HUCK catches up with the Ghanaian hip hop artist who knows full well what it means to be an outsider.
A few minutes into our conversation with Blitz The Ambassador, there’s a rather odd interruption. We’re in London, he’s in Atlanta, and over the connection comes a burst of what sounds like a saxophone.
“Hold on a sec,” says Blitz. He turns away from the phone, and engages in a brief, muffled conversation. “Sorry about that,” he says, coming back on the line. “That’s my son. He has a toy saxophone and at some point in the day, he’ll put on my show and just rock it. He learns all the dance steps that the horn section does. He plays along.”
Blitz’s son is two. He was born in Brooklyn, but his father has already taken him on a trip back to his own native city of Accra, Ghana. “It’s important that he understands there’s another world besides the US, and there’s another way of thinking and doing things,” he says, knowing full well that his son will have a very different upbringing. He will grow up an American citizen. He will never have trouble moving between the two worlds of Africa and America. He might inherit his father’s passion for soccer and languages (Blitz speaks four, including Twi and Sisaala) but he’ll always be seen as an American first. Still, if the energetic sax is anything to go by, he may well follow his dad’s musical path.
Blitz (born Samuel Bazawule) has gained notoriety for his ability to blend the musical traditions and arrangements of West Africa with hip hop, something that he and his band, the Embassy Ensemble, do brilliantly. His most recent album, 2011’s Native Sun, was a spitting, roaring monster of a record. At its heart sits the Ensemble’s three-part horn section, fizzing and growling, while straddling its shoulders stands Blitz himself.
There’s a theme to Native Sun. It deals with the immigrant experience: the feeling of leaving home, of surviving in a country that regards you with suspicion. It’s the feeling of being an outsider: of being separated from your community and being unsure where you now fit in. Alongside the album, Blitz released a short film about a boy from a small village, searching for his absent father in the depths of Accra. It was the perfect complement to the album, rooting the stories it told with authentic images of his home city.
Blitz grew up in Accra, the second of four children. A football fanatic, he’d often sneak out of the house to play, and dreamed of running out for Liverpool. His father worked for the United Nations, and Blitz grew up in a house filled with books. He left Ghana as a young man to study at Kent State University in Ohio, stopping first went to New York to spend time with family in the city’s extensive Ghanaian community.
“Imagine the difference,” he laughs. “Coming to New York, where there’s a diverse cultural environment, you feel safe because there’s something for everyone there, and then you go to Ohio and it’s like, ‘Wow, there are two kinds of people here!’ There were white folks and African-Americans. It’s a small pool. If you were an international person in that town, you were a student; there weren’t any international residents… It was very, very different. That experience helped shape my understanding [of how you survive in a different culture]. It was crazy.”
A lot of the ideas behind his music, he says, came from this period of his life. While he certainly had a less traumatic experience than many immigrants do, he got to experience first-hand what it means to be operating outside the norm. Fortunately, he had one major weapon on his side – the music genre that defines him. When you’re trying to fit into a strange environment, knowing who Heltah Skeltahand EPMD are will help you more than a thousand green cards.
“Hip hop music helped prime me for this environment,” says Blitz, “and unless you come from another environment you can’t understand the impact hip hop has had on how comfortable you are getting into an environment like America. I had the advantage of knowing what American society was like through hip hop. Even understanding accents – I’d spent so much time transcribing Wu Tang lyrics and Biggie lyrics. If you can break down Wu Tang lyrics, there’s no accent that can beat you!”
But even speaking the universal language of rap didn’t help Blitz when he tried to seek a major label deal. He was as much an outsider in the music industry as he was at Kent State. “The majors couldn’t see how it was possible,” he laughs. “At the time, K’Naan hadn’t even made a dent in the game – and they were like, ‘Africans, hip hop, really? Makes no sense.’ But the times catch up.”
Now of course, things are a little different. Blitz and his band are an international phenomenon, rocking shows in the US, Europe and in his home country. His previous work has seen him crack the top ten on iTunes – a big deal for an independent artist. He divides his time between New York, Accra and Atlanta, where he’s working on the follow-up to Native Sun, entitled gRIOT. “Native Sun was done in six months,” he says. “With gRIOT, I have time – time to lock it down. We can sink our teeth into the ideas.”
Blitz’s ability to tell a story that could only have come from Africa has been strengthened, rather than weakened, by his experiences in the US. “I drew a lot of inspiration from some of the culture shock, and going through ups and downs of the immigrant life,” he says. “I was fortunate coming from Ghana that I was able to process it, and still live in two different cultures.”