“I Felt Like I Robbed Myself Of My Blessings” An Interview With Rapper Kassim

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PHOTOGRAPHER: Chynna Keys

Back in 2015, while attending Towson University in Maryland, I met Kassim Okusaga. He was my RA and we immediately clicked.

Kassim (currently 26 years old) is a Nigerian-American rapper from the DMV. Shortly upon meeting we stumbled into a conversation about our passions, I mentioned that I’m pursuing a comedy career and he talked about how he’s pursuing a music career. His enthusiasm was palpable and contagious. He beamed with confidence but never a shred of arrogance.

We ended up going to a campus open mic to try to show off our talents. I did a stand-up set and he performed one of his songs. When Kassim got on stage, it no longer felt like we were in a college cafeteria, he performed like he was in Madison Square Garden.

After Towson I moved to LA, but me and Kassim stayed in touch. He’s been making a name for himself, playing packed venues and getting covered by The Washington Post. I decided to reach out to him and catch up. We talked about battling imposter syndrome, and what it’s like being an artist in a pandemic.

This interview was conducted over the phone on April 10th, 2020, in the middle of the COVID19 pandemic. There was a tangible stress in both of our voices, from the social isolation and the onslaught of disturbing news that this pandemic has brought to our front door. Even when COVID19 wasn’t the main topic, it hung over the entire conversation like a tense chandelier.

Here’s the interview, edited for length and clarity.

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PHOTOGRAPHER: Chynna Keys

DREW: How are you doing with everything going on?

KASSIM: Mentally I’m going crazy. It’s too many angles. Like, one, lost my job. But, two, so many people are losing their lives.

The isolation, people dying. It makes you realize everything we take for granted.

And being a performer and being isolated, too. I’ve done two video performances. And I got another coming up next week.

What were those like? I did a virtual stand-up show and I hated it. I thought it was depressing.

Yes yes yes. It’s like, there’s no eye contact. It’s like what I do in my room. I practice my performances alone. But doing that in front of a camera, with the hopes of getting likes and reposts, it was more robotic.

In terms of songwriting, has it been harder to find inspiration lately? Or has that been the same?

I’m a workaholic so luckily I recorded a bunch of ideas. When I went to Towson I was studying business, so I’m a project management freak when it comes to my music, I put everything into three month increments. So I have enough songs right now to last me through early July. And since I have all the free time in the world, I’m studying music now more than ever. I just watched two Motown documentaries, and like, classic performances from Bill Withers. I’m just finding the inspiration.

Do you think music is kind of your safe haven for when you’re stressed? Like, a way to get that stress out?

Yes yes. And I think it reflects what I’m saying within the music. The next song I’m about to drop, it’s called “Anti Imposter Syndrome.” And it got inspired by... just me dealing with imposter syndrome. I deal with it on a day-to-day basis, especially being like an “indie rapper.” It’s like, the talent is there, I know I got the talent, but the numbers don’t reflect. So imposter syndrome seeps in, and I start to question my work.

I feel like imposter syndrome can inspire people to work harder. Like, to prove something to themselves. Do you feel like the imposter syndrome fuels you, too?

Yes, because once I recognized what it was- it took me years to recognize it. But once I recognized it, I felt like I robbed myself of a gift. I felt like I robbed myself of my blessings. But I’m human, there’s always gonna be insecurities within me.

I think we create imposter syndrome within ourselves, so accomplishments don’t get rid of it. Do you think one day, if you accomplish all your dreams, you’ll still have that imposter syndrome?

Absolutely. But I know it’s there, so I gotta be like “whoa, chill out.” And that little nuance allows me to step on stage when I feel butterflies in my stomach. It allows me to network I feel like I’m too awkward. Little changes in my vernacular have helped me. I started to say “when” instead of “I wish.” Like I used to say “yo, I wish I could perform at The Filmore.” (EDITORS NOTE: The Filmore Theater is 2000 seat venue in Silver Spring, MD.) And then I had to change that process, like “wait, that’s actually possible.” When I say “I wish” it seems like it’s out of my reach. And when that day came (when I performed at The Filmore), I was like “whoa, I did it.” But that doesn’t mean that now I feel completely confident in every other avenue. I’m working on that. I’m okay with not being okay. But like, 2020, it’s been fucking up my mental health. I’m going from Juice WRLD, to Kobe, to Pop Smoke, to COVID19. It’s just like “god damn.”

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PHOTOGRAPHER: Jada Imani M

It’s exhausting.

Boom, that’s the word. It’s exhausting.

Does that affect the music? What does that exhaustion do to you as an artist?

It makes me question my mortality. I’ve been doing that A LOT. Instead of wanting to live my life, I wanna accomplish my life. Because I’m so scared that when it ends.. it ends. And that’s always been the truth. But now, more than ever, it’s right in my face.

One of my biggest motivations for my goals is reminding myself that I’m gonna die. Like “I could die any day, I need to do this right now.”

Yeah. And I definitely have that reality. Mortality used to be my reminder to live. Everything you just said is what I’m thinkin, like “yo, you gotta live for the moment.” But its like, it gets to a point, where I’m not allowed to say that without saying “rest in peace” about someone else. And then it gets heavy. It’s at that heavy point now. I think this pandemic is gonna create generational truama.

What have you been doing to try to take care of your mental health while all of this going on?

Going for walks, having long conversations with people, Facetiming, working on music.

Been writing a lot?

Oh, hell yeah.

The songs you’re writing, or any of them directly connected to COVID, or are they just fueled by the trauma?

