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Imma is a Des Moines-based MC and he just released a new EP titled GOOD. In this discussion we spoke about the release and the influences that contributed to its sound. One such genre that swayed its direction is R&B from the ’90s and 2000s and as we continued, Imma explained how the genre not only influenced his approach to making music and music videos, but also how it’s also influenced his relationship with sexist language within his own music. A son of Sudanese parents, Imma also discussed feeling like an outsider throughout his childhood and what it means to have now found a sense of belonging within a community of likeminded friends.
villin: The song introducing things here is “Thought of You” by Imma from his GOOD EP. This episode of the villin podcast features a conversation with the Des Moines-based MC about his new four song release, though we strayed into more personal territory as we talked, discussing at length his experience growing up as a child of Sudanese immigrants and trying to reconcile that within Black American culture. We touched on Imma’s childhood feeling of alienation, which originally led him to creating music. [This] now contrasts greatly with the close knit group of contemporaries he’s found within the Blackshoe Inc. crew, which is made up of a laundry list of creatives largely in the Des Moines area. First up though, we spoke about the music on GOOD, where it came from, and how he hopes it translates to listeners.
Imma: So, for me, the theme of it was really just kind of—”good” music to me, really, I don’t really listen to a lot of new music. I’m really listening to ’90s R&B and hip-hop, you know what I’m saying, just like a lot of old Kanye, Jay-Z, you know, some Nas. For me, music that I like is a lot of ’90s R&B and that’s just really what I was trying to go for. I remember back in music when the way that guys would talk about women was really different, you know what I’m saying? It was really more of trying to uplift women. Like, guys were chasing girls in their songs. And so that was just the place that I was trying to go with it. And I like to use the term “good” because, really, “good” doesn’t really have a set definition. Everyone’s interpretation of what’s good is always very different. So, I kind of wanted people to be able to listen to this and tag on how they feel about it and make that the reason for the album for them.
villin: As we broke down those influences a little more, Imma made a distinction about some of the music that inspired him and how R&B’s reverential view of women has impacted his own approach.
Imma: It’s important to me just because—even before I wanted to rap I wanted to be an R&B singer. And the things that always captured me, like I always loved listening to Ne-Yo and Usher and even early Chris Brown, you know what I’m saying? I would listen to a lot of their music growing up. And that’s really shaped the way that I view women in my life. I personally don’t call women bitches. Even, just like, I think seven months ago I stopped using the word “bitches” in all of my new songs that I want to make. So it’s really, for me, something that—I want my music to be very inclusive. Something that women will listen to and they will find parts of it that they love.
villin: For anyone familiar with Chris Brown’s past, this statement brings up an obvious paradox. Avoiding endless debate about the separation of art and artist though, it’s interesting to hear someone Imma’s age—twenty-one for those counting—reconciling a personal set of values with cultural influences and figuring out how to navigate those waters.
Imma: My thing with Chris, specifically is—I used to listen to a lot of Chris Brown before he had gotten with Rihanna. And that was my time where I really liked him a lot as an artist and a person back then. And I feel like, for me, I just kind of, I look at those times as almost the clearer parts of his life. Like, I almost look at Chris Brown as a template of what not to do, because in a lot of his early music he is really respectful of women and then we just saw that it was not really how he was carrying himself. When I look at his career, and almost, like, his lifestyle also, I want to be like the Chris Brown that didn’t mess up. You know what I’m saying—almost kind of like that.
villin: Out of the paradox is developing a congruency; living and creating music aligned with an ever-evolving set of values. Those values are something that we continued to discuss, relating them to his ongoing collaboration with friends in the Blackshoe Inc. crew. On their Facebook page, Blackshoe is described as an “Independent Multimedia Collective,” and a once-over of their YouTube page speaks to that, offering short films, music videos, album streams, and skate videos. Imma’s introduction to the group stems back several years to when he met rapper and producer DRXCULV, who just released a thirteen track album called ANTIPORN in October.
Imma: I’ve actually known [DRXCULV] for a little while. Right before he moved away from Des Moines. He had moved away from Des Moines about a year, maybe two years ago. And I had met him, I’d say, probably three years ago. I met him through his friend Morgan and we just went over to his house and we were just smoking with him and I found out that he made music and then me and him kind of became better friends than me and Morgan. So it was really just kind of a chance interaction that really just blossomed into a really great friendship. When he had moved back into town he asked me to perform at his Blackshoe Fest. And just from there, it was like working together, talking a lot together, you know what I’m saying? I just felt like Blackshoe Inc. was really a group that reflected the same ideals that I have. And it’s always better to surround yourself with the type of people that are chasing the same goals as you. So that was really the decision for it, was just seeing how motivated they were and seeing that it matched my motivation.
villin: The broader concept of collaboration is one that worked its way throughout our conversation. Imma talked about an idea that’s been developing between himself and some of his Blackshoe friends to run a showcase at Suite 203 in Des Moines, attempting to create a platform for artists to share a stage together. This, again, speaks to some of the shared values that attracted him to Blackshoe in the first place.
