Blitz The Ambassador: Fighting Against Invisibility
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Finally today, we've been hearing from storytellers. It's our contribution to the National Day of Listening. So now we wanted to ask you to listen to an artist who's bringing stories from Africa and the diaspora, but in a particularly fresh way. We're talking about rapper Samuel Bazawule. He's better known as Blitz The Ambassador. Born in Ghana, he came to the U.S. to attend college. He dabbled in architecture and design before graduating with a degree in business administration. He's created a sound that's won him fans around the world. It blends rap influences like Chuck D with the Afrobeat sounds of Fela Kuti and the highlife. Blitz's upcoming album "Afropolitan Dreams" will be out soon. It's a continuation of that musical journey. But if you don't want to wait that long, he has released an EP "The Warm Up," that's a taste of what's to come.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE WARM UP")
MARTIN: That was the title track "The Warm Up." When I spoke with Blitz recently, he began by telling me where his name came from.
SAMUEL BAZAWULE: You know, it's interesting. First, I begun just as Blitz, and it was more just a description of my style and the way it came at you and the speed with which I'd rhyme. And that kind of stuck. And then as time went on, I realized that, one, there's just too many Blitz in the world. And it wasn't the easiest name to have in terms of, you know, searches. But overall, I also started to travel more. And the more I traveled, the more I realized that there's a specific role that I need to be playing. And that role is about bridging gaps and, you know, just expanding the culture that I've been so blessed enough to be a part of and letting people see that, in fact, it is global culture and people all over the world are a part of hip-hop culture. And that's why I went with The Ambassador.
MARTIN: Now most artists don't like labels, I have observed. But if you had to describe yourself as an artist, what would you say? I mean, would you say Ghanaian rapper, American, African-American? Would you say - I don't know. I guess ambassador sums it up. But what word would you use?
BAZAWULE: That's a difficult question. I mean, you know, overall, I see myself as an ambassador. And of course, music is the vehicle that I use. And it's hard to call myself just a rapper because, I mean, I produce and compose and direct films. So, I mean, I guess I'll just go to the Prince way and call myself the Artist.
MARTIN: OK. I think that's taken, but still. But I understand your point, though. How did you get into rap, though, acknowledging your point that rap is not all that you do? How did you get into rap growing up in Ghana?
BAZAWULE: Well, it begun by, you know, just the fact that everybody who was around my age or a little over my age had the bug, you know. It just spread fast. And before we all knew, you know, groups like A Tribe Called Quest, Public Enemy, rappers like Rakim, KRS were everywhere, you know, and everybody participated in it somehow.Fortunately for me, my older brother, who is about five years older than me, went away to secondary school, which is about high school in America. His friends travel overseas, and they'll return with tapes. They'll return with magazines. And, you know, my brother will bring tapes home. His friends will come over and dub them. And, you know, I just kind of picked up on it. But in hindsight, I realized that it was an urgency that the music that we had back home did not have at the time. There was kind of a social commentary, a political commentary of life, you know, that was very appealing to young people that also didn't have much of a voice at the time.
MARTIN: You know, I wish I could remember who said that rap is the CNN of the streets. Who said that? Was that Public Enemy?
BAZAWULE: It is actually Public Enemy. You know, they were actually one of the first hip-hop groups to come to Ghana, and this was '92. I remember just how that changed the entire landscape because at the time, you know, you're kind of living this culture vicariously. And you don't really have a lot of connection to it besides the fact that you're just a fan of it. And so for somebody in America at the time to come to Ghana and perform, we finally felt that we were actually recognized and we were actually part and parcel of the culture, so.
MARTIN: Well, but the thing - speaking of the words you use like recognized and the sense of urgency - I think that one of the things that people really like about your music is that it paints such a vivid picture. I mean, it is - in a way, it's like a bulletin or a letter home or a letter where you're describing things so vividly that people really feel like they can see it even if they're not there. And I just want to play a short clip from "African in New York." Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AFRICAN IN NEW YORK")
MARTIN: Now you can hear that that's the borrowing from "Englishman in New York" and Jay-Z's "99 Problems," but I was wondering for you, when you were putting this piece together, how did you see it? Did you see it as kind of - was it, like, autobiographical, your experience? Was it training the lens? Was it like a letter home? How do you see it? What were you feeling when you put it together?
