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For Liberian-born Rapper Blade Brown Hip-hop a Revolutionary Tool


Thursday, July 3, 2008
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Drawing on influences from around the globe, Blade Brown’s work attempts not only to reinvigorate hip-hop in America, but also harness the cultural power of hip-hop to create greater unity for political, even revolutionary, change. 

As one of numerous African hip-hop musical artists living in the Twin Cities, the Liberian-born Blade Brown is set to release his debut album, “Born To Live,” later this year, following last year’s mix tape, “The Art of Mixtaping, Vol. 1.”  

Born Kelvin Vaye in Monrovia, Blade Brown was raised in Robertsville, a city on the outskirts of the Liberian capital. He moved with his family to New Jersey when he was nine years old. Seven years later, his family moved again to Baltimore and later settled in Minneapolis when he was 22. He now has a family here and calls the Twin Cities home.

“Your home is where you make it,” says Blade. ”My family is here, so this is my home.”     But Blade has not doubt where his heart lies.

 “God willing, I want to die [in Africa],” he says.

While Blade says he has been rapping since he was in the 5th grade, he only started getting serious about a music career after moving to Minneapolis. While growing up in Jersey, he listened to some of the legends of early 90s American hip-hop such as Nas, Black Moon, Boot Camp Clik, and the Wu-Tang Clan. It was Public Enemy’s “It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” though, that really changed his life.

“I listened to that thing every single day,” he recalls. “It was like the best thing I ever heard.”

Yet his biggest influence now, he says, is Bob Marley, not just because of his music, but also because of his attempts to unify Africans throughout the Diaspora.

“Marley was teaching you,” he says, “he was bringing his people’s pain to your front doors, and letting everybody know.”

Calling himself “The African Prince,” the MC is a staunch Pan-Africanist, aware not only of where his own work comes from, both in terms of Liberia and the wider continent of Africa.

“Even though I’m from Liberia, I don’t just see myself as a Liberian rapper. I’m African first, before I’m Liberian,” he says. “We one big community, man, and I’ll try my best to build that musical community where all African people can find a home.”

Seeing hip-hop as a globally unifying force, Blade believes his music can also create greater African solidarity. He believes sending his music back to the continent will help kids think that “if they over there doing that, then maybe we should start thinking a little differently.”

Blade practices what he preaches, too. KP, his producer is from Tanzania, and he has collaborated on “The Recipe” with the Minneapolis-by-way-of-Nairobi MC Baraka. “Rep 4 All,” from his mixtape “The Art of Mixtaping, Vol. 1,” best encompasses Blade Brown’s attempt at unifying Africa through music. The song’s chorus is a listing of his allegiance to countries in each of the regions of Africa—North, South, East and West – as well as locating his own work and the current situation of desperation and poverty in many African countries as a legacy of slavery and colonialism.

The music Blade raps above is equally wide-ranging, encompassing the many different sounds of American hip-hop. These range from the East-Coast sounds of sample-based hip-hop, especially soul, funk, jazz, and R&B, but also the synthesized timbres and drum sounds more prominent in mainstream hip-hop, especially the Southern hip-hop epicenters of Atlanta, Houston, and Memphis. This can be heard not only with the synthesized horns of “Rep 4 All” but also, the “chopped and screwed” remix of “Born and Raised.” Furthermore, American hip-hop sounds are infused with Bongo Flava, a style of hip-hop produced in Tanzania, the home of Blade’s producer, as well as Jamaican dance hall and reggae.

Songs like “Rep 4 All” also counter stereotypes perpetuated by American-dominated media.

“The only thing you hear is war or AIDS. It’s like we’re one big charity case. African people don’t need anyone’s pity. The influences from the outside that caused these problems in the first place are the problem, not Africans,” Blade asserts.

Another song, “Beware,” ties many of his influences together, both musical and political. It’s a Jamaican patois and reggae-infused narrative of Blade Brown’s return for a Rastafarian apocalyptic battle against those responsible for Africa’s problems, picking up the influences of Lumumba, the Mau Maus, and other revolutionary Africans along the way. For him, songs like this voice “what I’m feelin’ inside when I see all the problems goin’ on, especially with these politicians, their policies, and the laws they make.”

For him, though, the problems of hip-hop itself are intimately linked with the problems facing Africa. Blade interprets the title of Nas’ last album, “Hip-Hop is Dead,” as meaning that “certain elements, certain things that made you fall in love with it, are dying.”

“We don’t have control over it anymore. I really wish I could bring 1993 back,” he says with a slight tone of resignation. “I’m not gonna lie about that, the music was better, the artists were better. It’s the same thing [in Africa]. They wanna know what’s the newest, hottest dance. They don’t play artists who are militant, who talk about the bad politicians, who talk about their disastrous policies.”

Recognizing hip-hop’s global spread, as well as a belief that artists are supposed to be the bearers of social commentary, Blade says it’s time for the African voice to be heard through this music.

“When the African voices start to get heard, we will spark a Renaissance, to really go back to the essence of it, which is telling your story. I love this music too much to just let it be destroyed.”

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About Justin Schell

Justin Schell is a Twin Cities based writer and a grad student at the University of Minnesota’s Comparative Studies in Discourse and Society program. He’s working on a dissertation on Twin Cities immigrant and diasporic hip-hop and plays the washboard tie with The Gated Community.

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