Amaal
Sean Brown

Meet Amaal, The Socially Conscious Songstress Ready To Express Her Own Truths

Somali-Canadian singer Amaal is like no other. At close to a year old, she and her family—she is the middle sibling of seven sisters and two brothers—immigrated to Canada to flee the devastating war in Somalia. That experience, in addition to her strict upbringing, all played a defining role in the artistry she hangs her hat on today. Amaal has never shown herself to be the kind of artist whose lyrics are filled with fluff, sunflowers and daisies. Instead, each line in her music represents pivotal, significant moments in her life, whether they pertain to heartbreaking experiences with love, enlightening trips back to Somalia, or learning to embrace her true self. The Toronto native’s work has always possessed a sense of honesty, but it’s on her newly released EP Black Dove that her vulnerability becomes abundantly clear.

Raised by traditional Muslim parents, Amaal admits that she’s always had a certain type of image to portray and standards to live by. However, despite the parental pressures that she grew up with, Amaal was content—for the time being. She didn’t reveal the fullest extent of her personality to her parents for the longest time, but they did know pieces of her and Amaal was at peace with that. That is, until it started to affect her music making process.

“I felt very dishonest, to be honest,” the 29-year-old says about creating music that primarily fulfilled the impression her parents had of her. “I didn’t feel like I was being true to myself. [I] felt like I was lacking presence in my own music.”

Once the former University of Toronto student was candid with herself, she became candid in her music about various aspects of her life, and that is how Black Dove was born. Amaal went from singing on afropop beats to leaning on R&B sounds much more heavily in her material. However, despite shedding the original soundscape that introduced her to the music world, Amaal plans to always have that element that traces back to her Somali roots.

“I absolutely love [afropop] and I still always want to incorporate that,” she says. “Everything I did before I would still want to incorporate.”

Prior to the release of Black Dove, Amaal would pen songs about her travels to Somalia, the period of time she lived there as a teenager, and while that theme may not be as overt in her new EP, it’s still an important piece of her heart and life. To this day, when she’s not busy in the booth preparing new tunes, she’s in Somalia aiding the community in more ways than one. And old, new and future fans of Amaal have October’s Very Own’s (OVO) Noah Shebib to thank for the arrival of the songstress on the music scene.

Full of tranquil energy, Amaal opened up about the various meanings Black Dove holds to her, navigating the music industry as a Somali-Canadian woman and staying true to herself no matter the cause.

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VIBE: You’ve described Black Dove as being an EP that represents the "you" that you’d previously kept hidden. Can you explain exactly what "you" was hidden?
Amaal: Yeah, that's a good question. I was raised in a very sort of strict, conservative upbringing household. There's just a lot of things that I felt like wasn't ever a possibility that I can do. I didn't imagine certain things to be possible for me. When I started doing music I really didn't express a lot of the things I was going through in my relationships, 'cause to even be in a relationship is not really looked at in a good way. I started doing music that always had this message of hope and resilience within the community of people I was raised with: immigrants, refugees. When I did that music, I felt like my mom, my parents were very proud of me. Although it was my story and what I wanted to do, I felt comfortable being in that space and that's what I kept doing. That's what I kept going at. Just one time I thought, There's so much in my life that I've been through, that I've kept hidden, almost living a double life. I felt very dishonest, to be honest, and I didn't feel like I was being true to myself. [I] felt like I was lacking presence in my own music. I was disappointed and I thought, This has to change.

I just started talking about things that I had gone through in relationships, staying in a relationship longer when I should've left and the whole concept of struggle love. Just the black community, my community... I feel like we, as women, sometimes we feel like we have to endure pain in order to show that we love someone. From the outside looking in, people didn't assume that about me, but that is kind of what I was. I grew so much from that and I wanted to share that in my music. Black Dove to me represents freedom. I love birds, I love doves, I think they're so empowering and free and I'm a black woman, so it was like black dove.

It’s interesting that you felt like you were living a double life, even though it was in a space that you were comfortable. The way you are with your family, even though it is you, it's not the full extent of who you are.
Yes, absolutely. In your music it's very hard but if I was doing a 9-5 job, I could, 'cause I was mastering it, I would be able to still continue doing that. But now, I have to have those conversations. I'm actually really learning I didn't give [my parents] enough credit. They're actually really awesome people and I'm disappointed in myself that I could've opened up in more areas. But there's still some stuff that needs to be talked about.

