On a blustery March afternoon, Kota The Friend enters Brooklyn’s Soho House bundled up with his young son waddling along in tow. His son’s school is on a week-long break, and he’s eager to ride Jane’s Carousel downstairs, which he had already ridden the day before.
He proceeds to tell us that during his ride, he realized the horses on the carousel were unfortunately not real, but fake. He then tells us that after his ride, he went to a park and played basketball with two other kids. Kota was hoping to bring him to Bridge Park after our interview but feared it might be too cold. When we get upstairs, Kota orders a sippy cup filled with juice for his son, followed by a chocolate croissant and mint tea for himself.
“I just be doing simple shit,” Kota says when I ask if his life has become any more luxurious recently. “I wake up to him smacking me in the face and make pancakes and hashbrowns and play Legos. I’m just a dad bro.”
He admits he does have a house in Long Beach, three blocks from the ocean. Nothing costly or palatial, just somewhere comfortable he can run to when the speed of his Brooklyn hometown bogs him down.
“What matters to me are the hummingbirds that come to that house. Or, there are these famous parrots that only live in Long Beach, and for me that’s my shit. That’s luxury.”
The last two years have admittedly been difficult for Kota, but in the rapper’s eyes, they’ve been equally as rewarding. Pandemic aside, the rapper has recently hosted his own series of music festivals called Flight Night, with the latest iteration coming to Metro Chicago on Friday (April 29).
Flight Night has been ongoing since 2008 when Kota was in high school, but it’s since grown from 150 attendees to thousands. Kota also dropped off a new EP titled Lyrics To Go Vol. 3 in January, and told me his next album is already done, so needless to say he’s been busy.
“Album coming,” he confirmed. “I think it’s different from anything else that I’ve made, more mature. Even more introspective.”
But Kota’s latest achievements didn’t come without setbacks. The rapper was accused of sexual misconduct by an ex-girlfriend in 2020, accusations he’s vehemently denied and extensively discussed on Lyrics To Go Vol. 3 and accusations that he admits have trailed his career ever since.
“There’s a lot of letting go,” he admits. “There’s a lot of forgiving without an apology.”
Tell me about Flight Night. How did that get started?
Well, we’re still new to it. We’ve been doing it since 2008 when I was in high school. Obviously, before it was only about 100 to 150 people, kids coming together. We couldn’t get a stage anywhere else. So we were like alright we gotta create our own stage.
So we’re taking the same concept of artists that aren’t getting enough shine and aren’t getting opportunities to be on the big stage. It’s like a discovery situation. It’s a lot of coordinating.
You wrote on Twitter that the album is done. What can fans expect?
It’s coming. I think it’s different, but that’s up to the fans to decide. I think it’s different from anything else that I’ve made, more mature. Even more introspective.
Moving into January’s Lyrics To Go Vol. 3. Tell me about the role poetry has played in your craft because these little snippets often read like poetry.
I remember there was this poet who came into my English class and he taught us how to write poetry for the first time and I really gravitated toward it. Poetry has always been a part of my rap style.
On “Scapegoat” you say “‘I’m on a record really having these conversations for free,giving you my hard-earned lessons, knowledge, and grief.” Do you ever feel the emotional lessons you put into your work are taken for granted or not absorbed in the way you think they should be?
I mean, I choose to put this stuff out. I don’t expect anybody to take it in a certain way or appreciate it in a certain way. I can’t make music that doesn’t have emotional meaning. It’s hard for me to make a song that isn’t meaningful. That’s the whole reason why I do it.
You often rap about the importance of self-accountability in your music. Where did you learn how to hold yourself accountable? Was it in school, or through the culture?
It was definitely my family growing up. They’re teaching you life. They’re teaching you that you gotta get back up. You have to figure it out. You can’t stop. You can’t fail. And I think throughout life I just kinda stayed on that same mindset. I can’t fail. I can’t go down. I have to get back up and move forward. So I have to figure out how I can move forward.
What would you say was the main driving force to help you move forward after everything you’ve experienced these past few years?
