The Globetrotter

Blitz the Ambassador is not your average Bed-Stuy rapper. In a neighborhood that’s birthed generations of kids hoping to be the next Biggie or Jay Z, Blitz is an outlier; a Ghana-bred, Ohio-schooled striver, who moved to the central Brooklyn neighborhood like the rest of us: a 32-year-old cosmopolitan maverick hungry for success in the big city.

My fascination with Blitz dates back to last May, when I ventured out to the Soul of Brooklyn festival in Bed-Stuy to see him perform. Crowds of native Brooklynites or recent arrivals had flocked to the daylong event, hosted by the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts. They sauntered around tents, swapping Instagram handles and poring over local artisan jewelry and tote bags.

As if cued by the setting sun, Blitz took the stage. He wore a simple navy cotton suit and white shirt adorned by a yellow scarf bursting with a bold Ghanaian wax print pattern, and he immediately lit up the audience with a slew of opening songs from his most recent studio album, Native Sun. Fans pressed closer to the edge of the stage, simultaneously trying to make room for themselves to dance along to his fast-tempo rap songs. Blitz’s energy seemed to seep into the audience, as his five-piece band kept up the beat, dancing along to the music as they blew into their horns. A crowd that in another environment might have oozed nonchalant cool instead seemed to let its guard down as Blitz played on, nodding their heads and singing lyrics until their voices grew hoarse. By the end of the night, they filtered out of the venue veiled in thin layers of sweat, smiles across their faces, unabashedly riding the musical high. The rapper not-from-Bed-Stuy seemed to have done the impossible, winning over the seasoned hip-hop heads that made up the crowd.

But performances have not always run so smoothly for Blitz, whose offstage name is Samuel Bazawule. Months later, at one of the few Ghanaian restaurants in New York City, he reminisced about his first major gig — an outdoor concert in his hometown of Accra. He was the last act to perform after hip-hop groups VIP and Les Nubians, but just as he and his band were ready to take the stage, a rainstorm tore through the city. As concertgoers began a mass exodus toward cars and cabs, looking to escape the downpour, Blitz remained backstage, weighing his options. Rescheduling was not one of them, since he had another performance the following day in Nigeria, so it was now or never. But then again, there was the slight threat of electrocution if his guitarist attempted to brave the rain while fully plugged in. Unwilling to let his hometown down, Blitz decided to move forward with the show. He is a rapper, after all.

Ibrahim “Swaye” Muniro, a pop culture blogger in Accra, was one of Blitz’s earliest followers. Muniro was not in the audience that soggy night, but he says he considers it a pivotal moment for the artist. Despite the modest publicity that went into the concert, Swaye admires Blitz’s determination to deliver a knockout performance replete with demands for an encore, in the pouring rain. He charts this moment at the beginning of Blitz’s ascent to fame. “People were skeptical at first,” Muniro says. “But that's how they came to see who he was.”

There was a time when the phrase “African music” in the United States conjured up images of heavy drums covered in cowhide and lyrics sung in local languages, a genre that appealed only to the type of Americans who had completed a Peace Corps assignment or regularly sported jewelry studded with ambiguous amulets and loose linen pants.

But recent waves of African migration to the US, beginning in the 1970s, has birthed a new generation of young, ambitious, globally-minded individuals who challenge narrow perceptions of African culture through their work. In the 2005 essay “Bye-Bye Barbar,” published in the Britain-based LIP Magazine, Ghanaian-Nigerian writer Taiye Selasi coined a term for this group: “afropolitans.”

While relatively new, the concept has proliferated throughout the African diaspora. Since New York has one of the largest populations of African immigrants, the conversation is particularly charged in the city. City notables who could be described afropolitan include recent Academy Award-winner Lupita Nyong’o, born in Mexico, raised in Kenya, residing in (where else?) Brooklyn, and literary lights like Nigerian-American novelist Teju Cole. With his fourth album, Afropolitan Dreams, due out on April 28 from Jakarta Records, Blitz hopes to join their ranks as a household name. At least amongst the cultured denizens of Brooklyn.

