I Represent Africaby Ts'eliso Monaheng / 20.09.2012
“Hey Zuluboy, take my phone and call me later.” Silence. “I’m in town, take my phone and call me later…” My eavesdropping ceases and the conversation trails away. Didier Awadi is on his phone, and Zuluboy is on the other end of the line. We are in Joburg, and have taken a detour from our schedule to explore the Black Music exhibition happening at the Museum Africa in Newtown. An African hip hop documentary which screened in one of the adjoining rooms showed early Positive Black Soul footage; PBS, the doyens of African hip hop.
That moment – seeing Awadi’s expression when his face came on the screen – along with the chat we had about PBS’ influence on the Senegalese (and possibly the entire African) hip hop scene, cranked the entire experience a full notch above surreal. Awadi is no stranger to African hip hop, having attained a somewhat legendary, father figure status across the continent. When he’s not creating incisive hip hop songs that topple governments and shift people’s mindsets, he makes documentaries which explore the phenomenon of Senegalese who migrate to Europe. This week, he launched a video featuring fifty African artists as a means of showing solidarity with the victims of the recent floods in Dakar. So when I had the opportunity to chat to him over lunch, I launched into a rapid-fire barrage of questions. This is some of what came out of it.
Mahala: What was the thinking behind starting Positive Black Soul? What was the mission behind it?
Awadi: At the beginning it was not a mission, it was just for fun. We used to be breakdancers. For all the original members, pan-Africanism was important. We were fans of Malcolm X, Thomas Sankara, Cheikh Anta Diop, all these big pan-Africanists. Behind the fun of rapping, of breakdancing, we wanted to spread another message of how we can be united on the basis of the needs of the people. We have the same needs in Senegal, same needs in South Africa. We need to come together to express them; to fight against neo-colonialism. That was the idea, to show a better image of Africans. That’s why the concept of Positive Black Soul showed a positive image. Everywhere we went – and we went everywhere in the world – it was important for us to show a positive image, a serious image. Don’t ever disrespect us. We showed a positive image of ourselves, and that forced others to respect us.
But then Positive Black Soul imploded, in a way. In retrospect, why do you think that happened?
Because we had different agendas. A group has a personality, but each member within the group has their own personality. At a certain point, we had to express our personalities. That’s why each of us decided to do our thing. But I’m doing my own career with the philosophy of Positive Black Soul, Duggy-Tee is doing the same. Sometimes we come together and do shows, and we are about to drop another album for 2013. It’s gonna be easy for us to come together, but we needed the break in-between. I had my own fight, it was more political than my partner Duggy-Tee, and I had to express it. I did not want to force my political beliefs on the whole group.
How did you make the transition from a group setting to building a sustainable solo career?
I believe in networking. Because of Positive Black Soul, I had a big network all around the world, so I used that network to spread a message. The idea of Africa not being organised is not real. All year long I’ve been touring all over Africa. So there is a market today in Africa, and one can make money because of rap music. It wasn’t the case in the beginning; we had to go to France and the rest of Europe. But today, with or without Europe, it is possible to live nicely.
Was it important to represent Senegal overseas?
No, I don’t represent Senegal! I represent Africa. For me, what I do is for the whole continent. At the beginning it was important to come with clothes. The clothes, the singing, the melody, the subject; you must reflect the continent, represent the continent. My father is from Benin, and my mother is from Cape Verde, I was born in Senegal, and I’ve moved in more than fourty countries in Africa. I consider myself an African.
How do you reconcile the old with the new in order to stay relevant?
Good inspiration and good songs, that’s it. There’s no strategy. If you don’t have a good song, they move to something else. But I’m aware that there’s big competition. If I want to stay number one, I have to fight. The new cats coming want to be number one, and they’re absolutely right! I just do what I do, and I’m still in love with this music. That’s the only thing I know. I’m 43 today, and everytime I’m on stage it’s just like I’m a new beginner. I love it!
You have worked with quite a few people on your African Presidents project (Zuluboy, Maji Maji, etc). Why this quest for cross-continental collaboration?
