This true-life story is a repost from our sister site, Our Life Logs®
Read it on the site: https://www.ourlifelogs.com/post/a-new-familiar
A New Familiar
This is the story of Ikechi ('Kechi) Ihemeson as captured by the team at Our Life Logs. The following is brought to you in partnership with Guitars Over Guns, and organization that aims to change the lives of disadvantaged students through music and strong, consistent mentorship. We hope you check them out!
In the early ‘80s, my dad left his home in Nigeria to go to college in the US, and he decided to stay. After he and my mom settled into their new lives in Chicago, my older sister came into the picture in ‘95, followed by me in ’97, and my younger sisters in ’98 and 2000.
My dad is holding me and sitting with my older sister shortly after I was born, 1997.
The culture of my home was fully Nigerian – Igbo to be specific. We ate jollof rice, ofe and ogbono soup on the regular. Nollywood movies played in the background while I played on my GameCube or practiced my multiplication tables. The language was peppered into our conversations (though I could never pick it up). My mom wove stories from her past into the fabric of our history. She made sure my three sisters and I held a connection to her family by showing us old pictures of our extended family back home. I could tell she missed them by the way she carefully recalled each of the anecdotes surrounding every photo. She sacrificed a lot coming here for our sake. But it was worth it to her.
One of the many photoshoots I did as a kid. I loved being in front of the camera (still do), 2001.
When I was seven, my parents divorced, and my sisters and I lived primarily with my mom. Dad would pop in here and there, but from then on, it was my mom who raised us. With this change came an underlying tension in the house and, as the only boy in the family, I always felt like I had a spotlight on me. I felt that I had to be at my best at all times.
Like every other child in a first-generation household—especially in Nigerian culture—I was expected to become either a doctor, lawyer, or engineer. As a kid, I thought, “That works for me” because I didn’t know anything about myself. Who does? It weighed on me as I got older.
To keep up with this demand, I found myself performing to keep up with expectations. I acted how I was supposed to. By the time I moved on to middle school, I had created a different mask for every environment I was thrown into. It was easier to fit in with the mask on. After all, I didn’t know what was behind the mask, and I didn’t care to find out.
One important thing to know about me before we move forward: I love music. I always have. At three years old, I’d go to my bedroom and harmonize with whatever music was on, beating my foot against the wall to make rhythms. I think my love of my music stemmed from my dad who was a choirmaster back in Nigeria. He kept an old keyboard in the basement, and I always found myself wandering down there to play around on it.
To keep us busy, my mom signed my sisters and me up for musical theatre. From third through seventh grade, I learned how to sing, act, and dance. I even took piano classes for a bit in fourth grade and mastered the basic scales. In fifth grade, I joined the band. At first, I tried out the sax, but after a few months, I gained more of a fascination towards the trumpet and switched. While in the band, I also learned a bit of the drums at church.
Outside of music, I still wanted to do “cool” stuff and play sports like the other kids. I got involved in a lot of what my friends wanted to join. I was just moving with the herd; maybe you can relate.
While I was finishing up middle school, my mom already had her little plan for me and my sisters: we would go to boarding school in Nigeria. It was Mom’s way of keeping us connected to the culture and to finally meet her family. In July 2011, we landed in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, late at night, then took a three-hour drive to Owerri, Imo State, not far from my parents’ villages (Mbaise on my mom’s side, Obowo on my dad’s side). I finally got to meet the people I had only ever seen in pictures. I shook my grandfather’s hand. I hugged my aunts. This part of the trip was very much like a homecoming.
And then…boarding school began. I was whisked away from my sisters, aunts, uncles and cousins, and sent off to a Catholic boarding school close to village territory. It felt like a prison cell – a row of bunk beds lined up in the dorm room with my classmates. Straight out of a movie. Oh, and it was an all-boys school. I was not a born-Nigerian, so I stuck out like a sore thumb to them. Kids called me all sorts of names; one I got a lot was ndi ocha, an insult that poked fun of my Americanness. Over time, I picked up on some of the quirks and pidgin English, but I never felt like I belonged.
All could I do was study and do really well in my classes, but what did that do for my happiness? With no one to talk to really, I started journaling. I used to write funny little stories in grade school that went nowhere, but this was different. This kind of writing helped calm me and made me realize the thoughts and emotions I’d been facing. Some of the writings even became lyrics down the road. While I was away from home and away from music, I realized how badly I missed it.
