Over a Skype connection from Cape Town to Belgium, I ring up the rapper Baloji. Our chat has been delayed multiple times, which is understandable; Baloji Tshiani is a busy man. This past year alone, he toured both North and South America, did major festivals across Europe, and performed for the first time in his home country, the Democratic Republic of Congo – in Kinshasa and Lubumbashi, the latter being where he was born. His mother did, however, give him up for adoption to Belgian parents when he was still very young, and Belgium is a country he continues to reside in to this very day. Starting off at age sixteen as a member of the now-defunct hip-hop outfit, Starflam, Baloji rode the wave of the collective’s ubiquity, but became disenfranchised with the music industry and quit it for close to ten years. He re-emerged with a new resolve in 2007 with his debut offering, Hotel Impala, a “response” from his biological mother during their only “telephone conversation in April 2005.”
Since we last spoke, Baloji has done more cutting-edge work, some of which includes being a representative for a Studio Africa initiative supported by Diesel and EDUN. During our chat, we discussed his current obsession with American rap up-and-comer Kendrick Lamar, touched a bit upon the situation in his country of birth, and spoke at length about the music industry and how, maybe, he was just not made for its cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all approach to the marketing and promotion of music.
Ts'eliso Monaheng: You did the BBC proms in August 2012 with Staff Benda Bilili. Take us through the experience.
Baloji: That was really cool, playing in this amazing venue, Royal Albert Hall, and especially to share the stage with Staff Benda Bilili.
TM: Did you feel that the audience 'got' what you were doing on-stage?
B: I don't know what they were expecting. You never know what the audience expects, you just do your thing and you expect them to enjoy your performance. But there is nothing predictable; you cannot have an idea of what they like or what they dislike. Just do what you do nobly; if they like it, it's good, if they don't, too bad. But stick to what you are.
TM: One of the most important things that you got to do was to perform in both Lubumbashi and Kinshasa. Take us through that experience.
B: I learnt a lot from the first time I played in Kinshasa. Trying to please the audience, that was the biggest mistake I could ever make. The more you try to please the audience, the more you lose yourself. You don't give something that is yours; it doesn't have to be radical, but has to be what you are. By definition, what you are is unique. We're all different persons, so we have to put that in front instead of searching and looking for a way to please the audience, to make the music that they want to hear for certain reasons.
TM: On your current project, ‘Kinshasa Succursale’, your ability to let the song’s rhythm dictate your flow stands out. Is song structure important to your writing process?
B: The rhythm dictates the flow, so that was an interesting experience for me because rap is not made for the 6/8 rhythm, which is the basis for Congolese music and for West African music. You can even see the way that rap has changed lately, people rap on different kind of rhythms - double-time, treble-time. It's a movement that's going [that direction], and it's good to challenge emcees.
TM: How do you feel that your art has progressed since the days of Starflam in the late nineties?
B: Now it's really different. When I was in Starflam, I was just sixteen years old; I was the youngest member of the group. It was a group with seven people, nobody really took a decision. We always followed the direction that pleased most of the group.
TM: You did say in one interview that it is impossible to have a democracy in a group setting.
B: I don't believe in democracy in music, I really don't. We try to push that, but it's not possible. Somebody always has to make the decision and seek what is the best thing to do. So that's really the key.
TM: You mention on the song "Karibu ya Bintou" that 'failure's not an option', in the context of the Congo and the Congolese people. Do you feel that our leaders on the African continent have failed us as people?
B: I don't know, the African situation is so complex. Sometimes I can think that what happened in South Africa is the same situation that happened Nigeria, it’s the same that happened in the Congo, but that is not true. It's all different situations with different histories. That makes the situation what it is, unique and with its own solution, its own path, and its own history. It's a song about 'keep believing [in] what you're doing, instead of being insecure and searching for wrong explanations.'
TM: Another aspect to the Congo is this conflict that continues to divide the country. Can you give a bit of background into how it started?
B: What happened yesterday for example* [is that] army groups are now approaching Goma and are about to invade the city, literally. That's a really strange situation and no one can really explain that, that's really sad. So we don't have a solution for that.
TM: So what is the unifying factor amongst Congolese people currently?
B: A lot of things, people are proud of being Congolese like any other country.
TM: You have recorded with a broad range of artists, from Spoek Mathambo to Blitz the Ambassador. Do you have plans to do more cross-continental collaborations?
B: We did a couple of things. The thing is that I don't know when it's gonna be released, I have some label issues for the moment. So I don't know how things are going to happen, but we'll see.
TM: It's interesting how you funded the entire recording process of ‘Kinshasa Succursale’ out of your own pocket, and how all the 'cool' labels rejected the final product. What does it take for an artist to break free of the mould of being labelled as 'special'?
