It’s no secret that major labels are on a signing spree, looking to keep up with the proliferation of rappers breaking on DSPs. But as his contemporaries clamor for their big deals, Kota the Friend is taking the road less traveled.
At 26, the rapper says that he’s turned down three -- yes, three -- major label deals. Instead, he’s equipped himself with a fiercely DIY ethos and a small, nimble crew. The Brooklyn native likes to get his hands dirty, being involved in everything from designing fliers to fielding fan requests for concert tickets. “I do every part of my career. I know what works,” he tells Billboard, pushing sprouts off his avocado toast. “It doesn’t make sense to sign to a label when I have people around me. We are the label.”
It’s late afternoon at Soho House New York and Kota is tying up loose ends before he heads out on the road, including a spot on the star-studded Day N Vegas bill. The rapper emerged on SoundCloud two and a half years ago, and since then, he’s been steadily garnering fans and critical acclaim for his boom-bap sensibilities and lush melodies, like 2018’s blissfully sublime “Colorado,” leading to his debut FOTO (May 2019 release). He describes making the album as cathartic, painfully so; a necessary purging of his past so that he can focus on the future.
Below, he talks to Billboard about the inspiration behind the album, working with his dad, and the importance of his staying independent.
What’s been the experience releasing FOTO as an independent artist?
The new album has been getting so much love organically. We’re just staying on top of it. My team is fairly small. It’s me on the creative side. I’m the creative director of this whole process. I have a publicist that also wears different hats. I got a manager that comes from the booking agent world. He handles my tour and a bunch of things. And my Dad is on my team! He’s kind of like my business manager and he makes sure that everything is on point. And I got my DJ, my photographer and that’s the team.
How is it working with your Dad? Is he a “cool dad”?
He has his moments. He’s a cool dude. He’s a genius in his own right. He stays on the business side and he doesn’t ask me about the creative. He just wants to make sure everything is in order.
When did your relationship begin with music?
I started playing trumpet in the fourth grade. First day of school, my teacher was like, “He’s gifted.” Since then, my mother was like, “Trumpet. Trumpet. Trumpet. You’re going to play the trumpet.” I played forever and went to a specialized high school (Brooklyn High School of the Arts). I went to Five Towns College for trumpet. When I got to high school, I played keyboard, guitar, bass. I started venturing into producing, making beats. That’s how I traveled into the world of hip-hop. That’s kind of how my life has been like: gaining skills along the way and bringing it all together.
What’s your creative vision behind FOTO?
It’s all about reminiscing and sentimental things. Trying to paint a picture of the things that happened in my life. Every song is like a snapshot of my life. Good times, bad times. I wanted people to hear it and touch on every single part of the listeners’] spirit and heart.
Was there a specific life experience that inspired the album? It sounds like therapy.
It kind of is. I think it’s trying to come to peace with a lot of things in my life. I’m always trying to understand myself and my emotions. I’m trying to put things into perspective so that I can feel better about it. I feel like that was a big influence.
It’s rare to be so intuitive and retrospective at 26. What do you attribute to that?
I’ve always been hyper-sensitive. After I made this project, I definitely felt like I could close a few chapters. It feels good to say all that stuff, put it on wax and really have it out to the world. And, 95% of it I produced. So this is me. To really have something that is me. Me and my family. Me and my experiences. No holds barred. It really feels good.
Was there a topic that was especially difficult to address?
There’s one verse on my outro where I talk about family and friends who have passed away. I grew up in a Jehovah’s Witness household and when you speak about death it’s about paradise and resurrection. I was painting that picture -- of my family members being here but just healthier, happier. When I was painting that picture, I just started balling in the middle of the writing process. To imagine them back, that was really a hard thing.
How much does your faith play into your music?
I think it gave me a sense of, be real. Be a genuinely good person. Be genuinely kind. Be genuinely real. Growing up around Jehovah’s Witnesses, they really tried to be who they said they were and not putting up a front. It was about really standing up for what you believe in. That’s how I live my life. I don’t practice. But when it comes to my life, I really stand up for what I believe in. I sacrifice things that most people wouldn’t sacrifice for the things that I believe in.
I sacrifice business all the time for family. There’s things in how I live my life to show dignity. I’m not a weak person.
In 2019, rappers are vying to secure label deals. Why have you chosen to stay indie?
If you look at it from a business point of view, it doesn’t make sense. I make connections myself. On the creative side, I handle everything from the videos to recording. I know what I do. It doesn’t feel necessary to sign to a label. We could start our own label. I’m thinking about starting an artist development company]. That’s what it really is about. People want good music. It’s not just about what’s hot and what’s on the radio. If it’s a good song, people will stream it a gazillion times. One of my most popular songs, “Alkaline,” has almost 10 million plays on Spotify and it hasn’t been picked up by any playlist. That’s an indicator to me. I know how the game works. It’s always changing but I try to keep up with everything.
So, what’s the coolest thing that’s happened since the album dropped?
SZA hit me this month. I’ve been promoting my tour and I’ve been posting a lot of old and new videos. I posted a video clip for a song called “Letter to My Ex’s.” It was about apologizing about my toxic ways and coming to terms with things that I’ve done that aren’t so great. SZA liked the video on Instagram] and followed me!
Did you follow her?
I already followed her because I love her. So I sent her a DM. I was like, “Just so you know, I love you.” I was like, “You’re one of the greatest songwriters I’ve heard.” I really mean that. And then, she hit me back like, “You’re fucking awesome.” I’m still in shock. I don’t know what to say. One day, I want to have a conversation with her about random shit. She was like, “Hit my line anytime.”
Inquiring minds want to know... Did you hit her up?
No! I have to get the courage up. I have to meet her in person... But I saved her number in 45 seconds.
What drives you as an artist?
I think I’m just here to be creative. When my album dropped, my Dad hit me up and said, “You’re a genius.” That almost made me cry. This whole thing we’ve created, we saw something nobody saw. It came to fruition. For me, that was the biggest compliment ever. That’s why I’m here. I just see things that a lot of people don’t see. That’s what makes me special.