After a year in Nigeria, my sisters and I returned to America and began high school, and I started my sophomore year at Hinsdale Central. I also returned to music and continued the poetry and musings in my notebook. I started listening to all kinds of music, from ‘60s soul, to ‘70s rock, to hip hop. I really admired Lupe Fiasco. With Lupe, I discovered how deep lyrics can go. I’d pull up lyrics on RapGenius and think, wow…this is what this dude is saying? Through the same site, I started studying annotations for lyrical meanings and learning the intricacies for my own writing. Eventually, my poetry turned to songs.
The rest of my high school career was filled with more of what I liked. What I actually liked—music-oriented clubs, choir, theater, and even an a cappella group (called the Acafellas). I felt most like myself when I was wrapped up in the arts.
On Black Friday my senior year, my mom found an 88-key keyboard on sale that I still use to this day. When she gave it to me, I was thrilled to have one to replace the old one left by my dad. I finally had the tools to fully explore my music interests. I brought sheet music home from school, found more on Google, and watched YouTube videos as I played around on my piano. At that point, I was fully obsessed.
Despite all that, I was still convinced that I could be happy with the pre-med route my mom wanted for me. So, I started the program at Northwestern University. From the first class, I knew it wasn’t for me. I liked chemistry, but not college-level chemistry; I liked bio even less (and at that point, all hope is lost). I liked the idea of helping people, but I couldn’t see myself in a lab coat. I couldn’t commit to this interesting yet unfulfilling path for the rest of my life. Despite the pleas of my mother to please, please change my mind, I switched to the classical voice program.
As I’m sure you can tell, my mom wasn’t happy, and why would she be? Her sacrifices were supposed to help me get a high-paying job. Instead, I chose to cast myself into risky territory. But a life of appeasing everyone around was getting old. When I discovered my passion, I didn’t let anyone change my mind.
Me in a practice room at Northwestern, where I spent most of my time creating and practicing.
Breaking away from those expectations gave me the space to look further into my identity. I looked inward. I wondered how connected I truly was to my racial identity—to everything in the past that defined the society around me. I spent the summer of 2017 reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X on the long-ass train rides to and from my job at the university center. That book opened my eyes to how much I had to learn about myself as a Black man in America, intersecting that with my Igbo-Nigerian heritage. I started writing down my life experiences related to both and putting it into my lyrics.
Just as I was doing that, I began to feel torn between the different groups I’d joined, always having to code-switch to fit into any environment. Different mask. Different performance. I was in a mostly white frat, with white singing majors in classes, but gravitating toward fellow black singers through a black a cappella group I music directed, Soul4Real. On top of all that, I was also in a peer advisor position that helped incoming freshman. It felt less like being a representative of the school and more like a racial quota prize. I had a lot on my plate and, honestly, I was not taking care of myself.
I felt like an outsider in all the groups. I’d met some really great people, and I do respect their impact on my life at the time, but in my quiet moments, I felt it hard to catch my breath. In between my busy schedule, I was writing music in a beaten-up, red composition notebook. I started creating melodies to go with my written words. I poured my heart into those pages. It became my way to get my thoughts out.
As I became more confident with my songs, I started performing at open mics on campus around junior year. Initially, I was just reciting my lyrics in spoken word. The first open mic I actually performed to music was in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. I had a fellow a cappella member, Slade, accompany me on guitar and backup vocals to a song I had written over a year ago called “Eyes to The Hills.” It felt good to finally have my melodies and compositions heard by people.
At that performance, there was a special guest for the evening, an emcee who went by Add-2. He did some spoken word-style rapping, just like the way I started out a few months earlier. I was so amazed by his lyrical performance, particularly with one piece he didn’t even finish while on stage. (Let’s just say…he carefully read the room. Northwestern, y’know.) I went up to him after the event to meet him and hear the rest, to which he gladly obliged.
He complimented me on my sound and exchanged Instagram handles with me, saying I could message him about music anytime. It felt great to have people tell me they rocked with something I’d written.
The moment of revelation for me occurred in a basement show in May that year. One of my friends was part of a music group, .WAV Company, that hosted shows for Northwestern artists and offered me a full ten-minute set. I blindly accepted, knowing full well I didn’t have material prepared for that.
I had three weeks to pull scraps together and practice for what felt like my official debut. I had my homie Slade back me up on guitar again, and I decided to hop on keys too along with an instrumental track I produced in class (that later became “Bells” off my EP).
