When Philly musician Khemist (government name: Seth Oliver) was a kid in the ’90s, he and other youthful residents of the Logan neighborhood of North Philadelphia played a game (they created) called “bonus ball.”
They made a makeshift field on Warnock Street between and around parked cars. An abandoned garage was home base. In order to move off (or around) the bases, the batters had to hit the ball towards/into an abandoned yard. “[I]t was hard to do,” Khemist tells me one day over Zoom. “It was crazy.”
What’s crazier than a group of kids inventing an impossible game to play in a neighborhood with impossible odds of escaping alive? In the 1990s, Logan — especially at the intersection of Warnock and Ruscomb — was a rugged example of America’s cracked out urban malaise. It was a post-industrial, pre-gentrification hood populated by socially invisible Philadelphia citizens.
For Khemist, escape came through poetry, art and music. Today, he is one of hip-hop’s unsung creators. An MC, a photographer, guitarist, producer and arranger, Khemist has recorded hundreds of songs over the last decade or so and released dozens of them, along with a handful of artfully produced music videos that are visually stunning.
Lyrically, he is a complex MC, a soulful singer who will eventually make acoustic rap — just him and his guitar on a stage — a thing. He is that good. We just don’t yet know it.
He’s one of the most gifted artists that this great city has produced in the 21st century — but you wouldn’t know it to see him and / or speak to him. He’s a humble man on a never-ending mission to find his audience and make a living as an artist in the post-industry world of the music business.
There are many ways that Khemist’s moniker makes sense. In the studio, he’s a master composer who applies structural elements of various musical styles and complex productions as the substantive backdrop to his varied vocals. Lyrically, he is a complex MC, a soulful singer who will eventually make acoustic rap — just him and his guitar on a stage — a thing. He is that good. We just don’t yet know it. And by all accounts, that’s ok with him. It may ultimately be our loss, but for this artist, the journey continues.
Growing up in Logan
Khemist grew up next door to a crack house in Logan. “I was around a lot of drugs on the street” he tells me. “A lot of different types of people walking up and down the block. You had the dealers; you had the users.” But this isn’t what the artist readily recalls when I ask him about his childhood. He remembers Ms. Pat, the block captain on Warnock Street. He remembers Ms. Stephanie “who was a wizard with doing nails. I was able to see a business owner, an artist. She really was amazing …”
Khemist’s mother was good friends with Ms. Pat, whose sons were like brothers to him. “We grew up like family,” he says. Back then, block captains were responsible for organizing events — block parties, leading neighborhood clean-ups. Khemist has two biological siblings as well; he is the youngest of three, all seven years apart. “At times I felt like the only child, especially when my brother went away to college,” he says. Khemist went to the old Birney elementary and took to the arts very early on in his life. He went to Fleisher Art Memorial (in South Philly) after school and on Saturdays, where he learned how to draw and paint. “Yeah, I would draw everywhere. And sometimes I’d get in trouble for it …”
Khemist’s mom was “very religious … She made sure that school was first before we was able to go outside and do whatever. She struggled a lot at times with personal things,” he tells me. But his “favorite woman ever” was his maternal grandmother. One of 10 siblings, Khemist’s grandmother was born in Sumter, South Carolina in 1919. She was a waitress / server for the military and lived through the tenuous experience of being a Black woman in the South in early 20th century, just a few decades removed from the Peculiar Institution. His grandmother was a spiritual being who taught the young artist about oppression and white supremacy “in her own way.”
“She had this calmness about her,” he says. “She was very wise. She would speak in parables and what felt like poems to me.”
Listening to Khemist wax poetic about his grandmother, it becomes clear that she is also his artistic ancestor in ways readily apparent in his own calmly poetic way of speaking. Speaking with him, you almost get the sense that he was born a poet. But it was a middle school Walt Whitman assignment that launched Khemist’s career as a poet.
There was an extra credit assignment to write more poems. There was no limit. “So, I wrote a bunch of poems and I enjoyed doing it,” he says. Soon thereafter, he started watching Def Poetry Jam, an HBO program that presented a who’s who of Black poets and spoken word artists. It was like catnip for the young Khemist. “I figured out how I wanted to write and what I wanted my approach to be.”
Khemist as college kid
And yet, Khemist has always been a multi-talent artist. Early on — between the drawing / painting and his emergence as a poet, he fell in love with ceramics. “[B]eing able to physically make something in your mind and have it be tangible and be able to touch it, observe it, critique it, alter it, that’s powerful to me.”
After a guidance counselor advised him not to even apply to Columbia University — Khemist’s first choice for college, given the Ivy League school’s reputation for art and writing — he applied to and was admitted to Hampton University in Virginia. HU ending up being a good fit for the young artist. “Hampton really promoted Black excellence and really made sure that the students care about having a sense of community with Black people on and off campus,” he says. Khemist loved the “campus by the sea.” It was his first time living near the beach and he quickly fell in love with the ocean.
He’s probably the only rapper / songwriter you know who won the John Lennon Songwriting Contest. He’s the only rapper you know who has a guitar endorsement (with Taylor Guitars).
