The trumpets began to sound and instantly, young Matt Allen was captivated. Listening to the opening of Stevie Wonder’s jazz-funk classic “Sir Duke,” Matt felt himself changing. It was an early turning point in his musical origin story.
“I didn’t know music could do that,” the hip-hop artist said. “I listened to that song maybe 30 times just transfixed, stopping and restarting it [over and over again]. I was 6 or 7 years old.”
Matt then quipped, “When you hear ‘Wheels on the Bus’ or ‘Hot Cross Buns’ enough times, you just think that’s what music is when you’re young.”
Today, Matt is better known by his super-musician persona Nur-D, a comic book loving, pepperoni pizza eating, board game guru who uses his musical superpowers and platform for community good.
But how exactly did this Minnesotan go from a part-time musician to a rising hip-hop star turned activist? As Matt will attest to, every experience shapes us, but there are moments that define us.
From the Bronx to Rosemount: Matt’s early years and influences
Matt spent the first years of his life in the Bronx, a New York City borough that’s – coincidentally – widely regarded as the birthplace of rap and hip-hop. After a little bouncing around, his family settled in Rosemount, Minnesota around his sixth-grade school year.
“It was a big culture shock, and it was tough coming in as a minority person,” Matt recalled. “But it was such a lovely community, and to this day, many of my friends and teachers are still big parts of my life. Like, my high school choir teacher was just at my wedding.”
Like many musicians, music has been a constant in Matt’s life for as long as he can remember. He performed in choirs from grade school through college. And as a member of the faith community, he honed his performance chops at church.
“For years, I performed in front of a pretty large audience multiple times a week,” Matt said. “It was like mini boot camps every Wednesday and Sunday.”
Finding his hip-hop voice
Early on, Matt admits that he intentionally stayed away from hip-hop and rap as his musical medium, instead focusing on rock and roll.
“I’ve always loved hip-hop. It’s part of me. It’s part of my culture,” he said. “But I just didn’t want to perform it because it felt like everyone expected me to.”
But eventually, simply growing up and living through certain experiences would begin to change that.
“Heartbreak. Being different in a space where everyone seems the same, but slowly finding out that everyone feels a little different. Being a plus-sized person walking around in a world that’s not always designed for you. Getting engaged. Getting married,” Matt shared. “We’re always growing, changing and discovering new avenues to ourselves. A lot of different things that creep in and mold you and your sound into what it needs to be at the time.”
From part-time musician to artist-activist
When Matt launched his solo career in 2018, he was part of the HealthPartners family. He worked as a TRIA call center representative, a job he would ultimately hold for more than three years.
“I met some of my closest friends while there,” Matt said.
A call center representative by day, he was writing songs and gigging on nights and weekends. And it didn’t take long for him to get noticed. Matt exuded confidence and embraced eccentricity.
Just a couple months after his solo debut, he performed at Soundset 2018, a beloved annual hip-hop festival in the Twin Cities. Fast-forward to 2019, Matt was voted 2019’s best new local artist in the City Pages. Then in November 2019, he made the leap to full-time musician.
You read that right, November 2019 – just a few short months before the world shut down due to COVID-19.
“I lost every show that was planned for that year,” Matt said. “And I remember thinking, if I’m feeling this desperate and this sudden loss, and not being sure what to do, I know other people are, too.”
That’s when Matt decided to start the MN Artist Relief project.
“I didn’t want anybody to not be able to do their art,” he said. “We did live-stream concerts, partnered with studios and collected $4,000 in donations that went directly to helping local artists.”
According to Matt, seeing the donations roll in made him realize that this was the kind of artist he wanted to be.
“Doing something is always better than doing nothing,” he said. “It’s the little things that push the big things along.”
And soon, the chance to do something would come back around – and the stakes would be higher than ever.
A turning point: George Floyd’s murder
As a Black man in America, Matt said he regularly participated in social justice demonstrations. But when the news of George Floyd’s murder reached him, it was a wake-up call.
“There were no other distractions – the world was shut down,” he said. “There was no looking away from that video.”
Like before, Matt joined protestors and witnessed the violence that ensued in the days following the murder. On one of those evenings, a friend of his was injured by police. With first aid kits and other supplies in hand, Matt went to the area in hopes of helping.
When he arrived, he was briefly mistaken for a medic and found piles of medical supplies that had been left behind.
“I remember thinking to myself, this is where you decide if you go home or you stay here forever,” Matt said. “If you go home, there’s no reason for you to come back out. This is it. This is the moment.”
He added, “As Uncle Ben says to Peter Parker in the ‘Spider-Man’ comics, with great power comes great responsibility.”
With Ben’s wise words ringing in his ears, Matt stayed. And with the help of others, the abandoned medical supplies were gathered up in a shopping cart and used to deliver first aid to others who had been injured.
“We just patched people up by cell phone light,” Matt said. “And we never stopped doing that.”
That’s when Justice Frontline Aid (JAF) was born, an organization designed to provide aid, resources and education to those who are putting themselves on the frontline of the fight for justice.
“These people are so brave,” Matt said. “What it really means to protect and serve has a lot more to do with sacrificing yourself for your community, rather than asserting your power.”
During the height of the pandemic, JAF also launched a food shelf that was run out of Minneapolis’s Modist Brewing.
“When they couldn’t open their doors to customers, they opened their doors to our food shelf,” Matt said. “Modist Brewing is an amazing company full of amazing people.”
A musician on a mission to save his community
From “Sir Duke” to becoming “your seventh favorite hip-hop person,” Matt’s evolution came full circle for him in early 2022. His song “Glorious” became the anthem for HealthPartners’ Partner for Good℠ campaign and was featured in a TV commercial.
“Seeing it for the first time was a mix of imposter syndrome and vindication for all the hard work I put in,” he said. “The song is all about having faith that you’ll make it, and when you do, it will be better than good. It will be glorious.”
For HealthPartners, part of being a partner for good is serving and supporting your community. And for comic book afficionado Matt, it’s like being a superhero’s trusty sidekick.
“I think of Batman and Robin,” he began. “When Batman goes dark, Robin reminds him that things can be good. I want to be a Robin to my community. I want them to know they’re okay and I want to be there to help them in any way that I can.”
He added, “I’m in this lovely position where people want to listen to me. I have a platform that can help people and I don’t take that for granted.”