Sitting in an empty reception room on the fifth floor of the Mint Museum in Uptown Charlotte, Ismael Abdallah, also known by his musical pseudonym Brio., is fresh off the bus from New York City. He left Manhattan at around 11 p.m. the previous night and, after three unexpected stops during the trip, didn’t arrive in Charlotte until 2:30 p.m.
The rapper/producer is still full of energy, though, despite the fact that he will be right back on the bus for another dozen hours or so to make the return trip later that night.
If there’s one word to explain Abdallah, it would be “patient.”
He’s making this quick trip to his hometown to perform at an opening reception for his friend, local fashion designer and ROOLE founder Gordon Holliday, who curated the Yasuke exhibit showing in the Mint Museum’s M5 gallery through Sept. 15.
Abdallah sees Holliday’s journey as indicative of how success comes to Charlotte creatives who work steadily toward their goals.
“It takes a level of consistency. It takes a level of resources. It takes a level of utilizing those resources. It takes a level of drive,” he tells me. “For instance, we’re having this conversation in the Mint Museum, bro. Gordon is my brother. We went to high school together. He’s been working on ROOLE since he got out of high school. You get what I’m saying? He graduated in 2011. This is 10-plus years on it now. And now we’re in the Mint Museum. You get what I mean?”
Brio. will see his own patience pay off on Aug. 23, when he drops We Need To Talk, his debut full-length album.
He’s liable to keep tweaking the record forever, but early in July, he finally buckled down and gave himself a release date for the project after making some changes to the tracklist that he felt finally made the album complete.
The project has been seven years in the making, featuring at least one track that was recorded in 2015, but one could argue that Brio.’s entire career has been building to this point.
“I just really got so real with myself about how I wanted to sound, how I wanted my shit to be put out, and really just questioning, beyond the artist that you want to be, it’s like, what do you really want to put out and be remembered for?” he says of the recording process. “That took me really having to take a harsh look at the mirror with my work. I knew I could be putting in more time; I could be doing better in certain areas. I just wanted to challenge myself to really perfect the shit. And I’m just saying all that to say that I’m extremely confident about this project.”
Having returned to his hometown of Charlotte from Atlanta in 2015 to release his Lite Bleu EP, by 2019 Abdallah started to feel restless again. He had begun playing more shows in New York City and loved the response he had gotten.
At the end of that year, he joined longtime friends and collaborators, producer Kirk Collins and singer Makeda Iroquois, in making the move to Brooklyn. He felt the birthplace of hip-hop was the right place to showcase his own alternative form of the art, which he calls progressive rap — a term that came from his godmother.
“Fundamentally, I’m definitely hip-hop; I’m hip-hop as hell, like, that’s on record. The things that you’re going to see on We Need to Talk, you’re going to see a lot more of my fundamental hip-hop core, which is a lot of things that got crafted and polished in New York just being able to connect with the concrete jungle up there and dive in and connect with the spirit of hip-hop up there and actually live and breathe and see the shit. But it’s alternative. It’s definitely something new. It’s definitely something that is pushing the envelope.”
Brio. has released four singles from the project in the lead-up to its release, and while his production still often features dark undertones, the lyrical content is consistent in its goal to push positivity and light in a world that’s seen a lot of darkness in recent years.
He sees the election of Donald Trump as a turning point for the culture, one that has inspired his generation (he’s currently 28 years old) and those who have come after to seek light in a different way.
“We had the conversation in 2016. It was like, ‘Oh yeah, now people will be able to really wake up to it,’” he recalls. “But no, four or five years later, now six years later, you really get to connect with that. Like, it’s a shift now, and you see the younger generations who were six years younger going through that and how they connect, how the tenacity is with their voice, how strong they connect — and this is kind of away from music in a way — just like how they connect with nature, the truth, honesty, things that are a little bit unexplainable in terms of older generations.”
Brio. also wants to push back against the “lust-filled, drug-laced, diluted tone” that he sees in much of mainstream rap music today. He cites societal issues that range from pandemic lockdowns and insurrection to police brutality and community violence as reasons why a more positive outlook is needed.
It’s part of the reason why he named his new album We Need To Talk.
“It’s about just speaking truth to that — clearing that shit at the end of the day, speaking healing to it, because I don’t think any of us have properly healed from this stuff,” he says. “So I feel like that’s something I’m connecting with a lot more as I say that it’s important, because us as a nation need to heal. Us as a people need to heal, you know what I mean?”
Keeping the Queen City connection
While Abdallah doesn’t currently have a concrete plan to move back to Charlotte, he keeps his connections in the city strong, regularly traveling back and forth to play shows. He moved back to Charlotte in 2021, staying for about nine months before returning to NYC in February 2022.
He tells me that accessibility and marketability had been an issue for him in Charlotte, and in a familiar refrain I’ve heard from other local rappers who hit the road in search of more opportunities, he says his goal is to eventually return to help grow the scene as he sees more success.
“It’s just levels of accessibility, that’s the thing that’s kind of driven me to make the decisions that I’ve needed to make about where I’m going to live and where I want to start my career off or expand my career,” he says.
“Markets just haven’t opened up yet for certain things in Charlotte, which is weird because it’s like all the money is here for it. But it’s only weird from our standpoint,” he continues. “As creatives and people who are one with the culture because we’re from here, one, and two, we’ve been able to see the city change. But on the other side of the coin, it’s like the people who are inhabiting the place don’t really see too much value in it.”
It’s clear in his use of “we” in referring to the creative scene here that he still considers Charlotte his home, which would explain why he has no problem spending 24 hours on a bus round-trip to play a short set in support of a friend’s exhibit.
He’s been impressed to watch Charlotte’s hip-hop scene and, more broadly, its cultural scene in general grow year over year from afar. Even when he’s not here, he keeps a close eye on what’s happening, and he likes what he sees.
But as with his approach to everything in life, he knows it will take time.
“It’s going to take some time. It’s going to take some real blood, sweat and tears. And everybody gets it out the mud here,” he says. “But I feel like the core and the people who are really tapped in with each other, because we’ve had to pretty much lift each other up here, we stay supportive and we stay connected.”
If one word could describe Brio., it would be “patient,” but if I can add another, I’d go with “positive.” And that’s something we need now more than ever.