For Twin Cities Rapper Nur-D, Another Step Forward

May 12, 2021
Originally published on May 12, 2021 12:35 pm

As a rapper, the Twin Cities-based artist Matt Allen goes by Nur-D – and the name kind of fits. "It's something embedded into my soul," Allen tells Morning Edition. "Comics, Dungeons & Dragons, professional wrestling...."

His positive music has made him one of the most popular artists in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. But, when George Floyd was murdered by a former Minneapolis police officer a year ago this month, Nur-D's life took a new turn.

At a memorial site for Floyd the day after his murder, Allen and some friends ended up as ad-hoc providers of medical attention to protestors – he came back the next day. And the next. His involvement led, last May, to Allen helping establish Justice Frontline Aid, an organization which aims to "create the safest environment possible" for activists. "As soon as we showed up looking like we knew what we were doing," Allen says, "and we certainly did not, no one gave us like, riot medical training before [Laughs] – it was like a beacon for everyone who wanted to help, but didn't know how."

As part of Morning Edition's Song Project, we reached out to Allen asking him to write a song exploring his personal experiences over the past year. He returned with "One Step Forward," in which he finds reason for hope in the progress of the last year, and recognition of the long road ahead.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Rachel Martin, Morning Edition: Have you always been so comfortable in your skin?

Nur-D: I mean, it's a survival mechanism. When you're a Black kid in a majority-white space, you either get real cool with yourself really quickly, or you push out. And I was lucky enough to be able to get real cool with myself.

So, the protests kick off – how are you absorbing all of it?

I went to the spot where [George Floyd] was murdered, the very next day, along with hundreds of other people. And as we were there, as people were speaking and talking and we started filling the streets, the Minneapolis Police Department, 3rd Precinct, came out without warning ... Men, women, children, all choking on massive amounts of tear gas – people that weren't even at the protest.

I was brought over to a cache of medical supplies that had been abandoned – and I was like, "Yo, I can't just leave with these people being hurt, and no one's around to do anything about it." ... The reality of the situation is, in my head, as silly as it sounds ... "with great power comes great responsibility."

So we stayed, a couple of my friends, a couple strangers – we got all the medical supplies, we started walking around patching people up, handing out masks, doing first aid... and we did that for a whole night, and we came back in the morning and kept doing it.

The more that I saw, I tell everybody: "Blood stains." It was sort of me expanding what I talk about. I'll still talk about these other [topics] – body positivity, loving yourself. But I also talk about issues surrounding black and brown communities. And it was scary to change.

What was scary about it?

Okay, the reality of the situation is this: I had been given a very large platform because my music was safe. And when I mean safe, I mean safe for the majority of white people who would want to listen to it. So here I come, taking a hard lean into racial justice and race politics. It was scary like, "Yo, Matt, you could lose everything."

I am very blessed to say that I was wrong. And I preface that by saying I did lose people; I had people comment racist things on my Twitter and my YouTube. That being said, I gained so much more than I lost. So many people were like "Wow, thank you for saying something about this." And because I was being true to myself, which has always been the point of Nur-D, I think that translated over really well to all of my friends, all of my fans, people who've never heard me before. "So he's going to tell us how it is, all the time, even if it's not easy."

That's your superpower.

Trusting in my gut, being myself even when it's not easy – that's my superpower. And it's one I've had to develop.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Let's get back to the MORNING EDITION Song Project. It's our series where we ask musicians to write an original song about life in the pandemic. Our guest today...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKE MY PICTURE")

NUR-D: (Rapping) Yeah. I don't got a catchphrase yet...

Hello. My name is Nur-D. That's N-U-R-dash-D. My secret identity is Matt Allen, and I am from Minnesota.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKE MY PICTURE")

NUR-D: (Singing) OK. I look good. Take my picture.

MARTIN: Yep. His rapper name is Nur-D, as in nerdy, and the name does kind of fit.

NUR-D: Why? I don't know. It's something embedded into my soul. I love all of the - you see all the stuff behind me, the comics, Dungeons and Dragons, professional wrestling.

MARTIN: He works it all into his music with a bigger message. Basically, you got to learn to love yourself.

Have you always been that comfortable in your skin?

NUR-D: I mean, it's a survival mechanism. When you're a Black kid in a majority-white space, you really only have about a couple of options. You either get real cool with yourself really quickly, or you push out. And I was lucky enough to be able to get real cool with myself.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKE MY PICTURE")

NUR-D: (Singing) I look good. Take my picture.

MARTIN: Nur-D's happy, positive music has made him one of the most popular new artists in the Twin Cities. But the reason we contacted him is because when George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer exactly a year ago this month, Nur-D's life changed overnight.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BURN IT DOWN (FEAT. PSALM ONE)")

NUR-D: (Singing) You can burn the whole thing down. I don't care if you're uncomfortable.

MARTIN: The protests kick off. How are you absorbing all of it? You're there, right?