BAZAWULE: Well, I've always felt hip-hop as a culture hasn't really yet embraced its international roots. The fact that DJ Kool Herc emigrated from Jamaica to America and, you know, is considered the godfather and plays a significant role in the birth of this culture. But also, you know, talking about the islands, talking about breakdancing culture, that was partially borrowed from kung fu flicks or Capoeira that's practiced in Brazil. It's just the beauty of the culture has always been that it is all-inclusive. And as a fan of it, I just never really thought that, globally, the voices are recognized.So I've always wanted to write music that is vivid in its nature and can paint these pictures to show the vast inclusion. And if you think about the culture, it's really sample culture. So you pick elements from all over and kind of create something out of it. And "African in New York," in particularly, was really just an assertion that, you know, we're here, and there are Africans in New York. And our experience is different from, you know, other groups in New York, you know, because there are specific elements about who we are that differ from other groups. And so I've always kind of kept that in the back of my mind, and I've always wanted somebody to write a song about, you know the elements, whether it's, you know, catch us on Canal Street or, you know, selling bootlegs or graduating from medical school or driving cabs.You know, it's all these things that are part of our life and our culture as immigrants that, you know, need to be celebrated. And so that's just a small piece of this big story that I feel like more and more young Africans are beginning to, kind of, assert themselves and speak about their experience the way they see it.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Blitz The Ambassador. We're talking about his EP "The Warm Up." But the other thing about your music is it's - well, I'll say this, everybody might not agree with me, but I'll say this - is that it's still funny. You know what I mean? It's still, like, the lightness, the joy. It's not all, like, heaviness. Is that OK that I said that? I mean, I just think that there's...
BAZAWULE: No, I mean...
MARTIN: ...A sort of a sense of humor about it that's not all - you have to make sure everybody knows that, you know, you went to college. You know what I mean?
MARTIN: That you know your politics. There's still a lightness about it.
MARTIN: Let me play a little bit from "Dikembe!" which is partly what I was thinking about. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIKEMBE")
MARTIN: Now I'm laughing because I think a lot of people know that, you know, Dikembe Mutombo the NBA star is known for, you know, no, no, no, not in my house. And there are also shout-outs to rising musical stars - African rising musical stars like Nneka. But are you making fun of him or what? I wasn't sure.
BAZAWULE: Oh, no. Absolutely not. No. I'll be blocked in a minute if I did that, so. No, I mean, you know, Dikembe Mutombo is the hero. I mean, again, you know, when you're growing up in a place where you don't have that many representatives, you know, on a high level of - whether entertainment, sports, politics - it's just it feels good to see one of us win, you know. And Dikembe Mutombo was that guy, like - you know, I remember, like, sitting around, like, you know, any time Olajuwon was playing, any time Dikembe Mutombo was playing, you know, you watch them because in a way you felt that these guys represented you.And to see them win, to see them play on such a high level, to be, like, you know, one of the greats. But, you know, the more I researched while I was making this record, too, is you find out that he's a great human being and, like, how much he did for his native Congo and just his love for his people and the love for the sport. It's just amazing. So this song was more of just, like, a homage of paying tribute to somebody who I felt is an amazing great.
MARTIN: In a way, it feels like it's a fight against invisibility. I mean, it's joyous, but it's a fight against invisibility. Do you still feel that invisibility? I mean, it seems like we're in an era, though, when, you know, many, many, you know, first-generation diasporans are really making a splash, you know, in Hollywood, in music, also writers. A number of writers who really just become, you know, huge literary stars who were first-generation Africans writing about that experience. Do still feel like you're pushing against invisibility trying to, you know, define the experience for people and - you know, that Africa is not - you know, it's a continent not a country - that kind of thing?
BAZAWULE: Absolutely. If you sit any of these people down, you know, myself included, and asked what really motivates us to dream this dream of leaving our home and, you know, and competing on such a high level and winning on such a high level - what keeps us going. It is the fight against invisibility. It is the fight to say that, yo, we count, and we're here. And more importantly, we're contributing so much color to the world. Again, I mean, if you look at the fashion world as well, you know, there's so many first generations that are just making such headlines. Everybody from Ozwald Boateng, you know, it's just many of us doing amazing things.And so I think, overall, we're getting to that point where there's a lot more awareness about what a new African experience is outside of, kind of, what has been taught by people who are not African. We're kind of bridging this conversation between the expats that are away, myself included, and the voice that is at home as well, which is probably the most significant voice amongst all voices that are telling this African narrative. And so what we're doing is we're kind of making it easier for people to start to rethink certain stereotypes, certain ideas about who we are and what we represent and see us for our individuality and see us for our complexity, which is huge. And it's - as I travel around the continent, I'm learning so much about a continent that I thought I knew about, you know. So these stories are necessary and I think that it's great that it's being told on such a high level now.
