Chino Amobi shuffles through slush puddles in an industrial neighborhood in South Williamsburg, pausing to note the "New World Order vibes" of a grayscale January day. Soaking in the sooty, trash-studded remnants of a recent storm, the 31-year-old, Richmond, VA-based producer—who is here to begin the work on his debut LP—says that he's never bought into the dream of living in New York. "90% of the people I went to school with came [to New York]," he says. "People think if you get this thing or reach this plateau, you'll find this moment of grand catharsis that's going to bring you this peace. But wherever you are, you're still going to have to deal with who you are."
While arranging our meet-up, I noticed that his email signature described him as a "citizen of NON"— a winking way of describing his role at the record label he founded with his producer friends ANGEL-HO and Nkisi, whom he met while trawling through music on the Internet. Per the label's SoundCloud, NON is "a collective of African artists, and of the diaspora, using sound as their primary media to articulate the visible and invisible structures that create binaries in society, and in turn distribute power." In addition to their shared love for the splintered, politically engaged electronic music made by pals like Rabit and Elysia Crampton, all three friends have a particular relationship to identity and place. Amobi was born in Alabama to Nigerian immigrant parents, and lives in Virginia. Nkisi claims Congolese roots, but grew up in Belgium and resides in London. ANGEL-HO lives and goes to school in Cape Town, South Africa, a city still scarred by the legacy of apartheid. At the heart of the label, Amobi explains, is an outsider feeling. "We feel home where we are," he says. "But there's a displacement. A big part of [NON is] not being a part of mass culture as it is."
Amobi's music reflects the violence of everyday life—the fragmented quality of post-internet existence, the lonely sensation of every place almost feeling like home. On Anya's Garden, his 2015 EP for UNO NYC, sputtering noise tracks collide with bombed-out synth landscapes, composed orchestration, and splintered ballads, all desperate unease and hesitant joy. A standout track uses a synesthetic cavalcade of broken Auto-Tune verses, sirens, and Sinatra samples to critique his own grass-is-always-greener impulses. Its warbly refrain echoes his dystopian appraisal of the city where he now stands: "New York will never save you."
Amobi started making music at the age of 12, cobbling together rudimentary beats and rapping occasionally with his brother, who now goes by Chichi the Eternal. But it wasn't until art school at Virginia Commonwealth University that his collagist composition style—and feelings of alienation from mainstream American culture—began to take shape. A performance and sound art project called Diamond Black Hearted Boy, which he started in college and continued until age 30, cast Amobi as a Bowie-like figure, teleporting in from different realms of time and space. On some of the dozens of releases he put out under the moniker—mostly standalone tracks he posted to Bandcamp—he appears on the album art with glowing purple eyes; others had Blade Runner-indebted artwork, and release dates set far into the future. But alongside these provocations—which Amobi admits were "very art school"—he gradually made futuristic noise his trademark, combining pointillist synths, distended drones, and gunshot samples into what felt like reconnaissance missions into a great staticky unknown.
What he ended up finding in that void, he says, was himself. "Diamond Black Hearted Boy was like a mask," he says, explaining his decision to drop the moniker in favor of his own name last year. "There's nothing I'm hiding behind." After years of making music pseudonymously, he'd come to believe that there was something more radical about eradicating the "division between the sound and [him]self." So he did in his music, and co-founded NON to champion other people who wanted to do so, too. "There's certain voices—young people of color—you don't see propped up," he explains. "It's huge just to put those voices at the forefront, to offer them economic and aesthetic autonomy."
Aside from their merch offerings—a smattering of shirts and sweaters with graphic designs largely crafted by Amobi himself—NON's releases tend to be digital-only, issued directly to Bandcamp and SoundCloud. There's no A&Rs aside from the artists themselves, no managers, and no publicists, making it possible for Amobi and other NON-artists to connect with fans without having to worry about anybody else's bottom line. "[NON] is very critical of things as they are," he says. "It challenges individuals to transcend beyond that through their work and their actions. The way everything is run, from the music industry down through everyday interactions, [NON seeks] to challenge that."
The label's haphazard and prolific release schedule reflects that punk attitude: when I asked him when he might be releasing new music, he said he didn't really have any concrete plans to. Then he released a new track—a cacophonous, atonal, thoroughly unlicensed rework of Alicia Keys' "No One"—just two days later.
As abrasive and disorienting as these tracks can be, the end goal for Amobi is to push past sheer revulsion and communicate revolutionary ideals. "It's one thing to talk about the hot dog you ate today, but it's another thing when you're really focusing in on what your actions mean in your life and how they affect you and your community as well," he says. For Amobi, inflicting sonic ugliness on his listeners is a way of pointing to violence in society—and pointing to that violence is the first step to overcoming it. "It's healing to me in a way," he says. "After you've been through trauma, it makes you appreciate peace even more."