Tobe Nwigwe Flexes His Star Power With Viral Movement Centered on Purpose
They Don't Know
With nine EPs, a blockbuster movie role and an Emmy nomination to his name, Tobe Nwigwe has come a long way without even hitting the mainstream yet. Get familiar with the movement.
Interview: Peter A. Berry
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Winter 2021 issue of XXL Magazine, on stands now.
Tobe Nwigwe is on his way to rap stardom, but his 1.3 million Instagram followers, an Emmy-nominated commercial and cosigns from Beyoncé and Michelle Obama say he’s already made it there—without going mainstream.
Born Tobechukwu Dubem Nwigwe to Nigerian immigrants in Alief, Texas, Tobe was a University of North Texas football player with NFL dreams before a 2009 foot injury derailed his chances. By the following year, Tobe pivoted his energy off sports and gave it to TeamGINI, a nonprofit organization he cofounded to help local Houston youth find their purpose through edutainment.
The entertainment part became a separate creative avenue. In 2015, while still focused on his foundation, Tobe began posting videos of himself rapping on Instagram and YouTube. Those clips often included his wife and fellow rapper Ivory “Fat” Rogers, their kids—the couple just welcomed their third child—and LaNell “Nell” Grant, a producer friend he met in college.
That same year, Tobe met motivational speaker and ETA Records founder Eric Thomas, along with ETA’s Carlas “CJ” Quinney, who believed in Tobe’s music and financially invested in the artist. Building on that investment and the attention the MC was already earning from his videos, Tobe released nine EPs between 2017 and 2021, including his most popular to date, 2020’s Cincoriginals and 2021’s At the Crib Arrangements.
Recent videos have increased his profile. In 2020, Tobe went viral with the release of “I Need You To (Breonna Taylor),” a song and video urging police to arrest the officers responsible for the death of the Louisville, Ky. woman that same year. Then last March, he used a wholesome freestyle video to announce his wife’s pregnancy. Tobe’s also leaned into a visual theme with most of his crew wearing matching outfits or colors, often mint green, which makes the movement feel that much more powerful.
Tobe’s doing things on his own terms without any major labels, despite multiple meetings with record execs. He’s independent, but a recent partnership with the Steve Stoute led UnitedMasters music distribution platform is also helping to get Tobe and his team’s voices to the masses.
Calling in to XXL via Zoom last August, Tobe Nwigwe, 34, discusses his indie movement, partnering with Steve Stoute, landing a role in a new Transformers film and more.
XXL: How’s your week been?
Tobe Nwigwe: It’s been phenomenal, man. I promise you I can’t complain. And even if I could, it ain’t my style.
So, before rap, you played football, and after that, you started your TeamGINI organization. What was it that convinced you that you could spread your message through hip-hop?
CJ [Carlas Quinney] and Eric Thomas [from ETA Records] were the ones who really helped me understand that I have a talent in music and that I could really do it. I just applied the tangibles that I had from football and the intangibles that I had from growing up on Forum Park to the industry. I have very good awareness. I might not know what’s going on specifically in a specific industry or a specific set, but I could pay attention to what’s going on around me and figure out how to move and operate in a specific arena.
Then, the thing I remember the most when I first started is how much I did know how trash I was, even though I meant well, and just how difficult it was to operate in an industry where you don’t have no foreknowledge of it and you can’t make no excuses and having to figure all that out. And just the ups and downs of having to figure out exactly not only what I’m doing, but how we’re going to do it and a place I have no clue how to operate it. It was there, you know what I’m saying? It was a journey.
Musically, who were some of your influences growing up?
I would say, for sure, Lauryn Hill, André 3000, Biggie [The Notorious B.I.G.], Fela Kuti. A lot of like, old school R&B, Teddy Pendergrass, [The] O’Jays, Erykah Badu, stuff like that. If I go into Houston, it’ll be Fat Pat, Big Hawk, Lil’ Keke, Chamillionaire, Paul Wall, back when they was like, for real, just doing Color Changin’ Click stuff, mixtape stuff. All the mainstream stuff was later on. The underground stuff that was happening in Houston really helped shape and mold who I am in music, for sure.
There is a warmth and authenticity to your work. In some of your first videos, your wife Fat twists your hair as you’re rapping, your family is in your visuals. What was it that made that approach important to you?
For me, it’s real simple. Before I started doing this, I never wanted to have no alias and no character. It’d be no type of way that I would in real life. So, everything that I do in the music and just in the movement, I do it with the people that I actually do life with. I just try to stay consistent [with] that. So, I don’t have to be extra’d out. Just when people see me, they don’t expect anything different from what I’ve been in, the music game, what I am, what I am in real life.
No knock to anybody who has aliases and they separate the music from real life, but I just don’t do that. I just don’t have the energy to do that. And there are aspects of it where I’ve treated, well, where I know that, alright, this specific part is that this is just the business side of it. But for the most part, it’s like, this is who I do life with, this is how I do the music.
How would you describe your movement?
Moving in purpose on purpose.
Your aesthetic has become way more evolved. It’s evolved a lot since your “I’m On” video. What would you say has changed between then and now?
I think I’ve gotten a lot of clarity on just how I want to do things, how I want to present myself, not necessarily who I am and in the midst of all this, because, you know what I’m saying, by the grace of God, I was able to know what my purpose was before I started doing all this, but just how to present what I’m doing and in a way that is uniquely me. And I think as I was, just over time, I learned to kind of like, fix the plane while flying it.
On the internet, people see videos of you and your wife and the rest of your family and think you represent “goals” for Black love. Was that something you set out to do?