Blitz moved to the US when he was 18 years old. Now 32, he has lived almost as long in America as he did in Ghana. This duality of national exposure and influences reverberates in his music. His instrumental compositions blend the brassy sounds of trumpets, trombones, and saxophones with percussion and bass featuring a drum set; djembe, a popular West African drum; and electric guitar. This fusion results in a sound rooted in highlife, a jazzy blend of traditional Ghanaian music and Western instrumentation that developed at the end of the nineteenth century. But rather than croon along to these rich instrumentals like so many of his musical forefathers, Blitz raps over the traditional music. His subject matter is similarly eclectic — on the single “Emmett (S)Till” he sings about the lynching of Emmett Till; on Afropolitan Dreams there’s a song about retired Congolese-American NBA star Dikembe Mutombo.

Among hip-hop heads in Accra, Blitz’s music falls under the umbrella of hiplife, a combination of highlife and hip-hop that dates to the early ’90s. Growing up in Ghana, cultivating his career as an artist and an immigrant in Brooklyn, and arriving at a point where he could travel the world as a musician, Blitz embodies the typical narrative of the afropolitan, if such an idea could ever be typical.

And his rise has been mirrored by the increasing prominence of afropolitans. In New York, there are numerous organizations that cater to the legions of African artists, writers, bankers, media entrepreneurs, and designers. Every weekend seems to bring a new Nollywood movie screening (the Nigerian film industry produces around 1,000 films a year, second only to Bollywood in volume), literary panel discussion featuring a Caine Prize-winning writer, or exhibition of African artists like El Anatsui or Wangechi Mutu at the Brooklyn Museum.

These gatherings are hosted by people like Nana-Ama Kyerematen, an investor relations professional at a hedge fund who serves as the founding director of Afridiaspora, a social network for Africans in the US. Born in Ghana, she grew up in Los Angeles, and for the past six years, she’s been in Brooklyn; she’s moved from Boerum Hill to Bed-Stuy to East Flatbush, and now to Crown Heights. She has noticed a quiet shift in the center of gravity of the African population from places like Harlem and the Bronx to Brooklyn, as young, upwardly mobile Africans move to the borough. The Brooklyn contingent, she says, feels younger and edgier, which suits her. “Brooklyn is more my kind of African,” she says.

Journalist-turned-novelist Ayesha Harruna Attah was first introduced to Blitz in 2010, when the rapper performed at the Ghanaian Parade and Festival at Crotona Park in the Bronx. The writer has since remained a casual listener, and has caught him at other events around the city. Attah says the afropolitans of Brooklyn (whom she finds more artsy and less “Wall Street” than those in, say, Harlem or New Jersey) are a presence in the borough — though they sometimes find themselves feeling out of place, she says. “I have a friend from Botswana, and we joke and say we’re the only Africans in Bushwick,” she says. Wary of labels, Attah says she identifies with some of the characteristics of the afropolitan. “I can see how and where that applies to me. We’ve grown up in big cities in Africa and the US, constantly going back and forth. If you asked me where my roots are, I’d say Ghana, but I’d also say here. An afropolitan is just about having a peripatetic ability.”

On an evening this past fall, I’ve met Blitz for dinner at Papaye, a Ghanaian restaurant in the Bronx neighborhood of Concourse. When the food arrives, Blitz pauses before digging into his grilled tilapia and laughs. “Whenever I come here, I make sure not to eat too much before,” he says. “I know I’m going to still have leftovers for tomorrow.”

Blitz, like many touring musicians, isn’t the easiest person to get in touch with. When he arrived at dinner late, he apologized profusely, both for the delay and for his sporadic responses to my interview requests. It was only after sixteen exchanged emails, countless tweets, and one gentle-yet-determined confrontation during one of his concerts at Webster Hall, over a period of seven months, that we were finally able to arrange the interview.

Blitz has not come to Papaye alone; he is flanked by a younger Kenyan musician who assisted with the production of his latest EP, The Warm Up, and a sharp-tongued visual artist who stands toe-to-toe with Blitz throughout a debate on the state of hip-hop in America.

