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Afropolitan Dreaming with Blitz The Ambassador

Blitz the Ambassador is one of the leading voices in the growing movement connecting the classic sound of American hip-hop with stories and musical traditions of Africa and the African diaspora. The title of his new album, Afropolitan Dreams (released on April 28 by Jakarta Records), refers to this mixture of African roots with a  cosmopolitan disposition. Now five albums into his career, Blitz has received  numerous accolades, including last year’s Musician of the Year award from the African Diaspora Awards. We have been big supporters of his music and message for several years and featured Blitz on “The Trans-National African Hip-Hop Train” program. Recently, Jesse Brent caught up with the internationally-minded artist via Skype to discuss Afropolitan Dreams and his vision for an artistically strengthened Africa.

Jesse Brent: What does “Afropolitan” mean for you and how does that word relate to your audience?

Blitz the Ambassador: It’s not just about people who get to physically travel. I feel like that’s a misconception about this Afropolitan idea–that it’s like people getting on planes and zooming all over the world. To me, it’s more about people who mentally travel, and people who are engaged with issues that are global, and issues that affect us all as a race of human beings on this planet. So, that’s important–that I connect with folks that are local and folks that are global as well, and influence, and give people an opportunity to hear a new African story.

Do you see a movement forming with more and more people that you associate with who are thinking the same way as you?

Absolutely. I think that movement was been forming way before I got here and way before I even became a musician. I think the idea of connecting intellectually and giving each other some tools to be able to solve our problems has been there for a while. The only difference is that I’m using a specific medium, which is hip-hop music, to bridge those gaps. There are a lot of people doing the same, and I’m glad that we’re getting more of a platform to do that.

How would you say you relate to music that’s going on right now in Ghana?

Well, I never really lost touch with music from back home. That’s where I began my career as a musician. I’ve always had contact, and I’ve always been linked with those movements, as they’ve evolved from the original hiplife base and highlife before hiplife. Now there are sub-genres like azonto and others that have been birthed out of all these movements. I’m as connected as possible to it. On my new record, I feature Sarkodie, who is one of the most popular artists right now in Ghana, and one of the leaders of his sub-genre, as well. I’m always trying to make sure I’m linked up and connected because, in my opinion, all we’re doing right now, as this intermediary, is creating a lane or a highway of sort so that people from the continent can have access to a global audience. That’s not so easy–not having that bridge. So, one of the things I’m most focused on is trying to create this bridge so that people have a portal into the African sound.

You went back to Ghana before you started recording, right?

Yep. I did before and after.

What did you get out of those trips that made it onto the album?

The entire vibe, but more importantly, what I think I got was the fact that I’m needed at home. That influenced the record greatly–knowing that what I’m doing globally is important, but there’s nothing more important than people in Africa having access to me.

In terms of American hip-hop, how do you see the scene now? And who are some of your favorite current rappers from the U.S.?

The scene in America is kind of what it’s always been. The loudest voices are the ones that are commercial in a way that helps sell products, and the least commercial have less of a platform. And I think it goes back to the beginning of the culture. I don’t think that it’s anything new. I think that what’s new now is just the discrepancy between how many people are in the balance. It’s way out of balance now, in terms of how many people are even willing to take that risk to not be a commercial product. But again, that’s what the culture has always been, and so, you’ll always find the more authentic and more content-driven stuff underground and you’ll find the least content-driven stuff in the commercial mainstream. Who are some of my favorites? I listen to a lot of Kendrick Lamar. I listen to a lot of Joey Bada$$, the Underachievers, and a few other guys. I don’t necessarily listen to them looking for anything new because that story that they’re telling, in my opinion, has been told, but I listen to them for their take on it–how they’re able to take an old story and tell it with some updates. So, them I appreciate, but if you ask me what I’m most interested in–it’s music that isn’t coming from America because, again, that story has been widely told. What’s interesting to me now is music that’s telling me about a story that’s new. So when Kendrick Lamar says “Compton,” I’m already familiar with Compton because I know Dr. Dre. I’ve heard The Chronic and I know what Compton is. But when somebody’s telling me about Nairobi or Johannesburg or Bogotá, wherever–I’m not familiar with it, so it’s way more interesting to me, as an audience member, to pick apart what they’re saying, and I appreciate that.

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You’re recording without any kind of major label support, basically on your own. Have you had a lot of difficulties with that or has that felt pretty liberating?

I guess you can’t have one without the other. Having the freedom to choose, having the freedom to say “no,” having the freedom to access your audience however you want, whenever you want, without middlemen, who don’t really know or care about the culture–whether it’s African culture, whether it’s hip-hop culture… They’re just in it for the culture of money, and how money influences. So, I have that freedom. I never have to ask a single question. If I want to release my next album for free, I’ll release it for free. If I want to release my next record tomorrow, I’ll release it tomorrow. Nobody stands in the way of my art and my audience. Of course, with that comes a big challenge. The big challenge is how do you fund your revolution? How do you fund this idea that you have? You don’t want your art to suffer from not having access to funds. You don’t want your art to not be heard because it’s not getting the love that it should from these bigger blogs and these bigger magazines.

