Rapper and sorcerer-poet, Baloji, works his magic on new album
Belgian rapper Baloji's fourth album 137 Avenue Kaniama references an address in Lubumbashi, DRC, close to where he was born nearly 40 years ago. He talks to RFI about exploring the A and B sides of his "Afropean" identity through a kaleidoscope of sounds from rap to electro, hip hop to opera and a host of African rhythms.
As a singer Baloji started off in a rap oufit Les Malfrats Linguistiques (The Linguistic Hustlers) which later morphed into Starflam, one of Belgium's most successful hip-hop bands.
But living above a legendary record store, Caroline Music, in Liège enabled him to enlarge his musical education.
The new album is seeped in rap, afrobeat, funk, electro as well as African rhythms.
“I build my records first with subject matter, song title, then music," he told RFI. "My first challenge is to have a music that fits the subject matter and for that there are no limitations. There are rhythms from Zimbabwe, Sudan, Mali, Congo, Afro-Cuban rhythms too, it's so varied."
Growing up in the region of Liège in Belgium also had a big influence.
"It’s a cradle for trance, jump and a certain vision of electro," he says. "As a kid I was submerged in that kind of music, just like I was submerged in the Congolese music of my parents. It’s part of my heritage.”
On the song L’Hiver Indien (Indian winter) Baloji plays with Chimurenga, a style of music popularized by Zimbabwean musician Thomas Mapfumo in the 70s. It’s a faux-feel-good track. Beneath the Afro-Disco exterior the song explores how migrant communities can feel disconnected in Europe.
"One of the hardest things to experience coming from Africa is being on your own or far from community life," Baloji says.
“The song starts off with major chords and then you have the same chords played minor in the second part called Ghetto Mirador which is where all the glitter falls off and you see the real, the reality.”
On Ensemble (Together) Baloji injects Bikoutsi rhythms from Cameroon. He parodies the continental saying ‘Wesh, Ensemble' (we’re together, your issues are mine).
“It talks about these societies where we have to stay together as a community, with codes for getting on, where verticality is not allowed. Sharing is clearly part of our values and we live with that."
Baloji's love of words came early.
"I've been writing poems since I was 14 or 15," he says. "I love poetry. French is such a complex language and I think it's always interesting to dig deeper to express emotion, instead of using the same 500 words that we keep using in songs just to make it catchy."
The song Soleil de Volt has a catchy rhythm but has multiple layers, with A, B and in this case a C side.
"This song is about electricity, people having electricity and power." But it's also about the reality of life in DRC.
"There's a third part in the song which is more about what happened [recently] where they cut the electricity and access to internet."
Some tracks are unlikely to get much airplay on commercial radio. The opera-infused Tanganyika (named after the lake in northern DRC) and the spoken word piece La Dernière Pluie/Inconnu à Cette Adresse (The Last Rain/Unknown at this address) are more than 10 minutes long.
The Last Rain is the album's most personal song and relives the moment he met his mother in Lubumbashi after a 25-year separation.
"It’s a complex moment, a culture shock on both sides," he says.
Baloji describes inviting her to a restaurant for ex-pats. He's brought his album along as a gift.
"She came with my auntie and when they arrived in the restaurant my auntie says 'it’s out of the question to have dinner here because every meal costs 20 dollars and with that that could buy 10kg of rice'."
"At that moment I wasn't in a position to give my record. I understood how wrong I was."
It becomes clear his mother is expecting financial help.
"I wasn't aware of this obligation. So the song's about being naive and being stupid, about being wrong, looking at things in a very European way."
Baloji means 'sorcerer' in Swahili, a huge burden for an African kid growing up in Europe.
"It's not the sweetest name... I tried [to change it], but it was may too expensive for me. So I have to deal with it, I accept it in a way."
However tough it's been, he's managed to make the magic work to his advantage through music, and endlessly inventive videos such as Karibu Ya Bintou (feat. Kinshasa's Konono No1) or the recent Soleil de Volt.
He's disappointed by the number of views the films get on youtube (20,000 to 200,000). He feels it's peanuts compared to the hits a cute cat or warming recipe can get.
"It's just not worth the work. Maybe my music is too confidential," he sighs.
Maybe it is. But it's well worth a look. Watch the most recent, steamy, video Bleu de chagrin.
Baloji in concert 30 March at Les Etoiles, Paris 75010.
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