Meet Up-and-Coming Milwaukee Rapper Zed Kenzo

Rising Milwaukee rapper Zed Kenzo talks about her career and what it’s like to make art in the midst of a pandemic.

Photo courtesy of Zed Kenzo

WHEN THE GOVERNMENT began encouraging citizens to practice social distancing, members of the Milwaukee arts community didn’t just sit around wondering what they’d do when their upcoming performances were canceled. They started mobilizing. By March 13, the arts nonprofit Imagine MKE and the video company Mindpool Live had teamed up to livestream a concert and help raise funds for local creatives. Rapper Zed Kenzo was one of the headliners.

Who are your biggest influences?

There are so many. When I started making music, I was listening to a lot of M.I.A. and Tyler, The Creator. He’s problematic in some ways, but I liked that he composed his own music. I’ve always been drawn to people who do it all, who write their own stuff and produce it, too.

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How would you describe your music?

Alternative, eccentric hip-hop with a youthful air. It’s upbeat and almost hypnotic.

Tell me a bit about your involvement with 88Nine’s Backline accelerator.

The program was phenomenal. Lex Allen, Crystal Knives, Abby Jeanne and I were part of the first cohort. The people who ran the program put us in touch with mentors, and they actually put us in touch with a therapist and a financial advisor, too. They wanted to give us as many resources as they could. And even now, they’re still trying to help. They reached out to check in [after gatherings of more than 10 people were banned] and wanted to talk about what they could do to help local musicians.

What was it like to headline a concert without an audience?

It was crazy. They put the show together that day! Kelly Fitzsimmons, who’s been a mentor to me and does a lot with 88Nine, texted me around 11, asking me if I wanted to play a benefit show that night. I had to work from 12 to 8. And she was like, ‘Don’t worry, you can go on right after that.’ I had no idea what to expect. I didn’t know how the live stream was going to work, or that there’d be people in hazmat suits there. But it all worked out. We raised enough money to kick off a grant program for local artists.

How do you think the pandemic will affect the creative community here?

I think it’s going to put a damper on people creatively. Luckily, I’m still getting paid for the next month at least [as of March]. But there are other people out there who make all their money off their music. They depend on their shows for income. And obviously, nobody’s going into the studio right now. Nobody’s meeting up for collaborations with other artists. … I’ve heard people say it’s the perfect time to start making new work, but that’s hard when you’re worried about money.

This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s May issue. 

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Lindsey Anderson covers culture for Milwaukee Magazine. Before joining the MilMag team she worked as an editor at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and wrote freelance articles for ArtSlant and Eater.