Those who join musicians to their interviews often take on the demeanor of people dragged along on a friend’s errands. But Blitz actually engages with his guests, explaining to them different aspects of Ghanaian cuisine and listening to their mixtape tracks. The dominant topics at dinner are musical innovation — and the lack thereof — in hip-hop; the difficulties of traveling internationally as a Ghanaian with an American permanent residency; and Blitz’s mounting anxiety over Ghana’s national soccer team and its performance against Egypt in the first of two World Cup qualifying matches. “If I die of a heart attack, it will be during a Black Stars match,” he says with a laugh. (The Black Stars ultimately beat out Egypt for the qualifying spot, and will face the United States in the opening round.)

The one-course dinner spans a couple of hours. Blitz has the warmth of an old neighbor, even with those he’s just met. He seems able to negotiate a range of cultural landscapes, never seeming affected or ill at ease, a professional in code-switching, a true afropolitan, as described by Selasi.

Without so much as shifting in his seat, he greets the restaurant owners in Twi, the most widely spoken local language in Ghana, and then dives into an impassioned analysis of America’s currently reigning hip-hop artists. Jay Z is becoming overrated and Kendrick Lamar is the future king, he says in a syllable-punching New York City accent. He is just as likely to pepper his language with exclamations of a Brooklyn “yo!” as he is with “chale,” Ghanaian slang roughly equivalent to “dude.”

Because the emigration process often requires deep pockets and strong connections to immigration authorities, Africans who come to the West tend to have some means. But they’re not all wealthy. Critics of afropolitanism, like award-winning Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina, say the very concept homogenizes the African identity because it excludes a large number of poorer African emigrants. For Wainaina, afropolitanism is little more than a trendy label manufactured by the West.

Blitz falls somewhat in between. Though his parents were professionals, his family didn’t always have it easy. “I moved around a bit,” he says after dinner. “My father lost his job working for the foreign affairs. For a long time, my family really struggled, my dad being out of work, and my mom was an educator; she taught grade school. We went through that period.”

When Papaye empties out, Blitz slips one of the restaurant owners a few dollars, and for the next little while, the restaurant remains unofficially open after hours.

As he takes a sip from a bottle of Malta Guinness, a popular drink in Ghana, Blitz explains that when he was younger, he was originally interested in visual art. He was the kid bringing home awards from competitions for his drawing skills. Even now, Blitz designs all of his concert posters, flyers, and album cover art, employing a striking combination of pop art, simple geometric shapes, and the same multilayered and colorful Ghanaian patterns he sports as accessories when he performs.

He was 10 years old when he was first exposed to the very new American hip-hop scene through his older brother. Public Enemy had performed at a concert in Accra that year, and soon after, his brother began to smuggle home cassette tapes from boarding school for Blitz to listen to.

The group’s unapologetic mix of music and politics appealed to Blitz. He respected their subversive approach when addressing the racial and economic oppression of American blacks. His admiration only grew when the group toured the continent. “Artists that had any kind of African leaning, I liked,” Blitz says. “I felt legitimized as an audience member, listening to the art but also feeling that I was participating in some way.”

Inspired by the music he heard, Blitz began to draw his favorite artists — A Tribe Called Quest, Chuck D, Busta Rhymes — while listening to their music. He had a knack for understanding American hip-hop dialect, and translating it to his friends; he earned the unofficial title of “hip-hop scribe,” writing down lyrics for his peers to read and recite. One song in particular is imprinted in his memory. “I remember, this was ’94, writing Biggie’s ‘Warning.’ To this day, it’s one of the few hip-hop songs I remember word for word because I spent hours trying to decipher what he was saying,” Blitz says. “And it’s funny because now I listen to it and I’m like, ‘I was totally wrong on a bunch of lines.’ I was making up a whole lot of shit.”

Eventually, Blitz stopped simply writing others’ lyrics and began making up lines of his own. “I started finding that I could also throw my name in there, and I could change a few words to fit our circumstances at home,” he says. “I became obsessed with that, and in time I started writing my own lyrics.” He admits that his first songs were not his best, but while his music has evolved, the influence of hip-hop’s founding fathers continues to surface in his music.

