NandoSTL is a breakout star who took home multiple SlumFest awards in 2020. But then COVID-19 came.
If navigating through life as a breakthrough artist isn’t an especially easy proposition, doing so while a global pandemic rages unabated is downright hard
. But for St. Louis’ own NandoSTL, 2020 has been about finding a way and making things work.
At the top of the year, the rapper and songwriter performed at SlumFest, taking home the award for Best New Artist and the People’s Choice award for his song “Outside.” At the show, he delivered a memorable and passionate performance for the track that had everyone in attendance in agreement that he was one to watch.
It was an auspicious event in a budding career that had only recently started in earnest. Growing up, Nando didn’t have an epiphany or life-shifting moment where he discovered his musical talents. In fact, he had a lot of naysayers telling him he couldn’t sing. But he played the drums in church, where much of his sound grew its roots.
“It was only a year and a half ago that I decided to do it,” he says. “But other than that, I had never done anything vocally before.”
Nando’s sound is unique in that it combines elements of storytelling, singing and poetry. It’s a hodgepodge of gospel, funk and soul influences that ties in a live band and background vocalists into a cohesive sound.
His turn at making music came about organically. Nando was a college graduate who’d begun to settle down into family life, with a career and children. The music became a creative outlet to step away from the mundane routine so many can become trapped in. As it turns out, he just so happens to be quite good at it.
“A lot of people just liked it,” Nando says. “I put the first project out and didn’t really promote it, and it wasn’t a conscious business decision. It just organically grew into what it is now.”
And so the trajectory was clear: 2020 would be the year of Nando. He started gearing up to perform at several shows and festivals over the summer, starting with a sold-out show at Old Rock House scheduled for May, with a host of other performances in the region on his schedule.
But as coronavirus cases began to trickle into the U.S. and music venues and bars were ordered to shut their doors, the bleak reality that the future of live music was about to change dramatically set in.
“We lost out on a lot of festivals we wanted to do, but overall, we’re figuring it out piece by piece,” Nando says.
Part of what he’s needed to figure out is how to get his latest music into the ears of the masses in an age devoid of live performance. In March, about two weeks before most citizens were ordered to stay home, Nando hosted an album listening party at Shock City Studios on the south side. As the intimate number of guests were eager to experience the completion of Nando’s newest project, Bamboo
, the musician talked about his hopes for 2020, and thanked his team for their hard work.
is Nando’s second EP. It’s a follow-up to 2018’s Good Vibes
, which included the crowd-favorite track “I Don’t Even Smoke.” While the first project has a general summer-y, carefree feel, Bamboo
is filled with themes on the importance of family, self-love, perseverance and confidence. Though penned before the pandemic even started, those themes drive home just how difficult of a year 2020 has been — especially for an artist on the cusp, who’s seen many of his opportunities dry up in an instant.
Nando has since had to deal with his share of creative disappointments, trying to move forward while the world seems to be at a standstill. The concert slated for May at Old Rock House was postponed and moved to late August. COVID-19 cases were steady in the region, and the venue was taking every precaution to make sure the show could go on. But by the time August came, cases began rising rapidly in a second wave, and the performance was postponed yet again.
“We thought the pandemic would blow over, but it didn’t, so we decided to adjust,” he says. “There were a lot of people who really supported what I did, and I was more appreciative of that, so I wanted to give something back. A lot of people bought tickets, streamed the music and sent encouraging messages. I wasn’t going to just stop.”
And as the pandemic has dragged on, Nando has increasingly found new ways to adapt.
“We live in a digital age, so the pandemic really helped smaller artists to start writing Google ads, and being able to get your content out there,” he says. “With people on their phones more, it gives you the opportunity to fight for that attention.”
So Nando improvised and got creative. But he’s a live performer by nature, so he gathered his team and announced he’d stream a live performance of a few of his songs. It was something his fans had been waiting for, and he didn’t want to leave anyone disappointed.
Instead of performing on Instagram Live like many fellow artists, Nando returned to Shock City Studios and streamed the event on YouTube. The professional quality of the show, along with the build-up of anticipation after a long season of cancellations and postponements, made the wait worthwhile.
Even still, those smaller, digital performances aren’t going to pay the bills.
“Being a smaller artist, you have to watch and see what works and doesn’t work for larger artists, because our budget doesn’t allow for too many mistakes,” Nando says. “A lot of what we were doing, we were relying on financing it with show money.”
But Nando is still looking ahead, making moves and planning for a post-pandemic world. At the time of the last interview for this piece, he said he’s focusing his attention on releasing a music video and two new singles. He has hopes for the future, but at the same time he’s grounded in reality.
“I don’t have any super big dreams of being Drake,” Nando says. “I just want to enjoy it, make something other people can enjoy, and inspire people the way others have inspired me too.”
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