Auxford Wave’s Sudu Upadhyay spoke with former Ole Miss linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche, who goes by the name Zenny Phantom, about his debut single and music video, his transition from football to music, his spiritual journey involving LSD and achieving “inner peace.”
At the peak of his Ole Miss career, Denzel Nkemdiche was one of the faces of the Rebels football program. The always smiling Nkemdiche was the life of the party, the ultimate ambassador for the team and was known for his menacing play on the field despite being labeled as an undersized “linebacker.” It didn’t hurt that Denzel’s little brother Robert was the top recruit in the 2013 recruiting class either. Ole Miss fans knew the happier Denzel was at Ole Miss and the better he played, the better chance the Rebels had at landing Robert. So Denzel naturally caught the eye and attention of the Rebel faithful.
Once Robert got to campus, the Nkemdiche brothers were the talk of the town. Anyone from little kids to someone’s grandma wanted their autographs. Girls wanted to be seen with them and fraternities wanted the brothers at their parties. Oxford was filled with people who wanted a piece of Denzel and Robert Nkemdiche, and Denzel obliged. He signed autographs, smiled and laughed with grandmas, went to events and interacted with fans that loved him for his work on the field. He partied at fraternities, entertained women and went out of his way to make sure everybody he came in contact with felt special.
This lifestyle started taking a toll on Denzel, especially when he realized his passion for football wasn’t as strong as other people wanted it to be. His diminishing love for the sport and the pressure of having to be “Denzel Nkemdiche,” took a toll on the Nkemdiche who now goes by the stage name “Zenny Phantom.” At the end of his Ole Miss football career, Nkemdiche battled depression, entertained suicidal thoughts and spent time in rehab and an asylum. Rampant rumors of heavy LSD use started to surface and the same fans that wanted to be around Nkemdiche started to dismiss him as a “druggy.”
Meanwhile, Nkemdiche was looking for “inner peace.” He now lives with his brother Robert in Arizona and records music in their home studio. Denzel says music has helped him get very close to “inner peace” and hopes to spread his message of love through his “words on a melodic beat.”
SU: Tell me about the debut single and a little bit about the music video.
DN: “It’s called ‘Only Law.’ I end up in a mystical forest place. It’s another place where I’m fighting evil. I wander into the woods and I’m looking at nature and the stars and I run into demons and clowns, and I start running and I run into my friends. It’s like no matter where you go and what you do you will also have your soul group with you.”
SU: What would you call the genre of music you make and what are some themes in your music?
DN: “Hip-hop, wave, soul. I would call it Universal Gang sound. It talks about life is a riddle that only love can solve. I focus on liberty, freeness, the capabilities to do whatever you want. Free in any realm and doing it out of love and peace.”
SU: When did you decide that music is what you wanted to pursue in life?
DN: “When I was younger I used to sing in the church choir and stuff. Then football came around and I let that go. In college, me and Rob did a couple of songs. I’ve just always been in touch with my musical sense. It’s like you’re not listening to music but the music is you. So I was like let me go ahead and express myself in this life with a melodic beat.”
SU: What kind of music did you listen to growing up and how did that change once you started going through some personal stuff?
DN: “When I was younger I was listening to Usher, Beyonce, Chingy, New Edition, and 50 Cent. When we were in the car with our parents our ears were very protected. So we would listen to Whitney Houston, Luther Vandross, Bob Marley, Michael Bolton and Kenny G. That was good music. It definitely helped a lot with being touch with that side of music. When we started life and life goes on and we started experiencing things and started to gravitate towards how we were feeling it changed. At times I’ve been really close to Kendrick Lamar. He’s one of my favorite rappers. Earl Sweatshirt’s another one of my favorite rappers. I’m in love with Sade, Erykah Badu and Andre 3000. Eminem is probably my top rapper out of all rappers I’ve named. I feel like I’ve gone through a lot of stuff that he’s gone through. In the case of depression, negative thoughts, suicidal thoughts. Honest things about your purpose of being here and wanting true love. Wanting to understand why we’re put here. Why is hate a thing? Why isn’t there only love. It gets me deep and makes me actually wonder why. People can say that I’m crazy but that’s how I feel.”
SU: I’ve heard your artist name, “Zenny Phantom,” comes from the word Zen and the Nickelodeon cartoon series Danny Phantom.
DN: “Yeah that’s right. It’s one of my favorite cartoons. Danny Phantom is the ghost boy and I related to that.”
SU: You came to Ole Miss as a relatively unknown player and found your way on the field despite being labeled an undersized linebacker. What was your mindset like when you first got here?
