By Matt Gundrum —
There’s a cultural movement bubbling right here in Wisconsin. It’s happening slowly, but with great volume, as it gradually seeps into the minds of youthful urbanites.
To understand what is happening here, look no further than the southeastern corner of the state, within the city of Milwaukee, where a group of artists is banding together under a shared philosophy of unhindered self-expression. This group has chosen to call themselves New Age Narcissism.
At the forefront of this collective, in terms of attention garnered thus far, stands Sam Ahmed, a hip-hop artist who goes by the moniker WebsterX.
Ahmed is a first generation American. His parents hail from Ethiopia, and his father was a renowned, Ethiopian musician. His mother was the daughter of a successful businessman. Naturally, Ahmed found himself channeling these genes later in life when he pursued music and was tasked with growing his own brand.
An Act of Courage
Growing up, he found himself unable to be fully invested in school.
“I guess I’ve always felt a disconnect,” he said in regards to the education system, “but it wasn’t known to me until I dropped out.”
Ahmed left the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee (UWM) his junior year.
“I had a lot of pressure from my parents. They wanted me to stay in,” he said.
His first two years were spent studying marketing and, in his third, he switched to a creative writing focus. But his disinterest soon took over.
“It took a lot of courage and strength,” he said, referring to the decision to leave school.
But Ahmed admitted that his university stint was far from a waste of time. “I’m totally marketing myself all the time now. I use all those skills from [studying] marketing. I just apply it to my actual life,” he said.
The process of realizing the WebsterX persona was by no means one of immediacy.
“I had to grow into my identity as a rapper,” Ahmed revealed.
This growth process was influenced by a coalescence of different musical influences and life experiences.
One experience, in particular, was an intense state of depression following his decision to leave school. But this state of mind did not hinder his progress. Rather, he perceived it as a creative outlet and an opportunity to become self-realized.
“When you’re at your lowest low, and you come out of that, you feel invincible,” he said.
Ahmed started to build his musical catalog in 2013 when he released his debut EP Stoop Kid Sessions. Soon after, he released his Desperate Youth mixtape.
Success trickled in. He gained attention from both inside and outside the Milwaukee city limits. This led him to perform with fellow Milwaukee rapper Klassik in 2014 at the city’s music festival, Summerfest. This was his largest performance yet, and he was prepared to deliver.
“When I play live for someone, it captivates them,” said Ahmed. “When you see me live, that’s when you totally get WebsterX.”
After this initial Summerfest performance, Ahmed’s popularity began to grow. In the midst of this buzz, he made a move which has proved to be a career highlight: dropping the music video for his song “Doomsday.”
The “Doomsday” video is sleek and refined. Cinematography, editing, and lighting are perfectly juxtaposed with the song’s tone. It was released in January of 2015, and in the summer of that same year, he released another video with incredible production value for the track “Lately.”
These videos, which are on par with visuals seen at a professional level, propelled WebsterX to the forefront of the Milwaukee music scene and gave the city nationwide recognition as a center of creative talent.
The best part?
“’Doomsday’ and ‘Lately’ were shot with no budget,” said Ahmed.
NAN: Defining a Scene
Throughout Ahmed’s come-up as WebsterX, he began to develop an expansive network within the Milwaukee music scene.
These connections slowly began to materialize into New Age Narcissism (NAN).
NAN isn’t exactly a performing band, per se. Rather, they are a group of artists who all share the same artistic vision and wish to disseminate their creations under a single banner.
Lex Allen, who’s in NAN as well, described the collective’s formation as a transcendent event.
“It was like a natural, cosmic crossing of paths,” he said. “A natural falling-into-place of old souls uniting.”
Allen is one of NAN’s foremost creative characters, possessing a sound that can best be described as a soul-pop amalgam.
Born in Milwaukee, Allen went through a turbulent childhood due to the trials and tribulations of poverty.
“I grew up really fast and I got to see the good side and the bad side of the world at a very young age,” he said, adding that he felt like a “30-year-old at the age of 10.”
But this did not deter him from creative expression.
“I used to design clothes, I was pretty much a serious designer when I was 12 years old,” he said, only half-jokingly, when describing a scene in which he put on a fashion runway show for his 10 siblings.
Today, Allen still possesses that same imaginative spirit. Not only does he boast a thematically strong collection of tracks with their own thrilling visuals, but he also brings to NAN a set of personal philosophies that are immensely insightful.
“There’s a big difference between wanting to be amazing at what you do and competing,” said Allen. “That’s when you fall off. That’s when you lose your individuality. You’re trying to be them. You’re competing with someone to be who they are and you’ll never be that because you’re not them. So it’s like you have to continually change yourself and be better at what you do. And that’s like the core of true individuality.”
This aligns with how everyone in New Age Narcissism perceives the term “narcissism.” Instead of excessive self-interest, the collective is looking through a different lens.
“You have to be okay with being into yourself,” said Allen. “It’s about being self-aware.”
NAN’s do-it-yourself aesthetic and their poignant messages of individualism are hitting home. Slowly but surely they’re becoming a household name in the downtown Milwaukee culture. This popularity is catalyzed by their explosive shows, which possess a fluidity that adapts to the crowd’s emotional response.
At this point, it’s not really a question of “What’s next for WebsterX, Lex Allen, and NAN?” Rather, it’s a question of “Who will they inspire next?” They’re poised to initiate a domino effect on young, local artists, striving to find their own voice within a music scene that has so desperately needed creative vigor.
“Wherever the youth need help, that’s where we’ll be,” said Allen.
WebsterX and Lex Allen will be playing at the University of Wisconsin–Stout on Thursday, March 24.