Tracing his roots has been an important part of Baloji’s music from the start.
Moving to Belgium from the Democratic Republic of the Congo at an early age, the solo material he’s released since 2007 has been about exploring his connection with the country which he first called home. His first album, Hotel Impala, was written as a way of explaining to his mother in the DRC what he’d been doing with his life in the 25 years before they reconnected. On his second, Kinshasa Succursale, he worked with a troop of Congolese musicians to root his songs in the country’s traditional forms.
His new EP, 64 Bits & Malachite, offers a far more open drift from Congolese soukous to hip hop and the souped up Belgian dance culture in which he grew up. It also addresses the country’s political and social realities much more head on than before: take the two astronaut figures in the video for ‘Capture’, for example. The pair, part of the Kinshasa-based Kongo Astronauts art project, appear as a clear nod to the afrofuturist symbolism of figures like Sun Ra. An aesthetic created in response to the impossible conditions imposed on those in the African diaspora, it forms a part of what their website’s About page says is the “the interzone of digital globalization where the past, future and present collide and crash into the politics of intimacy and the identity of urban and rural lives.”
In recent months, their project has also inadvertently become a symbol for music to emerge from the DRC, with a solitary member of the astronauts also appearing on the sleeve of the Mbongwana Star album released in June. When I interviewed its producer Doctor L, he said the interaction between Western producers and musicians in African countries should be “about finding a good balance”. So rather than the supposed-authenticity of “world music” of the 80s recorded in European studios, he argued that his active role in shaping the record is an inevitability that we should be open about.
Historically one of the most resource-rich African nations, there’s some sense in looking at the Congo’s music in terms of the colonial and globalised disruption that its minerals have invited. It bears a connection to another recurring image in artists who have recently emerged from there, one also suggested by the astronauts’ jarringly foreign spacesuits: the figure of the outsider.
Speaking to UK-based Miles From Kinshasa whose moniker foregrounds the distance between him and his birthplace, for example, he explained the impact of being exposed to his dad’s Congolese CD collection while being raised in London: “The way I was creating my melodies, the rhythmic patterns in my music, it felt like it was part of my subconscious.” The two-way traffic of ideas across the Congo’s borders, it seems, is closely related to the sense of estrangement or alienation which connects this current crop of musicians.
Meeting Baloji in the plush surroundings of Shoreditch House, we spoke about technology, record label wranglings and the effect his own outsider status has had on his music and the way it’s received.
The production on the new EP is a big change from your last album. The Congolese influences are still there but the interplay between those and the modern side of things seems much more fluid.
The thing is that, for me, to go back with Congolese roots, it was very important to go back and do it in a traditional way. It’s like, if you’re doing painting you have to know how to… I don’t know how you say it in English. You have to know how to a nature mort if you want to do your own. And for me, my last record was me trying to do the old classics.
So the idea that, in order to break the rules, you need to learn what they are in the first place.
Exactly. So that record we did four years ago, we recorded live, we recorded fourteen songs in six days with like 35 musicians. Super organic. We do six takes, if somebody makes a mistake, it doesn’t matter, it’s part of the process. And this one is the opposite: because, for me, it was very important to have something spontaneous so I know how it works. And now I have the freedom to do everything I want. I can have fun with it.
But it’s still important to you to have that Congolese element in your music?
Yes, it’s the essence. As much as hip hop, as much as… I’m raised in Belgium and the biggest music we had was trance music. Because it’s one of the birthplaces of this kind of music. So even if I didn’t listen to it, it was all around me, you cannot escape it, the 90s trance music. You know, crazy BPMs, impossible to dance to. And in all the nicest places to go, that was the only music that people were playing, so we were attracted to it, even if we were more into hip hop.
When was it that you felt that you wanted to incorporate the Congo into your music? It’s very central to your new EP in terms of the subject matter right through to the artwork.
It happened very organically. Because I’m a very hip hop-orientated person, coming straight from sampling culture. I was in a hip hop group called Starflamm in Belgium, where two of the musicians were from Colombia. So I felt more confident with Colombian music than African music, because for me it was boring: the music of my dad, my parents. Because you don’t want to listen to the records of your dad, you know?
And one day I was just sampling, and I think the easiest way to get into African music when you’re used to hip hop and Latin and all this funk, soul, the easiest way is to get into Fela Kuti because he has all this James Brown influence. One day I found Manu Dibango and took the craziest sample from him. So I made a beat and thought it was something interesting, because it doesn’t sound so from the American record, like any other rapper could take.
So the day I sampled this guy, it was like, “Okay, this is something more personal than just sampling Donald Byrd or Curtis Mayfield like American people do, and doing a loop.” So I went to sample some Congolese stuff and, suddenly, I thought it was interesting. Because for me it was boring music, but suddenly I realised, “Oh that’s Congolese too? And this?” Because I had a one-dimensional idea of Congolese music. It’s like saying British music is The Beatles, it’s like saying that. And in a way, for me, it was like saying Congolese music is just the rumba, romantic boring stuff. But there are so many things.
It seems that in some African countries, like the Congo, the division between traditional and modern music is quite stark because of the way the way the radio is dominated by commercial music imported from places like America.
That’s why South Africa is really at the forefront, because they have access to wifi more than most other countries. And I think the wifi aspect is really a crucial one, because it means that when a new song from comes out by…I don’t know, Animal Collective for example, they have it. Which is not the case in the Congo. They don’t know the new Jamie xx, they don’t know, they only know the pop and the big commercial songs. It’s not on their radar.
But in the countries where they have wifi, like Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa, there is a huge difference.
“10 years ago every continent was fascinated by the logos of Chanel or Dior, but it’s now the Apple logo that is fascinating the whole world.”
