Lord Jah-Monte Ogbon takes us through his breakout year in 2021, working with Navy Blue on Beautifully Black, and how he’s hoping to build the infrastructure to support independent rap in Charlotte.
Lord Jah-Monte Ogbon doesn’t know what to make of the new visibility. It’s mid-December, and he is on the heels of two 2021 projects that garnered acclaim from critics and fans alike. His resonance in the new rap vanguard is growing at a rate commensurate with his catalog.
And it’s his first day at a new job.
“I’m big multitasking right now,” Ogbon blares over speakerphone, trying to keep his focus while working security at the front desk of a building. That he was confident enough to split his attention during a trial run was genuinely impressive. That he chose this to be when we spoke (as opposed to say, when he got off) was charmingly confounding. Truth is, I’d been chasing the Charlotte rapper for a couple of weeks by that point. The initial date he’d agreed to speak with me was one he also double-booked. (That time with a court date.) When we finally got on the line, Ogbon assured me all was well and there was no reason to be alarmed. It was just another day in the dual lives of Lord Jah-Monte Ogbon, each of which has a bright and dark side, as well as its own HQ.
Though he was formed and is currently based in Charlotte, Ogbon’s last few years have been split between his hometown and Brooklyn, where he’s found a welcoming, hospitable, and thriving underground rap community comprised of eager collaborators and vocal fans. The only problem, as any resident of the boroughs will corroborate, is the rent. “It’s a lot of money trying to be in New York,” Ogbon said, reflecting on the hard choice of positioning himself in a space that is creatively empowering when he’s got a four year old daughter to feed back home.
It was in Brooklyn where Ogbon first linked with Sage Elsesser, the rapper and producer known as Navy Blue. After an intro on Instagram, Ogbon was invited to Elsesser’s home in Bed-Stuy to handpick the beats for his tender, witty and earnest 2021 album, Beautifully Black. Firmly planted in (and actively shaping) the undercurrent of subterranean rap on both coasts, Elsesser’s unused productions were often spoken for. “This shit was crazy,” Ogbon recalls of the experience sifting through beats already claimed by Earl Sweatshirt, Mach-Hommy, Wiki, ANKHLEJOHN, and AKAI SOLO (who was sitting beside Ogbon and spoke of a similar cathedral of untouched Navy Blue beats when we spoke with him last year.) “To have somebody who really tapped in on that level, to welcome me into their space and help me get my music out there. Just crazy.”
Ogbon finding kinship up north is fitting. His taste is rooted in rugged and raw rap luminaries of the tri-state area. But he credits his awakening and the subsequent, almost requisite wormhole-diving, to the discovery of another North Carolina native with east coast leanings and sensibilities. “Once I found 9th Wonder, that’s when I really found my sound,” Ogbon said. “That’s when I started listening to artists like Wise Intelligence from Poor Righteous Teachers, the X Clan, Arrested Development. Everything in that caliber that just spoke on Black enlightenment, Black empowerment.” Ogbon’s comfort in conscious stains of hip-hop is self-evident. However, he’s particularly adept in mining relationships for cold truths and warm wisdoms. For that, he thanks a trio. “I heard a Little Brother beat and it changed my life,” Ogbon said.
For the 28-year-old rapper, the embrace of a collective, no matter how loose or decentralized, mainstream or below the radar, was hard-earned. But it was also difficult to reconcile with his career in Charlotte up until this point. “People don’t really get their flowers like that out here,” Ogbon said, grappling with how his body of work tends to resonate at different frequencies in different regions and how internet love doesn’t quite cut it when your life is mostly centralized in one town with inadequate infrastructure for supporting independent artists. “I try to go to NY as much as possible because that’s when the numbers make sense,” the rapper said. Ogbon speaks openly about the struggle to get local venues and record shop owners to book out-of-town rap acts and stock new pieces of vinyl with self-stamped triple-digit price tags. “I should be able to bring them to Charlotte. That’s so important. That we really create this kind of space. Because all these people doing tours just skipping Charlotte going to Raleigh or Chapel Hill. And I’m like, ‘bro, that’s for a reason.’”
This isn’t an uncommon spot for musicians in starved artistic communities to find themselves in. The history of hip-hop is filled with notable case studies in rappers and producers fighting to establish a local audience in their hometowns while they were still residents. After all, Gang Starr went through two line-ups and a relocation before Guru found DJ Premier and compelled him to post up in Brooklyn. And the late J Dilla shipped out to Los Angeles, before Detroit would claim him as their own.
Despite the slow crawl to build out a scaffolding and local fan base for DIY rap in Charlotte, Ogbon is far from discouraged. In fact, he’s more determined than ever to pool the effort. “Artists have to just collectively come together, putting their money together. And if we can’t financially do it ourselves with the money we have in our pocket, then we need to use the system, trying to get grants,” Ogbon said, outlining a path forward.
These are tall aspirations for an artist only just gaining footing in the broader rap landscape. So many in his position have been forced to engage with a false imperative; who to unshackle first, themselves or their city. But at this rate, Ogbon won’t need to choose.