 

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My loves, I’m so excited to share that my EP BLACK DOVE will officially be out July 12 🕊🙏🏾Black dove means to me freedom. Freedom of my own captivity. Freedom of the shackles society placed on me! It means no longer committing a disservice to myself and owning every part of me. It’s having the courage to show up and recognizing true strength is in being vulnerable. It’s Breaking down to rebuild and running to the other side of my fears. I feel so honoured to share these moments with you all! It’s only just the beginning! @applemusic presaves will be available next week ❤️ 📷 @byseanbrown Special thanks to @sidneigum for allowing me to wear this heavenly dress!! You’re beyond talented and im so thankful!

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Was it difficult for you to be so honest with this EP, having gone through the experiences that have led you to be completely honest with who you are?
Yeah, it was. I love how you worded that earlier. Although I was living a double life, I was comfortable in that area. It was working but I definitely had to face those things that I was pushing away. I just realized the definition of the strength that I thought I was and people perceived me to be was a front. There was a lot of ego-dropping and really being raw and vulnerable with myself. That's why for a lot of the tracks, I like the instruments to be very ambient and not that much going on. I like to build off of one or two instruments because I want to let my subconscious do the talking so that my ego's gone and I can be present. But I think that's the journey of getting there. It didn't happen overnight. There's some stories there that I never thought I would share but now I'm excited to talk about them.

Would you say that your need, or the feeling that you felt to hide yourself, came from just that specific place? From family?
Mostly family, religion. Religion is number one. That played a huge role. Something I really struggled with, even talking about it in interviews, I'll be honest with you, because I do have a very deep connection with Somalia. I do a lot of activism work. I went to school for that and I want to continue doing that line of work. Unfortunately, there still is some sense of safety that I have to think about so I have to censor some things. But religion was hugely a part of it.

When you were in school, were you still doing music?
I always did music. But even when I released my first body of music, the intent wasn't to be a frontrunner, to be a musician. It was out of pure expression. It was actually really innocent. Me and my cousin would write together, we'd be like "oh wow we have so many songs let's go to a studio and record." That was it, it was really to show my family and friends the clips and then it did really well. It pushed me into that setting. I actually had to take some time away from school, to go and focus on it and then I ended up getting signed to Noah Shebib. He's Drake's right hand. That was an amazing experience as well, but music was always the core.

You moved to Canada from Somalia at a young age. Do you feel as if the move didn’t have as much of an effect on you being so young?
I absolutely remember nothing of it. But the experience had an effect on me because of everyone. We ended up moving to an area in Toronto where it was mostly Somali people who were running from the world. We all came with our PTSD and mental health issues. So, you did sense that things were not okay. Because I mean the first few years, the war went on for a long time. It’s debilitated the country. Almost my entire life I've known instability to be there. Thankfully it's getting better, but it's deeply within us. Even though we were away from the problem, we weren't. 'Cause my mom was getting a phone call of her dad passing away, getting killed, her brother essentially losing his mind because he saw so much. Bad news coming constantly to us, so it did still feel like it was present and it did affect us for sure. In ways maybe I don't know, in ways that I think it inspired me more to work harder in this life because I owe it to them and their sacrifice.

Do you feel very connected to your Somali heritage?
Yeah, big time. We were very lucky because my dad made a big point that when were coming into the house, he'd say "Leave your English at the door" and "When you step in the house you speak Somali." People are very surprised to hear me speak. They're like "I would not have expected that." It's not amazing, it is good, but when I went to Somalia, I went woah, nevermind. I thought I was with it... yeah no. It's a poetic language. It's not like direct speaking, it's a lot of poetry. And you're like "oh my God, I don't know." I do the direct talking, my way of speaking is very different but it's very fascinating there.

When's the last time you went to Somalia? I saw on your Instagram page that you’ve been there a few times.
Yeah, I was there a lot. I believe 2017, I was there three to four times, and then I was there in 2006, I believe. I was there for a year [in 2006]. It was pretty interesting. But the last few times I went to do famine relief work. There was a really bad drought that happened and a humanitarian crisis. There were like six million people that were going to go without food. A guy named Jerome [Jarre] started this initiative—two million dollars were raised and then we went there, took multiple trips, giving food, water, whatever the necessities were that they needed. So I took, three or four trips back and forth. It was phenomenal. It was the most sad, beautiful, everything experience ever. I saw a lot there that I wasn't prepared for.

