Cowering under a statue called ‘Belgium Bringing Civilisation to The Congo’, one of four large golden effigies in the entrance of hall of The Royal Museum of Middle Africa in Tervuren near Brussels, there’s a sculpture depicting a miserable African native, naked and blatantly ‘savage’ in the estimation of the colonial artist who fashioned it. Baloji, one of the most innovative rappers and video producers to have emerged from Africa in recent years, loiters next to this unseemly pair before our interview, tall and pensive in a two-piece suit of dark blue plaid, a peach pink shirt and elegant Puma trainers. It’s a telling trinity: Europe the pompous ‘father’, Africa the down-trodden ’son’ and Baloji, the holy ghost or ‘super sorcerer’, the meaning of his name in Swahili, standing there all cool and dapper, like an embodiment of a young and creatively ambitious Africa which is ready to consign the cruel nonsense of colonialism and post-colonialism to the vaults of history where they belong.
Baloji is due to start filming his next video, a radical Africanisation of the Marvin Gaye song ‘I’m Going Home’, in the endless vaults of the Tervuren Museum itself, a scary place full of stolen fetishes and serried ranks of game trophies where irony lurks mischievously like a grimacing ghost monkey. Baloji has even persuaded the Museum to part-fund the filming, a monumental feat in itself. But that’s Baloji in a nutshell. Few other African artists have demonstrated such bone-headed tenacity in the face of indifferent labels, managers and public servants in their relentless drive for quality, innovation and creative power. “What takes two weeks for Kanye West, takes me a year,” he says.
Once a member of Starflam, one of Belgium’s most successful hip hop crews, Baloji has been ploughing his own furrow for the past five years. He produced his first solo opus ‘Hotel Impala’ in 2007 and is currently limbering up for the worldwide release of his new album, ‘Kinshasa Succursale’. It’s an ambitious attempt to marry hip hop with an glittering casket of African and African disapora styles, from mellifluous soukous through snaky funk and bumping ragga to the raw and rasping sounds of traditional Congolese music. It hits you a bit like Congo’s answer to The Beatle’s ‘White Album’, one of Baloji’s all time favourites. Several tracks, including the other-worldly ‘Karibu Ya Bintou’, which rides an alien riff by Kinshasa’s finest, Konono No.1, are unlike anything that has ever come out of Africa’s musical imagination.
But it’s Baloji’s videos that reveal the true extent of man’s energies and creative power. Self-funded, filmed on location in The Congo by the Belgian directors Spike & Jonze and cameraman Nicholas Karakatsanis, his clips for ‘Independence Cha Cha / Le Jour d’Après’ and ‘Karibu Ya Bintu’ are like mini masterpieces, short stories in celluloid, that draw power from Baloji’s fascination with cinema and photography (his cousin Sammy Baloji is a famous Congolese photographer). Names like Almodovar, Jarmusch, Ken Loach and Francis Ford Coppola trip lightly from his tongue, with enthusiasm rather than pretence.
He was born Baloji Tshiani in Lubumbashi, south eastern Congo, in 1978, the product of an indiscreet liaison between a rich businessman and a hotel chambermaid. At the age of three he was sent to live in Belgium, first in Oostende and then in the grim mining town of Liege, with his step family. When Baloji was seven, his father lost most of his assets in an ethnic war that ravaged the east of Congo, and promptly disappeared from his life. “Every day I wondered where he was,” Baloji says. “He was my only link with my own blood.”
I ask what it would have been like to meet the ten-year-old Baloji? “Horrible,” he replies with a rueful laugh. “I distanced myself from my family. I was angry and aggressive. I failed all my tests at school, so they considered me retarded.” He began to run with the Sicilian hoodlums of the Liege ‘hood, getting up to no good. “Worse than that, I just had nothing to loose.” He ended up in a special school for delinquents run by nuns, but said goodbye to formal education at the age of 15. “In fact, I learned everything with the nuns,” he claims without irony.
Then rap came and saved him from the worst. Thanks to his brothers, who danced professionally with the band Technotronic of ‘Pump Up The Volume’ fame, he discovered American
and then French rap. Tonton David and the Marseille crew I Am where huge early influences. They taught him that his flow needn’t be dumb and simplistic. “This was the first time I heard music that talked about people like me and my mates,” he tells me. His first rap outfit, Les Malfrats Lingquistiques (‘The Linguistic Hustlers’), morphed into Starflam and Baloji became something of a Belgian hip hop heartthrob. Meanwhile, living above a legendary record store called Caroline Music in Liège did wonders for his musical education. “I heard everything…PIL, Kraftwerk, Queens of the Stone Age, The Smiths…those guys really helped me.”
As grim, grey and racist as life on the cold plains of Belgium could be, Baloji can thank his adoptive country for his broad musical education and eclecticism, which is almost unique in the African music sphere. Until recently, however, he hated soukous, the Congolese-born gold standard of post-independence pan-African pop. “For me it was the worse music in the world,” he tells me. Nonetheless, when he received a three page letter from his mother out of the blue, in 2007, his Congolese heritage came back to into the foreground of his life with a vengeance. “She alluded the fact that I had been sent to Oostende as a child,” Baloji says. “To the city of Marvin Gaye. That’s how I discovered his song ‘I’m Going Home’” The song seemed portentous and it spurred Baloji to return to his roots and record an album, a kind of soundtrack without a film, that would tell his mother what his life had been like over the past twenty years. That’s how ‘Hotel Impala’ was born.
Baloji went ‘home’, to the Congo, to give the record to his mother in person. He met her in a restaurant in Lubumbashi, dressed “like a little prince.” But his mother couldn’t understand why he wasn’t a rich and successful careerist, like his father had been, rather than the struggling musician that she saw before her. The meeting was a disaster, and Baloji is still working hard to build bridges.
“I want to make music that is very African, and very modern,” Baloji tells me. “You have to be proud of who you are. Rappers sample Bob James, Curtis Mayfield etc, but it means more when Talib Kewli or Kanye West samples them because that’s their heritage. But we Africans also have an interesting heritage, which has a richness and a diversity that is huge and under-exploited. We can also go deep into it and make it modern, celebrate its value, just like the Americans..”
It needed a special of sorcerer to conjure up that mix of heritage, modernity and blistering lyrical flow…a baloji perhaps, tall, dapper and fearlessly stubborn.
Andy Morgan. (c) 2011
First published in The Observer, UK – November 2011.