‘’We are all ambassadors whether we like it or not’’ – an interview with Blitz
We met Samuel Bazuwule aka Blitz the Ambassador after his astonishing concert at this year’s Roskilde Festival where he and his Embassy Ensemble had taken the audience on a joyride aboard ‘Ambassador Airways’. The conscious Brooklyn based, Ghanaian hip-hop artist and visual artist spoke to us about operating from a deficit as an African musician, about the rise of hiplife in Accra, about his mom being his personal CNN and himself being the new thing that everybody is talking about.
You are mixing various musical genres in your music but the outcome still sounds very organic. What is your approach when mixing the sounds of Accra and Brooklyn?
To me it is like the heartbeat. You don’t know how it works. You just know that the heart beats, that it works. My approach is to make it as natural as possible and don’t force pieces that don’t go together. I have immersed myself in both worlds as deeply as possible so without even thinking about it the two of them find a way to naturally work themselves out. I really hate to overthink things when making music. To me the first idea is always the best one.
When you’re in the US or touring the world, how do you keep track of what’s happening on the music scene in Ghana?
My mom is in Ghana and she is pretty much my personal CNN. I speak to her almost daily and she keeps me updated on everything from the currency exchange to what our neighbors are doing these days to what political parties she absolutely hates. In addition, I do the traditional blogs. There are some really good websites that give you a lot of good information.
How is your music perceived in Ghana compared to in US or in Europe?
It’s very different. One thing about home is that they don’t overanalyze what I do. They are just proud that I’ve been able to make my way out in the world where most people thought is was impossible. So they really embrace me more. I played in Ghana in October last year and that was the first time that I really saw with my own eyes the impact of our music. In the US, it’s always a constant battle trying to figure out how to balance the over-commercial world with music that has a message. And for music that is foreign in America, it pretty much boils down to that if you are not from my neighborhood I’m not really checking you out. So coming from a whole other continent that’s a difficult thing but somehow we’ve been able to make our way in America as well. Europe, well I can’t really explain Europe. We came here once and we’ve been coming here every summer since then playing the biggest festivals in the world. I can’t explain it. There is just an understanding that has gone beyond the music. People just get it and understand it and have become fans of it. But there are also way more resources here that make it possible to tour consistently, just take the amount of festivals in Europe compared to in the US or even in Africa. Now I’m going to Brazil in a few weeks and that is another world that needs the music. So we’re constantly trying to open new markets but the bottom-line about all these people is that people that gravitate towards our work are people that have a good understanding of the world. Regardless of you’re in Ghana, the US, Europe or Brazil, people love the sound we’re creating.
What was the significance for you of playing in Ghana for the first time?
It was the biggest musical endeavor I have ever undertaken. First of all, flying over 10 musicians to Ghana but more importantly I also took 50 people from Brooklyn with me on a cultural trip. I partnered with the MOCADA museum to do this exchange and now I’m working on taking 50 people from Accra to Brooklyn next year. It’s really about ideas more than music and about looking for ways of connecting human beings that go beyond music. I really want people to look at Africa as an equal trading partner and equal ideological partners. There is always this idea that when someone goes to Africa they have to go and save people which is a very unfortunate Western philosophy. Even some people who leave Africa seem to adopt the same attitude. For me it’s not about crate or races. I really felt the need of taking people to Africa on a very equal platform where they can see Africa and Africans as equals and trade ideas with each other.
We’re based in Ethiopia and you don’t really find any good hip-hop there but in Kenya and Tanzania you do. Do you see any common themes among West African and East African hip hop?
Yeah, I remember going to Tanzania in the late 90’s and the first song I heard one the radio was Xzibit’s ‘Paparazzi’, which at that point was my favorite song in the world. It blew my mind and I saw a lot of similarities. This was a time when hip hop was just beginning to take solid roots in Africa and people had just gone beyond coping and mimicking the English stuff and had started to rhyme in their own native languages. That’s when groups from Tanzania, Senegal, Ghana and Nigeria started to make waves. I will be going to Ethiopia because it is one of my dreams. A lot of the people I admire today, filmmakers and musicians, are Ethiopians.
What do you find particular encouraging on the music scene in Accra today?
