I find myself in the bottom of an underground bar in Brussels ready to see hip-hop rising star, Noname perform tracks off her last tape Telefone. It’s a small room filled with brick resembling an old dungeon with nooks and crannies and a low, curved ceiling. The stage is only a foot off the ground; there are barely any barriers between the artists and the crowd. 40 people float around the space, just sort of filling it. The show started with a set by DJ ZOMB. Five minutes after 8:00 (almost on time, a rarity for a show) the lights dim, and a green light emerges behind the tall bearded DJ wearing headphones spinning off his Macbook air. The crowd was filled with young Brussels’ hipsters in their twenties and couples in leather jackets and high top classic black Vans sipping beers out of plastic cups, slowly swaying to a hip-hop/deep house mash up (reminiscent of this Spotify instrumental hip hop playlist). People strip off their big coats and layers of Nike Air hoodies as the room heats up and the tracks begin to hit a little harder, becoming purely hip-hop. It feels casual, people chat over drinks as colored lights dance around the tiny venue. The DJ seems unbothered by people talking as he gulps his lager and sings the lyrics to underground hip hop tracks. The room fills up (with both more people and smoke off a fog machine) and unlike some other shows I’ve been to, lots of women came alone. This speaks to Noname’s music, but also the culture of the venue, crowd, and the sort of safe openness and acceptance created in the space. It’s a nice change from judgmental concert environments I have been in multiple times. It feels diverse.
The DJ plays top 50 American hip-hop hits from ASAP Rocky to Lil Yachty’s “Broccli” (which ZOMB ends with) interweaving these tracks with more conscious and less mainstream rap. There’s a short break after the DJ before Noname. AKenya. , who accompanies her with vocals for the whole show, comes out and starts out the background track to “All I Need”, and plays the keyboard. Noname walks onto the small stage and immediately spits the first bar, “Noname off the drug, Noname quit the weed”. The track ends and she yells “What the f**k is up?” before transitioning into her second song, “Sunny Duet”. She comfortably commands the stage in white Nikes with scrunched up grey socks and her signature black and white striped polo dress. AKenya. leads the vocals on the third song, “Diddy Bop”. Noname jokes with the crowd and responds to the space, “its hella smoky in the joint”. The best part is that the crowd responds to her – giving her back even more energy than she’s putting out. Her fourth song is a new track, which she follows up with “Comfortable” by Mick Jenkins and “Lost” by Chance the Rapper; both of these are songs she is featured on.
It’s an intimate venue – I am at the front of the crowd and barely a foot and a half from Noname’s face. It feels closer, and because her music deals with such important and deep issues, it feels necessary to have it like this. People know every lyric, and the venue changes from a performance by one to a choir made of the crowd at so many points. When she’s performing it feels like homies cheering on their favorite friend rapping, rather than an idealized show where there is one over-rehearsed performer on an insane pedestal. The front row has one leg on the stage for her whole performance, and she is playful – she has the audience whisper some lyrics and yell others. While the material of the songs is heavy, there is a joy and lightheartedness that Noname brings out – someone in the crowd yells “FUEGO” after every track and others spit every lyric from their spot in the mass. She is fully engaged, dancing to each song and in the moment with every individual in the crowd. It’s infectious. She continues on with “Reality Check”, “Casket Pretty”, then immediately transitions into “Forever”, ending on “Yesterday” as her last scheduled song for the show. Asking the audience to sing with her, she turns off the background track and repeats “when the sun is going down, I picture your smile like it was yesterday,” multiple times, again creating that chorus like feeling in the room.
She quickly shuffles off stage after finishing her last line, and the crowd chants “Encore!”. She remerges on the stage, and says “We never done this before,” and asks the audience to put their hands together, creating a background beat. The crowd claps on rhythm and she spits the lyrics to “Shadowman”. The encore almost felt like a spontaneous cypher with friends, creating a more organic and authentic experience than most shows.
Blue light illuminates behind her curly hair, making a soft halo behind her before she leaves the stage again. She was so real, and she lived every moment of her short 40 minute set with the audience. Some women chatted after the show, “for 9 euros it was unreal. I was smiling all the way, she’s so inviting and engaging… the energy on both sides…” That was what it was all about – the energy in the room. Her show was an experience, one you should see before she gets even bigger.
Photos courtesy of Thor Salden.