Sitting across from Nekeith on a recent afternoon at Coffee Cone Café near his home in University City, it was hard for me to believe that I was speaking with the same person I had been watching in videos in the lead-up to the interview.
After excitedly shaking my hand and grabbing the strawberry smoothie he had ordered before my arrival, he explained that he had just gotten into town from Atlanta and hadn’t had a chance to shave yet. But it wasn’t the facial hair or dressed-down appearance that struck me, it was Nekeith’s soft-spoken nature that took me by surprise.
Surely, this couldn’t be the same Nekeith that was named one of the top 10 contenders in BET’s Freestyle Friday Los Angeles contest after passionately delivering his minute-long verse, during which he made sure to let everyone know he was there to represent the LGBTQ community. It couldn’t be the Nekeith that rocked the chain-mail crop top and black tape Xing out his nipples in the video for “Gay” — his remix of Tyga’s “Rack City” — that dropped last November.
When not in front of the camera, Nekeith is Christopher Mitchell, a 24-year-old recent college graduate who can be hard to hear, even in the quiet confines of the coffee shop that we basically had to ourselves. However, as we spoke further, it became clear why Mitchell was able to hit that switch when he got on stage: he was a born performer.
Growing up in High Point, Mitchell’s mother placed him in talent shows, and he took naturally to the spotlight.
“I always would go out to talent shows,” Mitchell recalled. “My mom used to put me in talent shows in elementary school and middle school. She always used to push me. I remember one time she had put me on the Soul Train auditions when I was a kid, and ever since then, when I blessed that stage, I was ready for it.”
Around the age of 15, Mitchell put together his passions for fashion design, theatre and hip-hop and became Newprettyboi, releasing his first mixtape, Unbelievable, in 2012. He’s since begun performing under his middle name, Nekeith, and has grown into an inimitable artist who has performed all around the country and racked up more than 100,000 views on his YouTube streams and music videos.
In June, Nekeith dropped Androgynous Queen, a seven-track album, and he expects to drop the first two singles with videos in late August and early September. But first, on Aug. 17, Nekeith will hit the Wells Fargo Stage for his third Charlotte Pride performance before going back to Atlanta, his literal second home, for the rest of 2019.
Between performing on BET last summer, graduating from UNC Charlotte in December and cross-country concerts all throughout, it’s been a crazy year for Nekeith, who constantly expressed how thankful he is for the recent success and his Royalties, which is what he calls his fans.
“I never thought it would really happen, but I’m so thankful and blessed that people are listening to what I have to say in my music,” he said. “I’m rockin’ with them, they rockin’ with me, I’m just so thankful that I’m able to perform and travel.”
The experience is all the more humbling for Nekeith considering that all throughout his childhood, he felt he had to hide who he was. Nekeith said he’s known he was gay for as long as he can remember, but High Point wasn’t the type of place where he felt he could open up about it.
Nekeith was in the closet, but still faced bullying from classmates over his feminine voice, flamboyant mannerisms and penchant for fashion design.
“That was always tough growing up, but you always had to push through it,” he said. “Especially growing up in a small town, I always felt like I had to wear a mask. I did not like that at all. I just wanted to try to be myself 100%. Even though it was tough — people will make fun of you behind your back — I just always tried to have tough skin, keep my head held up high and just keep on pushing.”
Nekeith pushed through until he reached college. While studying theatre and film at UNC Charlotte, Nekeith said he connected with a community of peers who built his confidence and made him comfortable enough to come out of the closet publicly.
The way he tells his coming-out story, it’s about as nonchalant as one can imagine.
“That’s how it came out: ‘I’m just letting you know, I’mma just do me, if you love it, you love it, if you hate it, I’mma keep it pushing,’” he said.
And just like that, his burden was lifted; Nekeith could fully express himself in his music. As one of the city’s first openly gay rappers, Nekeith does not shy away from his sexuality, but rather confronts it head on in songs like “Boyfriend” and “On Your Mind.”
He said he’s faced minimal pushback as a gay rapper — mostly online harassment from the comments section — but as a whole the Charlotte community has welcomed him with open arms.
“I still have people to this day that don’t like what I do,” Nekeith said, “but I also have people that love what I do and I love that I’ll be able to help another individual come up in the future or uplift people in the community to always be themselves and love themselves for who they are and to live their truth.”
He’s not just waiting around for someone to hear his songs and feel inspired, however, he’s already taking real action. While still at UNC Charlotte in 2016, Nekeith founded D.O.P.E. (Dreams of Pursuing Entertainment), an organization that serves as an incubator for up-and-coming talent on campus.
Nekeith calls D.O.P.E. an artist development organization, in which he helps plan shows on and off campus for members. He sees it as a warm-up for his long-term goal: to own a record label.
“I wanted to go ahead and provide a platform for my community and friends on campus, so if they have a passion for music, art or dancing, they’ll have a platform to do so in the community and on campus,” he said. “So when they graduate they have a clear understanding of what they want to do and what to go for. So they’ll be ready to go.”
As for Nekeith, it wasn’t long after he graduated that he got a more clear understanding of what he wanted to do, and not just musically. As he explained it, shortly after graduating, “I felt like it was a switch,” and he began to feel more comfortable expressing his feminine side.
He began presenting as femme in public, wearing wigs and high heels.
“I started loving myself for who I really am, so I threw on those six-inch heels and I started doing more with my hair, I started doing me.”
The experience was like a second coming out for Nekeith, and quickly inspired the theme of his new project, Androgynous Queen. To be androgynous means to present the norms of both genders, as opposed to non-binary people, who do not identify as either gender. Though Nekeith identifies as a gay man, he enjoys presenting as both genders.
“I just wanted to talk about it throughout the album, so I talked about it on ‘ATL to LA’ and ‘Damn Daddy,’” he said, referring to the two singles he plans to drop back-to-back at the end of the month. “I just wanted to base it on my feminine side, just to be yourself, loving yourself for who you are and the aspect of being androgynous and being in the LGBT community.”
Following his Pride performance, Nekeith will take the trip down I-85 to finish out the year playing shows in Atlanta and elsewhere around the country. However, with his family here in town, he promised not to leave behind the city that allowed him to blossom as a rapper.
He’s in talks with Big Freedia’s management about possibly joining the bounce-music icon’s fall tour, and regardless of whether that comes to fruition, things are looking up. The only thing up for debate now is just how big a star he will be when he returns.
Nekeith takes the Wells Fargo Stage at the corner of Stonewall and South Tryon streets on Saturday, Aug. 17, at 2:30 p.m.