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Katori Walker Talks California Roots, New 'Stubborn' EP & Plans for Upcoming Debut Album

Katori Walker
Jack McKain

Katori Walker

Katori Walker is looking to be the next lyrical assassin out of California, but the Pasadena native isn't willing to take any shortcuts or sugarcoat his trials and tribulations to get there. "I want to give you something more than just ear candy. I want to feed your soul," he explains over the phone.

Following a successful run opening for Vince Staples on his Smile, You're on Camera Tour in early 2019, Walker delivered his third project, the Stubborn EP, in late March. It's his strongest and most vulnerable work to date, covering topics macro and micro, from Donald Trump to the anxiety he's dealt with since his brother was killed. "Every song on the project has a yin and a yang," he says. "It's like this fight within yourself." 

Walker first began to gain attention with the spine-chilling video for his single "Ormoni," named after his younger brother who in 2017 was killed at a candelight vigil for another friend who had died. The video imagines Ormoni's final moments.

Walker says that finding out he was going to be a parent changed him. "I really believe my daughter saved my life," he says. "I found out she was pregnant the day before Ormoni passed. From a super high to the lowest of lows. I used that anger to fuel my machine."

Her, walker discusses his California upbringing, the Stubborn EP, his upcoming debut album and more.

Billboard: Who were some of your musical influences growing up in Pasadena?

Katori Walker: I grew up in a musical household. My dad was a DJ and a producer. He had a studio in our garage. I was always seeing different rappers and singers come through and that definitely inspired me to make music. At first, I started off producing, then me, my twin brother and my younger brother made a rap group called OG3.

Growing up, some of my favorite artists were the ones my dad would bring back to the garage. One of my favorites, Mr. X, taught me how to rap. The way he wrote was so unique: He would start on the right side of the paper and go down to the left. So the way he wrote was like a pyramid. It was the most creative way of writing I've ever seen. I was hypnotized by it and tried to be a mini-him figuring out his patterns. He definitely helped shape who I am as an artist today. Now, the people who have a huge influence on my music are Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, Big K.R.I.T., Drake, and Lauryn Hill. Another artist whose music doesn't inspire me, but his impeccable hustle does, is Russ. I look up to that man. 

Earlier in the year, I saw you tweet, "I'm done trying to making hits. I'd rather make real shit. It last longer."

A lot of the stuff being put out now shows a lack of artistry. I don't want to disrespect any artists, but I feel like people aren't even trying anymore and the masses are accepting anything. I want to hear more art. There are artists putting out phenomenal stuff, but a lot of people are playing the hit game, rather than putting their all into a body of work. I remember running to the store as a kid to get Lil Wayne's Tha Carter III. The last album I genuinely took a look at was Boogie. It moved me in a certain way. I'm done trying to make bubblegum music just for the here and now. 

I think about the artists that are here and extremely good at making hits. I'm a fan of Post Malone. He's really good at making hits, but then you think of artists who make music to transcend a generation. They're making songs that touch your soul. I don't want to have people just nodding their heads to a good beat. Artists that get up to the top really fast, come down just as fast. That's because they played the clout chasing, trolling game. I think, as humans, we're going to thirst for something more. I want to give you something more than just ear candy, I want to feed your soul.

What was inspiring you at the time when you began recording Stubborn?

This was the first thing I began to record after my Ignorance project. This project is actually a year old. I recorded it the two weekends of Coachella. Me and two producers from London named Jordan and Danny rented out this Airbnb and turned the master bedroom into a studio with PVC pipes and moving blankets. We were in there making music Monday through Friday and would go to Coachella on the weekend. The creativity of Coachella weekend inspired the project. We were inspired by all of those creatives there.

Why did you title the EP Stubborn?

Every song on the project has a yin and a yang. There's a theme of being stubborn throughout the EP, where I have something to say about this, but then I admit that I'm kind of like that too. I'm stubborn enough to say something, but I'm not this perfect human being. It's like this fight within yourself. Also, I'm stubborn to not bending to what today's sound is. On the EP, there's no trap beats. I'm not chasing hits. 

Walk me through the creative process for "Run." That had a striking visual.

I want to talk about things that people are afraid of. Everyone wanted to talk about the Trump line. We all thought about the people who are opinionated about Donald Trump, but they didn't vote. I was also thinking about how there's a lot of fear with being a black man. You have to fear your own kind, police violence, gang violence, and nationwide tension. So I felt like running, but where would I run to? 

The second verse talks about surviving what I've seen. Instead of staying in that sense of violence, I needed to run to my purpose. Nobody who is in a life of crime wants to do that. I also wanted to give people an alternative and a way out. For the video, I chose police brutality because we're so desensitized to unarmed black people getting killed by police. It doesn't even sting as bad, we've seen it so much. I wanted to play with perspective in the video when you hear the gunshots. What would happen if it was a white kid? Would the cop go to jail? I wanted to play with that frame of mind. 

How long have you dealt with anxiety?

