I recently had the chance to sit down with Congolese-Belgian MC, Baloji during his visit to New York City. I started by asking how he likes living in New York City. His answer: “New York is an amazing city, especially from a hip-hop perspective. It’s one of the few places on earth where you can see that hip-hop is part of the culture, not just something that you watch on TV. But for me – doing music that is mostly in French and not in some Congolese language that sounds exotic for Western people – it’s a difficult market. I take everything that happens here like a plus one. I’m not supposed to be here.”
In your song, “Independence Cha-Cha,” you say that “gold is turning into lead”. Can you explain that lyric?
Normally it’s the opposite – you turn lead to gold. In Congo, we had gold, but we turned it to something that had no value because we didn’t treat our country with the right respect. I think we have our share of responsibility. It’s a special song because we worked on it for the 50th anniversary of independence. It is about the Congolese’s own responsibility for what happened in the country.
Since we’re speaking in English, tell me about the decision to not include songs that are in English on your last record.
I think I don’t speak English well enough to make music in English. You have to write it properly and spell it in the right way, otherwise you sound stupid. It’s like listening to Fat Joe singing in Spanish, rapping in Spanish. He doesn’t really pronounce the words right. A listener might feel disturbed. You might be like, “hmmm that’s not real.” I have an issue with that. Some people say, though, that you have to go for English because you will be limited as a French act, one that just got let in because the video looked good.
As a hip-hop artist, how do you negotiate the challenge of working with a genre that started here? How do you give it roots and how you do you think artists are doing that successfully across the continent?
What led me to do this is having a hip-hop perspective. My parents listened to Franco and I hated it, but after growing up, you can connect to what you once hated. You listen to a lot of jazz. You feel a jazz feeling in Congolese sixties music like Franco. Then you can reconnect to it. I love that song by Ghostface Killah that’s based on a song by the Delfonics. You hear the needle and then they put on the song: “La la means I love you.” It’s a really classic song and on every break when they don’t sing, Ghostface raps. That’s basically where hip-hop comes from. That is what I try to do with antiphonal structure, to do something like that, to do something that is part of my heritage.
It’s as if the space for hip-hop was already there and you’re just filling in the blanks?
Yes, it was already there, even the rap flow. I’m from Katanga, from Congo and there was already a two hundred year old tradition of griot, of people talking on the music. And they are amazing rappers! Technically, rhythmically amazing. They never call it rap, but it is almost the same. And they have this tradition of ambiancer – it’s basically MCing. They were just animating a party, repeating some small phrase, some gimmick; it’s really close to hip-hop. Even when Franco performed, he always had someone there to animate. Like you have in a dancehall music, someone was telling the audience, “now this is the move, left right left, do this do this, this is the movement.” Just some rhythmic stuff that you do to push people to dance, similar to reggae and other styles with that Jamaican vibe.
I’m interested in your flow, in the way you compose and fit verses into songs. Can you explain how you started rapping over songs that didn’t have rap in them and how you developed your flow and timing?
I was in a rap group with these three guys from Colombia. We listened to salsa music, La Fania, old-school stuff, Puerto Rican music. They told me that if you’re a rapper, you have to adapt to any rhythm. They had me rapping to Augustus Pablo. They just put on any record and I’d rap on it. At first, I was like, “come on, I need a boom bap,“ but the more I did it, the more I felt at ease with it. I could feel my voice like an instrument, like percussion actually, as part of the mix.
On your newest record, Kinshasa Succursale, you managed an incredible work of A&R-ing; you brought together a ton of artists including older, classic musicians from the Congo. Getting people in the studio is not an easy thing; getting them to collaborate is not an easy thing, and it can be an expensive thing. Can you tell me a bit about that process, and how you managed to put this thing together?
I’m going to give you a really cheesy answer, a really hip-hop answer: It has a lot to do with money, power, and respect. Money, because when you pay the people, they are more willing to work with you; that’s something we can’t lie about. And respect is key because when someone from the Diaspora comes back to Congo, they always act like they know better. But for us, recording there in Congo, we were just humble. We learned so many good things from these old Congolese musicians. There was a lot of respect. As for power, our power came from saying that we wanted to do something that was not cliché; we want to make something that we can share together – this may be my idea, but let’s build it up together. If you have something, let’s go. If you have an idea, let’s try it. We share the rights to the song; we share everything. In African music, the publishing rights are a big issue. Few people have publishing rights to their songs and that’s a mark of respect for people, sharing those rights. I also paid everybody. I paid everybody. You know how it works – people don’t want promises. People don’t take promises.
So you took a lot of risk in putting this together.
Yeah. It’s a crazy record. We did this in 2009. I was on another label and when they got the record, they said, no fucking way. I went to my publisher and he told me, just bring in some western African big names like the Amadou and Mariams and Magic Systems. You know, the big names. The Youssou N’Dours. Because your record, they told me, is way too dark and we cannot release it. So I was really pissed off because I did this record in seven days, and we worked like crazy and we were so happy with the result, with what we learned from that record. It was just a great experience.
