The biggest misconception about Nico & Vinz, the Scandinavian duo who scored an unlikely summer hit with their upbeat "Am I Wrong"?
"People think that we're white," says an amused Vincent "Vinz" Dery.
"Two Afro-Norwegians at Billboard Number Four, that doesn't happen every day," says his partner Nico Sereba. Dery's parents are immigrants from Ghana, while Sereba is the son of mother from Norway and a father from Côte d'Ivoire. That heritage is reflected in the title of their forthcoming LP, Black Star Elephant, which combines the nicknames the Ghanaian and Ivorian soccer teams, the Black Stars and the Elephants. "It symbolizes our journey from where we started," Sereba says. "We're singing about our identities."
Although they both grew up in Oslo, they were immersed in African music at home and on visits to see family on the west coast of Africa. Their tastes, however, ran more towards hip-hop: Dery favored California rappers like 2Pac, while Sereba preferred New York MCs like Nas. When they were introduced by a mutual friend in 2009, they formed a rap duo called Envy, recording tracks while working as substitute teachers and making plans for global stardom.
"We had dreams of touching people all over the world," Dery says. Here's something you need to know about Nico & Vinz: In conversation, they sound like an inspirational cat poster come to life, spitting platitudes such as "Whatever you put your heart to, if you work hard enough, you can do it," "You owe a certain amount of positivity to other human beings" and "The power of the mind is incredible — believing in stuff, it's underrated."
At the beginning of this year, Envy signed with Warner Bros., changed their name to Nico & Vinz and decided to emphasize singing over rapping, although they feel that their tuneful music is still marked by their love of hip-hop and African music. They've been recording the new album with William Wilk Larsen and Thomas Erickson: "We're happy we managed to keep it all-the-way-Norwegian," Dery says. Together, they hope to join the company of Norway's biggest pop exports, acts like a-Ha and Nineties rap duo Madcon (big in Europe) and production duo Stargate, who in recent years have produced four Number One singles with Rihanna.
"There's an unwritten law in Norway called janteloven," Dery says, returning to the platitudes. "It means don't come around acting like you're all that. That could be negative, but it's humbling."
The guys try to keep that in mind despite spending increasingly little time in their home country. On the road, they miss the holy trinity of friends, family and torsk — the delicacy known here as poached cod. "We're Norwegian, so we do a lot of Norwegian things," continues Dery. "It's the best country when it comes to skiing, and I feel like I'm good at skiing."
Adds Sereba: "Norway's a beautiful country. It took me leaving Norway to understand how much I love walking in the woods and breathing fresh air."