Last week Thursday brkfst for dinner founder & cultural authority, Fred Kayembe, held down a conversation with Ibrahim “Ebro” Darden of Beats 1 radio who has of course expressed his love for African music over & over again on air. Now for all those of you that don’t know, Apple Music are major supporters of South African and African artists whether it be through the New Artist Spotlight artist development campaign, playlisting, artist interviews and tracks featured on some of Beats 1 flagship shows with Zane Lowe, Ebro Darden and Julie Adenuga. Some of the other most recent local highlights included AKA, Shekhinah, Black Motion, Black Coffee and Shane Eagle. And of course it doesn’t to mention that HYPE also carries a curator page on Apple Music which you can check out. With that said, you can read up on Fred’s enlightening conversation with the old man below:
Conducted by Fred Kayembe
Featured images supplied
Fred Kayembe: Ebro, thank you so much for doing this. I’m reporting to you live from Wakanda, Jo’burg. How are you?
Ebro: [Laughs] Oh yáll on that Wakanda? That’s dope! I’m great, man. Excited about talking to you guys.
You seem to have a particularly keen interest in African and South African artists, interviewing and sharing insights with some of our brightest stars over the past year or so. As a New Yorker, where does this interest come from?
It probably started as a child with my dad playing Fela [Kuti]. In my home, we discussed the continent of Africa a lot so I was already aware that there was a world that existed outside of mine. So when the music started coming around, it interested me. I remember when D’banj got his deal with Kanye West. I know Ludacris and Talib Kweli used to come to South Africa a lot in the early 2000s. Even back then I was familiar with Black Coffee because he used to come out here and DJ in New York. But I guess without the internet, it was hard to cement those connections. But now with streaming services like Beats 1 it’s more fluid. So when something happens anywhere in the world, we can all experience it at the same time and I think that’s dope because in music, geography shouldn’t matter as much anymore. People are definitely proud of their hometowns but are also open to hearing greatness from other places. There are tons of artists in Africa that I don’t know about but when the cream rises to the top, you get the cream of the crop. There is certain sh*t that just hits. Like, Gqom, for instance, is massive… Even what’s happening with Davido and Wizkid, Mr Eazy. It’s just dope.And also, hip hop is very closely related to Dancehall. There are those of us who’ve spent time consuming Dancehall and understanding the importance of the drums in reggae music, the importance of African culture in the history of reggae music; that’s part of who I am. So, whether it’s Cassper Nyovest, Sjava or AKA or Anatii, Destruction Boyz, when that sh*t is fire, it’s fire!
Technology is playing a major role in connecting the African diaspora in the U.S and Europe with Africa, as far as our music, culture and general narratives are concerned. Can you speak a little from personal experience on the impact that the internet age has had on your work?
I mean, things are happening in real time and we’re experiencing it all in real time; that’s a big part of it. Having a global understanding and historical perspective of how we got where we are today helps me unpack how much we actually have in common whether it be in South Africa, Brazil, the States or the UK. Because I’ve been doing this almost 30 years, I just naturally try to find a common thread in all of our stories so that we can enjoy the music. I believe we are lot more similar than we are different and I believe that that’s what the music teaches us. I have a white mom and black father and grew up in a household with Black Nationalist sensibilities and a feminist mom in Northern California, having those conversations and understanding that having cultural pride doesn’t necessarily mean wanting the demise of another cultural group. When I have the opportunity to bring people together and challenge the status quo, especially in a way that’s entertaining, having music is very useful.
We’ve gone from seeing pop dominate the charts, to dancehall, to trap, and now “Afro Beat” seems to have the world’s ear. What would you say is the feeling around African artists and how they are being received by the U.S?
I think it’s still new. Many of us have a fear of what we don’t understand. When it comes to language, culture… we are all very judgmental. Even in America, because of the accents, you’ve got people listening to Grime saying, “What are these people saying here?” And I’m like, “Bro, this is English from England! What do you mean, what are they saying?” [Laughs]. Or introducing MHD, who’s from Paris, to my friends who are Haitian and speak French, and they don’t understand it because it’s a whole different dialect. So that whole dynamic is something that’s going to take some time. But the beats, the energy, the ideas, the circumstances, the perspective which all the creators in the world are coming from, that is universal. You can feel it. If you allow your spirit and your heart to open up, you’ll always understand. I don’t know what Sjava’s saying, I don’t know none of them words. But when it plays, I’m with it! You just have to open yourself up to the spirit of the music.
It’s funny that you bring that up because the role of language in indigenous music is a conversation that we’ve been having, as a community, in South Africa for some time. In trying to find what our unique adaptation of a genre that was born in the States, as an outsider and member of the largest audience for hip hop, do you think it helps or hurts African musicians when trying to appeal to international audiences in our native tongues? Is there a barrier?
