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Musician and actor Tobe Nwigwe finds his purpose


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: Here is a question that a Houston-born, first-generation Nigerian-American artist asked himself and then others as he has built his following through his music and his acting: What's your purpose?

Jeffrey Brown went to Houston to learn more about the man who was just nominated for a Grammy in the best new artist category. That is for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: Stay focused, be consistent and disciplined. Most of all, find your purpose. It is a mantra for Tobe Nwigwe and what he wants to demonstrate through his music.

Tobe Nwigwe, Musician: I feel like it's all about making purpose popular in every aspect of the term. Like, living out our life, the entertainment, the music, whatever it is that we're doing is centered around making purpose popular.

Jeffrey Brown: On stage at music festivals like Austin City Limits.

Tobe Nwigwe: You can't bring in the new until you process the old.

Jeffrey Brown: And on screen as an actor in the acclaimed Netflix series "Mo," the show created by Palestinian American comedian Mo Amer about his life in a multiethnic Texas community.

As his hometown newspaper The Houston Chronicle put it recently, the 35-year-old Nwigwe is everywhere right now. But his heart remains in Houston. And that's where we met him at the White Oak Music Hall rehearsing for an upcoming date in London. As it's been from the start, this is a family affair, his wife, Martica, beside him on stage, their three young children, age 3, 2, and 1, always nearby, dancing while daddy sings, musicians, dancers, 14, all local, all friends.

Tobe Nwigwe: It's the only way I know to operate, because I didn't have any foreknowledge of how else to operate in the industry. So I just utilized the resources and people that were in my actual life.

It's people that I have built trust with. And I just prefer it that way. It's sweeter like that to me.

Jeffrey Brown: The original all-consuming purpose for Nwigwe?

Announcer: It's intercepted!

Jeffrey Brown: Football.

Announcer: Nwigwe scores for the Texans!

Jeffrey Brown: He was a star linebacker in high school and at the University of North Texas, and had the NFL in his sights, until a foot injury his senior year ended that dream.

Tobe Nwigwe: I swear I been broke way too long.

Jeffrey Brown: Instead, he developed a plan that's guided him since. His new purpose would be helping others find theirs. Seeing many young people adrift, some into drugs and violence, he started a nonprofit to work in local schools, using what he called edutainment, entertainment education.

Tobe Nwigwe: I just use a lot of the natural skill sets that I had, the charisma, not being scared to speak in public and do skits and all that type of stuff, to really try to motivate students and kids to just get on the path to figure out what their purpose is, not, you come here, and we're going to tell you what your purpose is, but just on some, like, really, like, you should start trying to figure that out early.

Jeffrey Brown: Nwigwe is a first-generation child of Nigerian immigrants. His full first name is Tobechukwu, which means "Praise God."

And he credits part of his drive and motivation to that heritage, as in his description of his parents' approach to school report cards.

Tobe Nwigwe: Let me tell you have a B stands for bonehead. C is for can't you get an A? D is for dummy. F is for fools. And fools can no longer stay in this house. But A is for appreciation.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Tobe Nwigwe: That's what you're showing when you go out and get A's, because now you're showing that you appreciate my sacrifice. You appreciate all the things that I have done to make your life special.

Jeffrey Brown: Another driving force, his Christian faith, heard in one of his biggest hits to date, "Try Jesus." In fact, he first gained attention and built his audience with what he called Get Twisted Sundays, a weekly music video posted on social media with the force of a sermon, often centered on the power of Black family and love.

Starting from scratch, he's involved in everything from designing the clothes to the choreography to the marketing.

Tobe Nwigwe: What I landed on was, I'm just going to market myself as myself, and I'm going to put out...

Jeffrey Brown: Wait a minute. You're going to market yourself as yourself.

Tobe Nwigwe: Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: I mean, that sounds pretty normal.

Tobe Nwigwe: Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: But maybe it's not in the music business?

Tobe Nwigwe: Yes, it's really not. You would be surprised. I have encountered in this industry a lot of people doing stuff that ain't really them.

And I'm like, oh, I thought you was like this because you portray this type of character. And it's like: Nah, I'm really not.

No knock to anybody who does it like that. Me personally, it's just my art and my real life are, like, synonymous.

Jeffrey Brown: The music served the message, and both took off.

A short and simple track about the police killing of Breonna Taylor went viral. He performed a tribute to Houston on NPR's nationally renowned "Tiny Desk" series.

Tobe Nwigwe: That's all we're trying to do, is to get you to understand, like, I know there's a way that music is done. There's ways that life is done. But you don't have to necessarily subscribe to a way that you don't fully agree with or a way that the world does it that makes you feel like, yo, this is the only way.

You can branch out, do your own thing, stand on your own principles, stand on your own beliefs, and do what you believe in.

Jeffrey Brown: For now, there's more acting to come. Tobe Nwigwe will make his big screen debut in the next "Transformers" film due next spring.

Tobe Nwigwe: All right, Houston, you ready?

Jeffrey Brown: And there's lots more music.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Houston.

Judy Woodruff: In other words, we're going to be hearing a lot more about him.

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