Do you feel like there are other life experiences that have shaped you into the woman and artist you are today?
Absolutely. That trip to Somalia—the one that I was there for a year—I say that trip. Even today what I'm doing, that's how much it domino affected my life. Because when I went there, I went a little bit spoiled, naive, ungrateful a little. I'm going to be honest. I was like "school's school, whatever," I just didn't care. And I went there and I saw how appreciative, how humble, how thirsty people were for knowledge, their education is huge. And how little they have but how content they are with what they have. I just remember thinking: "You've got to check yourself, you're kind of wack. You have all these opportunities." And these people are so inspiring and so everything. I learned there that although their world collapsed during the war, women were the backbone of that nation, they're the ones that kept it going. I admire them so much more, I really connected with my roots. I always say the girl who went there is gone. Left. I came back a completely different person. I couldn't connect with my friends, I immediately enrolled in school. I got my sh*t together. I did, I had to. Ever since then it's been my compass that's kind of guided me. It's so crucial to me.

Being described as socially conscious, not only in your music but outside of your music, why do you think being aware of our world and the issues that go on around us is so important?
I forget this quote somebody said it but, I believe our ticket to this Earth is to be paid in service. That's just the way that I feel because Earth is our home and it provides so much for us and it's our job to also provide for it as well. That means all of its living mammals, whatever it is. I think coming from a country that's experienced so much turmoil, a continent that's gone through hell and back, and has been exploited—and don't even get me into that—I don't even know where it comes from but I know I was born with it. Does that make sense? It's instilled in me, so to put it into words, it's hard for me. But I just know it's necessary for not just you but for our future generation and their kids, you gotta clean your home right?

So is the growth you experienced from that trip and in general over the years, and who you've shaped yourself to be and who you're still shaping yourself to be, is that the message you want your fans to get from Black Dove? Are there any other messages you hope your fans pick up from your EP?
I definitely hope that they can understand the journey that I've been on because of the style of music that I was doing for so long. But I think they will because I believe a lot of women from upbringings that I've had, there is that internal struggle that we all deal with where we want to please our parents but we also need to please ourselves. This project for me is... I'm pleasing myself. I feel there's this awakening happening, that women are starting to... essentially there's always been that message, but right now it's more powerful and we're really owning our voices. Feeling empowered in our sexuality and just who we are in our identity. If anything they could take is owning yourself and being okay with you are. You're enough. I'm writing that in my little cards to everyone, "You are enough."

The music you’re making now is a lot more R&B, and has a bit of a “vibey” energy to it, but not in the stereotypical sense. Being an artist, who would you say you idolized growing up?
I'll be honest, I never idolized any artist. I think that word, I've always had a hard time with. But if there's someone I absolutely loved and adored, it was Aaliyah, because she had an Arabic name, too. I connected with her and she was of my generation. I didn't have the opportunity to hear a lot of music in my household. I didn't start singing until I was in high school, I didn't even know I really had it, anything. I started to listen to music in high school and I'd go back and be like, "Oh my god, who's this?" Nina Simone, Sam Cooke and all these greats. Nina Simone I loved because she lived in an era of oppression and the history of America was happening. She used her music to talk about that. She found a way to do it that I think a lot of people still aren't able to. I would say people from that time. Aaliyah, Lauryn Hill, Toni Braxton, too. Love her voice. Of course Beyoncé, she's the obvious, the guidebook, right? Aaliyah was my number one top.

How'd you discover that you could sing?
I was singing Mario's "Let Me Love You," and a friend was like: "Oh, you sound good." I'm like "Really? Cool." And then I'd be singing on the bus and then somebody else said something, I was like "Okay, interesting." So I just started singing more. My sisters would say you sound pretty and I would mimic other artists. Not mimic them in that way, but practice tone and agility and the little runs.

With artists today, do you have anyone that you'd like to collaborate with?
Yeah. There's two artists that I love. Two female artists, I'm obsessed with them. It's Ari Lennox and NAO. I would love to. I think they're brilliant.

Ari Lennox definitely matches your sound.
Ah, I love her. She commented on my picture the other day, I damn near lost it. She's just so special. When I see her interviews she's just so real, very nice, and like awkward but in the most beautiful way. I love her. I'd love to work with those two. And then for producers, Pharrell would be a dream come true. There's a guy named Stint, he lives in L.A. I've worked with Noah [Shebib] before but to actually get back in and release a song together that would be dope. 'Cause we have stuff from the past. Yeah, I think that'd be a nice little full circle moment.

