Austin360 Artist of the Month: Harry Edohoukwa burns with passion
“Fire on the Mountain,” the debut full-length from Harry Edohoukwa, is not a party-rap record.
The album is a reckoning. A call to prayer. The anguished cry of an artist on his knees, hands to the heavens, searching for truth.
“I thought I found Jesus. I thought I found peace. I thought I found Jesus. I thought I found me,” Edohoukwa wails on opening track “No Rule,” setting a tone of fervent intensity that defines the release.
“This album is me figuring myself out,” the 26-year-old rapper said at a hotel bar in downtown Austin the day before the album dropped. It came in the aftermath of a dark period of his life. Out of college and coming into himself as a young man, he found himself acting out. Doing things he didn’t like.
“Like treating the people that I love and the people that love me terrible. And I’d go on benders for no reason, and I was just destroying my body,” he said. “The stuff that I was filling my mind with (was) manifesting in such ugly ways.”
Edohoukwa grew up in McKinney, north of Dallas. The son of hard-working and hard-praying immigrants, he was raised in the church.
“My parents being Nigerian and just strong believers, I was always in the church,” Edohoukwa said. As a young boy, participation in choir was mandatory. He was expected to attend services twice a week. “Sometimes I could weasel out of Wednesday, but Sunday morning, I was in church no matter what,” he said with a laugh.
His instinct was to rebel, to postpone reckoning with the Holy Ghost until he had worked out his wilder impulses: “I literally told myself, ‘God, I’ll come to you when I’m 40. Just let me do what I’ve gotta do right now. I just want to have my fun. I just wanna go out and party, drink, sin, do whatever.”
This plan, naturally, flew in the face of familial duty.
“Having Nigerian parents out here in America, they came here to give me a better life, so the most important thing to them is me having that better life,” Edohoukwa said.
His family’s cross-continental journey defined their expectations about his life path. Education was paramount. In their dreams, Edohoukwa would become a doctor, an engineer or a lawyer. To make his mother happy, he settled on law.
“I tried it,” he said. Edohoukwa went to Texas A&M University’s Commerce campus on a track scholarship, studying pre-law. "Literally within the first week I quit track, I changed my major and I just called them and I was just like, ‘Hey guys, this is not how my life is gonna go.’”
Edohoukwa’s parents were supportive, but they insisted he finish a four-year college education. So he transferred to Austin Community College and then to Texas State University, where he completed a degree in advertising. While in college, he began throwing his own shows as a way to get his name out there.
“No one’s even listening to my music,” he said of those days. “When I send them emails, no one’s responding. But when I tell them, ‘Hey, let me rent out your space,’ they’re like, ‘Heck yeah, come on over.’”
Fresh out of college, Edohoukwa landed a job at South by Southwest. He said the proximity to music industry professionals helped launch his career in earnest.
In 2018, Edohoukwa played his first official SXSW set. He was the opening act on a massive local hip-hop showcase presented by Austin public radio station KUTX’s hip-hop show, the Breaks. He made a strong impression. The following year, he headlined the show.
Edohoukwa’s style stands out among local hip-hop artists. He’s emotional and raw, and each of his songs carries a strong message. He believes music is a tool. He wants to move people.
“Throughout high school, I tried just rapping about nonsense — cars that I don’t have and women that I’m not with and jewelry and money that I don’t have, but it doesn’t hit,” he said.
On the lead track for the new release, he cries out, “Did I do something wrong/Did I not pray, is that what’s going on?”
“That hits me. I’m hoping that it hits the listener, as well,” he said.
Edohoukwa credits artists like Kid Cudi, Drake and Kanye West with opening the doors to a more emotional style of rap: “I know when I first heard Kid Cudi, I felt heard. I felt understood. His message, though it wasn’t exactly mine, I could understand it, and it holds a special place in my heart.”
With the tortured hook “I came in here to cry/Hold my head and cry/Expand my chest and cry,” one of the most powerful tracks on the album, “Black Sunday,” is an exercise in raw catharsis.
It was a song that came to Edohoukwa from the ether. He was napping in the living room of his apartment off South First Street when he woke up to the sound of his cousin and album producer, Imoh Edohoukwa, working on the beat.
“Tears literally fell from my eyes, and the first thing I said was, ‘I came in here to cry,’ and I just kind of ran with that,” he said.
It was a heavy time. His aunt, Imoh’s mother, had recently died.
“All of that was just in the air. That beat (Imoh) made was just so beautiful, like there was nothing else to say,” he said.
Edohoukwa wrote verses but later took them out to keep the song minimal.
“This just needs to be a space for someone to cry,” he said.
Whether it’s a victorious cry or a sad cry, Edohoukwa’s aim was to liberate that emotion.
On “Skin,” he tackles the way race can define the American experience. One day he was at a restaurant on South Congress Avenue with a group of friends. They were all young and black, talking and laughing heartily. Edohoukwa noticed the way the other customers — mostly white — regarded his group with suspicion, trepidation.
“I just felt uncomfortable. I just felt like I wasn’t able to be free,” he said.
As Edohoukwa meditated on the experience, he began to think about the “innate fear” that he feels when he encounters a group of police officers. How he’ll cross the street to avoid a confrontation. He worked those feelings into the song, which imagines a police officer at his door responding to an altercation.
“Whether I called him or not, it’s two-fold, I’m already in trouble,” he said. “That’s just how I feel sometimes in certain spaces in Austin walking about, I’m not really safe.”
In an era of trap dominance, there’s not a single club banger on “Fire on the Mountain,” but Edohoukwa isn’t worried about commercial viability.
“I feel like there’s a place and time for every kind of (music),” he said. “I love trap music at certain points in time, but I feel like me personally, I’m a vessel for whatever wants to come down and come through me. And I’m not going to try to muddy that with what I think is cool or what I think people want to hear.”
But despite all the religious imagery and soul-searching on the album, Edohoukwa says he’s not trying to be held up as a Christian example — a “good guy."
“I believe in God. I’m super spiritual,” he said. Then, pausing for a moment, he smiled slyly.
“But I’m also a badass.”
ARTIST OF THE MONTH: HARRY EDOHOUKWA
Debut release: “Fire on the Mountain,” 2019
Collaborators: Imoh Edohoukwa, producer; Nico Hamui, post-production; Kofi Asare-Aboagye and Ileana Nina, instrumentation; and Terah Martin, additional vocals.
Online: Watch Harry Edohoukwa perform live in our studio at noon Friday at facebook.com/austin360.