Meet Bobby Feeno: Former NFL Star Arian Foster on His Rap Alter Ego and Kanye West's Tweets

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Jojo Pennebaker/UNINTERRUPTED
Bobby Feeno

Arian Foster enjoyed a highly successful career on the gridiron as a four-time Pro Bowl NFL running back. Now, after hanging up his cleats in 2016, the 31-year-old is taking his talents into the recording booth, where he morphs into Bobby Feeno. This isn't your typical athlete turned rapper story, though. Music was actually Foster's first love thanks to his parents, who played records back and forth on weekends long before sports ever entered the picture. 

On Thursday (April 26), the former Houston Texan's independently released his fiery debut album, Flamingo & Koval, named after the Las Vegas intersection where Tupac Shakur was unfortunately gunned down in 1996. The five-years-in-the-making project features luscious production filled with tuneful live instrumentation, while the former Houston Texan's lyrical content ranges from social commentary to stories from his childhood in Albuquerque, N.M.

Foster understands the biases he's fighting as he pivots into a second career. To give listeners another perspective on how the 13-track Flamingo & Koval came together, Foster teamed up with TIDAL and LeBron James' media company, Uninterrupted, for the eight-part Becoming Bobby Feeno docu-series. Each episode chronicles Foster's journey to fulfill his dreams of music and features behind-the-scenes looks at his influences and creative process in the studio.

Below, Foster tells Billboard about shedding his athletic identity, launching the burgeoning Now What? with Arian Foster podcast, making sense of Kanye West's recent tweets and more.

Billboard: How did you come up with the Flamingo & Koval album title? I did some quick research and realized that's the intersection where Tupac was killed.

Bobby Feeno: That was the goal. I've actually had that name in mind since 2009. Anybody that knows me knows I had that name. I was like, "Yo, that's going to be my album." This has been a long process because I've been holding on to a lot of this stuff. I'm glad I didn't release the music I made when I first started because it wouldn't have done it any justice. Who knows how I'm going to feel about this in some years? I finally got the chance to do it the right way and give it the love that's needed. 

Talk to me about the inspiration behind the cover art for the project.

The cover art is dope. I went through about 30 or 40 different ones just to get the feeling I wanted. At first, I had flamingos on there and was going to go with that, but it didn't look like how I wanted it to. My man was like, "You got to put your face on the first album," which makes sense. I remember being proud of the flamingo cover and was like, "This is the one." He hits me back, "Ayo, what's up with the bird?"

I'm obsessed with the universe. I think it's the most intriguing thing. If we keep exploring, I think we're going to keep digging deeper into ourselves and understand more. The most telling part is the two hearts on the cover. I was thinking more metaphorical. One is sitting where he's supposed to be, and one is on my shoulder. So the one where "it's supposed to be" has the depressed demeanor and the other one is free. It's the juxtaposition of being happy versus being content.

Why did you want to partner with TIDAL for the docu-series coinciding with the album?

It was important because I already know I'm fighting stereotypes and biases [about athletes and musicians], but I also think it was important to tell the story in some kind of way, so we partnered with TIDAL and Uninterrupted to do that. When people see it, hopefully they gain a little more insight into how this isn't an athlete trying to rap. This is somebody trying to return to themselves. Once they hear the music, they'll get that sense. It's been a long journey, and there have been so many people involved who have inspired me. It's dope to see it all come together.

What was the music scene like for you growing up in Albuquerque?

There really wasn't one as far as local culture. My inspiration for music came from [my home] because my mother grew up on a ranch in a small town in New Mexico called Springer. My father is from South Central, Los Angeles, and he obviously had those influences in his culture, like Parliament, Con Funk Shun. My mother was [more into] The Eagles, The Beach Boys and shit like that. They used to spin records back and forth with each other on the weekend and battle, which was fun. I ended up getting a taste from both of them. I listen to Patsy Cline now, because my mother introduced me to her. I developed an interesting taste in music, so I have a different standard of what good music is. It's not in a vacuum of one genre, good music is just good music.   

I previously read that you wrote poetry at a young age and now play the piano.