That Thursday night, with 30 or so people crowded into a basement, I gingerly walked up to the mic after the host called my name. I was supposed to start with “Bells,” but they had trouble pulling it up. To push off the quiet of the room, I decided to improvise and started singing “Get You” by Daniel Caesar a cappella as a sort of warm up. My a cappella group was there, and they started doing background vocals (we did an arrangement of that song earlier in the year). The crowd loved it.
I finally went into a couple of originals. The next song, called “Melody,” I did with Slade on guitar, had me hopping between rapping and singing (and scatting; more improvising). By the end of the first verse, a few people were singing along to the hook. By the end of the set, everyone was singing along like a choir. I had the best time of my life.
I finished my set off on keys, singing my song “Just,” and walked off with so much joy in my heart and adrenaline in my veins. I knew at that moment: this is it. I was born to be an artist.
I’m performing my first city gig at Uncommon Ground with the band (more tambourine!), 2019. Photo creds: Maytham Alzayer.
By the summer of 2018, I had felt great about where my music was headed. But that was also the summer that a lot was going on at once. Our family was moving, I was working an internship, and I was looking for a space to do my music. That was when I remembered meeting Add-2 and hit him up on Instagram. When he learned that I was looking for a space, he invited me to go to Haven Studio, a studio created by him through Guitars Over Guns (GOGO).
The studio was located in the basement of a church. As soon as I stepped inside, I started playing around with beats they had on hand for me to mess with, and soon enough, I’d written and recorded a song. The first recording was rough because I was reading from a notebook and I was new to it. But it felt great to hear my music recorded. It helped me see where I needed to improve.
I started going to the studio all the time, but not always to record. Sometimes, just to hang out and see the other artists who came through. It seemed all the other musicians were so confident and comfortable mingling amongst themselves. For me? I felt like an outsider again. I was a classically trained suburbanite going to school on the opposite side of town.
It wasn’t until I met another musician, Chris, that I felt that “otherness” fade. I walked into the studio one day, and he was at the piano playing come classical piece. It was like he knew I was coming (hint: he did). We hit it off from there. Later that week, he told the studio about a gig he had in Logan Square. I decided to pop up, much to his surprise. It was evident that we respected each other as artists and started collaborating from there.
Being around Chris and other musicians made me realize the voice program I’d chosen was too narrow, so I wound up switching to a Bachelor of Arts in the music program to help open more doors.
That, and I began to realize that I was going to feel like an outsider everywhere. If I wanted a home, a place to feel like myself, I was going to have to create that space on my own. I always came alive when I was writing and playing music, so I decided to make my songs and my performances for anyone who came to listen. I wanted my music to feel familiar—like home.
In my last year of school, I started working on an EP called The Light. After graduating in 2019, I continued building up my music career. I kept the mindset of “I’m going to do this and keep doing this no matter what.”
I had my first headlining show in the city at a place called Uncommon Ground. From there, I just kept playing and playing. Sometimes I’d play alone, sometimes I'd go to open mics and riff with Chris, eventually accompanying him on keys. Today, I’ve been working odd jobs in between, but through it all, I’m pursuing my dreams without worrying about what’s expected of me. And if music is really my way to leave a mark on the world, then I have to pursue it without expectations, without caveats, and without a mask.
Nature photoshoot inspired by new music. Photo creds: Ofega.
This is the story of Ikechi ('Kechi) Ihemeson
‘Kechi resides in the suburbs of Chicago where he continues to pursue music and create a place of belonging for himself and his listeners. In his free time, ‘Kechi loves to read and some of his favorite books include The Alchemist, Native Son, and Outliers. A self-described gym nut, ‘Kechi has been working on upping how much he can bench press. He is currently at about 265lb. During the pandemic, ‘Kechi also got into running after participating in a running challenge in honor of Ahmaud Abery, an unarmed black man who was murdered by three white men pursuing him while he was jogging. When he’s not out playing shows with his friend Chris (also the artist F.A.B.L.E, read his story here), ‘Kechi is watching TV. He loves crime dramas and mob crime movies like Narcos and American Gangster. He also enjoys shows like Avatar the Last Airbender and Bojack Horseman. ‘Kechi hopes to continue to reach his audience and make them feel like they’re home when they hear his songs.
Our Life Logs® partnering with:
‘Kechi is featured on the first-ever Guitars Over Guns album “The Rain May Be Pouring” which is comprised of original music from the mentors, students, and alumni of the organization. The album defines the feeling and impact of 2020.
Writers: Kristen Petronio; 'Kechi | Editor: Colleen Walker | Feature Image: F.A.B.L.E.