Imma: So with a lot of us being in Des Moines for the last five years, we’ve noticed a lot of rappers who’ve made a rise out here and now don’t really have that same type of credibility that they had before. And one thing that we’ve noticed is just that a lot of rappers in the city are not really coming together to work with each other. And that’s one of the big things, that we like to work with people who make music. We’re creatives, so it’s just anybody who makes music. It could be somebody who’s into film, because we do have cinematographers and all types of people inside of Blackshoe, even people who don’t make music. Really, the creative aspect of it, and seeing everyone try to turn what they love into a career for them. Also, everyone trying to push forward brand new ideas. No one’s trying to just stick to the norm of everything. Like, it’d be so easy for us to just make drill music and try too ride that wave that’s going right now, but everybody wanted to make something out of the box and plan something that is bigger than just themselves. I feel like those are the ideals that really stood out to me.
villin: For me, personally, I mentally kept coming back to the concept of scarcity when we talked. It’s easy to get trapped in that mentality, that there is a finite level of success to go around and we’re all somehow vying for the limited resource. Whether it’s fear or greed, that mindset can kill the spirit of collaboration.
Imma: I mean, and especially now when we have streaming, there are rappers who make more money playing video games than they do from their music. There are other rappers who go into fashion and make more money doing that. There’s so much space for us all to capitalize on right now that it’s just… I feel like the only way to really do it is to come as a group. Because bringing all your fan bases together is really what’s going to make this culture pop, you know?
villin: This idea, or the concept of no man being an island, offers a practical benefit, as well.
Imma: Especially ’cause, I mean, I don’t know how to produce for nothin’. I don’t know how to produce and I don’t have a crazy camera, so it’s like, if I was really trying to do everything on my own then I would not be able to do it. And, even as a solo artist, I go to another studio and record there, I have my engineer mix my music, I have other people make covers for me. So, I have to really realize when I look at it that there’s nobody who’s really doing everything in house all on their own. You’re always going to need a team of people. And I feel like creating that team of people with other creatives around you locally is definitely one of the best ways to do it.
villin: This was sort of an aside before we got off the phone, but we talked about what it means for musicians to develop a local base of support in a global marketplace. It strikes me as curious when I see creative types reacting negatively to labels such as “local artist,” receiving the language as a derogatory term, but I guess it’s about the implication of the phrase. Like, for me, when talking about Iowa artists, it doesn’t even cross my mind that the label is limiting. But I can see how some view it as a limiting term, implying that you’re only of interest to a small territory or audience.
Imma: We’re all trying to be global artists. We’re not just trying to just stick to our city. I like to say that we’re all peers. We’re all at the exact same level. Even if somebody out here in Des Moines is a little bit more popular than another artist that’s out over here, we’re still on the exact same playing field. We’re still trying to crack that ceiling. It’s easier when we’re all throwing a rock at the same window, instead of everybody trying to break in from a different window of that house.
villin: The thing that first really drew me to Imma’s music were a series of music videos he’d released, which speaks to a real-life situation of this collaborative spirit paying off. Directed and produced by Juice Box Visuals, the video for “Stressin’” is particularly bold and eye-catching. And his desire to create such impactful visuals is something that I love, having grown up myself during a period of exorbitant music video budgets. Imma went on to address where his desire to add those visual elements to his work came from.
Imma: For me the reason why is I’ve always just been infatuated with film and TV. I love to see a TV show that has really good acting in it, really good pacing. That’s one thing I always pay attention to. I remember watching music videos like “Jesus Walks” or a lot of Ne-Yo’s music videos, actually, because Ne-Yo would always do something where it has a little bit of a story first. You don’t even hear the song for the first forty-five seconds because they’re setting the stage of the story. So just seeing those gave me inspiration to want to make those kinds of art. Because I feel like as a musician, music goes with everything and especially film and TV. If you can make a really good visual to go with a song, sometimes people will come back and watch the video not even for the music. I don’t know, I really love acting. For me, I always love to do things that you just really wouldn’t see anybody else do.
villin: Imma was born in Eerie, Pennsylvania before moving to Virginia where he spent most of his childhood. His parents are both Sudanese and moved to America in 1999, two years before he was born. This isn’t something that he necessarily wears on his sleeve, yet, as an artist, but Imma’s heritage is definitely important to him and he spoke of daydreaming about a time when he can bring this into a conscious presentation of himself as a mainstream artist.
