I think I’ve mentioned before that a lot of the musical threads that run through Ghetto Palms originally knotted up in my head as a pitch for a FADER feature on pan-African rap. But by the time I started doing this column I had a different project in mind; focusing more on the keyboard/drum machine/CPU portion of the rap blueprint as applied to countless new genres across the third world. This week is an exception on several levels. Not only am I focusing on a rapper—Baloji—but he’s also a Belgian rapper who just happens to have African roots. But I’m jumping the gun a little.
Better if I start by describing the revelatory effect the above video for “Karibu Ya Bintou” had on me when I lucked up on it, sans context, on the excellent PopAfricana blog a few weeks ago. It is actually a filmic mini-masterpiece which just happens to be soundtracked by Baloji rapping over the grimy electrified likembe of Konono No.1. It opens with stage-whispery French narration of some sort of magic-noir initiation rite. Then three dudes in skull masks slowly emerge from a lake and dog Baloji through the streets of Kinshasa (the same ones Ali ran with, little kids trailing behind him yelling “Ali Bomaye!” training for the iconic Rumble in Jungle) bugging out like it’s a spontaneous Day of the Dead celebration or maybe a Nollywood ghost story with a budget that’s all film stock and no FX. Cut to a strong man making his pecs dance. Cut to a line of anonymous soukous queens doing the butterfly in slo-mo. These fragmentary narratives all converge and start to almost make sense if you watch til the end but I don’t want to give it away. More important is what I was thinking halfway through, like: “This shit is wild” and “I guess it was only a matter of time before somebody rapped over Konono and somehow I’m glad it wasn’t Talib or somebody.”
But then “Karibu Ya Bintou”—which apparently means “Welcome to Limbo”—lead me to the slightly older video for “Congo” which confirmed my suspicion that something bigger was happening here. First of all, I don’t speak French, let alone any Congolese dialects but solely on the strength of cadence and vocal tone, this might be my favorite French rap since Solaar proved such a thing was even technically possible. Then there’s ease with which Bolaji raps over both the raw sound of modern Kinshasa and this dutty Zaire-74 “Fred is Dead” guitar. The key to the winning formula is swagger sufficient to take a pretty leftfield musical concept and—instead of being precious about it—beat you in head with it until you submit.
It also has some of the cinematic ambition of the new joint, which is smart since YouTube has become the main for musical ideas to jump continents. And that touches on the other thing Baloji has going for him in 2010. While our mass consciousness was shifting from Haiti to the Superbowl, a cloud called the World Cup was forming on the horizon. About the time it breaks into a full media-storm a whole lot of fools across the football-friendly continents of Asia, Europe, Latin America and Brooklyn will be having an African epiphany in search of a soundtrack. The panoptic eye will swing it’s dilated pupil towards the bright continent and likely as not it will take in—among some other things—a civil war in the Congo which has been called the most lethal conflict since WWII. And when that happens I expect Baloji to be there to yoke us up by the lapels like “Ra! Karibu Ya Bintou!”