Bajah + the Dry Eye Crew started as MCs and singers in Freetown, Sierra Leone, and became superstars in the aftermath of civil war. They came to New York to record, and though their self-titled album has been finished for months, there’s still no official release date… Meanwhile, there are always gigs, like opening for Ziggy Marley at Irving Plaza on June 17. That’s when I caught Bajah, shortly before the Dry Eye Crew went on. We chatted in my car parked near the club, briefly, but with feeling. Here’s our conversation and shots from the band’s excellent, psychedelically lit set that night. Bajah and A-Klass rap and sing in front with terrific moves and energy. The band is small and efficient moving through African, dancehall and hip hop grooves. Great band. Great show!
B.E.: You’re the lead singer for Bajah + the Dry Eye Crew. How did you guys start?
Bajah: Well, we started in Sierra Leone, especially with the MCs. We did a lot of records out there, talking about the daily activities, you know, what’s happening in the daily lives of people. So we’ve been playing that kind of positive music to liberate the people a little bit. And we finally got a deal to come over here and do another album.
B.E.: What year did Dry Eye Crew start?
Bajah: Well, Dry Eye Crew started in about 2000, up to 2002.
B.E.: The war in Sierra Leone was just ending then.
Bajah: Yeah, it was just ending. So that’s why we hooked in together, to reinforce the peace toward the end of the thing, so everybody can just make this peace consistent, not on and off, like it’s happened in other places.
B.E.: That was over 10 years ago. In that time, rap and hip-hop and MC music have really come on strong in Sierra Leone, right?
Bajah: Yeah, definitely. I think it’s because of the war, and of the kind of messages that we are singing. The people can easily relate to it, so they think they are supposed to support and buy the album.
B.E.: What’s the name of the new album?
Bajah: It’s a self-title. Bajah + Dry Eye Crew.
B.E.: I like your vocal sound. Strong rapping, but also beautiful singing, R&B, great harmonies. You guys are very melodious.
Bajah: Yeah, that’s how we keep it. You know, because we’re from Africa. In Africa, we normally play very soulful music, very melodious. People can just feel the voice, and the style and the rhythm. So that’s how we’re keeping it. So we’ve got this kind of flow in the way we deliver. It’s very strong, and very attacking.
B.E.: There’s also an element of dancehall. Tell me what dancehall means to you.
Bajah: Well, dancehall is just some kind of music that supposed to make you dance. So we are playing a kind of melodious dancehall. Because it’s a different kind of dancehall. You know, you’ve got the strong dancehall that’s just kind of like … strong! Like a block. And then you have a melodious one where it just swings through. So we played this kind of music, where the music is melody. It’s supposed to have the feeling. It’s supposed to come from within so that someone can feel it within also, you know?
B.E.: You just called your music “melodious dancehall.” But how would you describe it generally?
Bajah: Well, you try to name music… Because our style is so different. It’s like basically a different kind of music, it’s got some dancehall, and some hip-hop, and some African style. So, from back home were calling it gbomognoh (BOM-mo-nyoh, meaning “a blend”). Were trying to like create some kind of genre out of it, because the sound is different. We’re trying to come up with a name. So we’ve been thinking about that.
B.E.: Let me ask you about the songs “Who’s Fooling Who?”
Bajah: It’s a song by me and Talib Kweli and Res the lady of Idle Warship, you know, that whole crew. Well, that song is like basically, because when you’re in Africa, you know, we’ve got this concept and believe that as soon as you come to America you are in heaven. You don’t even see sufferers. You don’t even see homeless in the street. And the place is all gold. That’s how we feel [Americans] live when we’re in Africa. And when we check out movies, you see those the flashy things and the way people are living, people just think that’s how it is here. So, this is the kind of message were trying to let the people know back there that it’s not. It’s not easy.
Because at home, you’ve got some youths who are just waiting out there to come to the States and continue their life. They don’t want to strive and work where they are. Because they don’t even know what’s happening here. Some people are just selling their houses to come to the States and start working again like 9 to 5. They’ve been in Africa and they’re doing good. They have good jobs. They just want to come to America. So this is the kind of message we have. It doesn’t matter where you are. You just have to strive. You can do it.
B.E.: There are some lines in that song that made me think it would be a good theme for the Occupy movement. “Who do you think you are?” It’s in that defiant spirit.
Bajah: Oh, yeah. Definitely, definitely, definitely. It’s a 99% song, for people to know.
B.E.: Tell me about the song with K’Naan. That’s a nice collaboration too.
Bajah: That one is called “Soldier.” That is talking about when they’re inducting the young kids as soldiers, giving them guns to go and fight, giving them drugs. Some of them didn’t even know what they were doing. Some of them didn’t know what they were fighting for or fighting against. Because they were on drugs. And basically, we try to make it global, talking about soldiers going into Iraq and losing their lives. Some that are fortunate come back, and they can’t even have nothing—no reward that can keep them thinking that it’s a good thing they fought so hard for the country. So this is the kind of message that’s behind that song.
B.E.: You share with K’Naan the experience of having seen war, and what it does. He in his own music, and a little bit in this song, has a rap where he’s telling other rappers, “You think you’ve seen things. Try war in Africa.” Do you relate to that?
Bajah: Yeah. There’s another song on there called “Gun Thing.” Put down the gun. In there, we are talking about seeing all these youths sometimes out on the streets trying to shoot. Like they are at war. They’re supposed to be in Sierra Leone during the war, and they would never touch a gun back then. Because it was very drastic. It was not a good scene. So it was just… You don’t want to be in that scene. That’s what we keep telling them. You don’t want to be in that scene. So you making yourself like a gangster is not the thing. You’re just trying to show off, but go to a war front and see how people are starving and people are dying. You will see that the people who have the biggest gun are still dying. So it’s crazy.
B.E.: What’s to happen with this record? When is it going to come out?
Bajah: Yeah, it’s coming out maybe by fall. I can’t wait, because we’ve been waiting so long. And it’s a good message that needs to be spread out.
B.E.: It’s a very good record. Let me just ask you about tonight. You’re about to open up for Ziggy Marley. What does that mean to you?
Bajah: It’s like… more than a dream come true. Because I wasn’t even dreaming that this would happen. Because I used to be in Sierra Leone, right there in West Africa, checking Ziggy Marley’s music. I wasn’t even an MC. I wasn’t even going to the studio yet. I was just in the house listening to his music. And now I’m going to perform with him. And he’s the son of a super legend, like the greatest musician ever. I’m so excited. I can’t explain it–such a pleasure.