By Michael Ashcraft —
Tobe Nwigwe’s dreams of making the NFL pulverized when the top-ranked linebacker suffered a career-ending foot injury. On lengthy bedrest, with no one visiting him, his crutches out of reach, his left leg in a full cast, the University of North Texas MVP and captain had to Army-crawl to the bathroom. That’s where, lying on the floor, he broke down.
“Tears were coming strong down my face,” he says on a Behind the Artist video. “I was on some real carnal stuff with God, like ‘Why would You do this to me. I didn’t kill nobody. I ain’t robbed nobody. I’m bad, but I’m not as bad.’ It was at that moment on the bathroom floor that God was like, ‘You have lost your identity in the game, and you have purpose in your life outside of your circumstances and your situation.’”
The injury represented a major reset for the man who once thought “you have to suck at football” to need to devise a Plan B. Today, Tobechukwu Nwigwe helps drifting youth avoid gangs, violence and drugs by discovering their God-given purpose.
“If you would’ve asked me what my purpose was back in college, I promise you I would’ve said something like, ‘Hit the league, money, cars, clothes,’” he says. “I literally got to the lowest of the lows because the only thing I ever dedicated all of my time, effort and energy to was football and when that was gone, I literally had to rethink life. I became like a monk as it relates to the study of purpose. Once I was able to cut off the mania of the world, I was able to figure out who I am and what my calling is and what my natural gifts are.”
His hip-hop has blasted through the stratosphere with millions of views on YouTube. Tobe is the T.S. Elliot of rap. Elliot was the most heralded poet of the 20th century who led readers to “certain half-deserted streets.” Tobe takes his listeners to the SWAT — South West Alief, Houston, the roughest of slums where he “dropped a bullet” in the fourth grade and got treated like “King Arthur with his sword raised.”
Tobe evokes the poignant experience of being a poor child of immigrant parents and fighting to survive in much of his music. He was a “hard-headed” kid who smoked weed, listened to Biggie and snuck out at night, to the chagrin of his mom, who prayed for him and counseled him. They were five kids in one room.
Tobe discovered he was good at football and won a scholarship to North Texas, where he ranked #5 nationally in tackles and reading defenses, a good foundation for an NFL career. The dream was coming true until his teammate fell on his foot, causing the “best worst injury of my life,” he says.
“It ended my football career. It made me think of who is Tobe outside of the Tobe the football player,” he says. “I had to realize that before I was in the sport, I had a purpose. It was a blessing in disguise.”
He planned to recover from the injury and try out for the NFL, but “God shut almost every single door to football and halted a whole bunch of stuff in my life until I made a conscious decision to let my little dreams die and move in the direction with the non profit organization,” he says.
The injury brought him close to the God of his parents, and the God of his parents brought him to his purpose: a non profit that he launched in 2016 called TeamGINI (from “Gini Bu Nkpa Gi?” — Igbo for “What’s your purpose?”) which brought “edu-tainment” to high schoolers. If there is no meaning to life, all the kids would fall into “the trap” — rap speak for a hood out of which you escape only by jail or a casket. By imbuing their existence with purpose, it is hoped kids will choose college and meaning.
It was a stroke of genius born of his own “monk-like” quest to find his own purpose. And it led him to stage two in his life: he linked up with motivational speaker PhD Eric Thomas, the “hip hop preacher.” ET, as he goes by, was making waves in Texas encouraging African Americans to dream big. On a fluke, Tobe called him and got him on the line.
“We don’t have any money right now,” Tobe told the man he watched “religiously.” “But as soon as we have some money, we want to have you come.”
ET declined the speaker’s fees and came for free. What he saw surprised him. Tobe moved the high school kids at the event as a warm-up for ET. Reportedly, ET had never seen anybody move the crowd in that way.
So he signed Tobe to be part of his motivational speakers team.
Then, team members found his Facebook page and watched a video of him free-styling. It was a video made with the family that was only meant to be fun and funny. ET thought Tobe had talent and wanted his ministry to branch out into the music of the community. ETA Records was born with Tobe as their first artist.
It wasn’t long before Tobe outgrew the team. He began uploading new music every single Sunday. His then-girlfriend Ivory would twist tufts of his hair on the couch as he would sing. The set was called “getTWISTEDsundays.” LaNell Grant, the kid sister of a high school football chum, produced the beats.