From the mid-90’s to the end-90’s, a scene was born there called ‘hiplife’ and it really took roots and has become the most popular music now. The interesting thing is that similar to the hip-hop of the 90’s vs. hip-hop of the 2000’s and beyond, it started really organically, people mixing a lot of classic highlife with great beats in a classic way. As time went on it really went digital and also pretty cheesy from songs about Kwame Nkrumah to songs about popping champagne in a club. But it’s only natural with any form of art that has such power as hip-hop and hiplife. It is on the artist to try and protect his art but some people are not even doing it out of malice, it’s just that it’s popular so let’s use it to sell cheap ice cream etc. It’s a natural thing that happened in Ghana and elsewhere in the world. But I am still very proud of that a lot of artists – at least from an economic standpoint – have become great businessmen, own property and have started their own companies. Hiplife has become economically self-sufficient and you always have to look at if from this dual perspective.
Do you see a big difference when you compare the lyrics of Ghanaian hiplife with the hip-hop lyrics in Brooklyn?
When it all started in the 90’s we were pretty much taking the blueprint. I mean if you look at what was popular in America, Brand Nubian was hot and people with content were hot. Now Lil Wayne is hot. But I really try not to be concerned with this. At the end of the day it’s up to me as an artist to change that. I really believe that Africans need to have a platform to discuss our society in an intellectual way and it’s my personal responsibility to create that. You can only look at yourself and say that since I know this shit it’s on me to try to make that part popular.
We tried to watch your Native Sun film but is was next to impossible on the slow Ethiopian internet. Could you explain to us what you wanted to explore and achieve with the film?
I really believe that visuals are the best way to educate anybody about anything. You can tell them all you want but if they see it they believe it. I had an idea to show this journey through African in a metaphorical way. Many films that are made in Ghana are not as cinematic as I would want them to be. To me Africa have the most beautiful landscapes and in terms of colors and textures there should be no way to film that badly. I don’t know how people manage to do that on a consistent basis. So for my team and me it was beyond anything about capturing a beautiful Africa and telling a story about humanity. That’s a story that runs through my life. You have to be able to see people not through a biased lens, not through a war or a famine lens. So we just chose this story to follow through to show that humanity is possible if you are ready to descend to that level and not create stereotypes and try to fit everything into that box. It actually turned out to help us a lot in terms of also the music being understood at this abstract level.
Finally, Baloji will also be playing at this year’s Roskilde Festival and we know that the two of have worked together. How did you come across Baloji?
I discovered Baloji on the internet. I saw a video of his and was blown away. I reached out to him online and told him to let me know if he was planning on coming to America. He told me that he was trying and luckily I had an opportunity to bring him to New York to perform for the first time. It was just a good opportunity to reach out to somebody that I consider a peer and a great talent. He is by far one of the most forward-thinking artists from Africa. I truly believe that this movement of artists like him, like myself, like K’naan will find a way to connect into something bigger, hopefully tour together and create something that can include the continent in a major way and give artists from the continent an opportunity to perform at major stages. All we’re doing is pioneering that and opening the doors to make it possible. It’s for us to make that connection. It’s never going to happen if we just let it be. So Baloji really deserves the shine. I got on his album, he got in mine and we’ve been friends ever since.
Baloji, K’naan and yourself are all diaspora artists. How much of this is about giving something back to you home countries and nursing the music environments there?
It’s definitely vice versa. Since we receive so much it’s only natural that we are giving something back. It’s really just about institutionalizing. So if I get an opportunity at Roskilde I need to namedrop somebody for next year. Hopefully somebody from Ghana will have the opportunity to travel to Roskilde next year. I truly believe that a rising tide lifts all boats. We’re all ambassadors whether we like or not. Because of how little positive discourse there is about where we’re from, we don’t even have an option as international artists to remain silent about anything or not make constructive positive moves to be able to uplift where we’re from. We’re already operating from a deficit. I do see that as a movement of the future and if you’ve noticed a lot of us are doing so well right now. The reason is that a lot of other music across the world has really staled. We’ve found an interesting way of doing something that has not been heard before. We’re becoming that new thing that everybody is talking about.
How do you see the opportunities for local musicians in Ghana or other countries on the continent to rise?
Regionally, there are some opportunities. Some Ghanaian artists have done well in Nigeria. But rising to an international level is tough. Those doing it are the hyper-commercial ones likes like D’banj who is really popular but it’s club music and great for him, I’m really happy for him. Again it’s rising tides, he is doing well and somehow it will help me do well. I’m doing well and somehow someway it will help somebody else well. I’m just saying that in terms of content there are very few artists like myself that have this reach. I hope that a time is coming where this is possible and I hope that it will come sooner than late.
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