It’s telling that Samuel Bazawule—aka Blitz the Ambassador—was introduced to hip-hop as a child in Ghana via the music of Public Enemy.
While “Niggas in Paris” like Kanye West and Jay Z are most often recalled in fantasies and nightmares of hip-hop’s global expansion, rappers have been in the vanguard of a black cosmopolitan identity for almost 40 years. That’s part of the joke that opens Bazawule’s new release, Afropolitan Dreams, recalling his arrival in the United States and the incredulous response of an immigration officer to his stated profession: “rapper.”
And the title of Bazawule’s new recording is drawn from a term coined by writer Taiye Selasi in her 2005 essay, “Bye-Bye Barbar,” where she thinks aloud about a generation of African immigrants who weren’t simply cosmopolitan—citizens of the world—but Afropolitan, or “Africans of the world.”
Though the idea of Afropolitanism has been debated in some circles, Bazawule strays from those concerns, asserting that he was inspired to create Afropolitan Dreams by meeting peers in different disciplines. “What we had in common,” he says, “was that we were all immigrants.” A theme that finds initial grounding in the audio references to the New York City subway system on the opening track, “The Arrival,” produces its own cosmopolitan logic within the context of the city. Here Bazawule is in sync with how late political scientist Richard Iton, in his book In Search of the Black Fantastic, theorized the Diaspora as distinguishing between “roots” and “routes.”
Afropolitan Dreams is a natural follow-up to 2011’s Native Sun and the 2013 EP The Warm Up, in which Bazawule details the struggles of new African immigrants, rapping on “Native Sun” about “my aunties with MDs who speak five languages/but gotta work making Subway sandwiches.” As he notes, Native Sun “was the journey to America in search of a dream.” Afropolitan Dreams is a “continuation, but with more detail about what it’s like to start at the bottom and work up.”
These stories of everyday Africans in America, where bodies are simply rendered “black” and thus—in a context that makes sense only in the U.S.—criminal, counter the celebrated examples of Afropolitan artists like Nigerian-born writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Kenyan-born visual artist Wangechi Mutu and even Bazawule himself. Indeed, Afropolitan Dreams narrates a much more liminal existence in which Bazawule finds that his music is “not hip-hop enough” for some and “not African enough” for others, notably the “world music” crowd.
In this way, Afropolitan Dreams is really a project about shifting modalities, embodied in Bazawule’s ability to change the pace—speed-rapping on a track like “Internationally Known”—at once obscuring and centering Ghanaian roots. Or on the track “Love on the Run,” featuring Nneka, which feels like a mashup of Egypt 80 and ’90s-radio R&B.
Bazawule is managing both cultural and physical disruption, not just in the natural and unnatural flows of immigration but also in the realities of poverty and working-class lives. According to Bazawule, “I wanted that disruptive energy, almost a disconnect from reality … and from there I had to create a sonic world.” Bazawule’s sonic choices are akin to what critic Regina Bradley has described as “sonic (hip-hop) cosmopolitanism.” Writing about the sonic palette of Kanye West, Bradley writes, “he uses sound to negotiate his stakes (and angst) as an American, world traveler and hip-hop citizen.”
Afropolitan Dreams offers a more complex view of this dynamic, if only because Bazawule is also negotiating sensibilities within American hip-hop and, to some extent, black America that suggest “you don’t belong here.” The brilliance of Afropolitan Dreams is that Bazawule never forgets that those “roots” and “routes” travel in many directions. To this point, Seun Kuti, son of Fela, and Beninese Grammy winner Angélique Kidjo make appearances on the tracks “Make You No Forget” and “Call Waiting,” the latter a touching song about Bazawule calling “home” to his young son in America (“What you watching? Yo Gabba Gabba?”) and his mother in Ghana (“Did you get the MoneyGram that I sent?”).
Bazawule’s balancing act—along with the balancing act of a generation of Afropolitans—finds resonance in Afropolitan Dreams’ penultimate track, “Africa Is the Future.” Highlighting the role of technology in what might be described as a “mobile Diaspora,” Bazawule notes, “We never have to lose track of what’s happening where we came from, thanks to the Internet and better communication. It’s like we can live a life in parallel; we’re figuring out how to inject ourselves into two cultures.”