In “EN-trance,” from Native Sun, sandwiched between verses in Twi, Blitz raps in English: “Far from the regular rapper, this is something that you kinda gotta get used to / Sorta like Fela Kuti mixed with Public Enemy and Desmond Tutu,” a series of name checks that speak to his unique fusion of rich instrumentality and political consciousness across the African diaspora.

At the Soul of Brooklyn concert, I heard Blitz perform “Get Involved,” a single with an aggressive thumping beat. Set against a keyboard and cymbal duet, the song’s rhythm brings to mind images of hip-hop in its adolescence, when brilliant yet frustrated young black men crouched on brownstone stoops, writing the blueprint for an art form that would take over popular music.

In “Get Involved,” Blitz pays homage to a legendary African-American journalist —“In the street, we addicted to Spreewells / Trapped in a deep cell / flows liberate your mind states like Ida B. Wells” — and references Nelson Mandela: “Five fingers in the air means nothin’ / We clench to a fist and we all mean somethin’ / You and I gotta get involved.”

He later lays down what could be considered an anthem for the African diaspora, critiquing a music industry in which primarily white executives package and sell black artists to the masses, warns against the distracting trap of materialism, and calls for a union among all people of African descent: “I guess Bill Cosby was right / We scared to air our dirty laundry so we blame it on whites / Catchin’ attitude / Who you givin’ your money / Who you give power to.” The parallel with Public Enemy’s call-and-response chants in “Fight the Power” is undeniable, right down to the syllabic beats: “Lemme hear you say / Fight the power / Fight the power / We’ve got to fight the powers that be.” But Blitz’s deliberate way of addressing issues and icons discussed in both the African-American and the African communities gives it a refreshingly global flavor, contextualizing it for modern audiences who have grown weary of too much rebellion in their hip-hop.

By the time Blitz completed high school, his father had passed the bar exam and secured a position at the United Nations. Blitz and his siblings set out on one of the paths Selasi describes in her essay, emigrating to the West to attend college. Blitz wound up at Kent State University, where he majored in marketing. Shortly after graduating, he made the move to New York. In 2009, he produced his first studio album, Stereotype.

The message of the album, says Blitz, reflected the sense of uprootedness often associated with the immigrant experience. “With Stereotype, I was still very confused as to who I was as an individual, what my role was in hip-hop, what I was doing, period. If you listen to that record, it’s almost schizophrenic in the choices. There’s some afro-space music on ‘Remembering the Future.’ There’s a Spanish record on ‘Ghetto Plantation.’ There’s straight trip hop-slash-emo rock on ‘Nothing to Lose.’ It was a confused state of me not really knowing. Here I am, immigrant, trying to fit into all these things, but not really being able to find myself,” he says.

By the time Blitz wrote and produced “Remembering the Future,” the final song on the album, he felt that he had matured, as an individual and as an artist. The song begins as a gentle guitar lullaby laced with Blitz singing, “I am who I am. You can never change me,” as horns and percussion join in. The tempo increases, and at its crescendo, he lays into his verses, delivering line after line of fast-paced rap. “By that song,” he says, “I had figured it out. I knew what story I wanted to tell, and that it had to be my authentic story.” He decided his next album would tell this story.

He released Native Sun two years later. Blitz uploaded the entire album — complete with original music videos he produced — to YouTube in order to ensure unlimited access for his listeners, particularly those in Ghana, where people buy music online less frequently than in the states. Where Stereotype reflected a degree of artistic experimentation as Blitz came into himself as an artist, Native Sun is a more assertive declaration.

In addition to highlife, the album incorporates Afrobeat, a popular rhythm founded by Nigerian musical sensation Fela Kuti. Despite the collage of musical styles from both sides of the Atlantic that inform each track, the songs don’t feel excessively stylish or overdone. Blitz’s musical maturation, the sense of control, defines the album. There’s the sensuous “Accra City Blues,” with caressing trumpets tangoing alongside Blitz’s voice. Many of his songs mix Twi and English in the same sentence, taunting some listeners, “If you can quote my next line verbatim” — here he unleashes a lighting Twi verse — “I bet you can’t Google Translate ’em.” This was also the album where Blitz began to reveal his attention to movement and migration, literally positioning himself as an ambassador welcoming listeners to his home country. Although the guitar- and horn-happy “Akwaaba” (Twi for “welcome”) is rapped almost entirely in Twi, in this song, Blitz is sure to say in English that he is “spitting in both languages / a lyrical anthropologist.”