One thing I noticed in the video for ‘Capture’ was that the Kongo Astronauts feature in it, who were also on the cover of the Mbongwana Star album that came from the Congo earlier this year. How did that connection come about?
Well I actually had got them involved two years ago but my project has been so delayed that it’s only now that it’s coming out. The link was very natural because most of the work they’re doing at the moment is about the idea of researching the Congolese soil, where they’re looking for cryptonite.
So that’s what they’ve been working on for the past two years, which makes total sense with my project, 64 Bits and Malachite. There’s a common story there about the richness of the Congolese soil, which I think is an interesting metaphor. We were just talking about that and decided that we should just connect the two.
I also felt that there was a connection in the way that the astronauts suggest the idea of being outsiders, which you are to an extent in the Congo.
The fact that I’m officially Congolese but from the diaspora means that they can play my songs on the radio with this type of subject matter. Because any other local artist touching these kinds of subjects doesn’t get any airplay, television, nothing. Because there is no record industry, there’s only artists signed to beer or mobile phone companies, so they have to please the clients, the people funding them.
They can’t touch social or political issues. So for them, the fact that I’m coming from the diaspora, the fact they can say, “He’s an outsider,” for them it’s an excuse to be able to play my music. Whereas local artists can’t think about touching these subjects, because there’s no record industry, there’s nothing. My second video, for ‘Unite et Litre’, touches on this subject: unite is a unit for a phone, to recharge it, and it also means unity. And litre is a beer, because it’s always sold in litres, you can’t buy it smaller.
And those are the two products you see everywhere for one dollar, because they are public funders, they are public institutions, they put money into schools, art, music, everything, because it’s not a priority for the government. So all the TV channels are owned by beer companies, they’re fighting each other and they control everything. So you can buy vegetables for more money than a litre of beer. So that’s why nobody who’s local can talk about these issues.
There seems to be a lot of wordplay in relation to politics across the EP in general.
The main focus of the EP is about being a metaphor for our time, in terms of how the devices that we live with are programmed to be old and obsolete very fast. All my music is computer-based on this project, and so knowing that 40% of the devices we use come from the African soil, it was interesting to work with the image of malachite as the only mineral from the Congolese soil with no value.
It has absolutely no value except sentimental, where people use it to make jewellery or things like that. It’s like a residue of copper, copper that’s old. Nobody cares about old copper. 64 bit is about the computer processor and its constant progression. I think it’s a nice metaphor for our time.
And do you think that there’s anything particular about that to the Congo?
No, what’s interesting is that ten years ago every continent was fascinated by the logos of Chanel or Dior, but it’s now the Apple logo that is fascinating the whole world. Everybody wants an Apple product they can use to connect to the wifi.
But, like you mentioned before, it’s the wifi available in certain countries which enable the kind of global connections that exist in your music. So those products have their good and bad sides.
But I [have those connections] because I think that we don’t have to choose. And the reason that my projects get delayed so much is because labels want me to choose, and I don’t want to choose. [To them] you either do a hip hop record, or an electronic one, or world music, which to me is something very bad. To me, it’s a polite way of saying “third world music”. I don’t want to choose, because I get influenced by everything. I mention Animal Collective, some French singer, some 70s rock band, and we spoke about Sun Ra, who’s a major influence. You don’t have to choose. And it’s more difficult to sell it, but that’s not why we do music.
And it’s been four years since your last album, hasn’t it?
Yeah because I struggled with every label having issues with what I was doing. The French market is very segmented in its structure and they couldn’t fit me into any boxes. The thing is, I’m rapping, I produce my own beats, I direct my videos, I do poetry, photographs. You have to be a certain type of artist, it has to be very clear what you are.
And they don’t like it, so I really struggled to find a label who would get on board with my project. And even the one I signed with still don’t really get it: they’re just like, you know, “What are we gonna do with this guy?” [laughs]. They just want pop songs. The industry, particularly in this French-speaking market, is so one-dimensional. My manager showed me the Mercury Prize, and we don’t have the equivalent of that to give value to independent, alternative projects.
What’s the response been like to your music in the Congo?
It’s getting known, more and more. It took time, because the first time I went there was more family-orientated as I made a first album that was dedicated to my mum, and I reconnected with my mum for the first time after 25 years. I made a record and before releasing the record and wanted to give it to her for her approval, so went back for the first time in 2007.
And I had a hard time because, as a Congolese from the diaspora, you try to be like everybody else. But you’re different. Just by the way you walk, the way you talk, the way you think, you’re just different. But the moment that I accepted that I was different in the Congo, everything was great. But before that, I had a hard time, because I was always trying to be part of the community.
Going back to what you said about world music, how do you view the way music made in Africa is received elsewhere?
People really love Malian music because of the rock or bluesy feel. You can identify with it and there are less things you can identify with in Congolese music, for example, or in music from Ethiopia. People need certain elements to feel connected to music from different regions.
What’s interesting is that the very traditional Congolese music is called musique de trance. It’s basically music to be in a mood. I don’t want to put a wrong turn to it, but it’s like music to be on your psyche. It’s like one melodic idea and you keep going. And the whole of trance music is based on the same logic; all this electronic music is based on this one line, where you keep going and going.
Maybe only the drum that gives you the impulse is the same, it’s just the way that people read it that’s different. But the logic, the way it’s built up, is exactly the same. It’s like in Konono No 1 they’re playing on the electric piano, where it’s only mono and you can’t have a lot of melodies, so you just play these small parts. And they keep going, for two hours! And people get in the mood, like you have in any club, anywhere in the world. It’s the same.