The issue with trauma is that trauma is ever present. This isn’t the first time I’ve felt trauma. So it’s always gonna be in my music, because life is unfair. I don’t wanna make it seem like this is new territory for me to feel remorse for people. But being related to COVID, I got approached to make one song about being stuck in quarantine. So that song directly reflects that. The song I’m about to drop reflects the imposter syndrome, but you can feel the hopefulness of it.

Songs like that are timeless because there’s always tragedy. We always need hopeful music.

Exactly.

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PHOTOGRAPHER: Jada Imani M

What do you think it’s gonna be like to finally get back on stage when all of this is finally over?

I’m gonna cry.

Me, too, honestly. It sounds dramatic but I really think I’m gonna.

It’s so sacred to me. I mean, we’ve known each other for years, so we both see the passion about it. That passion for getting on stage.

It’s like withdrawal.

Yeah, and it’s gonna mean even more now. Everything we do post-COVID is gonna mean so much more.

What’s its gonna be like to be back in the studio? Same feeling, right?

Same feeling. I’ve been sneaking to the studio sometimes, I’m not gonna lie to you. I just have to create, just in order to maximize my purpose. I just move a lot smarter now. I don’t invite anyone. Just elbow the engineer like “yo, good job.” I’m still working on more music. It’s not gonna be the end for me. I’ve been dropping a song once a month since January 2018.

Takes a lot of work.

It really does. It takes a lot of self discipline. I used to save songs for “the perfect time” but there is no perfect time.

I noticed that about you when we met in college. You treat rap like a full time job.

Thank you, bro. Thank you. And like- that comes from being obsessed. I’m so obsessed with this. I think so highly of myself. I think I’m on the same level as Jay-Z, I think I’m on the same level as Kanye. And it’s up to me to let the world see that, too. So, I’m really obsessed with proving myself right.

When did you know you wanted to do this? What sparked it?

I was 14. I heard So Far Gone for the first time. The song was “Successful.”

That’s still a top 5 Drake song for me.

Yes! Like, oh my god, dude. What a record. I’ll never forget the bar, yo. I’ll never forget the bar. He said “A lot of y’all still sounding like last year, the game-”

“need change and I’m the motherfuckin cashier.”

YES! Oh my god. Yo, that bar. “Dimes in my bed, quarters of the kush shape the lines in my head.” That whole fragment was the exact reason why I started rapping. I remember being 14 years old with my iPod, and I was just like “WHOAAAAA.”

Every bar in that song has weight to it. You just feel it, like “he really means this.”

Yeah! And then he lived it. He lived up to it. So that song just means so much more now.

Yeah, that song gained extra power over the past.. 11 years? Yeah, 11. It’s like a prophecy.
Yeah, its like foreshadowing.

He was like “here’s what I’m gonna do” and then he did it.

That song means so much to me. So like, I just knew it. I was always listening to hip-hop prior to that. In the same rotation, I was heavily listening to Graduation by Kanye, and Carter III by Wayne. But that song in particular did it. But then that imposter syndrome kicked in. So I wrote songs for two years straight, didn’t share it with anybody. Only like three people knew I rapped for those two years. It was like a big secret. But I just knew it. Like the first song I ever recorded, it’s still out on Facebook. It’s embarrassing as hell.

What was the name of the song?

It was called “Here We Go Y’all.” I recorded it on GarageBand, used the mic from the video game “Rock Band” to record it. It was so bad. But it gives me chills, because it’s part the storyline. But that’s why the COVID thing is heart wrenching. Because… COVID doesn’t care. Ya know what I mean? This nice story I just told you, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if you’re on a ventilator.

Yeah. COVID doesn’t care about your goals.

I was mapping it out, I was ready, after the FIlmore show I was like “yo, here we go..” I had all of these plans. And COVID was like “…nigga, chill.” (laughs)

What’s it like to be an artist when you’re just trapped in this loop? Like, the stress of everything going on in the world?

It forces me to look on the brighter side. That’s what I tend to do. We’re in the eye of the storm right now, so we can’t ignore it. But because I understand the magnitude, I’m able to compartmentalize my grief and allow myself space for celebration of life. Back against the wall, it’s 4th quarter, and we’re down by a lot. I can hang the jersey up or I can focus on what I can control. My North Star is my art, that’s what I can control. So it’s much easier for me to be encouraged to write.

I listen to music to cope with everything. I think we need music like we need food and water. Do you feel a need as an artist to give people some positivity during such negative times?

Oh absolutely. Right now escapism means a lot. Things gets so numbing, you need time to breathe. And for me, breathing is living my life. It’s ironic, I used to want to kill myself. When I was 16. I’m so glad I didn’t do that. Like, I’m SO glad I didn’t do that. But since I wanted to, I remember those moments. I’m just like “wow, this is the opposite of that. Now I’m nervous because I wanna stay alive.”

What kept you going when you were 16?

God bless the dead, man. My grandma. She died. Dementia and other complications. She was forgetting who I was. It was bad. But seeing her fight, and seeing her lose, it rocked me to my core. Here she is wanting to stay, and here I am wanting to leave. And man, she never stopped telling me she loved me. She was my first fan. And she was an old fashioned Nigerian lady, she didn’t even know what rap was. Bless her soul. She was the reason why I was like “I gotta fight.” So I wrote a grammy speech when I was 17.

I love that. Writing the speech at 17. Keeping it in your pocket like “I’m gonna give this speech one day.”

Yeah, and in the speech I dedicate the Grammy to her. And on my song that I released the day I graduated in 2017, “Dream More, Sleep Less”, I go “still owe my granny a Grammy.” And I just feel a duty to live up to it.

Absolutely. Like, you owe it to yourself and to her.

Yeah, man. And between you and me… I’m gonna do it.

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