REDUX New African Cool: the Baloji InterviewBY Valerie Ellois, July 1, 2011
Armed with a bespoke style, enigmatic personality, and hip-swivel that will make grandma blush, Baloji made the walls sweat at The Shrine in Harlem this winter. Performing tracks off his sophomore album Kinshasa Succursale, he took to the stage as an impending blizzard threatened NYC. He unleashed the up-tempo set in a tailored, mustard-green suit and parted afro and, as expected, brought fans to their feet with the full-bodied instrumentation on tracks like “Karibou Ya Bintou” and “Tout Ceci Ne Vous Rendra Pas Le Congo,” a political tome. In our conversation–as with his self-written songs–Baloji prescribes individualism and personal responsibility over solidarity, as well as monetary assistance to combat poverty and bad governance in Africa.
As subways lines closed, taxicabs became scarce, and feet of snow covered Harlem’s Adam Clayton Powell Blvd, an exhausted yet dedicated Baloji sat down with World Up in the dank basement of The Shrine to discuss his thoughts on being multi-ethnic, living in Europe, and a critical review of the Broadway hit Fela!. With a sinister smile, quick wit and confident presence, Baloji reveals his outspoken nature, Francophile tendencies, and a love of cinema. The one-on-one conversation starts here:
World Up: What was it like growing up in Belgium as a person of color?
Baloji: Actually it’s a strange situation because we have to accept that we’re still black people in a white country. And sometimes when you’re doing something, you don’t feel the difference, but when you start working experience the glass ceiling. It’s invisible, but it still exists. You are held back compared to others who may be less qualified than you. That’s something that puts you back to what you really are: a black guy in a white country. What’s strange is there is a huge Arabic community, and we are treated differently. They see Arabic people with fear, and they see black people with a kind of street attitude, like “oh they’re nice, they’re friendly.” They can’t help it. So we have to understand that situation and to deal with it.
WU: Also as a father, how will you help your daugther make sense of her multi cultural and ethnic identity?
B: Yeah I just want her to accept that she is not half white, she is not half black. She’s, we call it “matice,” and that’s a statute in itself. We have to fight for them to understand that she doesn’t have to choose. There are a lot of mixed people try to go to the white or to the black side and then have conflict with the other one. It’s a long (or is it wrong) discussion. You are what you are. It’s like you’re mixed people. And we have to accept this otherwise we are going to face some difficult identity crisis.
WU: How do you describe your sound?
B:It’s a mix of Hip Hop, Rumba and Soul music.
WU: Can you talk about the concept behind your video for “Karibu ya bintou”
B: The idea of the video is based on the sorcerer. At the end I’m wearing a mask, and the video is saying that we all wear masks, not just the sorcerer. I was also inspired by Apocalypse Now, when they go on the boat and start going crazy, it’s based on a book about people going to Africa and encountering bad spirits. So it’s based on this journey to a land where you don’t know people.
WU: Can you tell us about your band?
B:They’re great. [laughs] Yeah, of course. My drummer is from Burkina Faso. My bass player is a really close friend of mine, the first person to trust me when I started working on my first solo album. First one who didn’t think I was crazy. He’s a gospel singer, a bass player, he’s working with a big choir and he produced the album with me in Kinshasa. The guitar player is like my second daddy. He’s a Congolese guitar player, and 64 years old. I love him to death. He played with the biggest Congolese artists, all these legends, and and he’s humble enough to start over and be on the road with a young guy like me.
WU: Your music is often quite personal and also at times political. Do you view your music as a personal expression made public, or do you think of your music as a political platform?
B: Actually, I was really doubting getting personal on my album. I remember watching some movies that were really talking about two or three people and being really intimate. Reading books also about some really personal writer talking about the personal struggle. I started to relate, even if it was a different story than mine. And that’s the beauty of it. Something personal can be universal if you give 100 percent of your feeling, your fear, what makes you happy, your perspectives.
WU: Can you talk about your relationship with Blitz the Ambassador and how that came about?
B: Blitz came out just by Twitter, which is great. He did a remix on one of my songs. I love his visual aspect and I think his next album is gonna be huge. It’s gonna be killer. Because he mastered something that a few people can do with his Afrobeats and there is something that is universal about the content of his lyrics that everybody can get.
WU: You’re a big movie buff. Do you have a favorite film?
B: How do you know that? Wow, I don’t know, I have so many. Actually I’ve been thinking about a film I saw a lot when I was a kid, “Taxi Driver.” Because it’s you know, New York, the buildings. They remind me of that movie a lot. But I love so many French films, I love Woody Allen, Almadovar. I love a lot of Japanese, Belgian, and a lot of American movies. I just love cinema, it’s fantastic art.
WU: I know you recently saw FELA and had some strong criticism. Can you talk about that?
B: FELA. Yeah, that was the worst musical ever. It was like Lion King for adults. I think the person playing Fela is a great actor, performer, and singer. But I think the direction is wrong, because his accent is really wrong. He’s acting like he’s playing in the Shrine, when he’s on Broadway. Something is really wrong about that. It’s like doing a show about Harlem and putting Crunk dancing in it, you would say “Crunk is from LA!” There’s South African dance, Congolese dance, Mali dance. Nigerian dance isn’t like that, they dance with the shoulder. That’s about it, shoulder. So just respect that. If you love Africa, do some research and respect Africa as a continent not a country.
WU: Some have argued that part of the problem with modern hip hop is the lack of mentorship on which it was founded. Who, if any, have your mentors been?
B: I don’t think we need mentors. I have a lot of people I take as an example, but not a mentor. They’re just musicians and they do good and bad and we love them for their contradictions. Like I love Fela for his contradictions.
WU: Did you have any concerns coming to New York? And how have you been received by the New York audience?
B: We first played at the Joe’s Pub and we were really nervous. I was dying. It took me like four songs to get into it. Too late, because we just played three songs without stress. I was really mad at myself, thinking “you fucked it up.” It was a really bad show.
Another person in the room: That’s not what I heard. It was an amazing show. We invited people from the Art’s Presenters Association and everybody loved it. Artists were telling each other “you gotta see this guys, he’s amazing.
WU: What’s your most memorable performance to date, and why?
B: Lubumbashi. That’s the city where I’m born and it was actually one of the worst concerts ever. Because we were just so nervous. You know, like my family was in the audience, and you feel like a kid. So the venue was in like a cultural center and we had about 500 people in the audience, but there was an open space in the middle. We just played for the audience that was sitting, with like 300 standing people behind chairs. It was a really bad concert and they were like ten feet away from us.
WU: Well let’s end on a positive. What was your favorite?
B: For some reason it’s playing Paris. It’s amazing. Playing Paris is amazing. Because Paris is like one of my favorite cities, and when we’re there we’re always nervous of the business people and everybody’s so chic and so beautiful and so blah blah blah. So anyway I love playing for that kind of audiences.
World Up first brought you Baloji: The New African Cool back in August 2010, since then, Baloji’s been building with World Up friends Blitz the Ambassador and Les Nubians with shows this past winter. Look for Baloji at several upcoming European and NYC shows including a Summerstage performance on July 3rd, 2011 with Port-au-Prince group RAM and a must-see performance with Pharoahe Monch on July 2nd, 2011 at Weeksville Heritage Center in Brooklyn.
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