MARTIN: One of the things though I hear, you know, artists of - who work in different fields struggle with is the whole question of how much they talk about - and not just in Africa, but, you know, in many places, in the United States, too, you know, clearly where there are still problems - is that people want to be seen as whole human beings, but they also feel a responsibility not to turn a blind eye to the things that are challenges, the things that are wrong. And I understand that people don't want Africa to be seen only in the context of war and violence, you know, and poverty and pain, but then there are people who still feel they still need to lift up and talk about those things as well. I'm interested in how you balance that for yourself. I was thinking about - I want to hear a little bit, in fact, of your track featuring Nneka. This is "Bisa," which means 'ask' in the Twi language.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BISA")
MARTIN: I'm just interested in how you as an artist decide when you want to go at something like this and when you want to take a lighter touch - how that thought process works for you.
BAZAWULE: Well, again, it comes very naturally to me. I have people that when I see them, we talk about nothing but bad African governments. I have people that when I run into them, we talk about how the West exploits these governments, you know. I have people that when I run into, we talk about nothing but football, which we all love. It's kind of a broad thing. And so I never really sit back and go, now I have to write a serious song or now I have to write a song about joy or now I have to write a song about love. I feel like I'm always inspired.And there's a line in this song where I go, show me a factory in Africa that's manufacturing guns. Yeah, there's AK-47s in every village, but no food. I mean, this was a conversation I was having with a friend. And in fact, we went online and researched, and we found out there is, probably, maybe one factory in South Africa, you know, that made guns.I mean, these are things, and I'm just like, wait, I'm writing a song. I'll throw that line in there because it's critical for the way we understand. And this song, of course, is very important because I also got other voices including - and Nneka who I feel is a strong leader and amazing talent in this young African cadre that's global that's talking about these issues, you know. And Nneka is a significant piece. Kenan's a significant piece. I feel like we are getting to that point where we're free enough that we're able to diversify. If anything at all, that's what most young, African people are trying to shake off. It's that singular story so well eloquently put by Chimamanda who's an amazing writer and another huge voice in this movement. It is really just about the fact that we refuse to be one thing.
MARTIN: So "Afropolitan Dreams" will be out later this year. What should we go out on?
BAZAWULE: First, I should say "Afropolitan Dreams" is out the beginning of next year.
MARTIN: Next year. OK.
BAZAWULE: Next year. Yes. The top of next year.
MARTIN: See, if we were friends, I would say African time, but I don't know you that well, so.
BAZAWULE: Yes. Please don't. I'm not a big fan of that.
MARTIN: Exactly. I know. I know. We have the same...
BAZAWULE: But I was going to say, you know, the album really talks about this dream. You know, when I actually - when I run into my peers who are doing it on such a high level, I always ask them, you know, what in you made you believe that you can leave Accra, Lagos, Nairobi, Addis, come to America or go to London. You know, there's something in us that ticks that makes you go, this story needs to be told. That's what the album is about. "Afropolitan Dreams" is really aspirational. And so this story really tells that transition from moving somewhere as an immigrant, kind of not really knowing who you are and finding yourself in that process, and then going from there to the world, which is where we all want to be - on that world stage. And so the album "Afropolitan Dreams," I mean, it's the words African and cosmopolitan. That's who we are.
MARTIN: So how about maybe we go out on "Internationally Known"?
MARTIN: Would that do it? OK.
BAZAWULE: That's a perfect ending to this.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INTERNATIONALLY KNOWN")
MARTIN: Samuel Bazawule is Blitz The Ambassador. His EP "The Warm Up" is out now. "Afropolitan Dreams" will be out early next year. We caught up with him at member station WCLK in Atlanta, Georgia. Blitz The Ambassador, Excellency, thank you so much for speaking with us.
BAZAWULE: Thank you very much for having me.
( SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INTERNATIONALLY KNOWN")
MARTIN: That's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more on Monday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.