Born Fernando Tillman II, the 31-year-old North County native was introduced to African drums as a toddler and used to play percussion at his grandmother’s church and at Hazelwood Central High School. He only began rapping about four years ago, but he has the spirit and hustle of a veteran artist.
NandoSTL’s relationship with music is both deep and sporadic, like seeing the second cousin you grew up with for the first time in years and hanging as if no time has passed. His rap flow is even inspired by the drums. Just listen to how closely his cadences mirror the percussion on his gospel-tinged “What a Day.”
“It’s something that I just kind of fell into,” he says of pursuing a professional career as a rapper after becoming bored with his corporate job. “I was always passionate about it. It was just like having hoop dreams—like something I thought would never happen.”
Yet the former financial adviser at Wells Fargo was recently signed to T-Pain’s NappyBoy Entertainment record label. His debut album, Y.O.T.A., drops on May 19 and features Nelly. The music video for the album’s title track, which features T-Pain and Florida rapper Young Cash, has roughly half a million views on YouTube as of this writing. Nando’s wave of success may seem like a lucky break, but it did not come easy.
“It’s been a long [few] years,” he says. “People who’ve been doing this for 15 years probably worked one month out of the year, where I worked 365 and 24/7, just so I can make it.
The journey started around 2018, with the release of Nando’s debut EP, Good Vibes. Then, at the beginning of the pandemic, he dropped his sophomore project, Bamboo. The response was good, but booked gigs dried up as COVID-19 stay-at-home orders were put in place. Still, NandoSTL never stopped working. He held a sold-out virtual concert in 2021, and he entered a Twitch competition hosted by T-Pain the following year in which the hip-hop legend was looking for the next best artist for his label. Nando finished in second place, but he stayed in touch with T-Pain (going so far as to take his team to Chicago for a T-Pain show just to speak with the rapper, even though they didn’t have tickets).
The hustle paid off. He signed a deal with the artist’s entertainment label last fall. Right now, Nando is focused on learning everything he can and advancing his own career. Eventually, he hopes to provide the same opportunities for local artists.
NandoSTL’s debut album, Y.O.T.A.
“Getting signed to NappyBoy showed me that the world is bigger than St. Louis,” he says. “There’s a blueprint to being a successful artist… It’s like if you want to go to the NBA, you go to a really good D-1 college and all the scouts come to see who they’ll pick to go into the draft. I think St. Louis is like a D-3 school—we’re a very small school that a lot of scouts don’t come to, even though we have a lot of good talent.”
With “Y.O.T.A.,” which stands for year of the ape (a personal mantra for the rapper), NandoSTL hopes fans get to know the real him, the St. Louis artist whose music is a reflection of his firm work ethic and boundless optimism for not only himself but for those in his hometown.
“When I first started writing the album in 2021, it was just a bad year. I had ended a long-term relationship. I lost a job. It just was not good,” says NandoSTL. “I decided that instead of wallowing in my depression, I was going to say, ‘Today is going to be better.’ It could be anything. I could find a dollar in my car and be like, ‘Today’s my day.’ And it went from ‘today’s my day,’ to ‘this week is my week,’ to ‘this year is my year.’”