DN: “I was always a child or teenager that lived in the moment. I was never thinking forward about my football career or anything. I was just trying to take in the journey and enjoy the process. Early on when I redshirted I wasn’t depressed or sad or anything like that. I got to a point that I was like, ‘if I go hard against these guys that actually play on Saturdays that it can build some type of confidence. Once that confidence was built, the next season I got a feel of it and found out (football) is a mental game. It’s a game about angles and it’s a game of courage and hard work. I had to keep going and it got me to a point where I was able to make my way to the field.”
SU: Once you broke out as one of the top players on that 2012 football team. How did your life change?
DN: “I was taking pictures everywhere, getting invited to sorority houses, signing autographs everywhere. I was going to speak at different speeches, judging pageants, doing commercials, I was on billboards. Doing everything possible that a college athlete could be doing.”
SU: Were you happy?
DN: “I was happy in the sense of connecting with people. I love meeting new people, I love making people laugh and seeing genuine happiness. The joy came from being able to connect to anyone from babies to grandparents. That was kind of my joy. That wide range of connection.”
SU: I’ve heard you talk about achieving inner peace. Tell me about it a little.
DN: “If I have inner peace that means I have a chance to shine my life on others. Until you find your inner peace you’re always gonna lack somewhere.”
SU: Are you at the point of inner peace?
DN: “No because there’s always a new day. You might’ve gone to sleep with inner peace but the next day there’s something else that you have to battle with to obtain that inner peace. Inner peace is a never ending thing. You get to a point when you can get there faster. You’re close enough to avoid doing irrational things.”
SU: Where does music rank in your life? How important was music when you were “Denzel Nkemdiche star linebacker for Ole Miss?”
DN: “Music just helped me express myself more. I felt like a lost soul. I was giving so much of myself to people. I was always smiling and it’s like they don’t know my favorite band, they don’t know what type of shoes I like, they don’t know my favorite meal. They just look at it like I got a picture and an autograph with Denzel Nkemdiche.”
SU: It seems like the fame and fandom affected you a little bit. If it did, how so?
DN: “They knew my number. I was a number to them. I was the good number. Humans we like rare things that other people can’t do easily. I appreciate that. They were admiring my quote unquote gifts, but I look at it as just hard work. It did upset me a little bit. I couldn’t even have a conversation with a girl without her being like ‘you probably talk to a lot of girls.’”
SU: What was that like? Giving yourself to fans all the time but knowing they love you strictly because of how you make them feel when you’re on the football field. Did that add onto some of the problems you had at the end of your Ole Miss career?
DN: “Things like that got me here. People don’t know I’ve been to rehab and the asylums. Just my own depression. My suicidal thoughts. The programming of being Denzel Nkemdiche. The battle between the ego and myself.”
SU: You had a shot at going into pro football. Where was your drive to play football towards the end of your time at Ole Miss?
DN: “My passion was fading for football. If It’s not your dream and you’re pursuing it, you’re doing it wrongly. I also wanted to finish playing with my baby brother. That team was special though. It’s a beautiful sport, a beautiful game but the whole process of the ‘you must act this way, you need to stand here,’ the pressure on Saturdays, if you win you’re God, ‘if you lose we’re coming to kill you.’ I just got tired of that.”
SU: How much did the constant attention of women affect you and the way you acted and felt?
DN: “Lyrics that I said in my recent song were, ‘impressed by the women, got pressed by the women, depressed by the women.’ I got caught up in the lust. I got caught up in the ‘oh Denzel’s got the girls if he ain’t got the girls something was up.’ I was giving so much of my energy to keep the girls around and lying and sometimes I was telling one girl one thing and another something else. I was becoming a lie. I was living a lie. That’s not love. That’s lust.”
SU: At the end of your career. When you kind of left football before the season ended, people thought you were just on a lot of drugs and that’s what led to your time in rehab. Tell me about that.
DN: “I didn’t go to rehab because of drugs. I went to rehab because I was getting pushed to play football. My mind was unstable because so many people were telling me to do this and that and I was forgetting to leave time for myself. At the end of the day, everything that I’ve done has gotten me to this point.”
SU: It’s no secret anymore that you experimented with LSD and other drugs. What did that do for you?
DN: “I did it because I felt like it would impact my spiritual journey. It wasn’t like an everyday thing. Everybody tries drugs, it’s college. You experience. You try things. You live and you learn. Everybody has done that for the most part if you quote unquote party, but you get to a point where sometimes people let the drugs do them instead of doing the drugs. I’m not promoting drugs. I’m just saying if you’re going to experiment don’t do it from a place where you’re depressed.”
SU: How is your life different now from what it used to be when you were “Denzel Nkemdiche, star linebacker for the Ole Miss Rebels?”
DN: “When I wake up, I do a little workout, jump rope, talk to Rob a little bit, get some sun and then I’ll get to work. Get to writing and get to recording. “It’s so good to be this free. I don’t even like to go back and compare my life now to then. I’m happy and I’m getting stronger day by day.”