 

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Getting deeper into your music, what was the process for creating this EP? How long did it take for you to complete it as well?
The process for me was deprogramming myself, if that makes sense. Whatever cultural binds that were holding me back in my life, I had to first approach that before I even went into doing music. It was a lot of that type of work. And then when I went into the studio I really wanted space in my tracks, so I can express myself and let the subconscious tell the story and bring forth things that I've gone through in my life that I never would've shared. I felt like that's what I needed to do in that moment.

It was a little bit hard because one of the stories was about visiting someone that I loved that went away to jail for eight months. I visited him every single weekend and during that time, I'm telling you right now, very little people knew. Just my sisters because they know everything about me, a few girlfriends and that's it. I never thought I'd ever share this story, but going through it, it started off as a bit shameful, head down, getting on the bus, you just really don't want to say where you're going. And then by the end of it—because we would take this bus that was filled with women, who were going to see their loved ones as well—I remember falling in love with them. It was like a sisterhood that we formed, a support system. They had my back, I had theirs. In the end to feel shame would mean to be ashamed for them as well and I loved them. I just remember that whole feeling melting away and seeing them and myself in a light of admiration. I was very proud of myself. There was no shame. That's what the EP was for me. Telling those stories, telling those moments, I otherwise would've bottled up and it took a year and a half, I would say. I did start doing the EP and then I erased almost everything and I started all over again when I found this place that I was at. I was like, "No, I gotta be honest and open."

If you weren't as vocal before, do you feel like you had to be more vocal in the music industry? More assertive? How do you navigate it?
Aw, man. A lot of my failures was because I wasn't assertive. A lot of my setbacks was because I never spoke up for myself and that is a lot culture as well. I was taught to allow the other person to decide. It definitely held me back in a lot of opportunities, and taking me to where I needed to go. It's interesting because you want to be able to do that without being called a bi**h, which is really sad, or a diva, which I find really heartbreaking. It's really sad. I'm now finding my voice and I'm for the first time seeing the reaction. Before I just allowed it, so that's been a really interesting landscape to navigate because I'm like,"oh I was honest with you and you're offended, why are you offended? There's no reason to be, so, now I have to soothe you again." I'm still learning and finding the best way to do it but it's really hard being a woman in this industry because it is male-dominated. But, I'll take being a bi**h now, 'cause at least I won't look back and be like, "I should've said something," 'cause that's how I felt previously in my past things, relationships that I was in.

Listening to Black Dove it’s very vibey and seductive. How did you make sure your sound was distinct and unique to you?
For me, I feel I paid a lot of homage to my Somali background and we sing in a bit of a pentatonic scale. It's the Middle Eastern sound, it's just some of the runs. And I did it, in not what I thought, it was like a run that you wouldn't hear in the Western R&B style of music. I tried incorporating stuff like that. Picking drums that had a bit of an African feel, drum pattern to it. If the music was sounding not as unique, I would try to make sure at least the topic in which I'm singing about does. But honestly my go-to usually is very minimal. I gravitate towards that and I think that's been my unique thing because most production that I hear there's a lot happening. I know when I hear a lot happening, when they do that with some of my songs, I get a headache. Honestly, it's weird, I feel clustered. I feel like my message is being lost a little bit. Even in my graphics, some of the designs, I'm very minimalistic, very simple. I try to incorporate that into my music, I hope that's been able to set me apart.

On your song "Later" you sing, "if I hold us down you'll change your behavior." And from what could be understood from the song, it seems like a relationship that you give your all in, but the same isn't reciprocated and if it is, it's later. A lot of people can definitely relate to that feeling. Is this song from personal experience?
Oh this one's all personal, 100 percent. It's the story I was just sharing with you. I actually wrote this song on my bus ride to go see him. It's such a long story, but to sum it up, we were already in a bit of a weird place during all that time. I think that would put stress on any person or any relationship. But, going there to see him, I remember thinking "I want to be there for him, I want to be loyal, down to that ride or die." And it can be damaging sometimes but in my case I really felt it was worth it. But yeah those are my questions, "I'll hold us down, I'll do all this stuff for you but will it be worth it and will you see my efforts." It was definitely being inspired by those women because we all shared a similar story. That's the story that it came from, that's so cool that you picked it up the lyrics.

