Former Ole Miss linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche now goes by Zenny Phantom, and released his first album, Grey Pixels, on October 27th. Auxford Wave caught up with him to talk about his album, philosophies, future plans and using music to escape from a dark place.
Auxford Wave: What it’s been like dropping your first album?
Zenny Phantom: It’s been a blissful awakening, It’s been amazing. I’ve had a lot of very very inspirational feedback of individuals just going through tough times in their life right now, who are getting happy feels from it, and they’ve been really feeling like there’s people out there that understand the struggle or whatever they’re going through, someone to relate to. It’s been an amazing experience, it’s hard to put into words.
AW: Now that you’ve released your first album, does it feel like this dream of doing music is kind of real now?
ZP: It’s a huge dream that has become reality. I had a dream a couple years ago and that was to play college football with my baby brother Robert Nkemdiche and that dream became a reality. And it was a blissful feeling, something that I can never change or duplicate that type of experience, which is very similar to this dream that just came to life and is a reality now.
AW: You focused on football for a while, and you’re focusing on music. Did you always want to go into music, or did your goals change over time?
ZP: I’ve always loved music. In church, when I was young I used to lead the church choir sometimes, and I would do special songs on mother’s day. I played trumpet growing up, I was in the band and played the snare drum also.
My parents weren’t really big on sports, that’s the Nigerian culture, they’re really hard on education, keep your head in the books type, but once I got to high school all my friends were playing football. And I thought I might as well get involved too. I used to play backyard football and basketball on the streets but nothing ever organized. So finally I got into organized sports and was like ‘this is fun, I get to compete against other teams with some of my best friends. Everything I do I want to be the best at it, whatever it is I’m gonna try my hardest, give my best effort to be the best at whatever it is.
Towards the end of college, I kind of wanted to start making my own music. I want to start creating. I was out freestyling a lot, messing around with it and I was like ‘I actually want to start composing and actually putting projects together and making songs that I can listen to, and for others to make them relate. It was just another outlet to connect with other individuals. It was a beautiful way to connect. I loved playing football because of that connection. I was able to connect to every different ethnicity, every different group, It was just a real thing for me, the connection between individuals, and music was another outlet that I felt like, God, the universe, blessed me with the ability to pursue the gift that was given in the music industry. The discipline and work ethic that I was brought up with and also through college football, it really helped with transitioning over to music as I guess a career.
I don’t like to call it a career because it’s actually like a getaway, a vacation. It’s the happy place, a safe haven from a lot of the cruel things that happen in today’s world. It resonates well with other people. You can sit there and preach and do motivational speaking, but you can’t really run from sound waves and ignore what someone is talking about. When your body feels a certain vibration, you can’t deny that, it kind of grabs a hold of you. That’s why this dream is becoming a bigger dream now, because after this first album the feedback, the messages, the stories, just the reactions from listeners. I don’t like using the word fans, I say fam because without them there’s no me. It’s a two-way street. If you’re able to relate to my music, that means we’re feeling very close, because in my music I like to share my life and I like talking about my journey. I like talking about the hope that I hold onto. So when they can relate to that, they become family automatically because that’s my life. If they relate to my life, they’re family. It’s a very beautiful thing that’s been going on.
AW: You’ve talked about being in a dark place at the end of your time at Ole Miss, did music help you move on from that?
ZP: Music was the light, music is the light, and music will be the light for me for staying out of the darkness, for moving forward with life and progress, and following my life’s journey and staying the course. Recently I’ve been talking to a couple of my old teammates who were wondering where have I been, why I didn’t pursue football…they’re just so proud that I followed my intuition because we were in the same realm of things. We were waking up at 5:30, going to work out, practice, doing it for years and years. I’ve never lost passion for football, its just I had to follow my intuition and pursue music because it was calling very loud, I needed it for my sanity.
(One Eminem song lose yourself) I feel every word he was saying now. Once you have that calling and you pick up, you have the choice to either hang or stay on the line. I’ve been on the line ever since I picked up the call. That took me out of that dark place.
AW: What was the recording process for the album like?