In some ways the album reflected the artist’s coming of age. Several artists Blitz idolized growing up — including Chuck D, a recurring subject of his childhood drawings — were featured on the album. Blitz’s penchant for highly collaborative records, bringing together artists from different continents, reflects his diasporic sensibilities — and it’s a mainstay on Afropolitan Dreams. The album features tracks from celebrated African singers like Angélique Kidjo, Nneka, Sarkodie, Seun Kuti (youngest son of Fela), and OUM. Collectively, these artists hail from Benin, Nigeria, Ghana, and Morocco — a veritable patchwork of identities.

In the ten-song collection, Blitz continues the conversation about the afropolitan identify. Some of the statements are more overt than others; in “Internationally Known,” with fellow Ghanaian rapper Sarkodie, Blitz owns his immigrant status, with a refrain that boasts a pan-African sensibility: “OK, you got a city behind you / I got a continent, yes.” But he also revisits a certain vulnerability similar to the one he expressed in “Stereotype,” exploring themes of loneliness and isolation that can often accompany the lifestyle of a cosmopolitan artist. His song with Angélique Kidjo is a slow-tempo duet titled “Call Waiting.” It tells a story universal to anybody who moves about the globe, describing the challenge of maintaining relationships while constantly traveling. The lyrics are a mixture of Kidjo’s melodic voice and Blitz rapping, set against a conversation between Blitz and his son through an international calling service. Playing off a scene that many immigrants might find familiar, he reveals his penchant for scene-setting where, similar to another track, “Akwaaba,” he employs the use of an anonymous phone operator informing the listener that they have been disconnected as the song draws to a close.

When I ask Blitz about Selasi’s matrix of an afropolitan, he says he was familiar with the author, but hadn’t read “Bye-Bye Barbar.” For him, afropolitanism has more to do with a deep exposure, rather than just relocation to foreign places. “I’ve had the opportunity and the blessing to travel the world, to see the global connection that Africans around the diaspora have and that unique experience is what made me an Afropolitan,” he says. “It’s not because I’ve lived in the West. It’s merely because I’ve had the chance to travel.”

“This idea of afropolitanism, a lot of people will look at it as an elitist idea separating a local from an international, a have from a have-not, dividing the classes,” he continued. “I don’t think about it like that at all. I want people in Accra, yes, to travel, but not to America. If you can, fine. But I want us to start thinking that we are cosmopolitan in Kumasi, in Tamale, in Abuja, in Lomé.”

Blitz may play on a bigger stage, what he is doing is no different from millions of other immigrants in the United States. They are living, learning, and working here, seeking access to better education or jobs, often sharing what they reap, financially or otherwise, back home. He dreams of returning, and says he wants to do more for Ghana than put on the occasional deluged concert. “I plan to move home,” he says. “I’ve got some land there, and I’m beginning to build.”

For Blitz, this transition back has already begun. As he embarks on his ride back to Bed-Stuy from the Bronx, he says he wants to build his own performance venue in Ghana, so that Ghanaian artists do not need to rely on organizations like the French government-backed Alliance Française to sponsor events. He then switches topics in conversation multiple times, from politics, the arts (he gushes over Nigerian filmmaker Andrew Dosunmu’s “Mother of George”), and his future projects (a film he wrote about Ghana’s boxing culture). His restlessness is only detectable when he voices his aspirations; otherwise, he seems peaceful, content to absorb things that surround him and allowing them to shape his next move.

“I’ll always be an African first. And then wherever I find myself, whether it’s Accra, it’s Lagos, it’s Tokyo, I will never see things like a Japanese or a European. I’ll always see things through an African lens, with an African eye.”

Tamerra Griffin is a multimedia journalist and a graduate student at New York University. Her work has appeared in Bedford and Bowery, New York Amsterdam News, and EBONY.

Chris Carfolite is an illustrator, designer, and record collector living in Bed-Stuy. His work has been recognized by the Society of Illustrators and Telegraph Gallery.

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