I wish I received a heads up by friends in the real world about the reality of being a musician in New York City. It is no joke. I had decided to pursue music full time, some time in 2010. I had just graduated from Columbia University, and I saw this as my time to break away from certain kinds of responsibilities, expectations and deadlines set by college, my family, my friends, and the burden of “being a migrant in Rome.” I just wanted to pause, to live, and breathe easier. The only thing on my agenda was to get my band, Osekre and The Lucky Bastards going once again.
At the time, I was inspired by an increased interest in African music in New York in general. Columbia alumni, Vampire Weekend, were heroes on campus, and had sparked debates in the world and indie music communities with their song “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” as they fused what they felt were soukous licks with indie sounds. The spirit of Fela Kuti’s work was being reinvigorated in the underground music spaces, where DJs and hip hop artists were finally spinning and sampling Afrobeat. K’naan was making waves with incredibly poignant stories through rap, wit and lyricism; introducing the world to the struggles of Somalis on his album “Dusty foot Philosopher.” Nneka had released her song “Kangpe”, which was all over EA Sports’ FIFA soccer games, and was about to debut on Letterman in New York. I had enough sources and stories to keep me motivated about the opportunities and possibilities for young African cats doing their music thing in New York City. What no one explained was exactly how much work that was going to involve and what it meant to start from the scratch, or scratch the start.
It was after an exciting consultation with a lady friend, who was well entrenched in the New York music scene, that I decided to move to Brooklyn. Exactly where in Brooklyn, she didn’t specify. Her recommendations after listening to my tracks were pretty clear: “Move to Brooklyn, Brooklyn will appreciate your sound more. Reach out to Todd P, Brice,” and a couple of other big promoters. It took years for me to finally connect with these promoters or even get emails returned.
I moved to Crown Heights, where I lived in an amazing co-op with some of the most ultra-liberal friends I was going to make in the city. One of my housemates had a beehive on the roof where he collected honey, we also had a backyard where we reared chickens and supplied eggs to the rest of the house. Well, the non-vegetarians in the house. Combine this with the exciting monthly house parties and my new found passion for biking and roaming Brooklyn.
During the next three years I would find myself bouncing from couch to couch in friends’ houses and music studios in Brooklyn. I felt like my Ivy league degree meant little in this context. I observed, listened, practiced, worked, and gradually shifted back and forth between various music scenes, trying to find a home for my sound. However, I barely got the opportunity to play outside of the McKibbin loft open mic series.
As iron sharpened iron, I started writing songs that were a reflection of my Ghanaian roots and music experiences in Bushwick. My basic guitar playing improved in an intense, musically competitive atmosphere. During my movements in and around these scenes, I noticed a few things, I was often the only African, and sometimes the only black kid at some of these gigs, and was often asked about why my band was mostly American or white. (This is why the rise of the “Afropunk” community is important. Although, I fear Afropunk as a platform is losing that core Afropunk artist, then again, there is only so much Afropunk can do to appease an incredibly wide, diverse and complex demographic and audience.) Most often I had to explain how no African parent will allow their kid to graduate from college with the clear objective of being in a band as the next focus of their lives. There is a “continent to be helped, friends school fees to be paid, businesses to return home to build etc. It seemed the life of an artist is a privilege that only wealthy or more privileged kids were allowed. Was I privileged? Not at all.
Frustrated from not being able to prove to promoters that booking my band would always guarantee a glorious dance party, I gave up on finding a home for my sound outside of the McKibbin Loft scene. However, my budget was catching up to the demands of the scene where we mostly played for free pizza and some beer, or just for a good time. My live shows were getting a bit more intense. Music was certainly my only outlet and somehow, with the passing of a year, and the relative lack of progression of my band into bigger venues, I turned my sound up a bit.
Out of all these experiences, several events shaped my outlook on the various music scenes in New York, and that significantly influenced the direction of my future projects. First off, I started booking shows and paired myself with bands that I felt made sense for my band to play with. I used factors outside of genre to determine which pairings made sense: energy, influences and message. Out of my success in booking shows I created the Aputumpu platform, which attracted some seed-funding last year to improve the quality of my programming.
Second, I realized the there were very few opportunities for artists of color to showcase their work, to be discovered, heard or given an opportunity to succeed in most of the existing scenes. The world music community isn’t really into young African acts either. The older, more established, and even sometimes forgotten legends seem to make more sense to their tastes.
So when Meridian 23 offered my band a summer residency this year, I decided to set-up a platform that would allow more artists, especially people of color a space to show off their talents, connect, and amplify the reach of our work, cultures, ideas, and experiences. There will be talks, live bands, and DJs holding down a dance party. I call it Afropolitans, a word that I am aware is problematic, however it remains useful in its ability to carve out space in a cultural scene where we still lack representation.
So, if you’re in New York at all this summer, check out Afropolitan Presents. It kicks off today (Friday May 29th) at 8pm at Meridian23, with a sliding-scale entrance fee based on the time you show up. (It’s free before 9:30 for all the struggling artists out there.) See you out there.