Interview: Baloji @ Brighton Dome (May 2016)

This is NOT world music, this is OUR music! You can’t put me in a box just because I’m black! You can’t put me in a box because I’m African and I’m proud of what I am! Brighton, if you are with us, raise your finger!

With these few words, Baloji definitely ignited the crowd in Brighton. There isn’t really any definition that can fully describe the creative flair of this Congolese music experimenter as he opened the last edition of the African Dance Party at the Brighton Dome. His last EP ’64 Bits and Malachite combines conscious rap, traditional Congolese music, soukous and many other forms of European and African music in a powerful mix, which becomes explosive on stage thanks to Baloji’s theatrical talent backed up by L’Orchestre de la Katuba. This outstanding collective of musicians features the legendary guitarist Lengo ‘Dizzy’ Mandjeku, who has accompanied all the legends of Congolese Rumba from Luando ‘Franco’ Makiadi and his OK Jazz to Papa Wemba. Dizzy played the concert solemnly seated in an armchair, until Baloji asked the audience to give due respect to the veteran, who then showed his appreciation by performing a solo on the guitar behind his head.

We met Baloji in his dressing room just an hour before the show. A wry, saucy smile stayed on his face throughout our conversation, making his witty answers seem even sharper.

Where does your music come from?

There are so many different influences, but for me, the main ones are Fania, Colombian and Puerto Rican music. Then, I would say Jamaican music, Chanson Française, New York Hip Hop, French Hip-hop for the lyrics, and Congolese music. Electronic music too, as I’m living in Belgium and electronic music is the main music you get there. My music is a mix of all these influences, I cannot say one thing is stronger than the others.”

Almost all of your videos are shot in Congo. As you are Congolese, is this something that you have in mind when you put images to music?

No, not especially. I think that we all should be proud of where we’re from. Besides that, I think that Congo is extremely visual, just extremely beautiful. I had the chance to go to Los Angeles one or two times, and I think the light there is special. In Kinshasa, for different reasons, the light is special as well. It is just something that I cannot explain, that makes the place very cinematographic, and this really touches me. Cities like Kinshasa are just wild: there are billions of details to look at and each of them tells a great story. It’s overwhelming, there is inspiration everywhere, that’s why I love shooting there. They say the devil is in the details, but also beauty is in details, I would say.”

Let’s talk a bit about Congo. In your lyrics, you point at a lot of social problems, mismanagement, and corruption. What can music do for Congo?

To be honest, I don’t think we can do much, and I’m sorry to say that. These issues are bigger than us. It’s difficult to have a clear head on this, we can only reflect on some specific situation and change it on our level. On my side, I’m trying to do a lot of little things in my own town Lumumbashi, helping people to develop their projects and to keep studying. I would say my engagement is to be aware of what happens around me. The situation in DRC, it’s a shame, it’s scandalous, it’s just not acceptable. If you go there you cannot escape it, it’s all over the place, it’s just there. To escape it would be just lying to yourself. I’m just trying to be honest with myself, so when I go to DRC I don’t think about making a song about big booties, although I would never do that anyway. Congo is not a place where you can avoid looking at the context. To me, the whole Congolese history is like a big destructive wave, as the all world makes fun of us. I think it’s just something we have to talk about; like I said, it’s unacceptable.”

How do you deal with it as a musician?

I think that as musicians unfortunately we can only talk about it, and not even too much. Otherwise we can put ourselves in trouble, especially these days with the elections coming around. We have to be careful. I have to say that many Congolese musicians I know cannot express their opinion about it in their music. As for me, to Congolese authorities, I’m just a Congolese from the diaspora – which is a polite way to say, a Congolese who doesn’t know what’s going on. That allows me to be the voice of other people who don’t have that voice, who cannot express their opinion on the situation. Also, the fact that I’m an outsider gives me access to what media in Europe, America, South Africa, Kenya, or China, say about Congo. That gives me a certain perspective on things.

In my next album, that I hope will come out soon, there is a song called ‘Tanganyika’, like the lake and the song talks about the effects of the war in Congo. The worst outcome has been that Congolese refugees from some parts of the country became enemies of other Congolese people: this is ridiculous, it’s just self-destruction. It is true that Rwanda is currently exporting Congo’s richness on its own, but we don’t have to forget that the enemy is also inside: in a certain way, we are our worst enemies. Many things in Africa are really complicated, you have to look carefully to have a grasp.”

Do you go to Congo quite often?

Not often! I go like twice a year. It’s pretty expensive, also because you cannot go back home to Congo with empty hands.”

Are you helping local talents down there?

I think big stars can do that. Unfortunately I don’t have that leverage: I’m already struggling myself! What I can do is collaborate with Congolese artists, and in fact I’m doing that a lot, but I cannot guarantee to an artist that I’m gonna handle his career. That would be lying to myself and making false promises: I would turn myself into a mini-Mobutu, and I don’t want to go into that!

What’s the reception of your music in DRC?

It depends. We did a tour in 2010, so yeah, we’re trying to get there. But I think my music is maybe too intellectual, too diverse, maybe? I would say that Congolese scene is really…what’s the word in English for conservatisme? People keep listening to the same thing. It has been sebene for the last forty years, and it’s difficult for them to go to something else. We are changing slowly with the introduction of Nigerian sound, Ghanaian sound, or music from Ivory Coast, but it’s taking time for the Congolese to listen to something different.”

What about the connections with artists from outside, like you? Is that influencing the scene?

Yeah, things are changing. There’ll by a song in my new album called ‘0-4 0-4’ which is about the gap between the countries with access to wi-fi and the ones without it. Congo is unfortunately on the second category, so people don’t have access to content as much as Ghana, or in Rwanda, or Kenya. There is a big difference, because you can see now there are some African countries that are at the forefront of a lot of things: culture, fashion, arts, because they have a way to express themselves abroad. We’re not there yet, unfortunately for us.”

What do you think about the European music business and their audience’s response to African music?

Again, it depends on which media and which audience are you talking with. There is still a big…how to say that in a really polite way…there is still a big gap. African music is third world music, it talks about war, comes from poor and uncivilised countries: people don’t want to hear these things. I would say that the only thing people like about Africa is party music, ‘cause it’s easy to translate. Or, like Malian music, because it is connected to the original Blues, and there is a link with Ry Cooder and white rock music, which makes the connection more obvious, but for all the rest, it’s just savage music.”

What’s next for Congolese music? What do you expect to be happening?

There is a group called Coup Fatal: they are an amazing group of talents. I think the fact that they travel so much and then go back to Kinshasa, that brings something different to Kinshasa’s sound.

Rap is quite popular in places like Goma…

It’s funny because I didn’t love that much rap in Goma. I was quite disappointed, as I was expecting to hear some really wild Gravediggaz hip-hop, Onyx-type of shit. Goma is crazy: it is beautiful, it looks like a paradise, they used to call it “the small Switzerland“; but at the same time is the ugliest place ever, it smells of death. Everything is so beautiful: the mountains, the lake, and still it smells of death: it’s awful. We played there while there was still a curfew, it’s a very hard city. I think that if I were living in Goma, I would make some punk music, or Grime, or Death Rap, something like that.

Is there anyone supporting free music expression in Congo, any NGO?

This is quite confusing, it’s tricky. There are a lot of NGOs, everybody trying to help, or everybody trying to take advantage. It depends, there’s a mix of so many different intentions and it’s difficult to have a clear view on that.