It’s a Saturday afternoon and Smino is calling as he’s walking into a store in Chicago, where he spends most of his time. After offering a quick hello, the 26-year-old rapper, born Christopher Smith Jr., starts chatting up the cashier and muffled voices can be heard. He seems distracted. Yet, just as quickly as the conversation begins, it’s over, and he’s happily detailing his childhood in St. Louis, Missouri with a laser-sharp focus and his Midwestern drawl. He speaks with the same passion that produced one of the year’s most celebrated debut albums, Blkswn, and earned him praise not just as one of the most promising new rappers to emerge from the Midwest, but as a genuine hip-hop visionary.
Smino proudly declares that he was born and raised in the Lou (as he affectionately does at most of his performances) and lived there as the youngest in a musical family of four sisters. “I grew up in a house that went to church every Sunday. It was a bunch of music just always playing,” he explains. “Every time that I did something that showed I was remotely interested in music, all of those people pushed me to do it.” Fast-forward one move to Chicago and a breakout single dubbed one of the year’s “coolest love songs,” and Smino will finish a stretch of 75 shows—some as support for T-Pain, others as the opener for SZA—this Saturday with Kribmas 2017. Now in its second year, the concert sees Smino make a triumphant return home for the holidays in his beloved hometown’s Delmar Hall.
With so many accolades earned in what continues to be an unforgiving year, what may be most impactful about Smino’s rise is his unrelenting mission to be an uplifting voice for black culture. “The number one thing I realized about being black in this country is that [people of color] all share the same type of struggle,” he says. “With this shit that’s going on in America, you have to find your own thing that forms peace around your circle of people. Stick by that, and run with that shit. There’s really not much we can do except become our own communities.” It’s exactly what he has attempted to do, from the moment he began creating music and uploading it to SoundCloud three years ago.
In his 2016 EP Blkjuptr, Smino breaks down the struggle of being black in America, specifically illustrating what it’s like to live as an outsider, made to feel like you belong on another planet. “Hands up, they still shot, go Google the pictures,” he raps on “Oxygen,” punctuating his words at just the right moments to emphasize his raw frustration. No doubt, the song is a visceral response to all of the innocent black lives that were lost over the last several years, but there was one tragedy in 2014 that powerfully affected his life.
“It was really when I was in St. Louis the morning that Mike Brown was killed,” he says. Smino had just played a show the night before and woke up hoping to celebrate with his friends. “Instead, you see Mike Brown laying somewhere you could walk up and down before. They had a candlelight [vigil] for him. We all went out to that, and everybody my age in the city, and under and over, we were all out on the streets. They had just picked his body up, and the street was super stained. It was so, so much blood . . . I had never seen that.”
Smino also recalls seeing the first brick thrown at a Ferguson police officer, in what he says prompted “a whole lot of mayhem and a whole lot of unorganized anger.” Ultimately, it was seeing the vulnerability, the confusion, and the pain of everyone around him that led him to question his own voice. “I feel like that energy made me think about what the effect [is] that I’m having on my folks,” he says. “Am I really worth anything if I’m not able to help my people out?”
On Blkswn, he sounds more self-assured. Where he felt like an outsider in Blkjuptr, he has grown comfortable with being an outsider and living life on his own terms. “My apologies I can’t let y’all drain me/Smino-ly Bible I live by/I beat the odds like a drum line/And I ain’t never in a rush/I ain’t no Russian, I’m a Blkswn,” he raps confidently on the album’s title song. He’s still calling out injustices where he sees them—like the Academy Awards’ ongoing diversity problem that sparked #OscarsSoWhite, which he references on “Blkoscars”—but he’s also doing it with the knowledge that he does not have to write about any one topic. As he says, his only obligation is being his “realest self.”
That feeling applies to his style, as well, which Smino admits has hit its stride. “I wake up in the morning, literally every day, wondering what I should wear,” he says. “I’m the freshest I’ve ever been in my life right now.” Part of it has to do with his newfound confidence. Because he wants to be seen more, he is constantly experimenting to create new looks, most of which he documents on Instagram.
Where he once opted for a standard combination of jeans (distressed in some way), sneakers (usually Nike Air Force 1s), and T-shirts (often jerseys), he’s now playing with textures, colors, and accessories. Neon orange and green camouflage hoodies, mustard crushed velvet jackets, white teddy bear coats, pastel sneakers, and geometric sunglasses are just some of the pieces in his wardrobe, but they’re only a fraction of what he mixes and matches. The secret, he says, lies in the details: “The number one way to be fly is to rack up on shoes and accessories. I got a lot of do-rags and a lot of shoes, and it makes it look like I have a lot of ’fits.”
Because he does not have a stylist—he’s never met one that understood him or didn’t try to change him—he’s constantly on the hunt for new pieces and new ways to elevate his look. Lately, he’s been drawn to Yeezy boots, Off-White x Nikesneakers, Louis Vuitton x Supreme bandanas, Moncler coats, and Gucci-print do-rags. He rarely picks up high-end designer pieces. “I like to wear shit that’s fly,” he says. “I don’t like to wear crazy shit as far as logos on my body. If it’s Louis Vuitton, I’ll pick things that don’t have print all over, except for do-rags.” The way Smino sees it, he is his own brand and wearing too many big names distracts from his actual job.
That said, he eagerly applauds Rihanna and Kanye for breaking into the fashion industry. “[They] make me hopeful,” he says. “[Black people] always have the fucking influence. We’re the reason fashion is amazing. All of these designers can make all these clothes, but until we wear them, that shit is not fly. So why don’t we just make our own? And you know, that’s what they’re doing.” With Yeezy, Smino likes how the clothes make people feel confident without using logos. The reason it works, he says, is a result of Kanye’s spirit carrying through the brand. “He makes you feel like you can be you ’cause he loves himself so much. It’s like, damn bro, I’m going to love me that much, too,” he says. “As many times as the people or the media try to write him off, he still comes back every single time. Every time. I feel like that’s a real black legend.”
It’s a confidence he’s trying to bring to his own merchandise for Zero Fatigue, a music collective he began with producer Monte Booker in 2014 that also includes Ravyn Lenae, Bari, and Jay2. Each artist has their own individual sound and aspirations, and as a group, they manage to bounce off one another while showcasing each other’s talents. The crew’s merchandise line is still in the early stages and only includes sweatpants, long-sleeved shirts, hoodies, and hats at the moment, but the plan is to grow it until it becomes a full-fledged collection.
“It’s more of a lifestyle brand. I want fucking baby bags and strollers,” he laughs. “Anything. I gotta get up and do it.” Zero Fatigue’s main goal is to carry on until their creations are done—not getting tired until everything is right. With Smino helping lead the charge, growing it to greater heights is not so much a question as much as it is a guarantee.