Na-Kel Smith: "I’m learning a whole new way of thinking"

The skater/actor/musician talks to Paloma Elsesser about success, seclusion and trying not to spiral for our created-in-quarantine summer issue.

by Paloma Elsesser
29 June 2020, 4:00pm

Na-Kel's story originally appeared in i-D's The Faith In Chaos Issue, no. 360, Summer 2020. Order your copy here.

Na-Kel Smith is the definition of the modern polymath: skateboarder, actor, musician, designer, he’s an unbound and free spirit, with a feline gaze and infectious smile, heading in whichever direction his creativity drags him. He’s also my friend. We met in our teenage years, almost 10 years ago, in Los Angeles. Hotboxing my mum’s Prius in an alley behind Fairfax. Even back then, faded, in the back of a car, you could sense there was something special about Na-Kel.

Still only 25 years old, in the decade since we met he’s appeared in skate videos for Supreme, Adidas and Fucking Awesome, starred in Jonah Hill’s Mid90s, released two mixtapes, worked extensively with Off Future’s Tyler, The Creator and Earl Sweatshirt. He’s trying to move into directing now. We’ve been on tour busses for weeks together, swam in swampy oceans and sat for hours on his childhood sofa, talking. The greatest joy in our relationship, however, has been watching Na-Kel ever so effortlessly evolve into the person he wants to be.

Paloma: Hi, how are you feeling?
Na-Kel: I’m chill.

I’m so grateful that you are doing this interview. I’ve been trying to think when we first met. It must have been over 10 years ago? What do you remember about that era of our community?
During that time I was learning a lot. I was just always out, I never wanted to be home, so you’d find yourself getting into so much shit: good shit, bad shit, indifferent shit. We all had common goals and had all this shit that we wanted to do.

For those who don’t know, where did you grow up and what was that like?
I’m from South LA. It’s nothing like Hollywood, but I could get there easy. I would go skate as far as hell. I would catch the bus everywhere around the city. I’d be in the valleys, chasing skate parks and doing all kinds of shit like that. I think for the environment that you grew up in, there wasn’t a lot of people skating where you grew up. Hell no, especially not when I was. I was the only skateboarder. I was always wild though. As a child I had a lot of energy, I was jumping out of shit, and falling and laughing and being a fucking weirdo, and skateboarding really just matched my energy.

Was your goal to skate professionally?
Hell yeah. That’s all I gave a fuck about. I didn’t care about anything else.

What did skating mean to you at that time?

What were you seeking release from?
My life. The shit that I had to deal with, or watch people deal with. It was an escape. When you’re skating, you can’t think about anything else... It don’t matter how much money you got in your pocket. It don’t matter about anything. It’s only about what you are doing at that moment in time.

For the last few years you have been making music too. At which point did that come into your therapeutic lexicon?
When I started feeling too much pressure from skating. I like to prove people wrong, and break out of whatever boxes people are trying to build around me. I follow my own spirit and my own ideas. If I have an idea in my head, and I think that I can do something, I’m gonna do that shit. I really want to get into writing and directing and doing more behind the scenes too, because I’ve got a lot of ideas. I want to paint my own pictures and make my own songs and make my own dances and do things my way. I feel like if I suppress my own ideas then I’m going to end up sad and angry.

We’ve spoken pretty intimately about what it means to be black and have to take care of your family – things that generationally and culturally we have to be responsible for – but also at the same time, having integrity around the work that you do. I don’t relate to the idea of selling out, because as a Person of Colour, my version of selling out is different. You don’t know what this one ‘sell out’ thing could do for my family. That’s a lot of fucking pressure. I feel like you’ve done a really incredible job at being really transparent about those hardships.
I express myself and do the things I do so that people can take from that and apply it to their life. You gotta do the best you can, and whatever people want to take from it people will take from it. I’m trying to take ‘successful’ out of my way of talking about things because, as I get older, I’m really starting to re-calibrate all the time what that means. Success is continuous. You might succeed in finding peace. You might see yourself on a beach somewhere as success. Some people might see it as a fast car, or just a regular car, or a big house. The possibilities are endless, but your success? That’s an action. I’ve been chasing my idea of ‘I can’t wait to say I’ve made it at this point’, but it’s like, no, you have to keep creating.

It’s not just like ‘Here I am’. My idea of success is that I want to be free of thinking I’m not enough, do you know what I mean?
This time right now is one of the first times in my life where I have been secluded by myself. I’m learning a whole new way of thinking, and a whole new commitment to myself because I can’t change any of my flaws – but I can work around it. I can learn the things that will make me thrive and the things that will make me fail.

Are you doing a lot of self-reflection right now? What does your day look like during quarantine?
Well, it’s pretty basic. I wake up. Shower. Listen to whatever song I was making the night before. If it wasn’t finished I’ll finish it. I gotta go outside and skate because not skating was fucking with my brain. I was getting cabin fever and shit, spiralling.

We are all having our spiral moments in this, but picking up the tools that you’ve been implementing right now... making music, skating, connecting with people...
Just trying to stay focused within this and not letting my brain wander. Music is probably the one thing that saved me throughout this whole time.

With so much insane and painful shit going on right now, for me, personally, I’m just trying to express gratitude.
One thing this time teaches you is that whatever you’re doing can be put on hold. So now I understand the idea of not putting all of your eggs into one basket, or thinking too hard about certain things. It was part of my plan to do some shows, go on tour – that ain’t happening!

You don’t have time to do much else except what you like to do. It’s going back to basics.
I don’t know how to be in service for anything, because I’m trying to get my family right. I feel bad and I try to figure out how I can help but I’m trying to make sure I’m taking care of my people.

I feel like you are being of service just by doing that.
Oh, tight. I just be trying. Never give up.

Never give up! What you’ve been able to do by 25 people have not been able to do in a lifetime. You should be very proud of that.
The things I’m gonna do by 30 are even bigger, baby!


Photography Aidan Cullen
Casually floated by Enrique Velasco and Aidan Cullen

Paloma Elsesser