ZP: I kind of pieced it together, the album was inspired off of one of my closest friends now, he’s an older man who was homeless, and he moved in and was living with me. He told us a story about one time he was under a bridge and it was raining outside. On the album, the song is called In a House W/ Ac. Now he has somewhere to sleep, he has a house with AC. He’s one of my best friends now, he’s like an uncle to me.
It just kind of sparked feels, the album is really about feels. That was part of the motivation or drive to complete this album. it just kind of came together so well and so effortless. It was like I was being used as a vessel, and its been a beautiful process. Sometimes I was in the studio until 7 in the morning, it was a beautiful feeling. Its been a beautiful process.
AW: What’s the story behind the song a day in the life?
ZP: It’s where I’m at right now. No matter what is thrown my way, I cant look at it as negative. I’m above the noise, I just look at is as a blessing. I’m way too high, and I can’t come down. It’s really just saying that I’m in a blissful place in life, where if something “negative” at the time you might not understand why its happening to you, but its either to teach you a lesson or to help someone else out to learn, because you’re strong enough to take on whatever comes your way. Its pretty much saying that there’s a higher being, a god, universe, whatever you want to call it, and that I’m connected with it. That I personally believe in it, and I’m way too high to come down mentally. Every day I wake up with the mindset, no matter what comes my way today, I will take it on full force, and nothing can bring me down from where I’m at right now.
AW: How important is the visual side of your projects?
ZP: I want to be a director one day, and I’m definitely working towards that, I love visuals. I think visuals are everything, especially now that we have the technology to capture almost as much as the human eye can capture, with cameras. A picture can tell a thousand words, but a video can tell a million. I feel like songs and visuals as music go hand-in-hand. I feel like most artists that I listen to, like Pink Floyd, Janis Joplin, the Beatles, they were trying to tell a story. They were trying to tell us about their life. (…) Now, if someone in another country that can’t understand the language that anyone is speaking, but they see the visual and it’s a story being told, no matter if they didn’t understand the lyrics, they can understand what the artist was trying to say.
AW: When you were at Ole Miss, did you find it hard to be yourself like you can now?
ZP: I’ve always felt like I can. I‘ve always felt like I could be myself, but everybody grows, everybody evolves. We all blossom, we all go through experiences that allow us to grow and become more of our true selves. At Ole Miss, I knew what eyes were watching. I knew what I signed up for. I signed up to be on TV, and to be looked up to by children. I knew what position I was in at that time of my life. Now it’s a little different, because now I’m an artist, so I didn’t sign anything. Now its just I’m sharing my story and I’m going to only connect with people in another way. I’ve connected with a lot of people though football. Strong relationships, still today. Brothers, older mentors, but now its another stage of my life. It’s knowing what realm I’m in now, knowing what I can and cannot do.
AW: You talk about love a lot in the album, what message about love are you trying to tell your fan base?
ZP: That love is the only reason that we’re here. Love is the only thing that can save us. Love is practiced in every religion. Love is something that they had in the Little Rascals, love is something that they had in The Notebook. Love is everywhere, we are love. The message is how can we express that more, how can we show genuine love more? Love is action. What action can we do, how can I share my experience and my journey and what I’ve gone through, and let people know that I still believe in love? No matter what happens, where I’ve been, going to the asylum or the downfalls, or my mom going to Nigeria, none of my complaints or trials and tribulations, I can’t find a place in my heart to feel hate. I still do my best to feel love no matter what goes on.
AW: How did you come up with the album art and title?
ZP: Everything is so black and white these days, with what is right or wrong. Everything is so black or white, and everyone doesn’t look at the grey pixels, the unknown, the things we can’t explain, the things we try our hardest to explain. No one wants to dabble in that because it can lead you in a state where you don’t really know. So people are afraid of not knowing, not having the answer. I was trying to explain where I was at in my life in the gray area, the unknown.
AW: Any plans for a live show?
ZP: I’m definitely setting some things up. For sure have a show Dec 2 here in Arizona at a big-time art gallery hosted by Chase and a few other local artists. Definitely working on some shows out here, and definitely talking with some fraternities at Ole Miss to come back and do some spring parties, and also may do a show at the Lyric.
You can listen to the album here: