"We tryin' to build some schools in Africa with this one, and trying to build empowerment... So, the record's... all about really the 'hood and Africa also..." -NaS to MTV, at the 2009 Grammy Awards
Much like hip-hop itself, Africa just can't seem to dodge the hate. Western media has a knack for morphing the richest continent on the planet into a bastion of violence and savagery. So when it came time to make an album that flips the myths on their head, NaS couldn't have picked a better co-creator than Damian "Jr. Gong" Marley.
The result is Distant Relatives, a collaboration that started in 2008 as a short EP, but quickly evolved into a full album. Glibly labeling it "rap" or "reggae" would be to sell the work short--especially considering how firmly rooted it is in the broad struggle of the African diaspora. NaS and Marley have taken it back to the source (for lack of a better phrase). And counter to the Kipling-esque myths, they've turned the fateful triangle between Africa, America and Caribbean inside out to reveal a legacy of humanity and pride.
"Each and everyone deserves to earn / And every child deserves to learn," Marley sings on the thumping, string-fueled "Tribes At War." "Every man deserves a turn / Like Babylon deserves to burn." It's an oblique albeit powerful line that could come from any reggae song. But NaS' contribution makes clear exactly where they're going with all of it:
"Man what happened to us?
Geographically they moved us
We was once happiness pursuers
Now we back stabbing
Combative and abusive
The African and Arab go at it
They most Muslim
We should be moving in unison!"
Anticipation for Distant Relatives has been high ever since word of the album's production saw the light of day. Paying tribute to Africa is nothing new in hip-hop or reggae, but from the start, the buzz seemed to reflect that something bigger was at play. In January, NaS and Marley spoke at a panel discussion in Washington, DC's National Geographic building on deep common legacy the two seemingly disparate artists were attempting to cull.
Rob Kenner, writer for VIBE magazine and organizer of the event, pointed out that reggae and hip-hop are both "soundtracks for young people around the world. Although people segregate them, they're very closely related--and they're both distant relatives of Africa."
Recent years have seen these global soundtracks projected back in the form of African artists and rappers who have gained notable status in the West: Somalia's K'Naan (who guests on Relatives), Ghana's Blitz the Ambassador, Sierra Leone's Bajah and the Dry Eye Crew and Senegal's Waterflow just to name a handful.
"[T]here's a global context now," says hip-hop journalist Jeff Chang. "In order for all art forms to move forward, you have to have someone like NaS or Damian Marley to step up and push the edge."
There's no denying that Distant Relatives pushes the edge. Rap and reggae have certainly crossed paths countless times before, but NaS and Marley's effort is the first album-length work seeking to fuse the two so finely. This might be enough to boot--reggae's Rastafari uplift and hip-hop's street level empowerment mesh with ease--but when the Afrobeat and soukous, the djembe drums and kalimbas make themselves heard, one starts to get the idea of what a unique album this is.
As every good artist knows, though, nothing pushes the edge quite so abruptly as a well-delivered truth spoken by those who know it best. The second verse of "Tribes At War" sees K'Naan delivering a rebuke to the white-man's-burden notions that abound of both hip-hop and Africa:
"I drink poison
Then I vomit diamonds
I gave you Mandela
Black Dalai Lamas
I gave you music
You enthused in my kindness
So how dare you reduce me to Donny Imus"
"Land of Promise," featuring samples from late roots legend Dennis Brown, lays it on thick with the slow and sultry beats and brassy horns, and its message is just as blunt. Images of Sunset Boulevards in Ghana and Times Square in Somalia paint a rather clear picture of just how much has been robbed of Africa over the centuries.
Not all of Distant Relatives is so forceful. "Count Your Blessings" runs a jaunty, upbeat tempo under lyrics bound to provoke more smiles than raised fists. Neither is all of the album squarely on the mark. "My Generation," surely intended as a meeting between a bevy of diverse artists (Lil Wayne and Joss Stone both make appearences) comes off as a jumbled and aimless song whose words could stand a bit more scrutiny before making the final cut.
But lest the listener get too comfy or complacent, NaS and Marley are always careful to keep a jolt of energetic militancy not too far behind. "Nah Mean" sees Marley's toasting skills in their finest form as he takes aim at everything from colonialism to police brutality. "Strong Will Continue" builds from heart-rending confessional into a fiery blast against cynicism itself. And "Dispear" bluntly lays out the divisions that have kept the ghettos of Africa and the world over in chains:
"Who are the masters?
They are the gangsters
They are the bankers
The ones who tax us
They are us
The sheep, the people"
Some reviewers have been dismissive of Distant Relatives, seeing both the subject matter and lyrics themselves as "trite," "dreary," or "self-serious." It's a rather snooty assertion to make--especially considering that most musicians' ideas about Africa come from the condescending likes of Bono and Sting.
And while it has to be admitted that a few songs on the album fall flat, most hit the mark with pinpoint accuracy. Few "experiments" (as Marley himself referred to the songs) can be said to come off so well in today's musical landscape.
For two iconic rebel artists to even attempt what they have is significant enough. That they succeeded in crossing the boundaries that have separated continents, nations and cultures borders on groundbreaking. It makes one think... if it's so easy for them, maybe the rest of us can too.
Alexander Billet, a music journalist and activist living in Chicago, runs the website Rebel Frequencies (http://rebelfrequencies.blogspot.com), and is a columnist for the Society of Cinema and Arts. His articles have also appeared in Z Magazine, CounterPunch, SocialistWorker.org and New Politics.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.