songs over recorded vocal tracks, focusing more on dancing and ad libbing than actually delivering lyrics. Kemba however, chose to perform with his DJ and instrumentals as the lone accompaniment. Anyone who has listened to Kemba would likely consider this a daunting task, given the density of his fast-flowing, multisyllabic rhymes and the fact that he had just finished touring.
However, the rapper rarely missed a beat on Friday, delivering his bars with clarity and enthusiasm from start to finish. There were also several points during the show when Kemba chose to rap a capella, putting his skillful word play on bare display even more. This aspect of the show revealed the great chemistry between Kemba and Charlie Hustle, as the DJ seemed to always know exactly when to stop and start the instrumentals.
In addition to his strong vocal performance, Kemba’s ability to effectively interact with the crowd in the Powerhouse made the show an even more enjoyable experience. Before performing the song “What a Day,” an emotional track off of his major label debut album “Gilda,” Kemba shared a sentimental story about finding out his mother had passed away just moments after being called on stage to rap by Kendrick Lamar.
Other memorable moments from Friday’s performance included when Kemba encouraged the crowd to shout out their dreams before performing “Gilda’s” uplifting lead single “Last Year Being Broke,” and when he instructed audience participation before performing an explosive remix of grime rapper JME’s track “No You Ain’t.” By interacting heavily with the crowd, Kemba was able to make the most of the event’s intimate atmosphere.
While large, wild concerts are almost always a great time, seeing a talented artist in a smaller, less crowded venue can be equally rewarding. Shows like this require musicians to be more creative with how they interact with the audience and control their sound.
Though they can expose less inspiring artists, they also allow artists with genuine talent to rise to the occasion and create a special experience for their fans. Rappers Dezmond Dane and Kemba were certainly up for the task during their performances at the Powerhouse Friday night. By frequently engaging the audience and focusing on precise delivery, the two generated a positive experience for all in attendance.