30-year-old musician, songwriter and producer, Noah McBeth—better known by his stage name, NoMBe—is a lot of things.
Perhaps most notably, he’s a part of R&B royalty through his godmother, the great Chaka Khan. Beyond that, he’s an accomplished artist in his own right, known for bringing fresh and colorful songs into the world, inspired by everything from soul to indie to ‘80s funk to Japanese anime music and more.
But he’s more than that too—for a variety of causes, McBeth is an activist. As an open advocate for polyamory, he’s become adept at looking at the complexity of love through his art. Recently, he’s taken stabs at dissecting social constructs such as toxic masculinity and emotional unavailability. And being a Black American well-acquainted with the systemic racism of the nation’s criminal justice system, he’s also an outspoken supporter of civil rights.
In fact, in the summer of 2020, McBeth got heavily entangled in the protest movement that spread across the globe following the murder of George Floyd. In addition to participating in peaceful protests and a number of online panels, McBeth gained notoriety for taking in a group of teenagers who had been shot at with rubber bullets by the police… in response, McBeth was evicted from his place of residence by his unsympathetic landlord.
In addition to being a traumatic experience, the eviction and the gravity of the Black Lives Matter movement led McBeth to withhold from dropping his sophomore album, CHROMATOPIA… until now. On May 7, after nearly two years of anticipation, the record was finally released.
Vibrant, electrifying and fleshed-out with infectious beats and thought-provoking lyricism, CHROMATOPIA demonstrates why everyone from NPR to Elton John has been singing McBeth’s praises (John featured one of the record’s singles, “Weirdo,” on his Rocket Hour podcast).
To chat about it all, McBeth hopped on a call with American Songwriter from his newfound home, Hawaii. Talking with insight and passion, he touched on everything from the mood boards he was inspired by to his beautiful experience with polyamory to the horror he felt when the police detained him last summer. Situated right at the intersection between a historic political moment and an innovative wave of musical expression, McBeth’s story carries weight, both in the context of the promising songwriter’s rise and the global paradigm shift ushered in by the events of 2020. Read our conversation below:
American Songwriter: CHROMATOPIA is more conceptual than your previous work, looking at love in the modern world—how did that concept start coming together?
NoMBe: In 2019, I rented out an animal farm to begin recording a more focused group of songs. I had decided that I wanted to be more isolated in order to focus on doing something special. My first album, They Might’ve Even Loved Me, was more so a compilation of songs and singles that I had accumulated up to that point.
CHROMATOPIA had more of a concept behind it, which started to come together in 2018. By the time the first record came out, I already had a bunch of demos for it. I was just working and really figuring out the sound I wanted it to have. I knew I wanted it to be cohesive and more conceptual. So, I was inspired by different things, like mood boards including a lot of album covers from 1980s Japan and that brand of pop culture.
I went to Japan in late 2018—I did some research, bought some records and met some people. As soon as I came back in January 2019, I rented that farm out. That was sorta the beginning of it. At that point, I already had some of the album’s themes and the production going. Maybe some hooks but no verses. Just the bare bones of it.
AS: You mention you were taking inspiration from mood boards—tell us more about this. What were you looking at? How did you turn aesthetic inspiration into a musical expression?
NoMBe: I was just trying to chip away at all of these ideas. I knew I kinda wanted it to be like a throwback to the ‘80s, so initially, I wanted to do a lot of neon signage-type things. I also wanted this theme of robotics and technology with this futuristic sound—and I’m such a fan of Daft Punk. For a while, I was looking at art deco. Then, I was also looking at this futuristic, Blade Runner, Ridley Scott type feel.
It all seemed a bit confusing at first, but I realized I was looking to 1980s modular synth music and Moog. So, I started watching documentaries about all of that. The bridge to that is a lot of the technology of electronic music and funk. ‘80s progressive funk and stuff comes out of disco. So, they’re very organic-sounding things, but at the same time, you have the 1980s and video games and Nintendo and anime. They were also starting to use synthesizers, but the people they typically hired for those types of jobs were classical composers who grew up on Mozart and Bach and all of this classical Baroque music.
