Out of Afrika

A chance trip to ‘the Motherland’ saw Afrika Bambaataa change his name and help start a unifying musical movement called hip-hop. City Times talks with the hugely influential DJ and activist

By Adam Zacharias

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Published: Mon 19 Jul 2010, 8:00 PM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 12:39 PM

CREATING MUSIC THAT soundtracks an era can be a double-edged sword, as fresh invention soon turns to faddish throwback.

But while disco boogied off the dancefloor, grunge dragged its Converse trainers into adulthood and hair metal sprung bald patches, hip-hop has grown into a world-gulping behemoth; an apex predator of musical forms.

Which makes Afrika Bambaataa’s achievements all the more monumental. His influence upon the genre cannot be overstated; the 50-year-old laid down the four pillars of hip-hop: MCing, DJing, breakdancing and graffiti art, while reaching out to his community to create a unified movement called The Zulu Nation, which helped diffuse the fledgling musical style into America and the rest of the world.

Born in the Bronx at the dawn of the 1960s, the young Kevin Donovan grew up in the midst of America’s civil rights movement – acquiring both political sensibilities and a love of music from his mother and uncle.

An avid record collector and naturally dextrous DJ, he became a regular fixture at house parties, incorporating everything from salsa to funk to rock to TV theme tunes into his set lists. All the while, the precocious young man climbed the ranks of local gang The Black Spades.

But after becoming fascinated by the Michael Caine film Zulu, Donovan won a trip to Africa through a UNICEF writing competition. He visited Nigeria, the Ivory Coast and Guinea-Bissau, and was inspired by the sight of African farmers controlling their own lives and destinies – a sharp cry from the turbulent race conflicts occurring in the States.

Upon returning to New York, Donovan renamed himself Afrika Bambaataa (after the real-life Zulu chief) and sought to transform the gang culture rife within his community into something more positive; creating music and dance crew The Zulu Nation in the mid-70s.

The initiative provided a platform for youths to meet peacefully and battle one another through MCing or breakdancing, rather than descending into a brawl. ‘Hip-hop’, as the prevailing subculture became labelled, promoted fashion, unity, enjoyment and social consciousness.

Spearheaded by the likes of Bambaataa, DJ Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash, the movement gathered steam and eventually came to national attention with the chart success of Rapper’s Delight by The Sugarhill Gang in 1979.

Bambaataa’s Kraftwerk-sampling Planet Rock in 1982 introduced electronica and futurism into the genre, themes which remain popular to this day, while the same year also saw the release of The Message by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, still regarded as one of hip-hop’s seminal tunes.

And while the genre has since scattered into myriad directions – from NWA to Vanilla Ice to Jay-Z to Eminem – Bambaataa has continued promoting the values of old-skool hip-hop while staying politically active.

City Times phoned the living legend as he prepares to play Dubai tomorrow night.

What does your schedule consist of these days?

I’ve just been travelling, DJing and lecturing in anything you can deal with, talking about hip-hop, different movements or ufology – whatever people want to talk about.

What do you think about the current state of hip-hop?

You have people who only know the word ‘hip-hop’ through rap music, then you have people who truly know hip-hop culture and all the different elements that go with it. The media likes to follow the rappers, some are positive and some are negative.

Do you think the obsession with consumption and conflict within today’s hip-hop reflects modern American society as a whole?

Gangsters in American society didn’t start with hip-hop; that’s been going on since the 20s and Al Capone. A lot of people get it twisted and think it all started with rap groups.

Can you tell us about your exit from gang culture after you visited Africa?

It changed when I started travelling. I visited the Motherland and started talking to people from all over the Earth and seeing the struggles they went through. When you go and speak among people of different nationalities and so-called races, you get an overview of what life is all about.

Do you think some form of gang culture is inevitable for people living troubled lives in the inner city?

It’s hard to say, because you’ve got some areas which have gangs and people that do a lot of good in their community in the same space. So it’s each individual’s mentality of how they see themselves.

Did you watch the World Cup in South Africa?

I didn’t really follow the World Cup; I saw the excitement here and there, but I’m more concerned with what’s going on with Mother Earth. We must all be more worried about that than just playing games.

What is it about the continent that fascinates you?

It’s the mother of all civilisation on the planet. I’ve seen so many different cultural aspects of Africa and how it has influenced many other places throughout the world.

You were a loud voice in trying to end Apartheid in South Africa. Do you think the fallout from Apartheid is still visible two decades later?

There aren’t just problems in that part of the world, but in many other countries as well. Until people get to respect themselves first and put the love back in the universe, there’s still going to be people thinking they’re better than one another. Mother Earth doesn’t care about your nationality or race or religion.

Do you classify yourself as an environmentalist?

No, I’m a universalist, and I’ve been trying to warn everyone about disrespecting the planet – we’ve got to stop cutting down trees and shooting animals just for fun. It’s ridiculous.

How did it feel to be named one of the most important people of the last century by Life magazine?

I give all praise to the creator, and all the people who wish me the best of luck.

Where do you think hip-hop is heading in the future?

As we become galactic human beings, we will have a universal hip-hop culture that will travel to wherever we’re going as humans in our vast universe.

You’re often called ‘the Godfather of hip-hop’. What do you think of that title?

People called me that last millennium – this millennium people are calling me ‘the Amun-Ra of universal hip-hop culture’. It’s a heavy load for me!

What will you be playing in Dubai?

Any music that will hopefully make people get down and get funky!

Thanks for talking to us.

Peace and respect to you sir.

event details

What: Afrika Bambaataa DJ set

Where: The Rooftop (main room), Madinat Jumeirah

When: Tuesday, July 20, 9pm to 3am

Cost: Dhs100 in advance, Dhs150 at the door, ladies and Face Card holders free till 10pm

Tickets: Available from www.timeouttickets.com, www.platinumlist.ae or at the door

For more info: Call 050 725 8277 or e-mail lindi@ohmrecords.com

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