It was everything kinda together. Pandemic, toxic relationships, lost friendships. One thing after the other just forcing you to look inward, and you get to a point where you’re like “I can’t do this anymore.” There’s a lot of letting go, there’s a lot of forgiving without an apology. There’s a lot of just, holding yourself accountable and knowing the ways you could have been better and being better in those ways moving forward and not repeating the same mistakes. Having good people around you and learning how to keep good habits.
Tell me more about that.
I think with everything that’s happened in the last few years, you’re forced to just sit with it and live with it, whereas before we could go on tour and escape our problems. ‘Ah, we’re in Miami, oh now we’re in Europe!’ We don’t have to sit and face the music. But when the pandemic happened, everybody had to sit at the same time. So it really challenged me to get to that place faster. Cause it’s just more urgent so I definitely got to a better palace.
How would you say these experiences impacted your craft?
The perspective is different. It’s the perspective of someone who is really living a good life you know? Versus somebody who is bitter or has a chip on their shoulder and something to prove with a lot of unresolved conflict and frustration. I feel like that was my music before and now I’m just at peace and wanna be happy.
I feel like your fans don’t see it that way. I feel like a lot of fans are very inspired by your music.
I understand how it can be uplifting because so much music is negative. Even in my old records if you listen you can hear the bitterness, you can hear the negativity, even when it’s like I’m trying to be positive, you still have that chip on your shoulder that’s making you say ‘screw y’all, screw all the people that doubted me!’ When you hear those lyrics, they’re coming from an egotistical, bitter place, because you have to figure out how to move past that cause it’s not about that, you know?
So how have your lyrics changed with your next record?
In the new music, I just want good things around me. It’s not about the haters it’s about the people that love me. Take your focus off of those people that doubted you, and put your focus on the people that have always been there for you and always showed you love. Your reality is what you see and what you pay attention to. So the new music is basically like we’re putting that behind us, we’re going up. That’s really what this album is.
Do you still rap about those people that did you wrong?
Yes, but even the times where I do touch upon the people who hurt me I’m honest and I just admit it hurt. I can’t stay on that forever. So for me to be good, I have to really move on. I have to really let that go, and I can’t keep harping on this.
Doesn’t it in a sense require energy to ignore those people who hurt you though? How do you get to a point where you can find that peace and not think about those people at all?
I’m still trying to get to that place. I still feel angry, sometimes I feel that way. But I don’t wanna put it into my music. I don’t wanna manifest that energy to stay in my life. It’s just a process man. I wanna get to a point where I really don’t see it, I really don’t feel it. It doesn’t affect me at all.
Again, I think that’s what people have taken from your music in the past. You communicate so confidently that you’re done with the haters, it inspires us to try and move on with you as well. But then I think: Isn’t ignoring them so boldly in turn actually giving them attention and energy?
I don’t think so bro. You don’t have to ignore it. You kinda see it for what it is. I think that’s what it really is, it’s not about “ignoring” it necessarily. It’s not about being in denial or oblivious, but it’s about seeing the situation for what it is and making peace with it. When you make peace with something, there’s always a reaction. The world is always gonna have a reaction to you making peace with yourself and finding joy. There will always be a test to how strong and confident you are in that peace. It’s really just accepting that they don’t fuck with you.
Especially with this album, I’m showing how solid you can be with yourself. Where you can see everything happening around you, but it doesn’t affect you. It’s happening, you see it, but you’re so solid in your perception of yourself that the way the world sees you can’t rock you off your axis.
Moving more into the recent accusations against you. It seems the mindset you were just describing is in response to the cancel culture we’re living in. Do you feel you were done wrong by the culture as a result of the accusations?
It’s a lot bro. We live in a toxic culture. We live in a social media culture where nothing has to be a fact or real. Somebody just has to say something and then people hop on the bandwagon, and whatever way the tide is turning, that’s the wave that everyone hops on. It was just somebody saying something on the internet, it wasn’t like there was a court or criminal situation. That’s something that we’re having a hard time wrapping our minds around too, is that what we’ve come to? The point where you don’t really have to do anything? Nothing has to be a proven fact for you to be canceled from the culture?