Because I love it. I think that I had the chance to be there from day one. A lot of people consider me as the godfather, so it’s my duty to pass the baton [in the form of] collaboration. This is how hip-hop works, and we all have to do it. Wherever I go, I see people with a lot of potential, so I have to put them on. It’s a blessing to have been there from day one. When you notice that you have this blessing, you have to use it in the best way and share. It’s cool to collaborate with new artists; tomorrow they’ll be on top. It’s our duty as elders.
Speaking of duty, Abdoulaye Wade came into power (and subsequently kicked out) because of hip-hop’s strong voice in Senegal. What is the duty of an emcee on the African continent?
The duty, if you are conscious, is to be there for the people that are listening to your music. If the people love your music, give you respect, and show you love, the only way to give back that love is to care. Care about their daily living. You cannot be there in every house, but you can fight for their interests, because they don’t have the opportunity to grab the mic and say what you can say. So whenever you have a chance to talk to people, let them know that ‘this situation is bad, and it’s happening now, and it’s making so many people suffer’. It’s a blessing; use it in the best way. Life is not only about money and hoes; it’s about caring for the people that don’t have the opportunity that we have. I know where I’m coming from, and I know where I want to take my people. Today we have more impact than any politician, and we are aware that we have more power than them. Anytime we take the mic, we must know what to say.
Know the strength that you possess to change people’s mindsets, so to say…
You know in some areas when I come, politicians are afraid. They know that I have the power that they don’t have. They can have billions or whatever…
But you have a voice…
..and nobody can stop it. So as long as we have this voice, we need to use it in the best way. We must be there for our people whenever they need us. They’re the ones paying for our concerts, loving our music, and spreading our message. So when they need us, we must be there.
Moving away from music a bit, tell us about your collaboration with Canadian filmmaker Yannick Létourneau on the African Presidents project. How did you link up, and what direction did it take?
I met Yannick in Burkina Faso where I was doing a show. He really loved it and wanted to know what I’m doing. I told him about the African Presidents project, and that I’d be touring and finding speeches of leaders in Africa and all over, and he was interested to document it. So he just followed me, the crew came to some countries in Africa, US, Europe. It was a nice project because he gave me the opportunity to show the process of all of it. It was a long, difficult, but interesting five-year process. A friendship was born between me and Yannick because we have the same philosophy and ideology. It’s a real friendship between us, we share the same fight for another image of the continent. For me it’s so nice to watch the film again; when you are in the process you don’t pay attention to what you do, how you do it.
How long was the whole process?
From conception to birth, it took five years. I started the process here in 2005, the song I did with Skwatta Kamp was recorded in a small room at the Bassline.
Another project that we were not aware of is The lion’s point of view.
In 2006, there were a lot of migrants going from Senegal to Europe by small boats, dying in the sea. So I needed to understand why all of my brothers are so desperate, why they all want to move, why they don’t believe in this continent anymore. So I started doing interviews of migrants, economists, politicians. That’s how I started understanding that the problem was deeper than this situation of some brothers dying, it was a political situation. When you don’t give the opportunity to the whole continent, when you don’t give them the right to move, they will take the boat. We Africans don’t have the right to go anywhere in the world, because we are black. When you are black, when you are poor, when you are black, poor, and Muslim after 9/11, you don’t have the right to travel. They don’t give you no fucking visa. So that’s a racism problem. Policies are dictated by World Bank, IMF, telling our governments to not put money into health and education. There’s no accountability [on behalf of] our government. At the end of the day, what’s happening is that the government does not care about the population; they don’t support and protect the population. They go so far that the hope dies in people’s hearts, they are jobless and hopeless. So you go where you hope that there is something. When you watch the TV, you see Europe or America. Since America is too far, you try to go to Europe. You think ‘if I die, what do I have to lose?’
So what are you working on currently?
I’m finishing up the next album called My Revolution. I’m about to drop it by October/November. I think it’s one of the biggest. I’ve been working on projects, but I feel like this is the biggest.