Monday, August 3, 2009

Bajah & The Dry Eye Crew Give Voice to the Voiceless in Sierra Leone (Huffington Post)

"Dry Eye is like being bold, not being afraid to say what you wanna say. It's like being outspoken, you understand?" That's what it means to be "Dry Eye" according to Bajah, frontman of Bajah + The Dry Eye Crew, a burgeoning hip-hop group from Sierra Leone who released their first mixtape to American audiences earlier this week. Already national superstars in their native Sierra Leone, The Dry Eye Crew are one of the fastest rising acts on the international music scene today. They've released ten albums since 2000 in Sierra Leone, and their first full-length LP is due out in the fall with guest appearances from hip-hop luminaries Talib Kweli, Black Thought, ?uestlove, and fellow African hip-hop sensation K'Naan from Somalia.

Bajah + The Dry Eye Crew consist of Bajah, A-Klazz and Dovy Dovy. The three rappers came together in Sierra Leone where they're embraced as 'the voice of the voiceless.' Sierra Leone has a history of suppressing the freedom of the press, so when musicians take an active role in creating conscious dialogue, people take notice. It helps, of course, that The Crew has an electric stage presence and energy led by Bajah's rapid fire lyrics reinforced by live instrumentation and call and response refrains. They have the floor shaking rhythm of dance hall with the social consciousness of Fela Kuti, a combination that's creating a craze around their name.

Bajah + The Dry Eye Crew first made headway in the American market with the help of their record label, Modiba Productions, in the summer of 2007. Label president Eric Herman described how the process unfolded, "Vanessa Wruble [manager] reached out to Modiba after having been recommended us on a music listserve. We met them at a coffee shop with about a dozen of their friends -- fairly overwhelming. First thing Bajah told us: 'I wanna be bigger than Akon'. I was out of town during that summer on tour with Vieux Farka Toure -- Jesse Brenner helped Bajah and Dry Eye put some shows together in NYC and kept reporting back to me how phenomenal they were. The night I got back from tour they played a showcase at Joe's Pub and they knocked me on my ass. We started moving towards signing them the next day."

It's been a gradual process for Modiba and Dry Eye. Bajah's first single in Sierra Leone, "Grap n Clap", was featured on the soundtrack for 2006 film Blood Diamond . Then in August of 2007, their first single "Ease the Tension", was released online as a free download and was eventually featured in the Canadian drama TV show "The Border" on CBC last year. And earlier this week their first mixtape, Kings of Salone: The DJ Gravy Mixtape, was released online through the their website and websites. (Salone is what natives call Sierra Leone.)

The Crew is now living in Brooklyn, NY and are focused on penetrating the US market. Bajah commented on the transition from Sierra Leone to Brooklyn, "Well, you know Sierra Leone is the least developed country, so if we can [survive] in Sierra Leone we can [survive] any other place. We're trying to adapt to the American style. Sierra Leone is our homeland, so people already know what we're capable of doing, the fans are already going crazy for us, they really love what we're doing you know? We're for the people, and they already know us back home, but in Brooklyn, we're not yet known, so sometimes people give us the Dry Eye sign, and we'll keep things moving."

Bajah has high hopes for Dry Eye's first full length album, but having released ten albums already in Sierra Leone, he knows it's a process, "Since this is my first album, I really want it to be huge, but since it's my first, I just want to see the reception of the people. I don't know what people are going to like. When I did my thing in Sierra Leone I put out my first album in a different style and saw how people reacted and then changed things up from there." The process of working with icons like Talib Kweli and ?uestlove was a humbling experience for him, "Back in the day when I was still in Africa, I used to see ?uestlove, Talib Kweli, I used to see these people on TV, I never knew I was gonna meet these people, shake hands with them, work with them, you know, so it's a blessing."

Bajah speaks on the Wall Street Journal-hosted Planet Hip-Hop panel at Lincoln Center August 4th, alongside ?uestlove, Chuck D. and Steve Stoute, discussing international hip-hop. Then August 6th, Bajah + the Dry Eye Crew perform at Lincoln Center's Damrosch Park Bandshell as part of the free show, Hip-Hop Generation Next.

Nigerian Government Close The New Afrika Shrine (Huffington Post)

What would you do if two nights before you planned to leave the country for several months to travel across North America and Europe, the government showed up at your front door and said you and everyone else who lives in your building has 24 hours to vacate the premises? What if your home was also your place of business in addition to a community center and shelter for dozens of downtrodden members of your community?

That was the dilemma facing Femi Anikulapo Kuti two weeks ago. Just nights before he was set to embark on an international tour across North America and Europe, the Nigerian government decreed The New Afrika Shrine, Femi's home base nightclub in Lagos, Nigeria, was to be closed permanently. The Shrine, however, is more than simply a music venue -- it is a sanctuary for the homeless and dispossessed, a community center meeting place and the headquarters for the Kutis' movement to better the lives of ordinary Nigerians by speaking out against corruption, encouraging empowerment, and distributing anti-aids literature and contraception.

The original Afrika Shrine was built in the seventies by Femi's father, Fela Anikulapo Kuti. Femi started playing with his father's band, Egypt 80, at the age of 16. It was at the original Afrika
Shrine that Femi started performing with his own band, Positive Force, on Sunday nights. Femi started developing his own sound, going in his own direction, and since then has released nine albums and toured the world several times.

Femi Kuti and Positive Force are one of the most powerfully revolutionary musical acts left on the planet. From the music itself -- wailing horns and voices sailing over the multi-layered
percussive elements accentuated by scratchy guitars and winding bass lines, all facilitated by an army of musicians and dancers that overtake any stage they touch, to their powerful message of African unity, accountability in government, and peace -- very few acts on the planet can compete.

So in a way, it's understandable why the Nigerian government wants the Shrine's doors permanently closed. According to Femi, it's due to the crowds that block the roads connecting to the club, "They said people were selling things outside, like sweets, and fried meats, biscuits, things like this on the streets, not in the shrine, on the streets, on the major road. So they are closing the shrine because we let people come and sell things there. How do they expect us to get rid of these people? Do we own the road? The road belongs to the federal government. How we can we go to the federal governments' property and 'say get out of here?' It's the government's problem to do that. They have to remove them not us."

The Nigerian government does have a history when it comes to harassing the Kuti family. Femi's father was arrested over 200 times in his life, and his dwelling place was attacked more than once by the Nigerian army. Femi is very different from his father in a lot of ways, but unfortunately, he cannot escape his family name and the pedigree with which it comes.

Femi asserts that the CIA was behind the most famous attack on his father's compound, a raid in which his house was set on fire, his family raped and beaten, and his mother thrown out of a second story window. "An american, I don't want to name names here, came to warn my father before the attack and warned him the CIA wanted him dead. He said it many times. He was warned that the CIA was going to kill him. I was there, I heard him say it many times. Any western government is always opposed to any Pan-African in government."

Like his father, Femi has always stood for the empowerment of Africans and against corruption. Femi was proud to see Barack Obama elected president but does not want him to give African governments any kind of pass because of his African roots, "I hope he won't be lenient in dealing with the corruption of African governments because he's a black man. I hope he doesn't fall for that. He has to be very objective, because all the African governments are corrupt. I think that is where he should be hard because he should want Africa to become a great continent. He has to be very hard on his policies, because he has to put an end to the corruption with his policies in Africa. He has to prove that the African government is not being proper democracy according to what we know it should be."

Femi Kuti and Positive Force are currently touring across North America. There is a petition to the Governor of Lagos and Nigeria's Minister of Justice circulating online for the re-opening of the Shrine. Please go to this website and add your name to the list because in the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."