Raashan Ahmad: bringing light into the darkness
Raashan Ahmad is an American DJ, MC and hip hop artist with a big heart and a sharp mind. A thought-provoking rapper whose latest album The Sun explores joy and pain, hope and despair: the loss of his mum, the birth of his son. "Balance is something I've strived for... I can never get out of my mind how beautiful things are at the exact same time that they’re horrible."
"Do you know what it feels like to be a black person?" asks American comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory on the opening track No.
Ahmad does and it hasn't always felt good.
"The song's inspired by the police killing of black Americans in the United States," says Ahmad, "that’s pretty much it and my experience with it. I speak about being pulled over with my father when I was about seven and that was my first experience with the police."
He raps over a bed of free-jazz inspired saxophones.
"I love the Sun Ra Arkestra, Sony Rollins, Yusef Lateef ... these American jazz musicians who were playing this type of frenetic type of energy and I felt like that was very relevant to how I felt about what’s happening now."
How do you not turn to hate when you're being singled out just because your black?
"I'm not sure how to get over that. I see the trauma and how it affected me and affects countless other black Americans. And these things are not taken into account, no one speaks about them really. You just have to bury and put it somewhere."
Ahmad has put it into his music. The song Breathe reflects on how to cope with the physical stress that "holding in" can cause.
"Music has always been a therapy for me and I think for most musicians. And a place that feels the safest in a lot of ways."
One of his heroes is Nina Simone, a hugely talented but troubled soul if ever there was one. He does a version of her great song I Got Life.
"I love this song, she talks about the things she doesn't have, and then she goes into all the beautiful things that she is and that she does have. It’s always touched me that song because it doesn’t leave out a part of emotion, you’re not just a happy person, not just a sad person and you can give thanks and be terribly saddened by a lot at the same time."
The experience of feeling both pain and joy, of what makes us human, is wonderfully rendered on the song The Day the Sun Came, with vocals from Keren Ann. It talks of losing his mother to cancer and the arrival of his son.
"I don’t know if I ever had the conversation I’ve had on that song with a human and so it’s very bittersweet and it’s hard to listen to, but also really joyous at the same time.
"And the beautiful thing about this song, especially the verse about my mum passing has really touched a lot of people and it’s been really wonderful to get feedback from other people who’ve lost their parents."
Ahmad also sings on a couple of tracks, and in Wolof. Listen to the podcast to hear more about how Paris has opened up his eyes and ears to the African continent.
Raashan Ahmad performs at Le Tamanoir, Gennevilliers on 19 October as part of the Villes Musiques du Monde festival.
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