Ian Kelly and the Role of the Bay Area Expatriate

Ian Kelly's new album 'ChampIan' chronicles dubious deeds, romantic overtures, and raises the question: where is home? (Anshil Popli and Daniel Lint)

A few days ago Ian Kelly texted me.

“Bruh I actually wanted to pick your brain about this," he wrote. "So I got signed to Jamla Records, a label started by 9th Wonder, and have been featured on an album with the likes of Cole and Busta Rhymes. Why do you think back home doesn’t show as much love?”

A valid question from someone who came up in the Bay and recently moved away. He followed up to clarify. “Also I’m not speaking from a tone of entitlement," he texted. "I’m very much understanding I could be doing something wrong too.”

It got me thinking about the dichotomy of the rap game. On one hand, a major part of hip-hop is representing where you’re from—of course, along with representing it, you have to actually be there. On the other hand, as an artist, you have to get out and see the world in order for the world to see you.

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How can you do both?

Cover art for Ian Kelly's Champian album ( by Anshil Popli)
Cover art for Ian Kelly's 'ChampIan' album. (Anshil Popli and Daniel Lint)

On Dec. 7, Ian Kelly drops his album, ChampIan, his first for Jamla Records. It’s also his first project since he relocated to North Carolina 18 months ago.

I remember when Ian told me he was going to move, and how his mother didn’t necessarily approve of him quitting his job and pursuing a rap career. I knew he’d be OK. I mean, I’ve known Kelly for over a decade, and I’ve seen him go (and grow) through a number of transitions.

When our common friend Aaron Harris passed in 2013, Kelly hit a low and then grew from that; only for Kelly's father to pass the same year. Nonetheless, he persevered and continued to make music, often honoring their memory in his lyrics.

Hell, I was even there when Kelly learned to maneuver through Howard University's campus in 2008. I was a resident assistant in the dorm where he resided, but he never really needed much assistance.

Kelly, who turns 29 on Dec. 4, is a natural sponge, and he has no problem regurgitating necessary information in story form. His ability to describe situations and paint pictures has always been his strongpoint, evident throughout ChampIan. The song 'Story Tellin' is probably the best example, allowing the listener to stare at the speaker and be fully engulfed in a tale of dubious deeds. On another track called 'Better,' he takes his storytelling to the world of romance, showing his versatility.

Kelly’s only downfall is that he kind of sounds like this guy named Kendrick Lamar. But if you’re going to be compared to anyone, why not him, right?

I don’t know if it’s the Kendrick comparison or what, but Kelly didn’t see his rap career flourishing out here. So he took a leap of faith and ended up under the tutelage of producer 9th Wonder, Rapsody and Oakland’s GQ while living in North Carolina.

“Honestly, being out here it kind of helped me gain a peace of mind,” Kelly told me. “Back home, I feel like a lot of things go on and I feel like I lose focus. But being out here I was able to center myself, and grow as an artist.”

I could relate to finding clarity in new spaces. The same thing happened for me when I went away to college at Howard in D.C. Or even in high school, when I lived in Danville for a semester while attending the Athenian boarding school. I fell deeper in love with writing. I gained focus and confidence. I mean, I had bad case of FOMO, and I really missed Oakland. Damn, now that I think about it, I missed a lot of things while I was away.

I asked Kelly if he'd experienced any setbacks being away from the Town.

“A month ago or two months ago, I’d say yeah. But now, I see it as another stepping stone,” Kelly said. “The way you have to move as an artist: wherever my heart is, is really home.”

I sat with that comment. It brought to mind all the other artists I know who’ve relocated, been sent to prison for long periods of time, moved away for family reasons, or left because they couldn’t afford rent. I even thought about the artists who are constantly on the road, sharing their art with the world. Don’t they miss home?

Ian Kelly posted up (photo by Anshil Popli)
Ian Kelly posted up. (Anshil Popli)

Aneesa Strings, who Kelly introduced me to earlier this year, is a bassist and vocalist who grew up in Oakland. She was a part of a band that played NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert with Ill Camille earlier this year. And she’s currently on a European tour with Duckwrth.

Somewhere between Switzerland and Vienna, she responded to my inquiry about an artists’ need to travel. “Most people have to leave the comforts of their own hometown to get nationwide recognition,” she said. She then paraphrased the Book of Matthew: “A hero isn’t without honor except for in his own country, in his own home.”

She ended by writing, “The Bay isn’t any different, except that it’s not LA or NY, which are entertainment capitals of the world. You have to leave the Bay to have access to the star-makers. Music is a worldwide territory, so if an artist wants their music to go all over the world, so do they.”

That’s kind of what well-known tour manager Tim House said when I called him to ask how an artist should balance time spent at home versus being out in the world.

“Infrastructure, that’s what’s missing in the Bay,” House told me as he was on tour, somewhere between Orlando and Miami. “I can’t tell you how many people from the Bay in the industry—not just artists—have moved to LA or New York for work.”

House, who's bounced back and forth between the LA and the Bay his whole life, made sure to mention that there are some examples of people building their own infrastructure here in the Bay—namely E-40. “But even E-40 went to school in the South,” House said.

Along with the lack of industry infrastructure, another major variable artists consider before leaving the Bay is the cost of housing.

“Music money will only get you so much in the Bay Area,” House told me. “You can get a nice spot in LA, but still be 30 minutes outside of downtown. You could get something nice in New York, but you wouldn’t have a yard. In Atlanta, you could get a really nice house with a moat!”

After a slight laugh, House brought up a serious point I hadn’t considered: the vacancies created by artists leaving the Bay Area to seek greener pastures create an opportunity for others to move in and dictate the culture.

And I’ve seen it. I could name a bunch of artists who’ve moved here, and have found a way to flourish on a local scale. Not a good or bad thing in my opinion, it’s just a thing to note.

Nonetheless, the question remains: How do you go and chase your dream, while still holding it down for the home team?

Ian Kelly in the Town (photo by Anshil Popli)
Ian Kelly in the Town. (Anshil Popli)

There are so many rap lyrics that address this issue:

“I’m hardly home, but always repping,” said Drake.

“They said I couldn’t go back home, you know when I heard that? When I was back home,” said Jay-Z.

“I heard it’s not where you from, but where you pay rent/ then I heard it’s not how much you make, but how much you spent/ you got me bent, like elbows,” said Big Boi of Outkast.

The debate isn’t new. And I don’t think there’s a real answer. There's no way to be two places at once. But Ian Kelly might've been on to something when he said, “The way you have to move as an artist: wherever my heart is, is really home.”

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