It was an unusually high clip of production, but his musical originality, the thoughtfulness of his lyrics, the inimitable croaking voice gained the collective traction. Comedian Dave Chappelle, rapper Erykah Badu, Chance the Rapper and basketball stars Michael B. Jordan and Kevin Durant gave him plugs on their social media. “He was dope,” they said. The viewers clicked through.
That is how Tobe Nwigwe (it’s pronounced nuh-wee-gweh) light-speed-traveled to the top of Christian rap. He rocketed through an alternate universe: not through Reach Records and the circle of CHH organizations, not through Capitol Records which recently charged into the market starting with the signing of NF, not through co-signs and big breaks. It was through his own YouTube uploads on low-fi video camera that gained an unexpected groundswell of support.
Today, he’s married to Ivory. He calls her “Fat,” a term of endearment that comes from a chubbiness in her face that he saw with a certain haircut she wore when they were first getting to know each other. Fat doesn’t mind the nickname. In fact, she wonders if something is wrong when he uses her real name. Her Instagram handle shows her embrace of the moniker: @tobecallsmefat.
Fat pretty much fell head over heels in love with Tobe when he was poor and running the non-profit. She would drive him all over and try to impress him with her singing ability. He wasn’t impressed, but her persistence kind of conquered him and they became boyfriend and girlfriend. They share on a video about abstinence that in their first round of romance, they didn’t remain abstinent.
Eventually, Tobe broke up with Fat. He thought he just wasn’t feeling love as intensely as she felt it.
But after a period of weeks (months?), he did some rethinking, aided by a spiritual mentor. He questioned what love was, and his mentor explained that love is much more than butterflies or physical attraction. Love grows, he said. That’s when Tobe realized that Fat was the perfect soulmate, more than a lover, a friend.
“Fat loved me when I was poor. She was into me then way more and I had absolutely nothing. She loved me way before I did music. She was literally just into me and loved me for me 100%,” Tobe says on OkayAfrica. “I really feel like that’s what everyone in the world wants, someone to love them for who they are and not what they do. If I did music, if I didn’t do music, Fat wouldn’t care. She is literally only here for me and my well being. Fat puts God first and then me.”
In almost every song, Tobe raves about his love for Fat. On their second attempt at romance, they decided to do things right and refrain from sexual relations. In video interviews, she watches him adoringly. He teases her and threatens anyone who gets close to her that he’ll revert to the ways of his hood to guard her. It’s heartwarming, something you don’t see in non-Christian rap.
Tobe calls himself a Christian, but his music has not been inducted into the CHH canon. It’s edgier than most of the stuff church parents urge on their kids. It’s hard-hitting, gritty, raw. While it doesn’t have the prolific cuss words of secular rap (Tobe uses “hell” all the time), it just doesn’t feel like the sanitized stuff of CHH.
And that’s genius because Tobe’s primary goal is to reach the kids who think CHH is corny. It’s also genius that Tobe says his music is about giving kids purpose. By side-stepping overt Christian evangelism, he gets much more airtime from secular hosts and influencers.
“The rap is literally to fool you and bamboozle you to realizing that you have purpose for your life,” he says.
Tobechukwu means “Praise God” in his parents’ native Igbo language, but don’t look for him to open for Chris Tomlin anytime soon.
God “is the foundation of not just my music but my life. My relationship with God is what determines how I move in every area of my life,” Tobe says. “I just try to have integrity and character. I just always felt like, growing up in the hood, real to me means you are who you say you are. If you are not who you say you are, to me that’s fake. I always felt like if I say I’m with God then I’m going to be who I am and move as such, throughout my life. I just try to be as real possible.”
Read about other Christian hip hop artists by clicking: 1K Phew – Ada Betsabé – Andy Mineo – Bizzle – Canon – Cass – Datin – Flame – Gawvi – HeeSun Lee – Jackie Hill-Perry – JGivens – John Givez – KB – Lecrae – Lil T Tyler Brasel– MC Jin – NF – nobigdyl. – Propaganda – Ruslan – Sevin – Social Club Misfits – Steven Malcolm – Tedashii – Tobe Nwigwe – Trip Lee – Wande Isola – WhatUpRG
And an overview article about the state of affairs in CHH: Christian Hip Hop in Controversy.
Mike Ashcraft is CEO of Cuisine Natural selling 10-inch bamboo steamers on Amazon. IF you are interested in buying one, click the link or the picture.