Afika Nxumalo bit the inside of his cheek to ground himself in reality.
“I’ll never forget reading that email,” says the Greensboro native. “My heart skipped a beat. I don’t know if you’ve ever had news so good that you had to check that you were in reality, but I looked out the window, and I’m checking hard surfaces and I’m like, If this is a dream, this is a dope dream.”
On Jan. 28, Nxumalo, who now lives in Brooklyn, received an email from Warner Bros. Studio expressing interest in using his song, “Chosen,” for a new trailer promoting the film Judas and the Black Messiah. On Feb. 8, the Monday before the movie was released, the 15-second trailer debuted on Instagram, with Nxumalo’s track in the background.
“Show me what to love, what to hunt, what to fight, what to kill for,” plays as scenes with Lakeith Stanfield as FBI informant William O’Neal and Daniel Kaluuya as Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, skirt across the screen. The stacked vocals draw from Nxumalo’s South African background and are what the artist calls, “culture on display.”
“I was born and raised in Greensboro,” Nxumalo says. “I was the only Black kid in all-white classrooms. And amongst the Black kids, I was the only African immigrant. When I learned how to play guitar, I was the only Black kid doing that. Then I was the only Black kid who could play guitar and freestyle and rap.”
Prior to pursuing his solo career, Nxumalo made waves in his hometown performing as part of The Urban Sophisticates, a hip-hop group and later, with Phive, a cover band turned hip-hop quartet. But in the decade since moving away from Greensboro, Nxumalo has striven to stay true to his personal artistic mission. He spent three years in London making music that sounded good but was shallow, in the artist’s opinion.
“Music has a lot of power,” he says. “We underutilize the power of music…. People in the music industry understand how music is a larger governing structure, how it guides people toward concepts of self. I didn’t want to be shoved into a camp that makes me money but contributes to harming young people like me.”
In the years following, Nxumalo looked inward for answers to questions about his artistry.
What’s my greatest value to this world?
What is my greatest value to the music scene?
By this time, Nxumalo was living in Harlem, chasing his dreams of making it big, sleeping on a leaky air mattress while working restaurant jobs.
“I knew the story wasn’t done yet,” he says. “I hadn’t tried everything yet.”
In 2017, Nxumalo made a simple change in his actions that put him on a path to create “Chosen.”
“I made one commitment, that whenever there is a gathering, I was going to perform for people,” he says.
A few weeks later, Nxumlao found himself at a friend’s birthday party where he picked up a guitar and started playing for the crowd. Later that evening, a guy with Rolling Stone magazine approached and gave him his business card. From there, Nxumalo was chosen to host “The Scene,” a web series by the magazine, and got a gig teaching social-justice songwriting at Columbia University. All of these experiences, Nxumalo says, informed his approach to music.
“The space I’ve always wanted to carve out in the music industry is to bring more music with African influence in pop culture,” he says. “Culture is a huge portion of social justice. Culture is a shield for oppressed people…. It’s because I didn’t see it growing up. I didn’t see examples of unapologetically Black and African music that wasn’t devolving people to our basic instincts.”
Listening to “Chosen,” it’s evident that the song is anything but a devolution of his people.
The strong chanting vocals lead to Afika’s tenor repeating the mantra of the song which blends into a second verse: “Show me what a man, what a king, what a god, what I’m here for.” Then the musician’s voice changes, a sharper, more urgent tone taking space.
“Show up at the door with a stamp on my hand/ Tell ‘em get up out the way, y’all are letting me in/ I’m chosen/ Chosen/ Chosen.”
“It enters you into a high-stakes mentality,” Nxumalo says. “The songs that are going to win are the ones that are going to speak to people’s hearts.”
As a musician who grew up in Greensboro and has tasted a bit of success in a notoriously difficult industry, Nxumalo says he wants to inspire others in the city to strive for their dreams too. He wants to see Greensboro, the third-largest city in the state, cultivate, care for and catalyze artists.
“It’s really important for me to tap into Greensboro because it was so instrumental in my development as an artist,” he says. “There’s this massive creative class there built from all of these colleges and universities. It’s a city of diamonds in the rough, all we’re asking for is for someone with the means to get a diamond polisher.”
Drawing from his experience teaching songwriting and creating spaces for music, Nxumalo says he’s working on opening an artist retreat in North Carolina called Beacon House where artists will be invited to stay and create music. He’s also hoping to launch a digital songwriting school called Pop College which he says would be the only Ivy League songwriting school on earth. With a full-length album on the way, Nxumalo says he’s clear on what his life’s mission is now and plans to keep working towards those goals. It’s written into his identity through his name, Afika, which means “he has arrived” in the Xhosa language.
“We’re just getting started,” he says. “This is just the beginning of the next level of things for me and I’m taking Greensboro with me through all of it.”
Listen to “Chosen” and all of the songs from Afika’s “Chosen the EP” on streaming services. Learn more about Afika at afika.life and keep a lookout for his album He Has Arrived set to release in the next few months.