NUR-D: Yeah. I went to the spot where he was murdered the very next day, along with hundreds of other people. And as we were there, as people were speaking and talking and we started filling the streets, the Minneapolis Police Department at the 3rd Precinct came out - you know, men, women, children choking on massive amounts of tear gas, people that weren't even at the protest.

MARTIN: And there were lots of injured people and almost nobody there to help them. And that's where Nur-D found purpose, a mission to help people, like the comic book heroes he loves.

NUR-D: I was brought over to a cache of medical supplies that had been abandoned. And I was like, yo, I can't just leave with these people being hurt and no one's around to do anything about it. And I'm here. You see behind me all the comic books I have, and the reality of the situation is, in my head, as silly as this sounds, with great power comes great responsibility. So we stayed - me, a couple of my friends, some strangers. We got all the medical supplies. We started walking around, patching people up, handing out masks, doing first aid, and we did that for a whole night. And we came back in the morning, and we kept doing it.

MARTIN: In fact, he's still doing it because Nur-D founded a volunteer organization called Justice Frontline Aid. And they've been out on the streets since last May.

NUR-D: As soon as we showed up looking like we knew what we were doing - and we certainly did not because no one gave us, like, riot medical training before. But as soon as we showed up looking to know what we were doing, it was like a beacon for everybody who wanted to help but didn't know how.

MARTIN: Nur-D grew into his new role, and as that happened, his music evolved, too.

NUR-D: The more that I saw - I tell everybody, blood stains. It was sort of like me expanding what I talk about. Like, I'll still talk about these other things, these fun things, body positivity, loving yourself, but I also talk about issues surrounding Black and brown community. And it was scary to change.

MARTIN: What was scary about it?

NUR-D: OK. The reality of the situation is this. I had been given a very large platform because my music was safe. And when I mean safe, I mean safe for the majority of the white people that would want to listen to it. So here I come. Taking a hard lean into racial justice and race politics was scary because it was like, yo, Matt, like, you could lose everything.

MARTIN: But he just went for it and did two records in 2020 inspired by the racial justice movement. And then there's the song he wrote for us.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONE STEP FORWARD")

PETER CAHILL: We, the jury, in the above entitled manner, as to count one, unintentional second-degree murder while committing a felony, find the defendant guilty.

MARTIN: Nur-D wrote it last month after the former police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty of murdering George Floyd. But the song doesn't feel like triumph because in the days leading up to the verdict, Minnesota police killed another Black man.

NUR-D: Daunte Wright happens 20 minutes away from where the trial was being held.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONE STEP FORWARD")

NUR-D: (Rapping) Don't be calling it justice because if we have to discuss this, that means that the scales are rusted. The trust is busted.

MARTIN: And then on the day of the verdict, even as protesters were marching in celebration, news arrived of another police shooting, this time a 16-year-old Black girl from Columbus, Ohio. Now, the circumstances of these shooting were all different, but to Nur-D, it felt like an assault. He tried to keep focused.

NUR-D: And I'm doing what I've been doing this whole time, helping marshalling, blocking off streets so the march can go through, you know what I mean? And the mood is very positive even in this march. But the reality for me was that this is just one guy, Derek Chauvin, who's been convicted guilty. And we had to fight for a year nonstop to, like, get this to matter.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONE STEP FORWARD")

NUR-D: (Rapping) Attack dogs only fight what they've been sicced on. He wasn't a disease. He was one of the symptoms.

NUR-D: And so for me, when I wrote this song, "One Step Forward," I was like, you know, I am excited that he is going to jail, and we still have more work to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONE STEP FORWARD")

NUR-D: (Singing) This is only one, only one step forward. This is only one, only one step forward.

MARTIN: Nur-D says the risk he took by getting political with his music was worth it. The backlash he expected didn't come crashing in.

NUR-D: I can say I'm very blessed to say that I was wrong. And I preface that by saying I did lose people. I had people comment racist things on my Twitter and on my YouTube. That being said, I gained so much more than I lost. So many people were like, wow, thank you for saying something about this. Because I was being true to myself, which has always been the point of Nur-D, I think that translated over really well to all of my friends, all of my fans. Even the people who'd never heard me before were listening and were like, oh, wow, OK. So he's going to tell us how it is all the time, even if it's not easy.

MARTIN: That's your superpower.

NUR-D: That is. That's what I've come to learn. It's like, yo, trusting in my gut, being myself, even when it's not easy, is a superpower. And it's one that I've had to develop over the last year.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONE STEP FORWARD")

NUR-D: (Singing) All of my life, I've had to fight. I'm tired.

MARTIN: Matt Allen is the rapper Nur-D. His song for our project is called "One Step Forward." Matt, it has been so cool to talk to you. Thank you so much for making the time.

NUR-D: Yes. Thank you for having me. Thank you for giving me this prompt. And, yes, please, please, please, please find out how you can help your community.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONE STEP FORWARD")

NUR-D: (Rapping) We've got more to do. You know what n***** carry on. Nipsey said it ain't a sprint, it's a marathon.

MARTIN: You can hear the song in full at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.