‘’It’s not just about having an African backdrop’’ – Baloji interviewed

We met Baloji, the brilliant and innovative Congolese-born Belgian rapper and video producer, a few hours before his concert at this year’s Roskilde Festival. We asked Baloji about his recent performances in Kinshasa, about recording with Konono, the distinct visual side of his work and how to escape the ‘African artist’ label. Read his fascinating answers below.

 

What is your tactic when integrating Congolese sounds with rap and hip-hop?

I’ve been listening to hip-hop since 1995-1996. It’s the music I grew up with. It was through listening to hip-hop that I learned about Curtis Mayfield and Fela Kuti and also Mulatu Astatke. Now Congolese music is really diverse but I’m trying to bring a hip-hop attitude to it.

 

A lot of traditional Congolese is based on improvisation and in Ethiopia we have the same tradition through the Azmari singers. How do you see the relationship between this tradition of improvisation and then hip-hop?

I think that it is connected, most music is. It is only when people give it names, that we see the differences. For me the music of Konono is close to Animal Collective. This doesn’t sound obvious in a commercial way but musically the way it’s based on trance and vibrations is the same. This is also true for rap and for the griot culture.

 

What was your experience collaborating with Konono in the recording of your new album, Kinshasa Succursale (released on Crammed in March this year)?

I learned a lot of things. I learned that some musicians don’t give a fuck about the metronome. They just play. In Europe we try to make sure the rhythm is the same until the end of the song. They don’t care and they don’t think too much about the music. In Europe people think so much about what it means, how it’s build up, the themes, the melodies, the harmonies, I think it’s because of the Mozart tradition. It’s not because Konono don’t have harmonies or themes. It’s just that is doesn’t have a prescription. It’s free.

 

 

How was it for you to perform in Congo?

I just played there again two weeks ago and it was really great. I played in a venue called ‘the Zoo.’ I was really happy with this concert because the Kinshasa audience is really difficult. They are so proud of who they are and what they are doing. It’s a bit like Cuba. They have their musical identity and nothing can change it.

 

Do you adjust your performance to your audiences?

No. A couple of years ago I did but now it is more like ‘take it or leave it.’ My inspiration is from Congo but also from Europe and I don’t want to adjust or find excuses for not living there. My music is different because I am an outsider living in Europe. Congo is a country where there is no real music industry. Many people have been listening to the same music for the past 25 years. For musicians like Jupiter or Konono it’s really difficult to get an audience in Kinshasa. Congolese are not really progressive. They are quite conservative. It’s the culture and the way people listen to music.

 

 

The visual side of your work is very distinct and also quite similar to the work of old Congolese photographers like Jean Depara. Why did you choose this visual appearance?

Actually, the visuals are the reason people picked up my work. But I’m not sure they get the message. What I like about this period of time in the 50’s is that you had a lot of Congolese trying to look European and they called themselves ‘the evolved’. They dressed up and tried to look like the Belgian kings. There is something really interesting in that attitude. I like the fact that they care about elegance. For me the main idea behind these visuals is pretending to be ‘evolved.’ But it’s all fake because your colour is going to bring you down anyway. But people don’t really get it. Now the hairstyle is becoming stylish and I see a lot of people copying the whole thing. It’s not just about having an African backdrop behind you. It’s deeper than that.

 

So what is the real thing then?

The fascination and frustration among many African intellectuals at that time trying to look European, trying to copy the way the Europeans did politics or social life. That to me is very interesting. I’m really fascinated by it and not just because they wore some high-fashion close.

 

So for you it’s much more than just visuals?

Yes, it’s about playing with perceptions and giving codes new meanings. For example the song ‘Independance Cha-Cha’ (from Kinshasa Succursale) is about something different than the original version. It’s basically the first commercial song made in Congo in 1959. It’s really a silly and hypocritical song and it’s nice to play with these codes. Because the perception of people is that it’s a dance song, it’s cha-cha, but in the end it’s just empty.

 

 

 

You were struggling a lot to secure the release of Kinshasa Succursale. Now that you have a platform and support, what ideas do you want to realize?

I have a new album in the can. I have an EP that I hope to put out soon with a lot of collaborations with African artists. I’m working on a film that I hope to shoot next year. And I have this crazy band (the Katuba Orchestra) that has followed me in the past two years on this amazing journey in realizing this album that nobody wanted.

 

Finally, does it bother you being perceived now mainly as an African artist, not just an artist?

I’m an artist first, not an African artist. This is really difficult. You have to do something else, something non-African to not always being perceived as an African artist and always being put in the same box.

 



2 Comments

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