Moving forward in your music, what is one constant that you want your fans to take from you as an artist?
Some fans will take different things. Muslim-Somali women I think I want them to take that I'm a risk taker, I am resilient, I'm in a place where the judgment of others is no longer of importance to me and I really hope that that's something that is taken. Overall as a black woman, I hope that people can take the place that I'm in and feel comfortable with where they're at in life and feel empowered and powerful and comfortable in their skin and that they're very important and valid and that they're voice is to be heard. I think just that sense of independence, I really hope overall is what people take from this music.

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Consider this the calm before the storm. By this same time tomorrow, the square will be teeming with activity orchestrated by Vibe Cincinnati, the organization showcasing the region’s multicultural delights. The hum of gentle chatter will be replaced by the boom of music from a stage occupied by community performers, and crowds will gather in front of it to film the music or two-step to it with impromptu dance partners. Those not keen on the heat will seek refuge from the sun beneath the shade of a table umbrella, or line-up up at the plethora of food trunks for some nourishment. And then at night, the masses will retreat to the seats of Paul Brown Stadium to partake in the festival that has served as a magnet for the black community for over half a century.

When you think of the bulk of festival season mainstays—Coachella, Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza—a low-key city like Cincinnati may not come to mind. But perhaps that’s because for 57 years, Cincinnati Music Festival, presented by P&G, has remained one of the Midwest’s best kept secrets. The longstanding festival, dubbed the largest urban music festival in the country, is molded for R&B, soul and funk lovers, many of whom travel from the likes of Columbus, Cleveland, Detroit, Pennsylvania, Milwaukee, Chicago, Texas, California, and Atlanta to experience it firsthand. (This year’s lineup included Maxwell, Mary J. Blige, Frankie Beverly & Maze, Earth, Wind & Fire, Tamia, the men of New Edition and more.)

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With African Music On The Rise, Afro-Themed Dance Parties Get To Win, Too

When walking up to the venue for New York City day party Everyday Afrique, the music greets you before you can even reach the door. Depending on the day or the DJ, you might be welcomed with a remix of Afrobeats star Mr. Eazi’s 2013 hit song “Bankulize” or embraced by Niniola’s 2017 Afrohouse single “Maradona.” The dozens of people waiting outside of the venue, the majority of which are black professionals and creatives, are dancing along to the music, seemingly unbothered by the line that stretches down the block. The lively scene outside of the venue looks considerably different than it did in 2016, when media company OkayAfrica teamed up with two popular party series, Everyday People and ElectrAfrique, to throw its inaugural Everyday Afrique event. In the three years since Everyday Afrique began, the crowd has increased from 250 people to more than 1,800 people per event, tickets are selling out faster than ever, and the African music that anchors the event has transcended the borders of Africa and is now being played on radio stations and in clubs around the world.

African music, particularly Afrobeats, has shared a prosperous give-and-take relationship with Afro-themed party series like Everyday Afrique. In the past, Afrobeats, Afrohouse, and Caribbean soca music were once exclusively celebrated by local communities living in major cities on the African continent—Lagos, Johannesburg, Accra, and Nairobi—and diasporic transplants that returned home to these cities for the holidays. Over the last two to three years, there has been an extreme increase in demand for various genres of African music in places like Washington, D.C., New York, London, and Paris, cities that for years already maintained a high concentration of Afro-themed functions to serve their diverse populations. In these cities, Afro-themed parties like London’s Afrobeats in the Garden and New York’s Afro Night Live have done their part to curate experiences around a growing art form that had little support but that they appreciated and believed in. Now, these same parties are benefiting from the music’s newfound success and expanding just as quickly as the sounds.

Everyday Afrique has been one of the major benefactors and beneficiaries of African music’s success in NYC. Three times a year during the summer’s three major holidays—Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day—Everyday Afrique hosts an all-out sweat dripping, rump-shaking, gwara gwara-hitting dance party in rotating venues around Brooklyn. The party’s soundtrack is a collection of popular and underground Afrobeats, Afrohouse, reggae, soca, and hip-hop music provided by half a dozen DJs including Everyday People co-founder DJ Moma and ElectrAfrique founder, DJ Cortega. “Our approach for Everyday Afrique has always been one of community-building,” DJ Cortega says over the phone from his home in Dakar, Senegal. “We do this through connecting people who are like-minded, that have common objectives, that are inclusive, and using music as a platform to bring people together.”

