Interview: Blitz The Ambassador on pioneering a global African presence in music and film

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Ghana’s “Native Sun” Blitz The Ambassador is consistent to the letter. His brand has always been “Afropolitan”. His message remains “Diasporadical”. And whatever images of continental Africans are etched in your memory, he sets the record straight with an enlightened “Stereotype”. Behind these titles of the globetrotting mastermind’s critically acclaimed LPs are projects with sound purpose and direction. And the genre-bending hip-hop artist continues blazing trails and building bridges for Africa’s descendants by venturing into cinema. With the recent debut of his first feature film, “The Burial Of Kojo”, Blitz cross-pollinates fantasy and realism steeped in a deep and vivid Africanity.

Mai Perkins: The success of your groundbreaking debut album “Stereotype” likely generated new, unforeseen opportunities as an indie artist. How has this created inroads for Blitz, the artist and entrepreneur, in leading to your current position on the global hip-hop landscape?

Blitz The Ambassador: When we were coming out with “Stereotype”, which I believe was 2009, the environment for hip-hop, and specifically African hip-hop, was very different. There was very little understanding of continental Africans, and we hadn’t yet made much impact, in terms of global popular culture. Even though so much was happening on the Continent, very little of it was being seen and heard outside of our borders. So we were, you know… I remember myself, K’Naan and Nneka, very few of us making some strong, bold moves at the time. Whether it was in terms of our music or our aesthetic, we had chosen a really, really difficult path that, obviously in hindsight, I can see has helped grow our presence globally and at home. And I think that for me personally, it was the bootcamp that I needed to expand specifically into cinema now where so much of what I did as a musician was pioneering work. I have maintained the same ethos because cinema is pretty much where music was ten years ago, as it relates to the continent of Africa. So, we’re pretty much doing the same thing, yet again, with very little understanding of “Africanness” in its global context. And it feels like it’s starting all over again. However, the environment has changed significantly because of access and social media, and several things have made it a lot easier for us to connect with one another. So, much has been gained, both personally and professionally, through that foray and through global hip-hop. And I’m one of the fortunate ones to still be practicing, but also to expand the pallet into other mediums.

Mai Perkins: Given the trajectory of your career over the last ten years and the open doors you’ve encountered, what struggles do you continue to experience as this African hip-hop artist/entrepreneur/filmmaker? Where do you still feel the very real struggle?

Blitz The Ambassador: The struggle… Part of it is financial. We’re dealing in a space where folks still cannot see or aren’t willing to compensate us properly for our work. And I don’t think that is unique to African artists, but I think that we suffer quite a significant piece of that. Because, again, our markets haven’t been quantified well enough to understand that we do and can reach the same audience that anybody else can. I think the other challenge is that we have made improvements, yes, in terms of our global understanding of the continent of Africa, and I do credit so many of us who did that early work through the ‘90s and through the early 2000s. But the world is still very ill-educated about such a significant number of people. I mean, we are close to one third of this planet and yet still, so little is known about us on the continent and across the diaspora. Of course, some of our [people of the] diaspora, especially in the Americas have made much better inroads in affirming who they are in this planet. But I think that the continent is still lagging behind significantly in the world understanding us. And then partially, us understanding ourselves in the first place. So that’s been a huge thing that is still problematic. And I think that our work really is to keep pressing on and keep putting out the information. And keep making the work that will allow people to see us as whole. First of all, see ourselves as whole. Then I think the rest of the world will have to do the same.

Mai Perkins: Two of your successful LPs are entitled “Afropolitan Dreams” and “Diasporadical”. Both deal with themes of the African diaspora: authentic identity, political awareness, and the upward mobility therein. As notions of the American Dream have begun to dissolve for many living within and outside of the US, particularly with the current political climate, do you consider the Afropolitan Dream an alternative to American idealism?

Blitz The Ambassador: That’s an interesting question. You know, as a Black person on this planet, I don’t think that you are, nor should be, beholden to this American Dream. I really think that what they don’t tell you is that that dream is truly a White Protestant male dream. And then everybody kind of gets to either benefit from a derivative or a trickle down of that, or suffers the nightmare as a consequence. You know what I mean? And so I’ve felt that this is just a facade that some of us have pretended to believe in for temporary upward mobility, but I think the real win is in looking at our diaspora as the goal, and more from a broader perspective. Because it’s not just about a residual success, it’s about spiritual success, it’s about an emotional success. I see some people who do gain that American Dream, but what do they sacrifice in the process? So the clarity, in my opinion, is that it’s not a holistic approach. I think that… and I don’t even know if I still believe in the Afropolitan Dream as the answer. However, I do think that the more we look to each other globally, the better we become in understanding and defining. I think the key word is defining our own ideas of what success looks like so that it’s not a derivative. It’s not something that is passed down from others and then we try to hold on to it. But it is in fact something that is innate, and that is actually attainable because it’s within our reach.

Mai Perkins: How can you tie Ghana’s current “Year of Return” initiative for 2019 into what you’re describing?