B: There are no rules. I mean [for some people] there is one rule: follow a marketing plan and stick to a formula, and make something that is synchronised with what the hipster movement is about now. Or you can try to do something different. I made a song with Petite Noir from South Africa, and there’s already a marketing plan. He doesn't have an album yet, but he already has a marketing plan - which media, which songs, what kind of visuals and what kind of approach you have to put out to make them like your stuff. And that works. I don't know if I'm ready to do that, but I have to respect the way he put his whole structure around what's happening now and how to please key media and alternative audiences. I'm really far from that, and I thought that I was doing something that was different, that was interesting for those labels. But then I realised when I sent the album first, then the album with the video, then the album with the video and the visual...there was nothing that was happening at that time that they could associate it with. So that’s always the problem, and that's why people want to create a movement, which is something I'm not really up for. A movement means they put you in a box, and I'm against that. You have to study this business, and a lot of young artists are just studying this business.
TM: So what is your current approach? Are you going to stick to touring? What’s the plan?
B: For the moment, I'm working on a new album, writing, and I feel good about it from what I have so far. Things are getting together, but we're not there yet. Basically I'm broke, all the money was invested in Kinshasa Succursale. You pay for everything, everything! That's why I'm always surprised by all these people who stay independent, I don't know how they do that. [Either] they trick it, or they're liars - it's one or the other. Or they have a lot of connections and friends and people who put money in it. Money-wise, it's too difficult.
TM: Are you going to follow the same formula for the new album as you did for the last one?
B: I don't know, now I don't have money to do that anymore. That's why I’m searching for a situation with people that can put in money. I was with a label that had good intentions, but no money. And I mean money to make this project; it’s expensive with the travelling and all these expenses. You need a little bit of money to make it. That's part of the game; I agreed to do it, and we have to understand that it's difficult.
TM: You play with very seasoned musicians. Where are they based?
B: They're based in Belgium, just like me. It took me some time to find that we understand each other. For example, my guitar player is sixty-five years old, he’s been a musician since he was sixteen, and he's not really a fan of rap. It took time to meet each other in-between. It took us two years, literally two years to be somewhere that we understand each other, and to do music that we both agree to do. That's the true life. Anyone who tries to say that to go on stage is easy, that a frontman doesn't need his musicians, that he can just replace them with whatever random musician - it's not true. You need to have a sound and to have something cohesive. You need to work with people, you need to understand them. They need to get your point across clearly. That's why I never change my musicians; I always work with the same people. And it's the same for the rest, I'm still doing my [album] cover with the same guy, my mix with the same guy, same engineer - always the same people.
TM: So that you'll have this uniform identity throughout the career that you’re currently building...
B: We're trying. I believe that when you find good people, you stick to them, and that helps you to understand each other and to go deeper. And again you save money, because you already know each other.
TM: You had issues with your mother a few years back. Are you on speaking terms now?
B: Not really. We haven't really had the chance to speak to each other. It's a strange situation when the person you're supposed to be the closest to is a stranger, and has a different perspective. Living in your world, you get a European perspective, and she just has a Congolese perspective. They don’t really match; one of the two has to give up some parts of their own ideas to meet the other one's expectation. That's the situation in the diaspora, to find your way between the country you are staying in, that reminds you everyday that you are different, and your native country. Also the fact that you have access to stuff that they don't have, your vision changes. When you have time to think, that means you have less time to think about what you're gonna eat. Everybody says that philosophy is something to do when your stomach is full. So there are different approaches. My family in Africa has a different approach.
TM: Was it a conscious decision to re-make songs from ‘Hotel Impala’ on your second album?
B: For me, Kinshasa Succursale was an in-between project. It was something I felt the urge to do, just the Congolese version of the first album. But then you get there, you meet people, and everything changes. What happened during those sessions was so great that when I came back I felt the need to work on this project, to give it a proper release and the proper exposure, and to give my best to this record. But my publisher thought it was trash, my label thought it was trash, all my friends were like 'have you lost your mind?' And that pushed me to say 'fuck it, I'm gonna do it!’ It took me two years to have that record in my hand, two years of struggle! But with the struggle we had so much luck - I say now that we had luck. I put all my money in it because I believed in it. You don't like the album, are you gonna like it with the video? No?! So what are we gonna do? [We] put the band on the road and maybe convince them. It took time, it took us a year and a half for the band to have something that made sense. And then we had some great responses from the US and the press – Guardian, New York Times - they basically saved us. Then all the people that thought I was trash liked it. Then we finally said 'okay, if we want to go bigger with this live band, we need to have an album out.' And now it became 'wow, you created something!', and I'm like the same people had that record two years ago!
TM: Does the radio show you support out there?
B: No, because it doesn't fit the format. It's nice to play a catchy, almost-cheesy song like 'Independence cha-cha,' but it's not for the format. It's not something that you can play next to Rihanna or whatever electronic beats. It has nothing to do with all this movement that is on the radio now. So we don’t have a lot of radio support.
TM: What keeps you motivated?
B: A lot of things, I love this music. I'm honest with it, I do it because it’s what I love the most, and in a way it's fun. So it's not just struggling, because I have the freedom to do what I want, or I take that freedom. So just trying to be yourself and doing what you are, it's you and your luck at the end of the day. Now I think I'm quite lucky. I know some people who tried to please the market and to please the audience, they're not around anymore.