But I’ve also learned that you can create something that’s absolutely yours and it’s unique. And the best way I’ve been able to do it is invest greatly in my live show. So, with my live show I’ve been able to go around the world, speaking first-hand about my music. I’m not really locked into this idea that I have to be a commercial or corporate rapper. I probably make more touring than most of these guys will, especially with the deals that they have today–with 360 deals where the label takes everything. I’m probably doing much better and I probably have way more autonomy. I definitely have more autonomy, as far as my work and how I release it and when I release it. So, I think that’s the main thing, but one comes with the other, and I embrace both.

Can you talk about some of the people you worked with on this record, like Angelique Kidjo and Seun Kuti? What was it like to work with them?

It was great. All these people were really gracious and they understand the story and they understand the message and they understand what I’m trying to achieve, in terms of the story. They were all great in terms of their contributions–from Nneka to Angelique to Oum to Just A Band. Everybody was super with the story. That was very easy. I didn’t have any problems in terms of sound. And also I wanted to prove that I’m not a solitary voice. I use a lot of voices to tell this story. It’s important for me to show the multi-dimensionality of our movement, going back to the legends–like the Angeliques–all the way down to some of the ones who are much more up-and-coming like the Just A Bands or Amma Whatt. It was important that I was able to make those bridges happen.

The band that you’ve been working with, Embassy Ensemble–you’ve been with them for a long time, right?

Yeah, I’ve developed a very solid crew. But now I have an international crew. I have a crew that I play with in the western hemisphere and I have a crew that I play with more in the eastern hemisphere. So it’s like we’re all playing at the same time. When I’m playing North America, South America, Japan, I have a crew. When I’m playing Asia, Europe, Africa, I have another crew. Australia–I have another crew. It’s a very global operation, but everybody is super committed and understands what this mission is and we’re able to put on some really amazing shows.

It sounds like you’ve been touring quite a bit. Is that part of the reason why it took so long for this album to come out? I understand it took two years for this album to come together.

Yeah, it did take two years. But, if you remember, I also released an EP in between–the Warm Up EP, which came out last year. So, really, that’s a whole lot of music that I’ve been working on and releasing periodically. Also, I never really care about time. What I care about is the quality of the product and how the product is going to live. If it takes me five years to make a record, it takes me five years to make a record. I’m not ever going to rush the record because I feel like people need one. I feel like if people wait for the right product, the product will live on for as long as possible. So, I don’t really focus on that. Touring does have an effect, but I think that it also has a super positive effect, in that you’re able to test new music, you’re able to test new ideas, and I’m also playing some of the biggest festivals in the world. I’m opening for Sting. I’m opening for some really huge names globally. I’m also getting ideas from watching these guys. When I’m backstage and, say, Damien Marley’s playing, when I’m back stage and Public Enemy’s playing, I’m learning a lot and I’m adding to my artistry. And it’s also informing my story. So, all of that has been really positive, and I’m trying to maintain a really good work ethic to make sure that I’m never going too long without art–whether it’s a short film, whether it’s new videos, whether it’s music, whether it’s visual arts, I’m just constantly trying to release work that I will influence.

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The song “Call Waiting” with Angelique Kidjo is about traveling and calling home. What has that been like to be on the road and still maintain your ties to home?

It’s difficult–not being physically present with family, missing important events in family, but it’s the life you choose when you choose a name like The Ambassador and your tour schedule is something ridiculous. It’s a choice I’ve made and I have to live with. I believe in transparency and vulnerability and writing music that’s honest to me. That’s why I wrote “Call Waiting”–because it’s true. That’s my truth. It helps me cope with that when other people can sympathize and say, “Yeah, I get it.” It makes it easier to be on this journey, trying to influence the world while still maintaining a family. So, that definitely is one of my favorite songs on the album.

I read the article you wrote for the blog Africa Is A Country, and I was really impressed by it. In the article, you talk about how you got this cassette tape from your brother and it had a lot of classic hip-hop on it, including Public Enemy. And now, more recently, you’ve gotten to be on stage with Chuck D and even collaborate with him.

Yeah, it’s been amazing. It’s like when your destiny finds you, but it’s also a testament to hard work and dedication. I’ve never stopped believing that I was good enough. I’ve never stopped believing that my story was important. It’s definitely not easy when you’re ahead of your time, when you’re ahead of the understanding of who you are. When I was doing this in 2001, 2002, nobody could even fathom what an African rapper would sound like, what an African rapper, who has immigrated to America, would sound like, what kind of samples you would use to tell your story. So, in a lot of ways, we’re pioneers and we’re the first of this breed. Chuck D is a mentor in a way, as well. And that is the most amazing thing one can ever think about. This guy used to be on my wall. And here I am with full access to him, supporting this amazing movement. Chuck D’s unique in a lot of ways because he understands the effect hip-hop has globally. I don’t think a lot of so-called legends do. I don’t think a lot of people who came early in the game understood their impact globally or understand how that global impact has ricocheted back here. Chuck understands the ricochet and understands that I’m part of that ricochet. It’s absurd to think that you can speak for 40 years to a people and not be spoken back to. That’s what hip-hop culture was. All we’re doing is talking back. So it’s been great to have Chuck D in my corner.