Fam, all I’m going to say this, when it comes to hip hop, be yourself. Hip hop was rooted in young people with nothing, trying to create a voice for themselves. They weren’t concerned with acceptance, they weren’t concerned with fitting in. The fashion, the slang, all of it, has never been about trying to assimilate. Don’t assimilate, be you. Accumulating a larger fan base comes when you own your own territory first. You can’t be worried about New York if you ain’t got Soweto on lock. Don’t be coming over her like, “I’m popping in South Africa” and when we get on Twitter, it turns out that your people say you ain’t popping like that, you know what I mean? I got put on the magnitude of Cassper Nyovest and AKA and Anatii because of that whole situation that went down with them. I heard an AKA song with Anatii that made me say, “Yo! Who is this?” Then I started tracking the situation and learning more about the music and saw that Cassper Nyovest had a crazy amount of fans who were passionate too! I don’t know the politics of it all but I could see how big those guys were by the impact they were making. So I started asking the team that handles the music over on that side about them and they gave me a whole list of records which I began to listen to. That developed into my interest in other music. I had heard about DJ Maphorisa because a while back Trey Songs played a couple of Maphorisa joints on his Snapchat and I went found those songs ‘cause they were crazy. We have a playlist on Apple Music called ‘A-List South Africa’ with all the new records coming out of South Africa and I heard that joint ‘Ngempela’ and that’s how I got on Sjava. And then I listened to ‘Midnight Starring’ and heard them shout “Destruction Boyz!” So then I listened to their song ´Guitar’ which was dope but I didn’t know ‘Omunye’ was popping until Black Panther came out. ‘Omunye’ is crazy!
And then then the way Kendrick and TDE did the whole Black Panther soundtrack just solidified everything for me. They had Babes Wodumo and Sjava on there, and all this sh*t just started coming together. I think some people are comfortable with ignorance. And I mean ignorance as in, the lack of knowing, not purposeful ignorance. And I think the more we can make people feel okay about asking about the things they don’t know about, the more we can learn from one another. And as Americans, we have a big arrogance problem. Not only are we ignorant, we’re also arrogant at the same time. And that’s going to inhibit us from learning our origins as black folks in America when we mirror that habit of our colonizers and slave masters, instead of humbling ourselves.I think that’s why Black Panther, even though it’s fictitious, was celebrated so much. Because Wakanda is a state of mind. Living in my world, I don’t get to interact with Africans on a daily basis and that’s why I’m here doing this. Because I think we all need to try our best to get on the same page.
As originators of hip hop culture, the world always look to the States for learning about the culture. With the emergence of African interest in industries such as music and film, and your personal experience in interacting with us, what do you believe that the West can learn from Africa in these respects, if anything?
People want a way to come together, desperately. The slave trade disjointed us in so many ways; complexion, age, religion. So when one starts to learn about Africa, one starts to realize that there is so much more to our history. There are hundreds of thousands of dialects and tribes and nations; you can’t even wrap your head around the vastness of it all. There are so many layers to Africa that your mind can’t even get there, it’s so amazing. So if there is one thing Americans can learn, it’s that, you don’t know sh*t! [Laughs]. And once we accept that, that’s where the communication can begin.
Okay, so we’re putting you on the spot. With all the new wave music coming out of the U.S and the artists who’ve impressed you out of South Africa, which 2 artists from each country would you pair together to create the best smash hit collaboration?
I mean, to be honest, it’s kind of already happened for me because the Black Panther soundtrack is exactly that. Kendrick Lamar on a record with Mozzy and Sjava? Mozzy is a straight Southern California dude so you know he’s talking that talk! And Kendrick too. And Sjava be talking that too! And shout out to Reason, he killed it too. And then there’s the ‘Black Opps’ [featuring Yugen Blakrok] joint too. It’s aggressive, there are bars, it’s amazing.
Speaking to the OldmanEbro persona, you’ve been giving a lot of these newer artists somewhat of a hard time about proving themselves in the game. Every decade or so it’s inevitable that a new generation of music creators will rise up and replace the guys who used to be on top; that’s a universal thing that even we are experiencing here in S.A. Is there a less confrontational way to deal with the changing of times than to have the old school generation at odds with the new school?
Nobody’s stopping anybody. We live in a time where you can’t be stopped. You can upload your music on Apple Music or Soundcloud, get your little digital distribution deal and get popping with no-one’s help or co-sign. So the “let” thing ain’t it. When you get popping though, you gotta be ready for scrutiny. Because the only reason hip hop has lasted so long is because we have a checks and balance system. And the same thing happens in other genres of music, it’s just more discernible in those kinds of music. Think about it, in classical music, if you can’t sing, you’re not going to be a successful singer. People are going to know that you can’t hit the notes and it’s a wrap. If can’t play the drums, you’re not getting on the set. If can’t play the piano, you’re not getting on the set, it’s that simple. And I feel the same with hip hop. You can get a pass being melodic but when the time comes, trust me, somebody’s going to be like, “Yo, what them bars about?” Some of these guys say things like, “I’m an artist, I’m just expressing myself” and that’s cool and cute. But then people are going to be like, “Okay, where them hit songs at then?” The clock is ticking and if you’re not official, then your time will be up. And if you come across my path and claim you’re a rapper, you’re really going to have to prove it. I might give a few passes here and there but if your music is trash then I’m going say that it’s trash.
I look at it like that because I feel that helps us identify who’s doing this for the right reasons. Is this just a hustle to get a [money] bag for you and you’re using the culture for its opportunities, but you don’t really care about the future of where the music’s going and keeping it healthy? That’s the other component. If everyone gets to come in it becomes cheap. It becomes bastardized. If we want this thing to remain special, we have to have some rites of passage. Okay, now we’ve talked about everything. When are you coming to experience this Africa that you’re excited about? I want to come, I just need to put the plan in motion. I just need a reason to take time off work. Set it up and I’m there! I really wanted to be at Afro Punk last New Year’s Eve but I ended up being in India working on a project. Can you imagine what Afro Punk in Jo’burg is going to be like post-Black Panther?