I started playing the piano about four years ago, and I love it. I'm starting to learn the guitar as well. I've been writing since I was around 7-years-old, and it was awful. In the documentary, I have a bag full of hundreds of notebooks that I've collected over the years, but I actually lost it in the flood in Houston. I'm not a hoarder, so it didn't bother me at all. I lost all my trophies from my NFL days in my garage. My mom couldn't believe it. It wasn't in my house, so I didn't care. I didn't care too much about the writings, either, because right before we came and filmed a scene going through the old notebooks, so we got it on tape. I never look through them so it was fun to reminisce a little bit and get it on camera before the flood.

What was the recording process like and timeframe for the project?

I probably started around 2013. I have a track where I say I'm 29-years-old and thought about changing it but said, "Fuck no," and left it. That's what it was when I made it. It's been so long, sitting on these songs. I'm excited for people to hear the growth I've had since I made these tracks which aren't relatively new to me so I'm already looking forward to my next project. 

Would you tour the project live?

If I have fans that want to see me, then one-hundred percent. I'm a creative cat, it wouldn't be 17 homies on stage with me rapping. It would be an event, and I would do a whole bunch of creative things that would bring out what I'm trying to convey in the music. 

Are you signed to any label?

Nah, this is all independent. I'm like JAY-Z without the drug money.

Have you had a tough time shedding the identity of Arian Foster, NFL player?

I never really worried about that. People are going to think what they're going to think about you. That's one thing I've learned throughout my journey in the NFL. You're an idiot to try, honestly. You can be Buddha and you can find somebody on the internet saying right now, "Buddha's a piece of shit." Why even try to argue with people who don't use logic? There's a bunch of insecurities bumping into each other online.

How did you come up with the name Bobby Feeno?

Feeno just sounds cool to me. There's really no story behind it. I don't like the way Arian Foster sounds. If I had a dope artistic name like Kendrick Lamar, I would've kept it. That sounds dope. I hate Foster, and it's a slave name anyway. I never liked my name. I'm not in love with my first name either. 

Let's get into some tracks. On "Gawd," you let JAY-Z know you'd go toe-to-toe with him but pay respect.

It's really paying homage. It's me acknowledging that in my eyes he's the best to ever do it. 

You ponder the thought of ending up in a wheelchair by age 50 on "got it." Is that something that runs through your mind now?

I'm relatively healthy right now, but my body hurts. I'm not a normal human being. I've had 14 surgeries. I suffer through pain. I chose this lifestyle, so when I reference it in the song, I'm happy even though I know that's a possibility. I bled for the fact that my kids can have a better life. I can't move around like I used to in my prime. I can do everything a normal person can do, and I still play basketball to keep active. Athletic ability is the [biggest thing you lose]. I just deal with chronic pain. I'm still relatively young at 31, but I feel degenerative effects of banging my body against the wall for years. 

Next, on "Zeus Blood," you sampled the famous Tupac quote, "I guarantee I will spark the brain that will change the world." Is that your favorite quote by him?

It's one of them for sure. Tupac influenced a lot of shit, and that's why I love him. What's even better about that is you have to get it cleared through the Tupac estate, and we were on the brink of taking it off when the owner of Tupac's estate called me and wanted to get a sense of who I was and why I was doing it. It ended up being a great conversation, and they let it go. It was dope to see someone who's handling his estate hear my music and say, "You're honoring him."

What's the sampling process like on the business side? You also used clips from Kanye West's interview with Beats 1 in 2015.

It's the artist and the network that has the rights to it. It's a motherfucker. This album was done probably May of 2017, but with the sample clearing process, we had to wait. I did two other songs in the process of waiting. 

You identify as atheist. Is the song "Amen" your way of trolling the ultra-religious?

I wouldn't say trolling. I think that's doing it a disservice. I think it's more a satirical play. It's not poking fun at it in a sense of trying to degrade anyone from believing it. It's poking fun at it in a "If you look at it from this perspective..." way. I always tell people on my podcast to care about why you think the way you think. 

On that track you rap, "I'd rather pray to Yeezus than Jesus, at least he can get me some Adidas."

That's just a fun thing I said. It's just my feeling and personal belief. They've done studies on prayer, and prayer works at the exact same rate as chance. That should be a telling sign, but for some people, it's not. 

So you're pointing out that people always look to prayer, despite all the bad that still goes on in the world?