So, those things don’t seemingly go together, but they actually align. In 1980s Japan, those things were really popular. Plus, anime music was the music I grew up on, so a lot of the themes on the album are there because they represent a feeling I remember from my childhood. It’s like when you smell something from when you were 7 years old and it takes you back to that exact moment—for me, it’s like, the first time I was falling in love, I was listening to this type of music and watching anime. So, I think all of that came out when I was writing this record.
AS: In a way, this record is a really cool confluence of culture and technology, especially considering the marriage between the album’s themes and its ’80s-inspired aesthetics. How did you approach balancing it all?
NoMBe: I don’t really write from the context of what’s happening in the world right now, but at the same time, I’m shaped by that world. So, things can be oddly personal. With the last record—it was all about women just because those were the stories I had and that’s where I was at. But, we also had the #MeToo movement and all of those things blossoming, so it fell right in line. This album is sorta similar.
It’s really about one particular relationship that I’ve had for many years. We’re not monogamous—on the micro level, the ups and downs of a relationship are very nuanced and multi-faceted. On the macro level, my relationship kinda reflects a new way of looking at things. That brings me to the theme of the album: love is a spectrum. There’s a lot of nuance in choosing your relationship status. You don’t have to be a polygamist and date everyone and swing and do all of this crazy stuff. You get to customize—you can be monogamous, like, six months out of the year or whatever. I’m a big believer in communicating, in respect and in letting your partner know who you are. Even in a monogamous relationship, that’s so, so important.
So, it’s sorta a statement that nothing is rigid, nothing is 100% one thing. Nobody is 100% straight or 100% gay or 100% masculine every day. We all have moments. In France, what might be considered “orange” is considered “dark red” here in America… where does red end and orange begin? That’s kinda why we chose a color spectrum to represent the brand.
And, of course, the record dissects topics like toxic masculinity and other vulnerabilities. It also speaks to loneliness—loneliness in the digital age when we’re so saturated and feel like we can’t truly relate anymore. Everything is so edited and filtered… people are starting to look inward more. That’s what I’ve been doing the past few years… I’ve felt lonely, to put it in simple terms. So, all of that is in there.
AS: In that regard, your music occupies an interesting space in the “art as activism” conversation. You tackle these wide-scale social concepts—like toxic masculinity and the rigidness of sexual expression—yet, you also keep it on a personalized level. How do you think about the relationship between art and activism?
NoMBe: Art, in general, is a great way to lead conversations and segue into a new way of thinking. It allows us to express things without dividing people or being aggressive. You have to think about the timing and poeticism of it, but that makes people want to listen closer. They’re like “What are they actually talking about? Who is this person?” It’s not like you’re a leader and you get to be like “I say this, you should follow me.” Rather, I think you become like an early voice, an early-adopter of a concept. It’s so essential to have that platform—it’s essential for any civil rights movement or political movement.
Even in the ‘60s when it was more about the war and racism, you needed folks like Nina Simone and Bob Dylan. They helped people actually think about these concepts on a large scale, almost like a megaphone. And culture moves in swells—I think we’re having a big ‘60s moment now. For obvious reasons, there’s a big distrust of the government, there’s a movement back towards natural living, holistic health and spirituality. There’s a lot of violence from the system against marginalized people. Society, as a collective, needs to take a jump. You take three steps, and then over the course of four years, you take two steps back. Then, we have to do it all over again. But I think that’s how times progress.
AS: On that note, you were pretty involved in the Black Lives Matter protest movement that sprung up last summer in the wake of the murder of George Floyd—you made headlines for helping protestors who had been injured by the police. What can you tell us about that experience?
NoMBe: Well, it’s a long story that all started with the pandemic.