These days, you can’t keep him away from the water. He splits time between Philadelphia and Hampton and produces and / or records his music in both cities. Although Khemist ultimately transferred to Temple for financial reasons, completing a degree in journalism and communications, while he was at Hampton, he performed at multiple homecoming concerts and spring festivals.
His first foray into the industry came through Aisha Winfield and Philadelphia’s Junior Music Executives program. He flew out to L.A. to partake in the Grammy festivities. It was instructive for the budding artist. “[O]ne thing I learned was that some people are performing even when they’re not artists,” Khemist says. “A lot of behavior and interactions — people’s interactions with other people — are performative. So, for me, it was great to see what goes on behind the scenes at certain events and how the politics works …”
Upon graduation Khemist took a job as a therapeutic staff support worker in the Philadelphia school system and another job at the Free Library of Philadelphia providing after school support for students. The work was intense, supporting students with a wide range of mental health and socioeconomic challenges. It was familiar terrain for the Logan-bred artist, and, in many ways, these early jobs set the stage for some of the work that Khemist continues to do today: providing workshops and artist seminars for students in high school and college throughout the Philadelphia area.
After work, Khemist always found his way to a recording studio. Sometimes he worked out at a studio near 45th and Baltimore (in Southwest Philly); other times he would put in work in The Roots’ room in Larry Gold’s studio. Early on in his studio-gym rat days, Khemist met Anwar Marshall, a Grammy-award winning percussionist and producer, and Black Thought of The Roots. Marshall continues to be Khemist’s favorite and most frequent collaborator.
“The beauty of it is learning your gifts and your strengths and being able to do things that you didn’t know that you could do if you were to quit,” says Khemist.
This is the kind of grind in the music business that has constituted Khemist’s life as an artist in a fickle, and often unforgiving, ever-evolving music business. “The grind is fun. The grind is stressful. And it’s both spiritual and psychological warfare involved in this thing that we do,” he says. “The beauty of it is learning your gifts and your strengths and being able to do things that you didn’t know that you could do if you were to quit … I’ve tried several times to quit.”
Any time he tries to quit, something inevitably brings him back into the fold. He’s probably the only rapper / songwriter you know who won the John Lennon Songwriting Contest. He’s the only rapper you know who has a guitar endorsement (with Taylor Guitars).
“I wrote this piece called Resignation, which is just me playing the guitar and rapping,” he tells me. “And shortly after, Taylor Guitars reached out. They saw the video and we had a conversation and they said they wanted to be on board.”
Khemist has performed all over the city — most recently opening for Bilal at the City Winery with upcoming shows at the Brooklyn Bowl with Talib Kweli and the Barnes Foundation with Dr. Guthrie Ramsey, paying tribute to the Harlem Renaissance. That’s the range that he covers through his artistry on a regular basis: moving from a traditional club / concert venue to one of the most elite art museums in the nation.
Steeped in Black history
On Juneteenth 2020, Khemist released Khemtrails, an EP produced by Anwar Marshall. You can listen to it here. We talk a lot about this record. It’s only five tracks, but it speaks volumes. He won that John Lennon Songwriting contest for Upright. But the most compelling piece on the EP, the song that most reflects Khemist’s capacity for identifying the substantive subject matter in his music is Sampson.
He tells me the story behind the song: “Now, I know people with NFL tatted on them — the NFL logo, which stands for ‘Nigga From Logan.’ I know people with the name Logan tatted on their flesh.” He took a course at Temple on the history of Philadelphia, and in that course, he learned who James Logan really was, how close he was to Pennsylvania’s founder, William Penn. Logan was also a slaveowner.
Sampson unpacks a geopolitical history of his own neighborhood. He talks about it matter-of-factly. And you don’t need to know all of this to bop your head to the song, but the weight of what infuses the song will make your head bop harder.
The Stenton mansion, Logan’s home, is in Khemist’s childhood neighborhood. “[T]o know that this man — whose name is on our schools, who is tatted on our bodies, was a slaveowner and we were literally playing over skeletons buried under that ground …” he says. They were never allowed to go into the mansion — an historical site. “It was just forbidden,” he tells me. “Once I found out the story of who Logan was and I heard of the former slave, Sampson, and how Logan trusted him as a slave; he was one of his favorite slaves and he would send him on errands.”
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Eventually Sampson escaped. He was caught, but with the help of Quaker abolitionists, he avoided execution and was exiled instead. “And no one ever heard from him again,” he says. Sampson is Khemist’s ode to this legacy, a song that unpacks a geopolitical history of his own neighborhood. He talks about it matter-of-factly. And you don’t need to know all of this to bop your head to the song, but the weight of what infuses the song will make your head bop harder.
New music is coming soon. “This next body of work is a full-length LP. It will show my range as a songwriter, as a rapper, as a singer, as a musician, as a guitarist, and as a producer,” he tells me. I’ve heard some of it and pushed him a bit to share some insights on his forthcoming work. But he won’t budge. He won’t step on his own marketing / promotional timetable. He’s experienced enough in this business — as an artist and as an entrepreneur — to know of what he speaks and of what he doesn’t.
It’s enough, for now, to know that Khemist will keep going, cooking up the good music — whether the rest of us recognize his genius or not.
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