What did the fallout from that experience make you realize?
You a Spider-Man fan? There was a scene at the end of Spider-Man: No Way Home where Peter Parker doesn’t have the Tony Stark suit anymore, and he makes and puts on the original Spider-Man suit. He has to learn how to be what he was always meant to be. That’s how I feel. With all of that negative energy that was thrown at me then, I feel like I have to get back to my original ethos where it’s just me and the people that love me. Everybody else is gonna have to just see me do the same thing again, and that’s it.
In all honesty, it just made me realize my house has to be stronger and we have to move differently. Ever since the beginning of my career, I realized I can’t rely on blogs. I can’t rely on people to like me. I have to just go straight to the people that love my music, and I’m readopting that mentality. It’s about me and my fans, and everybody else, they don’t matter. At one point, nobody cared. Nobody was trying to write about me, post me or do this. So I kinda feel like I’m in the same place.
Are you discouraged by the culture and by what’s happened?
It is discouraging, but I’m still on my way. Even in my new music you hear it too. You can hear where I’m at. No matter who is riding with us, the destination remains the same. You can get on the train or off the train.
How have your connections within the industry fared as a result of these allegations?
I don’t really have any connection to the industry. Even before it was very little. It’s by choice man. Malcolm X always said, “never beg for a seat at a table where you’re not wanted.” So that’s how I feel. I’m just gonna make my table very pleasing to the people around me who are gonna eat.
Do you think your lack of industry connections also has to do with you being independent?
It’s a little bit of everything, but when you’re independent, people feel they don’t have to fuck with you. Cause you’re by yourself, and that’s the thing about independence is that it shouldn’t really matter. I’ve always been a lone wolf, and the few connections I do have are genuinely my friends.
As your career progresses and gets bigger does it ever scare you to know you might not be welcome in the industry?
Nope. The industry never scared me. I just keep my circle tight. The industry is cutthroat, but I stay warm. I stay positive and I do good by people. I got here without any help from the industry, they saw that I was doing good and then decided to write about me. So if I got this far with no recognition? Then I think we’ll be okay. As long as I can feed my child and I got a roof over my head and I can provide for my family when they ask, I’m good, and I still feel that way.
I imagine being a father must have been hard during that time. How do you communicate these lessons to your son?
It’s on a conversation by conversation basis. Sometimes he’ll say something and I’ll have a lesson with him. When you have kids you’re constantly teaching. As far as when he’s with me we don’t talk about that stuff, and he just looks at me like I’m me. Enjoying my time with him is my favorite time, because he loves me and just looks at me like I’m dad. He knows I take care of him, and he knows I care about him. I look at him and I owe it all to him. Forget about the world.
Take me a bit more through the work that’s required to achieve that inner peace you were just talking about.
A lot of being with myself. Going out to dinner by yourself, go on a solo trip. Every day choosing things that I like to do and actually doing it and not just sitting in my head. Not just constantly working through whatever is happening in my life. Taking time for yourself like every day, giving yourself the energy that you need so you can get your work done.
So you can be useful to your family and friends. So you have energy to give to the people you love. All of these little things that I started doing, it just made me so much closer to myself. When you keep your house clean, people aren’t gonna come in and just toss their shoes around the place. People are gonna treat you how you treat your house.
Well, it sounds like you got a lot of projects keeping you busy. Do you enjoy keeping busy?
Nah *laughs* I think now when I’m comfortable I just sit back and enjoy it until it gets uncomfortable because that’s life. Cause life is gonna do that for you. The last five years was a constant grind. For the past few months, I’ve just been feeling like I don’t wanna do that. This is my last album for a while cause I just wanna focus on friends.
I wanna be part of a project rather than the person that’s the center of attention. I think I’m just tired, I’ve worked so hard. I just wanna give my energy to my friends and family and I don’t wanna be the center of attention. I want this album to show how far I came, and this is my story. It’s like the end of a book, or a last chapter, and I don’t know when the next book is coming, but it’s gonna be completely different.
Tickets for Flight Night can be purchased here.