‘I’ve Always Been a Transplant’: A Global Perspective on Texas Hip-Hop
David Shabani’s life took him on an international journey from France to the Live Music Capital of the World.
This is part of our coverage of South by South West (SXSW) 2023.
Some people learned to bake during the pandemic. Austin hip-hop artist David Shabani, 33, spent his time in isolation building what he calls a “super team”—his band, the Nu Leopards.
“Honestly, it gave me the opportunity to get a bunch of unemployed musicians, put together a band, and then practice, practice, practice,” he said when the Texas Observer caught up with him during the South by Southwest (SXSW) Festival earlier this month.
By the end of their second livestream performance, the Nu Leopards were a “tight-ass band” with their setlists memorized and in tune with each other’s cues. Shabani’s sound is global, with complex instrumentation supported by keyboardist Marcell Coleman, drummer Jamal Knox, and bassist Christian Callegeri, his music shows a wide range of influences from R&B to electronic dance music.
Shabani’s music not only reflects his numerous musical influences, from Outkast to Lupe Fiasco, but his long journey from his birthplace. Now, he’s built a big enough following that he went on an international tour after the release of his last album, 2021’s Shabani’s Smooth Sounds of Summer, just as live performances returned post-pandemic. Raised partly in Canada, he spent much of his childhood in Dallas, attended Texas State University in San Marcos, then moved to Austin to launch his music career. Shabani’s put down roots as a Texan but still proudly identifies as Congolese, Canadian, and an immigrant.
The Observer spoke with David Shabani about the many facets of his identity and how it influences his music:
You’re based in Austin these days. I know you went through Canada and eventually Dallas. Tell me a little bit about that journey.
My mother’s from Congo. I was born in Paris. And then, after a while—it wasn’t a very long time, I was a little baby—my mother was looking for another place to find work. In Paris, it is kind of tough for Africans to find work; it’s pretty racist. This was around 1989, then my mother moved to Montreal, Quebec, because it’s another French-speaking place. When we moved there, we settled there. That’s my original upbringing, in Montreal.
How did you get from there to Texas?
When I was 9, we moved to Dallas because [my mom] married my step dad. Until then, I’d only spoken French and Lingala [spoken in Congo]. My brother was all right because he had to learn English in Canada to listen to rap and in order to watch Will Smith—you know, Fresh Prince [of Bel-Air]. My formative years have been in Dallas.
Was that a culture shock when you got there?
It was different for me because, first, it was hot. And also I grew up a diehard hockey fan. So when I moved to Texas, that wasn’t the sport at the time. But then the Dallas Stars eventually won the Stanley Cup.
I couldn’t make friends the first semester. As a young, young boy, I was not very happy because I didn’t have any friends and I didn’t have anybody to talk to. Being a pretty social person, it was tough. But I picked up English eventually. Every summer, though, I would still go back [to Canada]. When I was 11, that’s when I started writing rap. For us in Texas, school ended in May, but for all my Canadian friends, it ended in June.
And so I would go to do after-school programs, the type of stuff that keeps kids out of trouble. That’s the first time I ever rapped in front of people. People lost their mind because I guess it’s unusual to see someone rapping at that age, at that time. That’s when I started feeling comfortable. I spent that whole summer writing so many things. I would rap in the school yard. So by the time I moved back to Dallas, that’s when I was very comfortable rapping. I would freestyle at the table; I would put songs on Myspace; I performed with some of my friends; we did talent shows; I performed at church; I did Christian rap, too.
You moved to Austin because that’s where the music is?
I knew that if I got to Austin, I could play more often, and I could still go back to Dallas to play a show. It’s not like moving to Atlanta or L.A. or New York. I came at a time where, more and more, you start to see more hip-hop. I feel like it was different a couple of years back.
It used to be harder to find hip-hop in Austin than it is now.
One hundred percent. There are a few spaces and more dedicated hip-hop nights and dedicated hip-hop tours that come through. So I feel like I came at the right time, and that was really the reason I came along and I made it happen. Well, actually, I’m trying to make it happen. And I think I’m on the right path.
Tell me about your newest album, Shabani’s Smooth Sounds of Summer.
I think that a lot of my lyrics are heavy. Austin City Lights  was very transitional. I was a new man trying to make it in a new city. And before that, Black Hoodies  was during what I thought of as the new civil rights era after Mike Brown [was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014]. By the time I got to Leopard’s Leap and Must Not Weep [both 2019], I felt so mature, with a lot of deep profound subjects. This most recent one was me feeling more positive about life. It has a more uplifting message in some of the lyrics. I wanted to put out some music I have been writing for a while. I wrote a bunch of songs during the pandemic and I wanted it to be a positive type of music that’s popping.
What was cool is that, after I released that, I started getting booked more and more. Now, with the band, I was able to tour Europe. I did Paris and London. It was great. Then I was able to do a Texas tour as well. So Dallas, Austin, Houston, Corpus Christi. Now, the sky’s the limit. I can see where we’re going to take the band.
How do you feel like your upbringing all comes together in your music?
I feel like I’ve always been a transplant, at all times. Even in France, even though we’re French and I have a lot of family that’s French, we’re still African. If you’re in France, you see the world and it’s like, okay, cool. I feel like I belong here, sure. But I’m still looking at it from a window. This is France from an African perspective. When I’m in Canada, same thing. I mean, we’re immigrants, came to Canada. So, I love, I’m happy, I’m comfortable in Canada, but I still look at it from a different frame. Also in Texas. Texas is where I feel the most comfortable, really. Like my story is like, oh, you were in France but I’m really a Texan. In Texas, we have very many, very rich cultures, right?
There’s a very rich Black culture, a very rich Hispanic and Mexican, Tejano culture. Many different voices have created the sound that is Texas, including the Native Americans, the Comanches and all. I’ve always not fully fit in perfectly with any of that, even though I fit in. I’m still an African immigrant. I think that made me always observe things. I’ve always sat back and looked at things almost from away, even if I’m there. And so when I write music, I’m observing, I’m writing out what I’ve observed to tell stories, write songs. And that point of view is why some of the lyrics are refreshing,
When it comes to the sound, that’s another thing. In my house, my mother only listened to Congolese gospel music. I was raised in a Congolese church where things sound great but they sound different than a lot of what you hear in the States. My brother listened to a lot of East Coast rap, New York rap, and of course, we listened to a lot of reggae, dancehall. When we moved to Texas, I met my step brother, who listened to a lot of rap from the South. A lot of rap like Awon, MJG, Outkast, and UGK. So that made me merge a bunch of different sounds.
A lot of your influences are political, and you air your views openly in your music. Where do you think things are going in the U.S. and Texas and how’s that reflected in your music?
I think that we’re in a tough battle between everybody’s getting more informed or everyone’s getting misinformed. There’s always been the conscious rapper and a deep rapper and all of that. If it’s not done right, it’s not going to work. People like Lupe Fiasco and Mos Def—and, people like J. Cole—they’ve always had a point of view on the world without making it preachy. I’m just explaining to you what I see and how I feel about it. That’s how you gain information and from that point there’s action, there’s emotion, there’s influence. I just talk about how I see things in my life, in my way. And I think people get informed.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.