Artist Tobe Nwigwe hopes viral song will reinvigorate calls for justice for Breonna Taylor

Nwigwe, a Houston-based artist whose fans include former first lady Michelle Obama, said the idea to create the song came to him in a vision from God.
ImageL Tobe Nwigwe
Rapper Tobe Nwigwe, center, has released a viral song "I Need You To," calling for justice for Breonna Taylor and Elijah McClain.Courtesy Tobe Nwigwe

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By Kalhan Rosenblatt

Tobe Nwigwe had no intention of releasing new music on July 5.

But when the Houston-based rapper woke up that Sunday, he said he felt divinely inspired to create music about Breonna Taylor — and he had no choice but to obey.

“I woke up and, I promise you, God gave me a vision to do the song,” Nwigwe told NBC News. “I woke up and got a vision to do that song specifically in a public service announcement-type manner.”

By the end of the day, Nwigwe had uploaded the song “I Need You To” and its music video to YouTube. The piece calls for the arrest of the killers of Breonna Taylor and Elijah McClain, Black people who were killed in confrontations with police.

The song and video created by Nwigwe, whose fans include former first lady Michelle Obama, has gained attention in digital spaces like TikTok and YouTube.

In the video, Nwigwe sits between producer LaNell “Nell” Grant and his wife, Fat Nwigwe, all dressed in matching light gray outfits and white socks in front of a mint background. The three of them perform succinct, synced choreography, which they crafted together.

“It took us about 30 to 45 minutes to film," Nwigwe said. "It was a little more complex when we first started, but we had to change it up so everybody could execute the moves properly because I wanted to make a statement."

Nwigwe’s upload, which is almost like a short film, has more than 50,000 views on YouTube, more than 723,000 views on Instagram, and approximately 100,000 views on TikTok, although dozens of other accounts have re-uploaded it to those platforms, earning it many more listens and views.

The 44-second song provides the soundtrack for a new spate of meme videos from young people on TikTok, who are also calling for the arrests of the police officers involved in the deaths of Taylor and McClain. The memes follow a now-typical misdirect format, a formula Nwigwe said was integral to the creation of “I Need You To.”

“I wanted to make people think it was going to be some sweet message and be really feathery and then I wanted to hit them hard. I wanted the beat to drop and for people to just really get the message,” Nwigwe, who created the track with Grant, said. “It’s the first song I’ve ever done with absolutely no rhyming words.”

In the music video for “I Need You To,” Nwigwe stares directly into the camera, a tap of a beat on a high-hat drum begins, and a swell of music swirls behind the words “I need you to,” but then instead of a song about love, or loss, it quickly transitions into a steady, thumping bass. The rapper’s voice changes, the beat drops, as he speaks the words, “Arrest the killers of Breonna Taylor/all of y'all who think we need more evidence, you goofy.”

Nwigwe, who is a first generation Nigerian-American, said he wrote the song more than a month after protests against racism and police brutality erupted across the nation after the May 25 killing of George Floyd as a way to keep the issues in the headlines.

“It’s time for changes to be made when it comes to the treatment of Black people in the U.S. — really worldwide,” Nwigwe said. “I feel like every single one of these cases deserves to be on the front of the news all the time to just highlight the atrocities that go on in this nation on a regular basis.”

Taylor, 26, was shot and killed in her Louisville home by police executing a very early-morning no-knock search warrant in March. McClain, 23, died in August 2019 after being restrained by police in Aurora, Colorado, walking home from an errand. None of the officers involved in either death has been charged or arrested.

As Nwigwe’s song gains traction, it has also breathed life into a new batch of memes that use the audio of the song to call for the arrest of Taylor's killers.

Those memes, like many before them, often appear to be about one thing — one TikTok starts with a woman pretending the video is about her tattoo while another purports to be about scary movies on Netflix — before pivoting to the issue of Taylor’s killing. Many of the videos do not use the audio up to the point of the song when Nwigwe mention’s McClain’s killing.

In the weeks since the protests swept both the United States and the world, academics and community leaders have been divided over the question as to whether these memes help the calls for justice or trivialize it.

“The powerful thing about internet memes is that people can take them and add to them or transform them in ways that they make sense for the online communities that they’re a part of,” Meredith D. Clark, an assistant professor of media studies at the University of Virginia, told NBC News last month.

The recent influx of memes using Nwigwe’s song don’t bother him.

“I think this is the one time I don’t mind the clout chasing because it keeps it at the forefront of people’s mind on a regular basis,” Nwigwe said, using a term for piggybacking on the success and attention fame can give a song, a meme or a trend. “I’m all for clout chasing … if it’s for an actual good cause. So clout for the cause? I ain’t mad,” he added.

Nwigwe’s hope is that justice for Taylor and McClain will come. Otherwise, he said, the work will be for naught.

“All the memes, the traction, the song, however people respond to it, love it, whoever reposts it, means absolutely nothing if the people don’t get arrested who killed Breonna Taylor,” he said.