The bulk of people who make up Everyday Afrique’s community are African born and diasporic born people who dwell in neighborhoods in Harlem, Queens, and Brooklyn. Although the ages of the attendees vary, the 21+ crowd is largely dominated by millennial age professionals and creatives who likely share five or more mutual Instagram friends with any given person in the venue. There is a sense of Pan-African pride amongst the group, highlighted by “Very Black” graphic tees floating around the party and gold pendants carved in the shape of the continent dangling from attendees’ necks. Not only are the people at Everyday Afrique connected by their love for African music, but what the music represents and tells them about their culture.

A number of other Afro-themed party series that aim to conjure a similar feeling of cultural pride and community fostering have popped up in various cities around the world. Afrocode is a similar dance-heavy event that hosts weekly parties in Atlanta, New York City, and D.C. The inaugural Afrocode was organized by Ghanian entrepreneur "FredEvents" in 2013. He had the primary desire to connect the often fragmented black American, black Caribbean, and black African communities and provide a celebratory environment where they could listen to and appreciate one another’s music and cultures. "We picked a theme that wasn't solely African, but that can also bring the three cultures together to appreciate each others’ genre,” Fred explains via phone. “We knew the energy would be completely different because you are giving the best of all the three categories in one space."

 

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The energy fostered in these environments has been both a cause and effect of the diaspora’s growing desire to reconnect and learn more about their African ancestry through various cultural channels. The growing popularity of parties like these corresponds with the success of travel companies like Travel Noire and Tastemakers Africa, both of which create and share opportunities for black people from the diaspora to visit the continent and engage in historical and cultural experiences during their visits. “I think people are now paying attention to what it means to be African,” Fred says. “For the longest, a lot of African Americans, black people in general, have tried to seek that connection.” Although these connections are also being formed through fashion, art, and other creative mediums, nothing has seemed to connect Africa and the diaspora more than music and the spaces that are curating a vibe around it.

Afrobeats, in particular, has emerged as the leading genre during this most recent global African music takeover. The genre, which over the years has been used to define a broad collection of popular sounds coming out of West Africa, has catapulted a number of its stars into the international spotlight. Earlier this year, Afrobeats stars Burna Boy and Mr Eazi performed sets at Coachella and the summer before Afrobeats hitmaker Davido shut down London’s Wireless Festival with a highly talked about set. The former two artists were also featured on Beyonce’s latest surprise album The Lion King: The Gift, along with West African hitmakers WizKid and Tekno. The album itself appears to be an ode to the genre and its African roots and includes many of the same percussion elements as Afrobeats.

Much of the music's global appeal can be credited to its upbeat and lively instrumentation and feel-good lyrics, which tend to celebrate life, love, and positive experiences. “Afrobeats is engraved in people's culture, it's not just a cool thing,” Fred says. “People live, breathe it. It's a true culture, it's not just a music category. It feels like when hip-hop was starting out back in the day. They were telling their stories through the music. With the music comes a lot of different ways that we can showcase Africans in a different light.”

For Fred, Afrobeats seemed like the most logical breakthrough genre in the U.S. because of the hefty West African presence in cities like D.C. and New York, where both he and DJ Cortega first tried their hands at hosting Afro-themed parties. Europe has also been up on the Afrobeats wave. ElectrAfrique has touched down in Berlin and Paris, and London-based event company Sounds D’Afrique has brought the flavor of Afrobeats to London’s club scene. In each city, these gatherings are centering Afrobeats music, while simultaneously introducing locals to new artists and the sounds that energize crowds in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Jamaica, and other countries around the world.

Their success is a prime example of the adage “when opportunity meets preparation.” When Swedish born DJ Cortega first launched ElectrAfrique, he did so with a small team in Nairobi, Kenya. ElectricAfrique held its first party in 2011, the same year WizKid released his debut album Superstar and Davido dropped "Back When," the first single off Omo Baba Olowo. DJ Cortega, FredEvents, and other early Afro-themed party founders had the foresight to curate parties around a sound that had yet to find a global audience or show potential to do so. Now, the rise in attendance at these events can be directly attributed to the growth of African music.

Parties like ElectricAfrique are continuing to introduce other African people to the new popular songs produced by their neighboring countries. “Even though we're growing, it’s still relatively organic and community-based,” Cortega says. “We have never really tried to push super hard to grow. We want the event to grow naturally. We want people to enjoy being there and feel like this is a space where they are comfortable and where they identify and so they want to bring their friends and like-minded people to it. In terms of the vibe that's one of the very important elements.”