Imma: I want to display my heritage as much as I can. Right now, I am just kind of building my career working on getting a little bit more of a spotlight on my career just so that I can speak on these things. I’ve already planned for my first Grammy. I’m going to be wearing what’s called a jalabiya. It’s what we wear down in Sudan. But I want to wear those to my award shows, you know what I’m saying? For me, that’s something that’s always in the back of my head and something that I’m always trying to push forward. And I’m just waiting for the right time to be able to speak on it enough to really get a lot of attention on it.
villin: That background also created a significant sense of being other than or different from in his childhood though.
Imma: I grew up very very differently, you know? I didn’t grow up like Black kids in America and I didn’t grow up, really like anybody else in America because of my immigrant parents. And I feel like especially with African immigrants it’s a little bit overlooked; our differences and the way that we grow up, our differences in our culture and how we carry ourselves. And I want to bring a little more attention to that. That’s why I feel like in my music I’m never really trying to just sound like everybody else because I also grew up not the richest and not in the best situation, but there were other factors of my life that made my life the way that it was, and make me who I am. So I just want to talk about the parts of an immigrant child’s life that people don’t really think about or know about.
villin: It’s probably cliched to say that Imma’s coming into his own as a creative and a person, but I get that sense. I mean, the change in approach of using the word “bitch” is a small pivot, but it’s something I see as a rejection of prevailing cultural influences. The same kind of influences that historically left him feeling other than based on his race and heritage.
Imma: So definitely growing up it [felt] much different, especially when I compare it to my life now. When I’m around Black people there’s never a problem, they see me as exactly the same. But growing up there was always that divide where it was just kind of like… it was almost like I wasn’t allowed to be seen as Black. Black kids didn’t accept African kids in their groups growing up as easily as they accepted other Black kids. We were just seen as almost the minority of the minorities. I know that’s not really talked about a lot, but it did make me feel almost… I don’t know what’s the right word to say. It made it harder for me to almost accept my race, because I look Black just like everybody else, but I was still being treated differently by the people that look exactly like me. So it definitely brought a different dynamic to just being Black. Because I never felt like I was just Black.
For me, growing up, it definitely made it harder for me to accept my actions. I was always hyper-aware of if I was acting Black enough or if I was acting too Black. Because going home I can’t talk like the African Americans at my school or I can’t talk like the way that I did at school because my parents would say that I was acting too Black. And then if I was at school I wasn’t able to act how I always do at home because it wasn’t seen as Black. Some people would say that it was acting white or just say it was weird, you know what I mean? It took a little bit of a toll, for sure, in learning to be okay with just being African and trying to repel the self-hate that was almost put on to me.
villin: That’s a crazy spot to be in, with that feeling of self-rejection, but as he continued to explain what it was like growing up, we got into how music played a role along the way. Even there there’s this divide of being somewhere in the middle of two distinct cultures having to find his own way forward, but it makes a lot of sense with relation to the sound that comes through on GOOD.
Imma: So for me, my mom was very into R&B. She loved Usher. Like, Usher was her favorite artist; Michael Jackson also. But she didn’t listen too much to American music. We were listening a lot to African music growing up. And, I mean, even in my later years she’d still be playing African music throughout the house or watching shows on the TV that are broadcasted in the Middle East. And I’ve kind of had to find my own way through music, I feel like. Although I was put onto R&B early, I had to venture into rap music on my own and find out what I like and find out what was really the style that I could associate with.
villin: Imma started making music when he was 16 and released his first full-length album over two years ago. That said, it’s like he’s just now finding a different semblance of foundation that’s providing him stability and confidence with his music. Without dancing around the subject, we talked about what it’s like finding a crew of likeminded people and how that influences this sort of feeling… particularly after a lifetime of feeling like an outsider.
Imma: I can’t even tell you. There are times when I’ll be driving to [DRXCULV]’s crib and we’re all just going over there to work on some music, you know, hang out and stuff, just talk about music, and it’s like… I gotta just tell myself all the time, like, I’m already living the life that I wanted. I’m already living the life that I was dreaming about a year and a half ago. I’m performing now. I’m working with other artists, you know, my music is on Apple Music. I always make sure I hold onto these type of feelings. I remember the times where I wasn’t on Apple Music and I remember the times where I was praying to perform or wanting to work with other people who weren’t so willing to work with me back in the day. Definitely just finding my group of people is such a gratifying feeling.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]