Overcoming adversity, breaking into an overcrowded industry… and seeing snow for the very first time.
“I had never seen snow before – let alone touched it,” says Peter Naumann, better known as ELO. There isn’t much of it in his native Zambia. “It was a magical experience to arrive in Denmark,” he says. “Today, I realise that this contrast was only the first of many things I would have to adjust to.”
In 2003, he found himself in the middle of cold, snowy Denmark after his mother had moved to a small railway town with fewer than 10,000 residents – a radical change from warm and tropical Zambia. Five years later, ELO again had to readjust his internal compass: a mistimed tackle blew the full-time whistle on a promising football career. But no matter what challenge he faced, ELO picked himself up, dusted himself off and got to work.
He spent his childhood in Vejen, a city that’s about 150-times smaller than Lusaka, where he previously lived – which meant unique challenges. (“We were probably the only Zambian family in town,” he notes wryly.)
“I attended language school with my brothers and we all loved learning a new language and meeting new people from different cultures. Six months later, I transferred to the public-school system which was just a completely different experience. I was different from the other kids in my class: the way I looked, how I spoke and my culture too. I got left out.
“I think visibility played a key role in transitioning into a new culture and being accepted. Today we have social media and the internet to reduce distances and increase diversity in skin colour, language, music and culture. In my mind, the internet helped reduce prejudice. There’s still a long way to go, but it helped.”
From football to poetry
In his youth, ELO played for Esbjerg fB’s youth team, and had a promising future in football – but fate wanted things to play out differently. “I started playing football and that evolved into me competing at a high level in the Danish youth system, but a nasty injury side-lined me and kept me from pursuing my passion. Every tackle that touched my ankle would hurt like hell. At that time, I strongly believed that football would become my livelihood. There I was: 16-years old, having to overcome another life-altering event,” says ELO. He pauses. “I fell into depression and battled with it for some time. Meanwhile I started keeping a journal where I would write down my thoughts, feelings – and poetry. The journal became my psychologist.
“Poetry opened something up in me. It became a way of expression and it quickly evolved into lyrics and revealed a new, stronger passion: hip-hop and rapping. The process of writing lyrics helped me fight through the of loss my first passion.”
ELO seems at peace with the loss of his childhood dream, and it’s an attitude that emphasises his ability to change perspective, find the light in the dark and power through – an ability he hopes to pass on in his music: “There’s no doubt it required willpower. I think having gone through tough times earlier in my life helped me. I knew I could pull through; I’d done it before. Bad luck can strike at any time for anyone. To me, pulling through is about finding the light at the end of the tunnel and rapping became that to me. And it’s something I emphasize in my music – something I really hope shines through in the lyrics. My music focuses on motivation, inspiration and sharing real stories from the real world, which probably breaks a bit with the norm in hip-hop.”
Getting down to business
ELO says these qualities are essential if you want to make it through rough patches as an upcoming musician: “in my experience, dedication and willpower are essential to power through them”. He admits, though, that his prior experiences with bad luck have unquestionably helped him overcome many obstacles. Hardiness is a must-have.
But surprisingly, he doesn’t say the usual staples – getting people to stream your music, struggling to make enough to cover rent, or some other form of cliché – was what surprised him the most about the music business. “Having a good network can be the difference between playing gigs or not,” he says. “There are a lot of musicians out there and few venues to perform at, so knowing someone who knows someone can help you secure more work. You also develop thick skin and a tolerance for rejection. I’m currently managing my own bookings and send hundreds of emails a year. It’s usual that only one-in-ten writes you back. But it’s all about perspective. You can use rejection as valuable fuel, using it as motivation to work even harder.”
To double-down on his chances, ELO is prioritising his network – and kindness, graciousness and being appreciative are cornerstones of his approach: “I do my best to let colleagues, partners and employees at venues know that I appreciate everything they’re doing. At the end of the day, it’s all about treating people right – nobody wants to work with people who take you for granted.”
There’s more than enough to do when you’re your own manager: bookings, studio time, publicity, social media, coordinating how you’ll get to your next gig, organising time to write and rehearse, sorting out merchandise… and that’s where the Danish talent development programme Karrierekanonen comes into the picture.
Moving up the ladder
The scheme is both a community and competition for upcoming artists and bands sponsored by the Danish Broadcasting Corporation, Bandakademiet and Smukfest. In 2018, more than 1,500 artists signed up, and a jury selected ELO to be in the finale-twelve. Three acts will go on to win a tailor-made development programme with Bandakademiet, a live concert at next year’s Smukfest and frequent rotation on Denmark’s biggest radio station, DR P3. And according to ELO, he’s already reaping benefits from the competition: “Karrierekanonen has meant more visibility and a stronger network, and it makes booking new gigs easier. So far it’s been the biggest thing to happen to my career. It’s an opportunity to strengthen my network and learn from other talented artists and mentors. I’m also hoping Karrierekanonen can be a platform to help me find a booking agency.”
A ton of big Danish acts have been through Karrierekanonen: Minds of 99, Marie Key, Djämes Braun and The Eclectic Moniker, to name just three. To ELO, seeing how far they’ve come is huge confidence boost. “I’m 100 percent focused on the competition and have decided not to focus on what happens after it – I think a clear head will benefit me. On the other side of Karrierekanonen, I will discuss the future and next steps with my team,” he says.
But don’t mistake postponing future plans with a lack of ambition. “I’d love to play at Roskilde, Smukfest, Tinderbox and Northside: the big Danish festivals. That’s a definite goal of mine. But, it’s equally important to me that my music makes a difference for somebody. Having been through what I have, knowing how music can change your perspective, I would love making a difference for someone. If my music ever becomes a part of somebody’s story, then… then I have made it.”
The Zambian-born, Danish hip-hop artist ELO has already shared a stage with Nelly, Carpark North and Nabiha. He’ll perform live at Live Camp on Tuesday 7 August at 8pm. You can also catch ELO at Dynaudio Unheard that same day between 1pm and 2pm.