So what’s next for the growth of African music and the party series that provides the music with the grassroots marketing it needs to succeed? Neither DJ Cortega nor Fred see it slowing down anytime soon. “Africa is almost 1.2 billion people,” Fred says. “There's not a question about it being sustainable. The culture will always be there. People are always going to create. I think the part where the music is so much more important now is because people are starting to respect what being African is because they have a marketable product that they can attach a dollar value to.” Regardless of the changing landscape of the music industry, parties like Everyday Afrique, Afrocode and the like are primed to continue thriving as a result of the communities they built that may have been brought together by the music but stayed for the experience.

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Phil Emerson

E-40 The Ageless: Forty Water Memories of a Bay Area Rap Giant

In 1995 he was rhyming “Floyd Terrace” with “esopha-garus,” rapidly scrunching and expanding rhymes with torrents of slang, often hilarious and strikingly original. The audacity of E-40 has been his ability to be himself, a one-of-a-kind whose business savvy moved him far beyond rap, famously sitting courtside at huge events, funding films, owning restaurants and real estate, condos and cars, even dabbling in the tequila (naturally called, E Cuarenta). At over thirty releases, let us also not forget he’s one of the most prolific artists— in any genre— of the last three decades.

These days he’s community minded, glowingly giving back and accepting his role as local neighborhood champ. “You don’t always have to broadcast what you do on the internet or push it in the limelight or put it on the news. But I definitely do that sometimes because I want to influence other people in my position to do the same thing.”

All of this doesn’t detract from the fact that he’s never slowed musically, releasing double albums, side projects, and even trilogies in staggering artistic spurts. 2012 saw five total projects – three solo albums and two collabs with another enormous figure, Oakland’s own Too Short. His response as to how he’s able to remain in creative overdrive after all these years: “It’s all gravity.”

Practice Makes Paper, his latest release, is brimming with guests who not only add to the album’s interest factor, but also reflect E-40’s continual and far-reaching relevance. Swaths of guests include Method Man and Scarface, but also Chris Brown and G-Eazy, Schoolboy Q, Rick Ross, and others. Whether as E-Pheezy, Charlie Hustle, or 40 Belafonte, he’s one of the most uniquely consistent personalities in music, finding his style early on and never deviating. Musical landscapes change, and we grow older, but E-40 stays the same— there’s a comfort in that.

Here we talk about the early schemes of a young Earl Stevens, his relationships with other Bay giants, his time with Tupac, and other seminal, and at times peerless, moments in the career of the great Earl Stevens.

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VIBE: You started Sick Wid It Records in 1986. Tell us about the beginning. E-40: My brother, D-Shot, and I had a clothing store around the time we had just finished college. D-Shot did 22 months in Preston CYA, a California Youth Authority and after he was released, we decided we needed to slow down and stay out of trouble. So we bought a clothing store in the late 1980s and called it New Fat Clothing. We would just buy our stuff from New York or LA’s garment district and distribute them here in the Bay. At the time it was like a dice roll.

Tell us what you remember about the making of your first solo album, Federal. I was cold turkey out of the soil, you feel me? I was new and was leaving my old life behind to work on this life and use the money we’d to put into studio time. Whether it was $40 or $400, I used that money to invest back into myself. I’d walk down to Vallejo Check Cashing then walk straight to the studio and be like, “I need four hours for next Tuesday, here’s my deposit.” So while I’m at the store cashiering or stocking or whatever, I’d write lyrics and jot everything all down while listening to beats. Once I got to the studio, I’d finish like four or five songs easily and all of those those tracks over time became Federal.

What do you remember about the actual studio process and technology of the time? I remember doing it all on half-inch reels. Then a couple years later, we would mix everything onto two-inch reels. But those fucking two-inch reels held at most three songs! And each reel was something ridiculous like $350 each. It’s trippy because these days you can pay like a couple hundred bucks and have thousands of your songs stored somewhere. That’s how it was, at least where we were at in the Bay.

On the topic of the Bay, talk about your friendship with another local legend, Too Short. How did you two meet? It came about naturally. We had mutual friends and I knew him and his folks B.R. You know what that means?