That's basically what it is, and it's satirical. [Religious people] always have a fallback as to why [bad things] happen. You claim [God's] doing all these things for people, but when you bring up the bad, they're like, "He has other ways." 

Moving on to "A Friend a Fan a Kid," you sample a JAY-Z quote where he references how his friends will hear him talked about as a mythical figure. Is that something you could relate to as an NFL star?

That's what the smoke and mirrors of television does to people. When you go back home, I'll hear from friends, "Dog, what's it like?" I'm like, "You grew up with me and you know me." I felt it from my family and friends. You get to this point where you're the breadwinner, and it becomes a burden. You become a target for a lot of things. Sports are weird because you encounter all this success and you're so young. You're growing up in the midst of a façade that you have it together. You have to balance all of that, and it's overwhelming. I was a heavy drinker when I played in the league. I went through a lot of shit and came out on the other side of it really happy. That's why I'm so happy post-retirement.

You also touch on the uneducated fan's mentality toward players that try to keep you in this box.

You get it from fans all the time. I always tell people that expectations are pointless. All you're doing is setting yourself to a standard that may or not may be upheld. Fans expect things because of the cookie-cutter mold that had been set before. There's never been an Arian Foster in the NFL, and there never will be again. In sports, you get it the most because you're supposed to be this role model and upstanding citizen that represents an organization, but that organization is employing individuals with their own thoughts, and they should account for that.

That's how that starts, and then the Kanye quote [on the song] is used for the fan's perspective. Kanye talks about the materialism we all fall in love with -- that's what people think you're all about. [Kanye's] crazy brilliant, I don't care what anybody says.

As a fan of his, what do you think about everything going on with Kanye West right now?

I did Joe Budden's Pull Up show, and he asks about Kanye West, and everybody gets passionate about how he's not for us. I'm like, "Give me something Kanye said that says he's not for us?" Nobody could, and I kept asking. Someone said, "He likes Candace Owens." He likes how she thinks and how, when you break down what she's saying, it's a multi-layered issue. On the surface, it looks like a Republican pundit saying that black people need to stop complaining and pull themselves up by the bootstraps.

I don't think that's where Kanye's coming from. When you break down what he's saying -- [the idea that] black people need to stop playing the victim -- now that's a deep statement. I could be misrepresenting what he's saying, but I don't think I am. He's the same person that said: "George Bush doesn't care about black people." All of a sudden he doesn't care about black people? That's stupid.

When it comes to not playing the victim, there's a certain element of truth to that. That's not a conversation I think you could have in the public eye. It's hard to have a conversation about black issues in front of white folks. We like to pretend that we'll get over things that happened. We live in a post-racial society that's still racist. We were slaves. It was one generation ago that my father couldn't drink from the same water fountain as white people. Those reverberating things still matriculate through our generation, but they're just really covert now.

What Candace Owens or Republicans and especially black Republicans refuse to acknowledge [is that] there are still systemic issues in this country that plague people of color. They like to distort that. How can you quantify police harassment? It's a feeling. It's deeper than [statistics]. There's an element that Kanye and Candace won't bring up when you're talking about black folks in America: that [issues are] systemic. There's nothing wrong with the mentality of saying, "I refuse to be a victim." Are people victimized? Absolutely. There is merit in saying black people should feel entitled and empowered. That's a better way to word it. 

What would you see as success for the album?

The only kind of metric of success for me that I could really gauge would be if people give it an honest listen. That would be a win, because I understand all the biases I'm fighting. Aside from that, I'm not looking to go platinum or anything. If I could tour and I have a fan base, that would be amazing.  

What made you want to start the Now What? With Arian Foster podcast? You've had some great guests and conversations on there.

It was really my friend’s idea. He was like, "There's a lot of money in podcasting." He felt like I had a voice that needed to be heard, and this would keep my voice relevant and resonating. I was like, "That makes sense, because I like to talk about political issues and things that are plaguing our culture." I get to use some of the reverence that I have from football to get in these rooms with some of the greatest people. As I'm traversing along through this journey, it's helping me grow a lot. I get to talk to Snoop Dogg, Tony Hawk, a marine biologist, a transgender person -- [I get to] listen to her story and how she's feeling about things. I get to talk to the people of our country across all spectrums. That helps me grow as a human being.