I’ll be honest, it wasn’t like, Yo, let’s show people what Black love looks like when we first started at all. It wasn’t, it wasn’t on that. It was, this is my real life. I really love my girl. I’m not going to act like I don’t love my girl to appease people. I’m going to act like myself and love my girl however I love my girl and y’all are going to experience that because I’m gon’ put it in the stuff that I do and I’m not going to be ashamed of it. And it worked out for me and some people don’t feel like it’ll work out for them if they do it. So, they got to feel like they got to do this whole type of persona. And it’s cool, that just wasn’t what I wanted to do.
Then as we kept going and people were all inspired, I was like, Oh, OK, cool that they really inspired by us. But I think it’s better if they actually know and go through the history of how we ended up like this. That’d be more beneficial to them than just seeing where we at now and saying, “goals,” because it wasn’t your typical love story. I don’t feel like the majority of people who hear the story or even expect like how it all came to be, nor do I believe that they’re ready to go through something like that to get to what they, what they deem as “goals.”
You guys have some dope matching outfits in your videos, and that directly connects to your fashion merchandising degree you got from college. Did that background help you in designing the looks in your videos?
It has a huge part to play in it. It’s partially the reason why I can design my ’fits and all my looks and know about textiles and go shopping, get fabric. I do all that stuff. Then it all stems from what I’m saying, what I learned in college and just the passion and stuff that
I had for aesthetics.
Were you really into fashion as a kid? To some degree, everybody wanted the new pair of Jordans.
Yeah. This is the thing, though. I only wanted to do it for myself. I never wanted to like, mass-produce clothes or anything like that. I just wanted all of my stuff to be uniquely made for me. And now that I have a family, for my family and for my people. I’m not interested in mass-producing clothes. That’s a whole different monster in itself.
You have a lot of religious references in your music. Would you say that you’re a Christian rapper?
Nah, I wouldn’t. I would call myself a real follower of Christ. I live my life following how Christ would want me to do to the best of my ability. But my music is geared towards people who come from where I come from, who’ve experienced things that I’ve experienced. And, me trying to give them a perspective that helps them make the adjustments in life that I felt like I would’ve wanted to make when I was younger and give them music that I would’ve wanted to have around when I was younger, period.
It ain’t about doing gospel raps or Christian raps, where I speak a language to a group of people who ain’t familiar with the language that I’m speaking. I feel like Christian rap and gospel rap is for those who are interested or concerned with Christian things or the gospel.
A lot of people that I talked to, they’re not necessarily interested in hearing the gospel in music, though my music does have the gospel in it. They’re not interested in hearing language that only is tailored towards that, you know what I’m saying? I don’t want to speak Spanish to people that only speak English. I don’t want to speak like Garth Brooks to the people I grew up with on Forum Park.
How did God come to play an important role in your music?
He’s the foundation to everything that I do. He is where I find my purpose and where I find my reason for being, reason for doing all of this. Without him, all this stuff would be pointless. Meaningless quicksand and all the other type of negative connotations you could give towards movement without God.
Why is it important for you not to curse in your music?
So, usually when I’m not hopping on a song—and it’s not just because of the cursing—more often than not, it is because the content don’t necessarily line up with my principles and my values. Me, personally, I don’t cuss in my in my real life. And it’s not like, just for the music. I don’t cuss in my real life. To be honest, I don’t even truly believe in curse words. Both of my parents are born and raised in Nigeria. The curse words out there—it’s real curses. It’s not like just like a little B-words, stuff like that, that happen out here in the Western civilization. It’s real curses.
But I do understand that some words are offensive to some people and they’ll be turned off even if you have a sweet message if your words sound offensive. And my goal for the music—and it ain’t everybody’s goal—is for everybody that come from where I come from to be able to digest the message that I have in my music. I want the babies to be able to listen to it, too.
Would you ever sign to a major label?
Oh, yeah. Let me tell you something, it’s possible. I’ll tell you that. I own all my stuff. I control all my stuff. And you do something for me that I’m not already doing. I know that that’s not possible with just me. That requires you. If that day don’t come, then we’ll continue to do what we’ve been doing.
You’ve been able to do some impressive things without signing to a major label. You work with Steve Stoute and UnitedMasters. Describe that relationship.
It’s a partnership. Steve Stoute is my guy. He a legend. He an OG. He gives me whatever game I need, whatever I ask. He’s a wealth of knowledge. He’s a businessman. He learned how to operate in arenas that most people who come from where he come from don’t know how to operate in. And it’s a blessing to have access to somebody who has that kind of information. Because coming from where I come from, we don’t have access to this type of information, nor is someone willing to share it and wanting to see you grow and do well.
How did you land a part acting in the new Transformers: Rise of the Beasts?
I’d be lying if I said it was anything other than God. I ain’t never did no acting classes. I ain’t never tried out for any, you know what I’m saying? Nothing on this kind of level. The director, Steven Caple Jr. was just a fan of the movement and everything that we had going on and reached out to the squad, had Paramount [Pictures] reach out to the squad, personally. And, I had a decent amount of talent to be able to do what they was asking me to do.
You’ve had a lot of success over the last year. What was the exact moment that you realized that you made it?
When I got married. Yeah. Life is a wrap. Now, I know I got my boo. We locked in forever.
What are your goals looking ahead in your career?
Just to die empty. That’s it. I just don’t want to leave no potential on the table. I want to maximize every single day and do all that I feel like I’m called to do in this life with my people every day.
Going to be putting out some more music. That’s right. And foremost, [in 2022], dope collaborations, might be a tour on the horizon, you know what I’m saying? You never know.
Check out more from XXL’s Winter 2021 issue including our cover story featuring the XXL awards board members, Juice Wrld's mother reflects on her son, Big30 gears up for his debut album, a look back at the history of remixing hip-hop songs, Latin trap star Eladio Carrion talks about working with Bobby Shmurda and more.