I was working from home a lot. One night, I went out late to go grab some food after working in the studio. On my way, I was stopped and harassed by the police. It was one of those things where they had no basis to pull me over, I didn’t do anything. They came to the car with their guns drawn and one of them put his gun through the passenger side window, pointing it at me. They asked “What are you doing here?” very aggressively, more aggressive than I’m capable of replicating now. I think they actually said “What the fuck are you doing out here?”
I was so taken aback by that. I’ve dealt with cops a few times in my life and usually it’s been fine. I told them I was just getting food. They said “No, we think you’re out here copping drugs.” I gave them my license, they flicked it back in my face. Eventually, they pulled me out of the car and put me in handcuffs. I thought they were going to kill me, to be honest. The whole time, they had their guns pulled out. Another cop showed up and joined them too, all without them saying what was going on. Long story short: they put me in the cop car, but I ended up being released. They trashed my car, taking all of my paperwork and throwing it all over the place, emptying my wallet.
It was traumatic. I definitely thought… well, I was very afraid for my life in that moment. I was incredibly shook up after. That was in Los Angeles, in Hollywood just a few miles from my house.
Then, literally three days later, the news about George Floyd getting killed broke. Hollywood was so intense. It was intense globally, but in Hollywood… I live by the police station and there were helicopters every day. Protests every day. The first week, I didn’t join any of the protests. But the next week, I started going regularly. It was very intense. I was on social media, I was doing Zoom panels, it was just a lot of stuff.
About two weeks in, there was another protest with a police barricade right in front of my house. Police were walking down the street in blocks of, like, 20, almost looking like a little Roman legion. The air felt very tense. Neighbors were coming out of their houses, cop cars were going by with their alarms on. Something was happening up the street—I didn’t know what it was, but something had clearly gone down.
All of a sudden, I see these eight skater kids come up. They’re super beat up and limping. I told them “Hey, you don’t want to go through this street—there’s a barricade and the cops will just arrest you for being Black.” They were like “All the side streets have been closed and we just got shot at with rubber bullets. They were pursuing us in the car and we don’t know where to go.” I could tell they were bleeding and their clothes were all peppered up with white streaks of mace and pepper spray. They were all, like, 16 and 17 year olds. I noticed that the police were getting suspicious, so I told them to all come inside. We were just trying to figure out how to get them home. The whole neighborhood was barricaded and this was during the pandemic curfew in Los Angeles, so people had to stay at home past 6 p.m.
AS: What happened next? You were evicted for taking them in, right?
NoMBe: Yeah, I let some of them sleep in my music studio, which was in the building. That was enough, I guess, to evict me from the studio, which is my place of work. The landlord found out because this became a local news story on television. I remember tweeting at Black Lives Matter and then all of these reporters started reaching out. Literally the next day, I had, like, four television crews at the house.
It was such a weird coincidence, but on that morning, amateur footage surfaced of the kids getting shot at. Lil Nas X posted it and it went super viral. The reporters had no idea who the people in the video were. I think I retweeted Lil Nas X, like “Hey, those are the kids in my house!” After that, DailyMail talked about it and celebrities started retweeting it and stuff. So, there was no way to keep my landlord from finding out. The sheriff’s department even made a statement. They came to my house unannounced and let themselves into my house—which is a whole other controversial thing.
AS: That’s a lot to go through in a short amount of time—how did you respond? How did this experience change your relationship with your music?
NoMBe: It was all very traumatic, to be honest. And with the way my social media was looking, it didn’t make sense for me to turn around and be like “Hey guys, also, I have this cool album about my relationship and free love!” It was, like, not appropriate, you know? I saw some DJs be like “Hey, new remix coming out soon, Black Lives Matter!” I was like “Dude, that’s so cheesy.” It’s so embarrassing to take this moment and use that space for that. So, I decided to hold on with putting out the record for the foreseeable future. I had no idea that that would be a full year.
