Globalization is the buzzword of this decade. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the music industry where music has become a smorgasbord of different languages, rhythms, and themes. Chief Boima, a Sierra Leonean-American DJ, knows this all too well. Through his eclectic, fascinating mixes, Boima takes us on an aural trip around the world. In addition to his work as a DJ, Boima is also a prolific writer who has contributed to numerous online and print publications such as Africa is a Country, WFMU Radio, and The Fader Magazine. Ayiba’s Akinyi Ochieng spoke to Boima about his passion for global music styles and the evolution of the African music scene.
Akinyi: You grew up in a small community in Milwaukee, but when was the first time that you went back to Africa?
Boima: In 2006, I was DJing at a place called Little Baobab after moving to the Bay Area. I befriended the owner who entered me into a contest. I won a trip to Senegal, then afterwards I flew to Sierra Leone to visit my uncle and his family in Freetown. It was a great experience and interesting because the trip came four years after the declaration of the end of the war, so the country was still in the transition phase. I learned a lot about the post-war environment and about Sierra Leone. It felt like I was going to somewhere I had been before even though it was my first visit because it was so familiar from stories and pictures growing up.
Akinyi: When did you start taking an interest in African music?
Boima: It was always kind of around – in the car, at parties that my parents would throw where our small Sierra Leonean community would gather. I always kind of associated it with older people and didn’t start seriously listening to itself myself until I travelled to Europe and started interacting with young Africans there, as well as when I came back to the Bay Area and was introduced to my own community and peers in San Francisco.
Akinyi: How would you describe your musical taste?
Boima: I would say global electronic music. I believe that production is a democratic process—that music can be made by anyone with a computer and software. The digital music revolution has allowed for electronic and hip-hop elements to permeate everywhere. The African music I’m interested in fits into that category. The stuff that I play and DJ might be house music, it might be something like kudoro or coupe decale, but it’s generally made on drum machines.
Akinyi: How do you think that African music scene is evolving today in contrast to more traditional standbys like Fela Kuti or Miriam Makeba—the kinds of things our parents might be more interested in listening to?
Boima: I used to think that the two were very different, but I went to a talk a while ago where an old gentleman questioned whether they were really different. He talked about whether we can really call African hip-hop different than when people started to listen to Jimi Hendrix. The music that I grew up with—high-life and Afro-funk—is as global and connected as hip-hop, but just in another generation.
I think the difference is that back then the music industry in West Africa, especially just after independence, was dependent on the industrial capacity of the country. You had to have a place to manufacture the music, a studio and capital. Now we’re in a time where any kid from any part of the city, whether he’s from the slum or uptown, can get involved and make music. That’s the biggest difference—perhaps today music is more representative of a variety of perspectives that weren’t necessarily present in the music of our parents’ generation.
Akinyi: How do you think contemporary music reflects people’s consciousness of identity in the diaspora and on the continent?
Boima: I think you have a more global idea of belonging. Internet access has allowed African people to access Western culture and vice versa to the point where there’s no line. The biggest difference in any city, whether it’s New York or Luanda, is whether or not you have a passport and a credit card. [Laughs] Those two things allow you to go back and forth and experience both cultures. People from Africa are able to bring experience to the West and those of us in the diaspora can bring our own experiences back to Africa. It becomes seamless. I think one of the places that you can see this best is in Accra, Ghana where you have people who literally spend half the year in London and half in Accra. There are times when you can be in Accra and not even tell the difference in where you are. That has helped people like Fuse ODG, the azonto guy. He travelled to Ghana on vacation, linked up with Kill Beats, the producer, came back to London and created a huge hit. The music was marketed at a Ghanaian/West African audience, but also made waves in the international, London-centric community. The lines today are really blurring in where people are located.
Akinyi: It seems sometimes like Nigerians and Ghanaians often dominate the music charts, but where else is interesting music coming out of the continent?
Boima: I would say Angola and Ivory Coast, but at the end of the day it’s a language thing. Anglophone people from Nigeria, Ghana, etc. dominate. It’s true that everyone listens to Ghanaian and Nigerian music but if you’re in Mali or Senegal, you’re going to get a different realm of influence and more Francophone. Coupe decale, which was started by Ivorian DJs in Paris but brought back to Africa, is great. House music in South Africa is really influential. Kuduro from Angola is wonderful. Zouk music from Lusophone areas has become a global phenomenon. You have superstars that never touch English-speaking countries. I think that in certain realms Ghana and Nigeria are successful, but there are other realms in which other countries have just as much, if not more, influence.
Akinyi: I’ve seen a lot of collaborations between African and Western musicians (i.e. Kanye West/D’banj, Rick Ross/P-Square). How do you think the Western music industry is taking note of what’s going on in African music?
Boima: I’ll say that an unnamed major label representative has approached me before about breaking African music in the US. In that sense, Europe will always take the lead because Europe has a much larger population of first- and second-generation Africans. The majority of black people you see in Europe are African or from the Caribbean, so the American identity of hip-hop will always be something that’s more difficult for African artists to compete with. Sarkodie rapping in Twi, although he might put some English in, will always be perceived as foreign thing in the US whereas in the UK, more people would see it as something that represents their community. It could be integrated into the mainstream much more easily. That being said, Universal Music, Sony, Warner Brothers, etc. are interested in what’s happening on the continent. The trick now is figuring out how to introduce it without introducing it as a foreign thing. Like reggaeton, for example, which comes from elsewhere but has become really essential to the identity of certain places in the US. In hubs like New York, Atlanta, or DC, you might start to see a growing relationship with African music. In Houston, they’ve played D’banj even before “Oliver Twist.”
Akinyi: Who are your favorite artists right now?
Boima: I saw DJ Jeff perform recently and his production is great. He’s a house DJ who I really hope will become a breakout artist. I think EDM, as Americans call it, gets more in mainstream, it might create more of a space for fans of house music which would allow people like DJ Jeff to be at the center of it. He’s doing a really good job integrating Congo and Angolan culture into this new music. Sarkodie is another one as well as local guys like Kae-sun who is doing electro-rock. There are so many great people out there at the moment.