Blitz The Ambassador: I think it’s extremely significant and I really hope that it is more than just a theme and a slogan. I really hope that it beckons our diaspora in a tangible way to participate and properly invest, both economically and emotionally, into the continent. And the continent becoming ready to reciprocate. And do what it takes to make sure that our diaspora truly has a home. That’s my hope, that it’s not just a slogan. And it also shouldn’t be limited to a year. I mean, I understand the numerical significance of what this means as it relates to the first slaves leaving the continent. But, I really think that the continent has and should play a more specific, significant role in giving solace to our diaspora, not from an event perspective, but from a tangible, long-term program that allows our diaspora to invest properly and make sure that those investments are protected. Make sure that we set up systems that benefit locals as much as it benefits the diaspora. Because, again, it makes absolutely no sense that there is no real continental bureau that supports this very tangible program of divesting out of the United States and investing into the continent. So many African Americans who have the resources just have no means of connecting properly. But, it also means that the continent has to function on a level that is adequate so that I don’t put my money or my efforts, and my talent, and my emotion into a space that isn’t consistent. Those things are important. I think we need to fix home, and we need to simultaneously create ways in which our diaspora can connect properly.

Mai Perkins: You have toured the world as a hip-hop artist and filmmaker, including between 15 to 20 African nations. What are some essential and critical insights you’ve gained from traveling throughout Africa, being Ghanaian-born and having spent so many years in the US?

Blitz The Ambassador: It’s a global outlook. I think that my traveling has been super advantageous because it’s given me a bird’s eye view as it relates to our diaspora. I really think that so much of my work, which has been diaspora-related, has allowed me to see the similarities, and also the differences, in our struggles no matter where we find it ourselves. So, that bird’s eye view has informed my work, it has informed my art, and it’s also helped me bring together the very fragmented diaspora through this work. Whether it’s my work in Brazil, whether it’s my work in the US, whether it’s my work on the continent, I’ve been very intentional about creating some really tangible inroads where all these people can intersect through my work. And that’s been something that I’ve worked at consistently for over a decade. And the travel has helped me experience some of this stuff in a tangible way. Not just vicariously but, in fact, showing up personally and understanding the parts in which we differ and the parts in which we are alike. Then bridging the gap.

Mai Perkins: Your first feature film, “The Burial Of Kojo”, debuted on Netflix on March 31st. Producing a movie is conceivably more challenging than producing an album, or even music videos for the album. During this learning experience, which part of the filmmaking process did you feel challenged or overwhelmed by? Which parts came naturally to you?

Blitz The Ambassador: All of it was challenging, honestly. I mean, it was a new experience. And even with the music, which I was thinking was going to be easier, it ended up being extremely difficult because it was unlike any music that I had done. Creating music for film isn’t the same as creating music for an album. So, everything was difficult. Everything was new for me. Just the physical and mental strength of making work that you don’t even know if it’s going to reach the people. Thankfully, Ava DuVernay has played a significant role in the path and trajectory of the film in getting it to Netflix, and that’s a huge thing. But when we were making it, none of that existed. So, it took great courage for us to figure that out. And now we are super thankful that we’ve been able to achieve that. It’s huge. And I’m really thankful that we survived such a challenging process. But, it’s typical of trying to tell an African story in a world that is very Africa-adversed. I expected it, but I didn’t expect it to be as difficult. Thankfully, we triumphed.

Mai Perkins: Last year you recorded the film score for “The Burial Of Kojo” in Paris. Tell me about creating the soundscape for this magical realism narrative in comparison to your studio albums?

Blitz The Ambassador: This is very different, very different in terms of the fact that we are bound by narrative. I never made an album where the narrative was preconceived. I was always free to expand and experiment as I went along. This was not the case. In this case I had to literally just watch the film and figure out what sound was adequate for it. So, as you can image, that was quite a challenge. In making an album, all I need is the concept and then I feel like I just kind of grow the idea from that concept. This was directly sound-to-music, so it was a challenge. Also, another thing is figuring out where African melodies and orchestral Western sounds intersect. Because in some ways it was necessary to build a soundscape using Western orchestral sounds, and in some ways it was important to maintain the traditional African melodies and rhythms and pacing that was necessary for the film. So, yeah man! It was a very interesting dynamic but I’m glad that I was able to figure that jigsaw puzzle out. But, it was a very different process from making any of the other albums I’ve made, for sure.

Mai Perkins: Can you talk about how making “The Burial Of Kojo” adds to your legacy, and if faith ties into this whole expansion into becoming a feature-length filmmaker?

Blitz The Ambassador: I think that it adds to my personal canon of work. But it also adds significantly to the continental cinematic canon. What “The Burial Of Kojo” did was add vocabulary to a pre-existing cinematic language that was started by people like Ousmane Sembene, Djibril Diop Mambety, and Haile Gerima. You know, that language already exists. All we were doing was just adding vocabulary. So this film definitely expands what I begun working on in music, and absolutely, faith is a core idea in this kind of work. Faith is critical because so much of who we are isn’t affirmed. So, how do we then figure out… how do we communicate when so little of us is affirmed? You almost have to believe past what you see. And knowing how critical it is that we own our image and own our narrative, faith is your only ally. You go into any of this stuff blindly, not knowing if it will work, because in fact, it is pioneering work. So, faith is your only ally until it’s done. And then when the world rallies around it you’re vindicated. But all in all, I think all of that works together in just asking myself, Am I creating truthful moments? Through my music I’ve tried to do that as consistently as possible and now film is just an expansion of that medium in which my goal is creating truthful moments and allowing the world to see us as whole. And ultimately allowing us to see ourselves as whole.

 
Interview conducted by Mai Perkins

A Cali girl in a Bed-Stuy world with global bon vivant flair, Mai has several blogs under her belt, including MaiOnTheMove.com and Uberlicious.nyc. Completing an MFA in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College, and an MA in International Affairs from The New School, she reps her beloved alma mater Howard University with great pride and swag. Her first manuscript, “The Walking Nerve-Ending”, is now available through IG: @flymai16

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