Amherst rapper NLiteN looks to ‘Lite It Up’
On weekends, Jordan Tolbert finds himself face-to-face with crowds of college students at assorted venues in Amherst. During the week, he is just another student on the University of Massachusetts campus, focusing on his studies.
Tolbert, a senior studying psychology and brain science, has an active rap career that stretches from his native Boston to the Pioneer Valley.
On Jan. 20, Tolbert, who uses the stage name NliteN (pronounced enlighten), released the music video for his track “Lite It Up,” filmed by three UMass students.
In the video, there are fragmented scenes from NliteN’s shows. At one of his bigger performances, he is performing for a crowd of students at Hampshire College this past Halloween. The video retreats back to him alone in a lit garage. The video’s quick shots are meaningful, in tune with the speedy pace of NliteN’s flow.
The song is self-explanatory. He wrote it last February as a result of feeling motivated to pursue a music career. His songs are fragments of himself—his emotions, pursuits and upbringing in inner-city Boston weaves its way into most of his music.
Similar to the personal messages woven into his lyrics, NliteN’s shows are intimate. In a college town dominated by the legacies of folk and indie bands, NliteN has an individual, urban sound. He does not belong to the western Massachusetts rap collective Dark World. Instead, as a Boston native, he brings an outsider’s voice to the valley.
Even as an outsider, NliteN has found room for his sounds without any competition.
“It’s not combative. I never seem to be stepping on anyone’s toes,” he said.
NliteN insists that the music scene is a community of appreciation, particularly because of their different backgrounds.
“The things they rap about are reflective of growing up in the valley, like DJ Lucas’s ‘Farmboy Rap,’” he said.
Although NliteN grew up in a musical household with his father, a touring jazz bassist, he did not pursue music until the summer of 2015. That same year, NliteN performed a Halloween show in Barcelona at a festival with his friend and rapper BLKSWN.
Even though most of the audience did not speak English, it was one of his most animated crowds. It is a far-cry from trying to book small house shows in the area, although he has a soft spot for the college crowds he has grown accustomed to.
“House shows were definitely the key to connecting with people,” he said.
In the last year, he has moved from DIY venues to a performance this past December at the Middle East in Cambridge, a shining moment of success for the young rapper. Throughout this, he has had to balance maintaining his music career and his academics, yet it has not stopped his ambitious pursuits.
“My big future project down the line is putting together an immersive arts show. Something people can walk through and get lost,” he said.
NliteN’s music is notable for its lyrics and pace and his performances for his confidence and vivacity. His stage name stands true.
A year ago, NliteN chose his stage name while in the shower. Over time, it has developed a deeper meaning. Now, it embodies the performer he wants to be. Fittingly, you can see him in the video emerging from inside of a dark building to a lit garage and finally, on stage cascading light onto a sea of faces.
Emily Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.