Baloji’s synaesthetic universe

The return of Belgian-Congolese multitalent Baloji is nothing short of remarkable, with his latest output offering a fourfold album, an immersive exhibition, and most notably, a captivating magic realistic film.

Still from Omen © Wrong Men, 2023.

Baloji’s artistic journey is, in many ways, a tale of rising from the rapper’s ashes. Born in Lubumbashi in 1978 (like his homonym photographer Sammy Baloji), he moved to Belgium at age four, severing ties with his roots and his mother. As an adolescent, he channeled his feelings of estrangement through rap and dance, which resulted in the formation of the pioneering Belgian hip-hop group Starflam.

Baloji’s solo career began in 2006 when he unearthed a long-lost letter from his mother, which led to a new spark of musical inspiration. In 2008 he released his debut solo album—Hotel Impala, a delicate telling of his life story—to critical acclaim. Always keenly attuned to the visual aspects of his musical creations, directing his own music videos, he felt the time had come to venture into new artistic realms.

As rappers tend to be “less esteemed” than other artists, Baloji admits he faced barriers as an emergent filmmaker. Despite his iconic status inBelgian hip-hop, he had to self-finance his first independent short films, including Peau de Chagrin/Bleu de Nuit (2018) and Zombies (2019), for which he respectively collaborated with CATPC and Congo Astronauts. While quickly making ground in the film scene, he still had to deal with some rejection for the financing of Augure (2023), notably from the Flemish Audiovisual Fund. Undeterred, the resilient artist ended up shooting the film in 23 days on a budget of around 1 million euros.

The narrative arcs of Augure’s characters mirror Baloji’s artistic journey as a rapper turned filmmaker, and the prejudice that comes with being the former. Augure opens with the story of Koffi, a man who returns to his native country to introduce his pregnant white wife. As a child, he was expelled because his family associated his birthmark with zabolo, the mark of the devil. This is a poignant reference to Baloji’s personal struggle with his surname, which means “sorcerer” in Swahili. The name carries a stigma in Congolese circles, but Baloji has boldly reclaimed it as an artist moniker. Koffi is but one of the film’s four central characters and, as the director emphasizes, perhaps the least captivating. Tshala and Mama Mujila, Koffi’s sister and mother, face the challenges imposed by a male world that despises them. Meanwhile, Paco, a shegue (street child), struggles to arrange a proper funeral for his deceased sister, in whose honor his crew members wear pink princess dresses. Augure offers a sensory journey, inviting the audience to immerse themselves in the life worlds of these characters beyond the confines of conventional narrative structure.

One of the most intriguing choices of the film is its embedding in an unnamed oneiric place that unites the landscapes of Kinshasa and Lumumbashi, the D.R.Congo’s largest urban centers. Kinshasa, the Lingalaphone capital, has a rich cultural scene and a centripetal attraction that dates back to colonial and Mobutist structures of power. Lubumbashi, on the other hand, has always been the country’s economic heart due to its mining history. Augure intentionally transcends the political, linguistic and geographical schisms that typically set these two cities apart. Scenes effortlessly blend into each other: portraying territorial disputes between shegues in Ndjili, a densely populated municipality in Kinshasa, and rituals set in Lubumbashi’s eerie mining realm, with slag hills, desolate barracks and Swahiliphone miners’ songs.

Mining takes on a highly symbolic and dystopic role in Augure. To us, it represents a precarious and insatiable digging quest for something elusive. Since colonial times, Congo’s mining industry has generated excessive wealth that remains out of reach for many Congolese, despite their daily efforts. The most absent figure in the movie, Koffi’s father, dies in the mines and his body is never found. In that sense, the mines swallowed someone whose patriarchal presence was already spectral to begin with.

At the heart of Baloji’s artistry lies his ability to intricately weave a colorful tapestry of eclectic cultural references. Baloji’s work defies categorization: from costumes reminiscent of the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indians (which can be traced back to the Kongo kingdom), nods to European fairy tales such as Hansel and Gretel, the incorporation of Mobutist attributes in leopard skin to a luminous tree made of the generator-plugged cables used to charge phones in a country where electricity is not a given, and traditional priests representing the dogmatic positionality of the DRC’s many Pentecostal churches, Baloji brings all these elements together in a phantasmagoric and synaesthetic “Balogic” that both unsettles and mesmerizes.

About the Author

Sebastiao Christopher Kiaku is co-founder of Jeunes Boss Records and MarCom officer at BOZAR, Brussels.

Margot Luyckfasseel is assistant professor of History at Vrije Universiteit Brussel and work leader at the Belgian State Archives.

Further Reading

Congo Gold

Congolese-Belgian MC, Baloji: “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.”