I suffer from a lot of anxiety. I've been suffering since my brother passed away. I had my first attack about two months after he passed in a mall. I'm walking normally and I hadn't ate yet. I was doing Uber at the time and had a lot of coffee. All of a sudden, my body shuts down. I couldn't walk or talk, just move extremely slow. I felt like I was about to have a heart attack. This lady was looking at me like I was on drugs. I was screaming, "Help me!" She thought I was crazy. I baby-stepped my way to Starbucks and I'm thinking I'm about to have a heart attack and die. I'm yelling, "Get me some fucking water." I don't play with drugs and hardly drink. Once I got some water, I calmed down. Then, I went to four different doctors thinking there has to be something wrong with me. Every doctor said it was just anxiety and gave me some breathing techniques. 

In the midst of writing that song "Anxiety," I was having an anxiety attack. We were in Palm Springs for four weeks. The first two were Coachella and this was the third week there. I wasn't open and vocal about it to the two producers there. I had no idea why I was going through it still. I felt that my heart was physically hurting. That's why I wrote the record. I question life's purpose in the first verse, then in the second I start getting into how I could do better as a father. I realized then that our whole purpose here is to love. I get all the way through my anxiety and come back down and know what I'm supposed to do. I have really good techniques now to get it under control. I have a way better understanding of what it is. I used to try to fight it off. 

Do certain situations still give you a lot of anxiety?

When I have big things to do, like a video shoot, I'll have a lot of anxiety. Not on stage, though, that's my favorite thing to do. Video shoots are hectic and there's so much stuff going on. The videos I've done are big productions managing over 50 crew members and I direct all my own videos. 

In "Roll On," you open up about how not being the cool kid in high school drove you to suicidal thoughts.

Looking back on it now, it was very superficial. In high school, being popular and having the right clothes is a big thing. Being in the in-crowd is a big thing, and I realized that I wasn't that. You want to be known by everyone and have the coolest shoes. I was driving myself crazy seeing the cool guys with all the girls. I wanted to have a bunch of different girls and be the coolest. My brothers and I were less fortunate, so we had Payless shoes and the same couple pairs of jeans. That made me feel like I was less, and that got to me. 

I was trying to love myself through self-inflicted hatred. I was hating myself and losing patience. Suicide was a thought that I played with in high school, and I wanted to talk about it now. That was a real tough time for me. I wonder if my friends noticed any signs looking back. I always hear stories of happy kids committing suicide, and I can understand exactly what they felt. As an adult, I would never kill myself over those things, but as a kid, those are the biggest things in the world. One of my teachers told the class, "Suicide is a permanent solution for a temporary problem." Once I heard that, the thoughts disappeared.

What was it like touring with Vince Staples? Did he give you any sort of advice along the way?

We have the same touring agency. I didn't know him personally, but I've been rocking with him for a while. He didn't give me much verbal advice, but I watched his work ethic on tour. There was no playing, he took it serious and was about his business. He'd show up, do a show, and get back on the tour bus. This is business. There was not one night he didn't come out and kill the stage. We chopped it up a couple times, but the work ethic is what I took from him. 

What can we expect from your debut album? I saw you hint to XXL about how it's going to compare the parallels in life between your late brother, Ormoni, and yourself.

The album is going to be the parallels in my life and his life. Looking at how I ended up on the stage, while he ended up in the grave. And what exactly led to those things. My dad was just as hard on him as he was me. We went to the same high school and were into the same sports. I wanted to talked about how our lives ended up this way. 

Before I lived with my dad, my brother and I were in the foster system from about five to nine. They split all my siblings up except for Ormoni and I, who stayed together. I felt I had to protect him being in the system together. It hurt me when he passed because I felt like I failed as a big brother. Now, a big portion of my music is dedicated to the people who lost someone and felt like they could've done more. Seeing my dad cry at the funeral did something to my soul. My brother's death has to mean something, and I'm going to make it mean something.

The "Ormoni" video was my depiction of his last breaths. On January 6, 2017, he was at a vigil for my twin brother's best friend. The same gang who killed the dude that the candlelight was for, came back around and opened fire. My brother and another individual died. People were badly wounded. The very next day, my younger brother, Charles, went to go put down a candle for Ormoni, and he ends up getting shot, but survived.

That sequence of events sent me into a really dark place. Even though I chose music, I've been raised around a lot of violence. I thank god that I found out that my girlfriend at the time was pregnant. That's what saved my life. I really believe my daughter saved my life. I found out she was pregnant the day before Ormoni passed. From a super high to the lowest of lows. I used that anger to fuel my machine. 

I could've commit a crime in retaliation and went to jail, but that would've been a two-for-one. My mom would've lost a son to death and another to life in prison. I didn't want to do that to my family. Music helped soothe me in ways that were unimaginable. I felt like I was already ten steps of everyone else at the funeral because I had already released that energy. Music is something that saved my life from making wrong choices. 

Are there any features you're trying to line up for the album?

I feel like the purpose of this EP is to get my name to ring. A lot of the artists I want to do a feature with know who I am. I know Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole already know who I am. I met Big K.R.I.T. when I showed him one of my videos. As far as right now, I'm the type of person who's going to keep pushing. I'm fine with being on my own. It would be great to have a feature with one of them. I take pride in the fact it's just the music and the videos. There's no politics or someone behind closed doors pulling strings, and that's the most beautiful thing about it.

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