It’s sometimes hard to believe that the music industry, with its obsession with big stars and bigger sales, is capable of recognizing independent artists in any formal way.
Hard to believe, but definitely not impossible: D.C.’s own Kokayi and soul singer Wayna are nominated in the Best Urban/Alternative Performance category of the 51st Annual Grammy Awards for “Lovin’ You,” a remake of the Minnie Ripperton classic. The song appears on Wayna’s album Higher Ground; Kokayi both produced the track and contributed vocals.
Kokayi, a Southeast native who is both a solo artist and member of Opus Akoben, says this nomination is a milestone in his career that has only motivated him to want more. City Paper got a chance to catch up with the artist the as he touched down in L.A., two days before this Sunday’s Grammy awards.
Washington City Paper: You got nominated man!
WCP: Did you ever think this was possible?
Kokayi: Being Grammy nominated was like people telling me we’re getting ready to have a Black President. Like, you always know it’s possible, but in the back of your mind… I tell you, on election evening when the results started coming in, I started seeing some numbers and it looked like he might win, but, boy, I know some bullshit is about to jump off. Because in my mind, my whole life my parents have told me that you can be anything you want to be, but in the back of African-Americans’ minds, there was still some small doubt that they ain’t gonna let that shit happen.
Now, take it to the Grammy side of the game for cats from D.C. that don’t have any major record label. Now the Grammys tell you, you know, you can be nominated. You can submit your own record for nomination and you too can be a Grammy winner. So, off of the dream of I could be a Grammy winner, you have all these people in the music industry vying for this prestigious award. So, long story short, hell no I didn’t think it would happen! I just thought we would have a record submitted and we would see what happens. The thing that was most surprising is when our names got through the first round of nominations. After we got through the first round, for me, being a person of faith, it was an open ball game.
WCP: So describe the day when you found it you were officially nominated.
Kokayi: It was 9:30pm, December the 5th. The vice president of the Grammy Chapter in D.C. and the executive director of the Grammy Chapter D.C. called me and said, “You alright?” and I said, “What are you talkin’ about?” He said, “You sittin’ down?” I said, “Get out of here.” He said, “Ya’ll are nominated.” And I said, “Fuck outta here!” I couldn’t stop laughing for a day and I couldn’t stop crying for a day. It was crazy because on that day I had the same feelings when Barack became president. Like all the things that I’ve been told that can’t ever happen, have been happenin’. It’s not supposed to happen for some independent artist from D.C.
Then on a personal level, I’ve been hustling for years to get in and crack the ceiling. I’ve had these major deals and to get some love on rippin’ a remake is unreal!
WCP: So what’s the experience been out in L.A. thus far?
Kokayi: My whole experience so far has just been, being in L.A… it’s really the experience that lead up to this day of actually being here. I had a misconception that soon as people would say you’re Grammy nominated, your phone would start ringing off the hook with offers and deals. It’s still another process of publicizing the fact that I even got a nomination, because [if] it’s December and I’m tellin’ you I got nominated and the Grammys aren’t until February, [it] means it’s not newsworthy. So, I have to get my hustle going and bump up my own news.
WCP: Now I know you’ve gotten to the Grammys, so at this point anything is possible, but no matter the outcome, what has this experience done for you as a person/musician?
Kokayi: It just makes me want it more. It’s not like playin’ the lotto and hittin’ for a dollar. It’s more like hittin’ for $150,000 and I might have to go ahead and run and get another ticket. (Laughs)
WCP: Before you left for L.A. what was been the reaction in D.C.?
Kokayi: I mean people are really, really proud, but you do have a number of artists that are really, really jaded. I think a lot of people that know us as musicians and our friends, I think we’re the inspiration because it’s hard because 9 out of 12 times you never meet the people that are nominated and for a hip-hop dude you know how that goes.
WCP: So what’s on the itinerary for tomorrow?
Kokayi: Tomorrow is producers meeting and then I’m running around trying to make sure my outfits are tight. Then I have to pick up my tickets and then I’m just trying to have fun. Like I said, the whole thing about the Grammy experience is, a lot of people try to pimp it. And yeah, I’m going to pimp it, but I’m not going to lose any focus on having a good time while I’m here. Forever and ever I will be Grammy-nominated and no one can take that away. My wife is here with me. [She] has been here late nights when I didn’t have anything and when I was at the top of my game, so she’s been through it all. For her to be with me right now is great, so I want to relish that.
WCP: So what are you rocking to the Grammys?
Kokayi: I hit my man Paul up over at Puma and he gave me a box of Pumas that are crazy! I got some Pumas that ain’t anybody seen or heard of, these are some tuxedo joints, all black rubber pumas, they look like patent leather but they’re not. So I have the pumas with a pair of black Levi’s, a black silk shirt with cuff links and either a white sport jacket, that’s either [plain] white or stoned. Then they have a nominee dinner, which is on Saturday and they have you walk around for the entire day with a gold media that says “Nominee” on it.
WCP: Sounds like your ready?
Kokayi: Oh, I’m ready; I’m no takin’ no prisoners. I had my [eye] exam before I dipped, I just bought me some fresh shades, so if you see me on the red carpet, just act like you know me a little bit.