For almost two decades now, the Bronx has been the focus of much of New York’s newest wave of Africans moving to the United States. Films such as ‘Little Senegal,’ ‘Bronx Princess’ and ‘Prince of Broadway,’ have been depicting the growing uptown African immigrant population for years. The New York Times has covered some community-wide cultural happenings. And, now there’s even an African restaurant week. However, in the wake of a growing global influence of African youth culture, a recognition of African youth culture and its growing contributions to the New York cultural landscape remains conspicuously absent from the average New Yorker’s frame of reference.
One of the communities that astonishingly still remains under the radar is the Ghanaian community, even in the wake of the ascendance of internationally renown local talent like Blitz the Ambassador. Every year, one of the biggest African events in New York is the Ghanaian Independence Day bash, where legendary performers are flown in to perform for an enthusiastic diaspora crowd of around a couple of thousand. Also, there are dozens of Ghanaian restaurants around New York, many of which hold club nights playing the latest hiplife, azonto, GH rap, or alkayida tunes out of Accra and Tema.
Even though I’ve seen this phenomenon happen with the large Caribbean and Latin communities in New York, both of these groups at least have their own media outlets, and are often represented on the city’s mainstream radio stations. Knowing that West African immigration to New York is a relatively new phenomenon I’ve always wondered what it would take for a local African musical movement to gain more steam in the city at large. So, on warm late summer Sunday afternoon a few weeks ago, I took a subway ride up to Co-op City in the Bronx to investigate.
I arrived at a collection of imposing apartment complexes on the northern edges of the Bronx, to the building of a Ghanaian rapper who goes by Nana NYC. By the time I arrived at Nana’s apartment a cypher was already in progress. A group of MCs coming from all around the United States had assembled in Nana’s living room for the afternoon session. Nana was filming to promote an upcoming hip hop show organized by iRAP TV, a regular TV show series produced by Nana, and shown on cable television in the Bronx (Bronx Net) and Brooklyn (BCAT). All but one MC had roots in Ghana, and most rapped in multiple languages, flawlessly switching between English, Pidgin, and a Ghanaian language such as Twi, Fanti, or Ga. Featuring rappers in the following video are: Fusha (Worcester/Ghana), Rasbobo (Columbus/Ghana), Nana NYC (Bronx/Ghana), Self Made Stunner (Bronx), C-Burn (Brooklyn/Ghana), Biszy All State (Jersey/Ghana), Sammy Khaki (Bronx/Ghana):
Also present that afternoon was an elder-like observer, and important figure in the local Ghanaian music scene, “Hurricane” Hashim Haruna. I was excited to be able to talk to Hashim because he is one of the main organizers behind the massive annual Ghana Independence Day Bash, and was keen to find out how the musical connections between Accra and the Bronx came about. The name of the company both Nana and Hashim are a part of is called Boogie Down Nima. Besides referring to the Bronx nickname Boogie Down, the crew’s name also shouts out the Nima neighborhood in Accra, Hashim and Nana’s home area, which like the Bronx is the neighborhood credited with launching their local hip-hop movement. The crew was also one of the focuses of the Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi directed documentary Homegrown: Hiplife in Ghana, which chronicles the rise of the career of Ghanaian superstars V.I.P. After talking with Hashim and the iRAP TV crew assembled at Nana’s apartment, I came to find out that he was an integral figure in the initiation of a music and cultural movement for young Africans of various backgrounds in the Bronx.
Hashim arrived in New York at 16 years old in the late ’90s. By then the hiplife scene had already taken over Accra, and the local youth culture had started to make waves in diaspora communities. However, when Hashim arrived the Ghanaian community life was centered on events like funerals, and baptisms. The African hip-hop movement, fueled by a revolution in youth expression in West Africa was exploding in various locales around the world, but there was still nothing happening among youth in the African immigrant communities in the Bronx. So, Hashim decided to start throwing promoted parties for young Africans in community centers, echoing the exploits of a young Kool Herc in the same neighborhood in the 1970s.
The parties were a hit, and overtime the Bronx gained a reputation as the best place for parties. As one Brooklyn-based Ghanaian MC told me at Nana’s, “The Bronx has the best parties!” Over time, Boogie Down Nima’s events grew to incorporate mega celebrations such as the annual Independence Day Bash. Because of the growing success of the event, Hashim and company are able to fly whole bands in from Ghana, and are able to organize tours for them to Ghanaian strongholds in cities across the US.
In the immediate wake of his success promoting parties in the Bronx, Boogie Down Nima started collaborating with Americans interested in global hip-hop such as Ben Herson of Nomadic Wax, and Eli who has also directed documentaries about hip-hop and youth-led social movements in Cuba, Brazil, and Colombia. It is through these connections that the Boogie Down Nima crew has been able to come across a diverse array of international hip-hop artists and would connect with artists from all over the world. iRAP TV was born out of this growing international hip-hop movement, and remains a stronghold for street-level representation of a second generation of international hip-hop artists in the United States.
The goal of iRAP TV and the focus of Boogie Down Nima today, is to build an international hip-hop movement, one in which artists from diverse backgrounds can celebrate their ethnic identity, difference, and uniqueness, yet stand at the same level as their American counterparts. Hashim and Nana want to make sure that the upcoming rappers from their community shine by representing, and being proud of who they are. Nana explained, “if younger rappers don’t benefit from the work that we’ve been able to accomplish over the years, than that work was for nothing.” While African clubs, and promoted parties are becoming more the norm in New York, and hip-hop and mainstream pop artists with African origins like Wale, Chamillionaire, Akon, and French Montana are able to reveal their African identities and still maintain a sense of coolness perhaps unavailable to previous generations, there is still work to be done to bring diverse notions of hip-hop, and blackness to the fore in mainstream American society. I asked the rappers in the cypher what they thought of African artists making it to the mainstream, and high profile international collaborations with African stars like P-Square, or D’banj, many of them thought that these steps were not enough. One rapper illustrated his frustration saying, “Everyone thinks French Montana is Spanish!”
A secondary goal I sensed amongst many of the rappers in the creation of an international hip-hop movement in the United States was to be able to gain respect as individual artists back in Accra. Many of the artists felt that if they couldn’t gain acceptance in the place they were based, then their recognition in the places they came from wouldn’t have the same weight. However achieving this goal will be an uphill battle for US based artists. Plus, they have to compete with European counterparts who are often able to find local success by playing on African identity, partly due to critical cultural mass of first and second generation African immigrants, a distance from American cultural hegemony, a distance from American racial politics, and perhaps just physical proximity to home. US-based African artists still have to deal with an American public that generally remains in the dark about the contemporary realities of African people, affairs, and culture.
In order to keep up the efforts to spread the word and attract new audiences, tomorrow November 2nd iRAP TV will host what according to Nana is the “first African-organized Hip Hop battle” at Cue Lounge in the Bronx. Their goal is to start opening up such international events to a diverse American audience, and encourage the participation of people of all backgrounds. Keeping true to the Boogie Down Nima style, flying in for the occasion is Ghanaian rapper Kwaw Kese, “the king of the streets” in Ghana. If you’re in New York on that day, make sure you head uptown to check it out!
Also, next November 5th, Africa is a Country contributor Jesse Weaver Shipley will be at CUNY pre-screening his documentary Is it Sweet?: Tales of an African Superstar in New York. Jesse’s book Living the Hiplife, which covers the Bronx Hiplife phenomenon in its final chapter, was published in January of this year.