B.R.? It means ‘Before Rap’ [laughs]. We had mutual friends but we never kicked it. I used to go to every Too Short show I could too. I don’t look up to too many, but I looked up to him. I grew up on all his stuff and was a real fan. We were on the same label for many years, he signed with Jive Records in ‘88 and I signed a distribution deal with them around ’94. We eventually did a record in 1996 called “Rappers Ball” and shot a legendary video with tycoons like Ice-T, Mack 10, Tupac and hella others. The grind didn’t stop from there though, we went on to do hella songs.

Another Bay standout is Boots Riley (from the Coup) who is now an acclaimed film director. There’s that famous picture of you, Boots, and Tupac together. Talk about Boots. Boots to me has always been one of those dudes that stood for what’s right. I would literally see Boots at every show that was going on in Cali. We did a song called “Santa Rita Weekends” and I felt it was legendary and we just stayed in contact ever since. He had a song where he said, ‘I got a mirror in my pocket to practice lookin’ hard,’ which I always loved. That picture you mentioned was when we were doing a video and Pac just popped in. We weren’t even expecting him but he was in the Bay for a court date.

How was Tupac that day? He hung out all day. He was in the soil. All my in-laws, all my cousins, everyone, he showed genuine love to. We was deep in apartment complexes, Lucky Supermarket, and the local check-cashing place, and everyone was just taking pictures with him. I remember everyone becoming Pac’s security that day [laughs], nobody even think about popping a balloon, you feel me? People was trippin’ because Pac was in V-Town!

Talk about your relationship with him. How did you two meet? He shouted me and the Click out on the track “Representin’ 93” from his album Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z. and I heard it. It was at a Juneteenth event in Davis and I saw Richie Rich, this rapper from Oakland. Rich was like, ‘Yo Pac wanted me to give you his number, he wants to holler at you.’ I said, ‘For real? He wants to fuck with us?’ Rich had already known Pac for years. So I hit him up and from there, there was no turning back.

What was the studio environment like when you two met up? Every time in the studio we had a pervin’ session, you know, getting warped, smoking big turtle, smoking that big broccoli. Every time there was a new deal, we’d be in the studio celebrating, getting twisted, making songs. It was like a family reunion.

On topic of songs, I’d like to talk about a couple classics of yours. “Captain Save A Hoe,” for instance was a hit with a very memorable music video. It was just comedy. Making the music video was tons of fun too. First of all, there’s a difference in having a female that you’re locked in with and she’s faithful, that’s beautiful. But sometimes dudes have females with more miles on her than Jet Blue [laughs] Every Tom, Dick, or Harry has had relations with your girl and you’re trying to make her a housewife? That’s “Captain Save A Ho.”

Another recent song of yours, “Choices,” became a huge anthem. How’d that come about? I don’t always talk in third person but I sometimes rap in third person and I was just talking to myself when I made that song. That’s like my inner dialogue, you know? I’m just talking to myself about making choices and I caught a flow that opened up the direction of the track. Asking myself a question, then answering it. Yup!

You ended up altering the lyrics for the Golden State Warriors’ run a couple years back. Sports fans, especially here in the Bay, see you at games all the time. How do you see the Dubs doing next season? I think they’ll be right back on top of the league. Of course the league has tightened up with good players but Dubs have a lot of experience and know-how from winning so much during these five or six years. I really hated to see KD [Kevin Durant] go but it was the right move. I think the legacy will continue.

We touched on your history but I’d like to highlight your community efforts. What’s your message when it comes to giving back? The thing is, you have to give back from the heart. You have to do it right and not just for show. For instance, when I gave out backpacks to some school kids, it was on the news and all that, which is fine, it’s all gravity. But I wasn’t just handing out backpacks, I purposely chose Jansport because they have lifetime guarantees, you feel me? So that if something happens, these kids can still help themselves and get another backpack.

Speaking of kids, what’s your take on current rap you hear? Do younger artists hit you up for advice? A lot of the music is out of hand and probably wouldn’t have lasted in the late ‘80s and ‘90s. It’s all gravity because I do like a lot of the newer stuff too. Some stuff people might not even think I’m into it. But for all you young artists: anytime anyone needs anything, needs any advice, I’m here for y’all.

Let’s end this at the beginning; full circle. What music were you into when you were younger? Do you remember when hip-hop entered the picture? I was into soul music and R&B. The Bar-Kays, Cameo, Earth Wind & Fire. For all the young bloods out there, that’s where hip-hop started! And the first time I heard rap? It was 1979 at Franklin Junior High and I heard “Rapper’s Delight.” And that was it for me. Damn brother, that was forty years ago!

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