Just because we didn’t have the money! We did fifteen songs in seven days, like crazy. We stayed there eight days. And nobody wanted to take the record. I sent it to all the cool labels and nobody took it. I decided that to make the vision more clear I would make videos. I produced the videos and we put everything together with the videos, and we sent it again to all the cool labels, all the cool people that you know, that we all know. And they said, “nice video, but no thanks.” I was fucked, stuck with my record and my expensive videos that I produced by myself. And then I started to look for concerts. Luckily for me I had the chance to work with Blitz the Ambassador and his people. They made me come to New York for a showcase, and with the showcase we found a booker. Often you hear people saying, “use the Internet, and as long as you are on iTunes, you’re good.” But you still need a promo guy, a label. We kept on searching. Somebody said, “Why you don’t try Crammed?” Then we talked with them and they agreed to release the album. Then when they released the album, we got nice reviews in the UK and the cool labels called back! It’s stupid.
You mostly live in Belgium now. Could you ever see yourself moving back to Congo if the circumstances were right?
Yeah. The big difference is that you don’t have wifi. That’s the biggest difference. The Internet, that’s it. Artistically speaking, that’s the difference between South Africa or Nigeria and other places in Africa. They have Internet access so they can share ideas and vision with the rest of the world, and that means that the gap between these African countries and the rest of the world is shrinking.
Have you performed much in Congo and what is that like for you when you do?
We did a big tour last summer, and maybe we are going to play again in June. Yeah, we did a big tour. It was for a month and it was a nice experience.
Did people embrace your music there? Do you see that as an important audience for you, or are you more outward-facing?
No. It’s really important, especially because the album was made in Kinshasa. And it was really important to play it there live and with the guests off the record. But to be really honest with you, we had to face the fact that Congolese music is suffering. It’s like the Cuban embargo. There is one kind of music that people listen to – the Soukous, the ndombolo . They really have a small window; we had to face that. Like wow – we asked them to listen to something different that they are not used to hearing. And we also played the game of piracy. We went to markets, shops; you just give it and people make copies, just like that. We didn’t ask for money. They are not gonna pay for this music, but at least they know that there is something different to listen to.
Are there any Congolese rappers today that you are excited about, that you would like to collaborate with?
There is this guy, Larousse Marciano, who is amazing.
Is he popular out there?
Not enough because he is not doing typical music, but he is amazing. Congolese still listen to the same old music. It’s like Cuba. Nothing has changed, and they don’t have other music that can enter. The only one is the Ivory Coast version of old school Soukous, a Coupe-Decale thing. That may be the only thing that can get in the mix.
What about house music?
House, yeah. It’s slowly getting in. I mean the Nigerian scene is releasing some great stuff.
Konono No 1’s contribution to your record sounds like traditional trance music. Even the Konono No 1’s dancers, when I first saw them, they were going into a mild state of trance. I wonder how trance relates to your process.
I’m from Belgium–Holland is the country of trance music! So I grew up listening to this “new beat.” You remember it? It’s close to a Detroit vibe; one line that goes for ten minutes straight. Konono and all these traditional bands are playing one line for five-hours while everyone gets up to the mic. There are definitely some similarities.
Is trance connected in some way to the spiritual images in your videos?
The album cover that we have now is not the original cover. I prefer the original cover because if you don’t know the story of the record, on the new one, it looks like a Christian record; it looks like I’m getting baptized. But I do like it because it’s related to the video for “Karibu Ya Bintou.” The whole idea with this Baloji project is related to the fact that my name “Baloji” shocked a lot of people in the Congo because it means “sorcerers.” Actually, Baloji means, “a group of sorcerers”. Everywhere I go in the Congo, especially when I did the tour last year, everyone was like “you need to change your name and get baptized right away, or else you will carry the sorcerer with you, the bad force with you.” So I didn’t get baptized, but at least I can show them the cover.
What was the cover meant to signify? Was it meant to signify getting baptized?
The song was meant to be talking about the fact that sorcerer means something bad nowadays because of Christians, but historically it meant just someone who was a man of science. Before the Christians, “baloji” was doing good and bad science. After the Christians, Baloji related only to the bad and Christianity to the good. With my name, I’m saying that we are all wearing a mask. We are all into this game, but if you believe in it, you get trapped. If people believe that you are in this box, and you treat yourself as in this box, you get trapped.
When people think about the Congo today in the US, and hear your music as a connection both to Belgium and the Congo, what do you think they should be thinking about?
Tomorrow we are in Brazil for three weeks, and I think that Brazil is the mirror country to the Congo because of the forests and because they are on the same level on the equator. We can learn a lot from Brazil because they had a dictator and now they’re on the rise. Congolese can learn from them. We can make people see the Congo in a new light.
* This is the first in an ongoing series of cross-posting between Afropop Worldwide and AIAC. This interview was originally posted here on Afropop’s blog.