Saba is re-learning to smile after grief

Words: Dean Van Nguyen
Photography: Greg Purcell

For Issue 006, Dean Van Nguyen had a in-depth conversation with one of Chicago’s brightest lights in rap Saba about life after death, with photography by Greg Purcell taken in Dublin city.

On stage at The Academy, Saba spies a familiar face in the crowd. It’s not a friend or family member that the young Chicago rapper is happy to greet, but rather an employee of one of Dublin’s vast ocean of donut emporiums. Saba must have a serious penchant for the rich, doughy confection. Dude can even remember the faces of donut store workers in foreign cities. Turns out, the pair’s first encounter occurred during Saba’s last visit Dublin.

“We posted a photo and we were like down the street from his job,” the rapper tells me, speaking backstage after the show. “He tweeted us and he was like, ‘If you guys come I’ll give you all free donuts’. Some shit like that. So we just went to his job [laughs]… We might have got a discount on some donuts. I might have got a free donut.”

For the 24-year-old and his crew, this latest Dublin trip is the final stop of a lengthy European tour. Reconnecting with donut servers aside, the odyssey has allowed him to gauge the international response to his album ‘Care For Me’, which dropped in April 2018 to rapturous approval.

“Coming over here and doing a Europe tour is always interesting because we don’t know what to expect,” he says. “It’s always a good experience to get face-to-face with any market that you may not be as familiar with.”

Tonight’s show is a rollicking affair. The thunderous energy of both Saba and the young crowd almost act as a counterweight to the album’s weighty lyrics.

“The cool thing about performing is that you can kind of make it what you want it,” says Saba. “We always like to have a good time, jumping around and having fun with it. But some shows are very serious and there’s space in hip hop for all that to happen and I think we try to have all of those moments in one show. It’s just cool when it works.”

‘Care For Me’ is, for sure, a serious record. It’s a thoughtful piece of soulful, dimly lit hip hop largely inspired by the death of Saba’s cousin and fellow Pivot Gang member, Walter Long Jr., aka John Walt, who was stabbed to death in February 2017 after a short scuffle on a Chicago train. In creating the record, Saba felt a feeling of catharsis, even if he didn’t know it at the time.

“I was writing a lot of the songs and not realising what they were about. It was actually one of my producers who pointed out how the grieving process kept entering the songs. It wasn’t like an intentional thing, ‘I’m going to grieve and make and album’. I wanted to make the opposite album. I wanted to make a happy… It was just where I was mentally at the time where it kept coming out and kept coming out. So it wasn’t intentional, it just naturally happened, and I think that’s the way a lot of music is meant to be – just kind of doing whatever it is.”

As he probes life, mortality and the meaning of this thing we call existence, Saba’s thoughts on ‘Care For Me’ move to two immortal icons, Jesus Christ and Tupac Shakur.

“Jesus got killed for our sins, Walter got killed for a coat,” he raps on opening track, ‘Busy / Sirens’. Elsewhere, ‘Life’ details John Walt’s death. Inspired by his discovery that Tupac was only 25 when tragically slain, the song sees Saba note the ages of the legendary rapper and Christ at their time of death.

“I think it’s a reference point that’s universal,” explains Saba. “Everybody knows so much about Jesus and yet so little. I don’t consider myself to be Christian or I don’t really consider myself to be a religious person or anything like that, but these are stories that I know because everyone in the fucking world knows most of this shit about Jesus. It’s more like a reference – Jesus being 33 and we know that Jesus was killed. Well, Pac was even younger. Jesus died for our sins. Well, Walt was killed for way less than that. It’s more just like a reference to really show people how little people are losing their lives for, even Tupac.”

In a way, Saba has created a timestamp of his own grief. ‘Care For Me’ captures his thought process in the immediate aftermath of John Walt’s death. Someday, it may function as a kind of journal of this intensely heartbreaking period of his life. But grief is not something that’s stored away neatly, no matter how much time passes.

“When you lose somebody, it’s something that you deal with constantly from the second they’re
gone to the second you’re gone,” he says. “So you learn to deal with it in different ways and, for us, we have some amazing shows in front of amazing fans and it really helps the grieving process and things like that, but I think it’s an ongoing battle. Some days are easy some days are tough, but it’s ongoing.”

That said, ‘Care For Me’ is not a relentlessly tragic album. There are moments of great hope and joy. Take ‘Smile’, which finds Saba pondering his grandparents’ Southern United States origins through to growing up in his grandmother’s Chicago apartment (the album cover photo was actually shot in her kitchen). Turns out the song was actually a bit of an accident. Saba and producers daedaePIVOT and Daoud, who helmed the whole album, were supposed to be finishing songs, not making new tunes, when a jam session broke out.

Saba remembers, “I was on the drums. I don’t play drums but in this instance I was jokingly playing drums on the drum kit. Daoud was playing some chords and daedae was also playing drums, he was playing a different kind of kit, I had like a standard drum kit. We just did the production and it came out sounding good, so we were like, ‘Let’s try it out’.

“I started writing to it and the song, it felt special and it felt like something the album didn’t have because the album was so serious and kind of dark, especially compared to my other music that I put out. It was like, this production, before there were even words on it, it felt like a way to brighten the album up a little, like a sprinkle of hope in there. And while ‘Smile’ is not super happy-go-lucky, despite the lyrics including ‘smile, smile, smile’ – the music still has that element of nostalgia. I think that’s something that the album explores a lot just with these dreamy chord progressions.”

It’s long been obvious to anyone paying attention that the diverse Chicago hip-hop scene is going through a moment. You’ve got guys like Lil Durk and G Herbo representing what are perhaps the dying embers of the once mighty drill scene. There’s the weirdo virtuosos like Chris Crack, Vic Spencer and Tree, rapping over soul samples with a personal sense of buggy irreverence. Queen Key makes brutal tunes for the club. Then there are stars like Saba, Noname, Mick Jenkins and Chance The Rapper.

They make passionate, spiritual music with a focus on the heady topics of love, life and religion.

“I love Chicago so much,” says Saba. “Because you can kind of do what you want, in music you can go as crazy as you want or as subtle as you want and do as you want to do. I think artistically, meeting Mick, Noname and Chance and all these people, it was like a connection of a friendship level that led us to making music… But I still consider what we all do to be very different, but I think it works well together. Chicago is just a really diverse scene, especially from the hip hop norm, like what hip hop is supposed to sound like, a lot of people in Chicago are pushing it further.”

Right now, Saba is one bright celestial body in Chi-town’s mighty galaxy. But as that star grows, would he want to be as popular, as iconic, as, say, the man whose spirit he evokes on ‘Care For Me’ , Tupac Shakur? Is that the ultimate goal?

“I think the goal is to always get bigger,” he tells me. “If we didn’t want to get bigger we wouldn’t be in Dublin doing shows. It just wouldn’t make sense. I would just stay in the studio and put out the music and that would be it. But I want to be as big as I can get, y’know?”

He continues, “I think an interesting thing about that is if you’d have asked me a few years ago I probably would have had a different answer, so I think I’m learning as I go and that’s the cool thing about being an artist now, you don’t have to be something you don’t want to be, you can just do what you want to do and be what you want to be. And I think that’s what we’re doing, but we’re kind of just figuring it out as we go. But seeing that many people out there in Dublin just makes me want twice or three times as many the next time we come. I definitely would like to keep growing.”