What would you say that you’ve learned from him?

Just stay humble. Frankly, he’s probably one of the most humble guys that you’ll ever meet, but it’s not dumb humility. It’s humility that’s steeped in a deep knowledge of his power and his role in the world. That is a stark reminder to me that, as I get bigger and as I get more global, the more my responsibility is to remain accessible because my accessibility is what’s going to grow my lane of the culture. The less accessible I am, the less my lane is going to grow. Chuck D understands that, and Chuck D has made himself very available to young artists coming up, very available to the movement. So, that’s one thing that I’ve learned from him.

You’ve been living in Brooklyn for a while, right? How many years have you been here?

It’s probably going on eight years, maybe nine.

 Have you thought about returning to Ghana to live there?

Absolutely. Yes. I have made major investments into doing that. That’s where the record ends. The record ends in this limbo, which is, in a lot of ways, where I am in real life. You have family in America and you have family in Africa, you have goals in America–I shouldn’t even say America, but in the West because I’m everywhere now–but Africa is where you’re needed the most. I appreciate that people all over the world appreciate what I do. I know that my most important work is the work that is going to be done on the continent of Africa, in a lot of ways: figuring out ways that we can bridge some of these gaps that have been created in post-colonial ruling, and, whether it’s culturally, whether it’s socially… I don’t believe in politics. I think that politics is meant to separate. I’m more of a culturalist. I understand that the power that I have is cultural and I have to be able to use that to bridge a lot of gaps that we have currently, as African people all over the continent. That’s my major work. That’s not easy work, but I know that’s my next frontier. So, here I am trying to make that leap forward.

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What would you say in Ghana, in particular, needs help and what would you hope to do by returning there?

I think, specifically, it’s an issue of funding–funding for the arts. I think that’s one of our biggest problems because there isn’t a lot of value that’s placed on art. If you’re young in Africa and you say you want to be a painter or a singer or a graphic designer, nobody really takes you seriously. It’s like you’re a joke. We still are locked into the colonial concept of what success is. You have all these professions that you’re supposed to go for, and if you’re not one of those–like a doctor or a lawyer, a pilot… The world has moved on and I think we need to show that it’s possible to make it as an artist in Africa because our role is the most important. The issues that we have–a lot of them can easily be solved in a cultural context when you have people dialoguing. Unfortunately, a lot of dialogue doesn’t happen because there isn’t a lot of public space. Because there isn’t a lot of public space there aren’t a lot of public arts situations that go on in the continent. For instance, when I go back to play in Africa, a lot of times, I have to go under the auspices of the French Consul or the Goethe-Institut or the British Council. Those are very typical. And I’m not the only one. A ton of artists that go to Africa have to go through those mediums. The problem with that is that you’re clearly doing the bidding of these foreign countries, who have their own selfish goals. You’re just a pawn for them. My goal, in time, is to create a situation where we’re able to perform and influence, culturally, while being supported by our states or our people because that’s when I feel like the dialogue is the most open and the most accessible. It’s not just geared toward a certain class of people. It’s a more general and more broad and more proletarian approach where you can influence a larger amount of people.

I saw that you wrote a film about boxing in Ghana. Can you tell me anything about that?

It’s a film that I’ve been trying to make for a while, and I recently got contacted by Isaiah Washington, who’s an amazing actor and producer, who starred in numerous films, and he’s going to be coming on board to help produce the film. It’s exciting. I’m a fan of boxing–the idea of it: the lone warrior. The story is about a community, which is Bukom, and that’s what the movie’s called. The community is a boxing community, and everybody in that town is, one way or another, connected to boxing. The story is about what happens when a physical location that has harnessed all this energy gets taken away. What happens to the people, and what happens to the culture of boxing? It’s juxtaposed with a lot of land grabbing, which is happening right now in a lot of places on the continent, where big multinational corporations are buying up huge chunks of land for one reason or another–usually for development purposes–for developing things that locals will never be able to afford. Because Bukom’s a coastal town it’s very prime for this kind of incursion. That’s what the film is about. What happens when the land is threatened–a land that is so important to a sport or a culture?

Do you see a comparison between music and boxing a little bit?

It’s an art. Boxing is an art form. If you’re anybody that appreciates art then there’s most certainly a connection. Like I always say, Ali was a lyrical boxer. His punches were lyrical. You have to know when to duck. You’ve gotta know when to drop the chorus, drop the hook, you know? So that’s very similar. It’s all about timing. Music is all about timing and boxing’s all about timing.

Is there anything else that you’d like to say about your album or about what’s next for you?

The album is out now. I’d really like for everybody to pick it up and experience the journey. I think that it’s going to open up a lot of dialogue, as far as what it means to be a young African immigrant and your role globally, but also your role at home.

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