But, as this was going on and I was getting evicted, I had a friend call me like “Hey man, why don’t you just move to Hawaii with me?” So, three weeks later, I was there. I was like “Screw this, I’m not going to stay somewhere where I see police every day.” I put my stuff in storage and just left. So, that’s been my life for the past nine months… and that’s the short version! I was meeting with three civil rights attorneys and suing the L.A.P.D. It was just a lot of stuff. My guitar player tried to sue me because the tour was cancelled. It was just a lot of nonsense. I realized “Okay, this is the universe.” I cried, but I never had a breakdown. I understood, like “This is so absurd that the universe is trying to tell me something.”
AS: Earlier, you mentioned that “Society, as a collective, needs to take a jump.” You also mentioned that you feel there’s a resurgence of the energy from the 1960s. Do you see the events of this past year—both globally and for you, personally—as signs that a genuine social justice movement is growing? If so, do you feel that artists today have a duty to step into the position that folks like Dylan and Simone held?
NoMBe: Some people are just here to do music—they’re not political experts. The power that artists have can be harmful if it’s not used responsibly. At the same time, I always feel like it’s a shame when an artist has a particularly large platform and doesn’t use it to do good, beyond just having a cool song to dance to.
A few years ago, A$AP Rocky tweeted that he’s not political and he’s not trying to be political, he only wanted to talk about partying and hooking up with girls and blah blah blah. I was like ‘Man, this is so disappointing… you have, like, 60 million followers and you’re taking the stance of not speaking out on any injustice.’ That made me really sad. But, at the same time, I believe in the freedom of people to make decisions for themselves. I have my opinions, but I’d be a hypocrite if I forced people to do something or say something. It’s a double-edged sword. If a Black person wants to be a Republican, I respect that because I respect each individual’s freedom, especially individuals who have been oppressed. I don’t really understand it or agree with it, but I try to find that balance. I spend a lot of time re-wording my posts and bringing them to a place where they’re clearly understood, but not offensive to the people who need to hear what I have to say.
It’s really the people who disagree who we need to have a dialogue with. Unless you’re convincing people, you’re not doing very much. To convince someone, they need to be listening, they need to be open. People tend to not be open if you’re just yelling at them. So, it’s a very fine line—you have to do your research and you have to be pragmatic.
That’s why I don’t say things like ‘Fuck all cops’ or ‘ACAB.’ That’s just not reality. I’ve been arrested by cops, my mother’s been to prison. I have family members who have been in jail for my whole life. I’m not a sympathizer to this system of oppression, but I understand why certain people become police officers. I understand how difficult that job can be. I want to say that it’s like a prison sentence for a ‘good cop’ to thrive in a group that is, quite frankly, cliquey and full of peer-pressure. There’s no one who has your back. If you’re a police officer and you speak out against other cops, that’s like a death sentence.
So, I try to talk about what’s real, to talk about these concepts and what they mean. But I also try to do a split. At the end of the day, I’m glad that people are starting to say “Hey, it’s not Black people’s jobs to educate us all of the time.” We also need to turn our phones off and hang out with our families and go to picnics and stuff. These are concepts my family has been fighting for the past 70 or 80 years, whether that’s as Black Panthers or politicians or community leaders. We also deserve a break, we also deserve vacations, we deserve to enjoy the benefit of our labor.
So, there’s almost no right answer. It’s such a complicated thing.
AS: Well, a lot has changed in the world and in your life since you first began working on demos for CHROMATOPIA in 2018. Now that it’s coming out, how do you feel?
NoMBe: I feel amazing. I’m a little anxious, but I feel pretty prepared. More than anything, I’m excited for people to be able to have this full body of work that I’ve been promising for two years. It just feels really good. At the end of the day, whatever the reaction is doesn’t matter. The work is the work, people have it now—everything else, I have very little control over. So, I just want to enjoy the moment.
NoMBe’s new record, CHROMATOPIA, is out now and available everywhere. Watch the music video for its track, “Water Into Wine,” below: