A rising chorus of noise fills the inside of Harlem soul food staple Amy Ruth’s on a rainy mid-March afternoon. Sitting across from me with bantu knots preserved under a pristine black durag is Smino, a 25-year-old rapper from Missouri. Worried that I wouldn’t be able to hear his voice over the radio and the other guest’s buzzing conversations, I ask if he thought it would be cool to switch to a quieter table. “We can do whatever we want,” he says in his genial drawl, which sounds equal doses southern and midwestern.
Born Christopher Smith Jr., Smino’s cooly attentive character roots back to North St. Louis, where he was raised by his mom, dad, and four big sisters. His schools were in Ferguson County, and so was his grandfather’s house, where he spent a lot of time growing up. Smino describes Ferguson’s disproportionate sectioning — the majority of black residents live in underserved areas in low-income housing, while white residents live in more comfortable environs on the other side of town — as de facto segregation.
Over big platters of chicken, catfish, and yams, Smino talks about the racist pillars on which Ferguson was, and is, governed. “We were walking down the street with our book bags on and the police officers pulled up on me and three boys,” he said of the first time he encountered the city’s police department, as a fourth grader. “I was nine years old. They run up on us, put us on the car, search our bags, go through our shit, and just leave. I’m like, What's the point of this? There was no point. It’s conditioning.” Sometimes, he said of Ferguson, he can sense the palpable strain that decades of injustice have left behind. Sometimes he can feel it in the air.
Still, a young Smino remained undeterred. At 11, he wrote and recorded his first rap, which was dedicated to a cousin he lost to gun violence. He had a bond with the mic, and when his father bought him Fruity Loops three years later, Smino also showed an innate acuity for production. Just three years later, at 14, the multi-talented teen met a local rapper named Bari after someone suggested the two neighborhood amateurs collaborate. By 2012 they were best friends, eventually forming a rap duo called Young Dumb and Out of Control. They dropped a mixtape named Retail, but then Smino set out on his own.
“Black people only make up 13 percent of the U.S., but I’d rather satisfy that than any other percentile. If something happens to me, I know who goin’ rally behind me.”
“I can’t sing!,” he insists when I ask him about the animated vocals that pep up his tracks, a signature for the MC’s wholehearted songs. Instead, he says that he discovered he could “croon” after he stacked the melodies on his first solo project, Smeezy Dot Com, in 2012.
The next year, Smino caught a ride to Chicago with his aunt. He told her he’d stay at a friend’s house, which turned out to actually be a studio where Smino slept in a tiny recording booth for a year. Soon after getting to Chicago, he linked up with his manager and engineer Chris “Classick” Inumerable, and stayed on the couch at the Classick Studio for a while, producing beats for cash.
In August of 2014, Smino went back to St. Louis for a little while before he could finalize a permanent move to Chicago. He saw the blood on the asphalt after Mike Brown’s body was finally removed from the scorching street, just four hours after the 18-year-old was gunned down by Darren Wilson. Smino also stood right next to the first brick launched towards Ferguson law enforcement who he says agitated the distraught crowd that came to mourn Brown’s unlawful death. “What happened was sad, but it started a whole movement, and woke up the whole country — the world,” Smino told me. “My city did that.”
Impassioned with the fire from his hometown, Smino returned back to Chicago and started releasing projects, like 2015’s S!Ck S!CK S!CK mixtape and last year’s blkjuptr EP, with Booker as his trusted producer. Smino’s rich-sounding blend of brightly hued lyrics and gospel influences mirror the inventive spirit of black folks, especially young ones. While illustrating the struggle and celebrating his culture, Smino also carves out an endearing space for affection and sensuality, or “ratchet romance” as he calls it.
Throughout it all, his conviction has remained obvious: in person with me, in his music, and especially when he takes experimental vocal risks, which often pay off. On “Anita,” a sentimental single from his debut album blkswn, released in March on Downtown Records, he boosts a soulful groove with electric ad-libs and inflections. “Turn up the vala-yume/ This feel like hallelu-jah/ Cue the choir too,” he raps. The hook, though, is an old-school proclamation of love: “Anita! I need her!”
When the clatter in Amy Ruth’s eventually flatlines, Smino tells me about one of his earlier projects. “The concept [for blkjuptr] came from feeling like an alienated black person,” he explains, paintings of black icons ornamenting the walls around us. “We kind of got our own planet on this planet, and in this country.” Though Smino wants his music to have a more-than-mighty impact on the universe at large, St. Louis and his people remain his first priority. “Black people only make up 13 percent of the U.S., but I’d rather satisfy that than any other percentile. If something happens to me, I know who goin’ rally behind me,” he says. “I’ve seen it.”