By: Ben Garrett (@SpiritBen)
The last year-plus has been a year of transition for former Ole Miss linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche.
Nkemdiche, a four-year letterman at Ole Miss, has left football behind. He’s now focused on music. Nkemdiche is one of the founding members of Universal Gang, a production company that encourages artistry in all forms, including Nkemdiche’s foray into hip-hop, where he goes by the stage name Zenny Phantom.
Nkemdiche — whose brother, Robert, is a former Ole Miss All-American defensive tackle and first round selection of the Arizona Cardinals in 2016 — released his debut single, ‘Only Law,’ in February. Next up is ‘Zennastacia,’ which Nkemdiche said is a departure from the darker tone of its predecessor, embracing more positive themes.
“The first song that I released was kind of dark and dealing with inner demons,” Nkemdiche said. “But this song is showing the other side — the beauty, the light, the joyfulness, the happiness to life.”
Nkemdiche’s troubled Ole Miss career is well-documented. He dealt with a handful of issues during his time in Oxford, with his career cut short as a redshirt senior in 2015 due to drug issues. There were bouts of depression, too.
Nkemdiche tackles it all in his music, which he believes speaks to his growth. ‘Zennastacia,’ for example, speaks to his current happiness. Nkemdiche was a freshman All-American in 2012 after leading the Rebels in tackles with 82. He also registered 13.0 tackles for loss, four forced fumbles and three interceptions.
He was twice named All-SEC.
“The theme (of my music) is my transition from the world of athletics to the free world of art,” he said. “It’s really just discussing my transition from football to music and the obstacles I had to overcome to breakaway from what I’d been doing for nine years.”
Nkemdiche is set to release his first album at the end of the month. Meanwhile, Universal Gang, in conjunction with Apollo, will hold an art showcase June 3 at Studio Space in Atlanta.
Nkemdiche said the response to his artistic pursuits, so far, has been positive. For Nkemdiche, however, the work is only beginning. He has visions of Universal Gang becoming its own music label, among its myriad other ventures. And if it’s up to Nkemdiche, he’ll be among Universal Gang’s initial wave of artists.
But those are thoughts for another day. Continuing to churn out music, as well as finding a balance between adapting to his audience and staying true to self, is the goal for the immediate future.
And he’s enjoying every minute of it.
“It’s been awesome,” he said. “I’ve been getting approached by different labels and a lot of different managers. I’ve gotten incredible feedback from a diverse audience. It’s been very, very, very good. But I’m just taking it day by day and going organically in how I feel. Right now I don’t see myself signing with a label because eventually we want to become our own label. It’s why I haven’t signed with a label yet, but it has been incredible feedback from everybody.”
You can see his new video, “Zennastacia,” here: