Back in ’88 when Chuck D unleashed his rally cry for empowerment in the form of Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, his voice was reaching far beyond the youth located in inner-city America. As a youngster in Accra, Ghana, Samuel Bazawule and his friends were captivated by the voices of social awareness that were creating a musical revolution thousands of miles from their home and were finding themselves in the stories of hope, equality and struggle that were permeating from the West. Public Enemy along with timeless hip-hop masters such as Rakim and KRS-One were offering an opportunity for outlet amongst the youth in Ghana whose strict society and social codes sought to squash the voice of the young.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise then that Bazawule, now more commonly known as the rapper Blitz the Ambassador, is now an acting voice himself for those in his native land—actually, for anyone willing to listen. His latest effort, Native Sun is a cry of both joy and of pain that began in his roots in Accra, was forged in the African diaspora and is now fulfilled upon a hip-hop platform that stretches far beyond his homeland and transcends the idea of the conventional hip-hop album.
I use the term hip-hop loosely, as the album is musically a mish-mash of genres and unique sounds that seamlessly blend together to create something greater than its parts. Native Sun’s instrumentals include African drums, brass instruments, guitars, record scratches and smooth backing vocals that groove along with various meter changes (when’s the last time you heard someone rap over a beat in a 6/8 time signature?). The music, created by Blitz’s own live band, The Embassy Ensemble, creates a sound so rich that you’re likely to discover something new each time you give the album another spin. It’s true—at times it feels as though he’s attempting to bite off more than he can chew and perhaps the envelope wasn’t meant to be pushed this far, but it’s the beginning of an effort that will likely lead to an even more rewarding and cohesive sound in the years to come.
As a rapper, Blitz is crisp and refreshing. Whether he’s rapping in English, Twi or West African Pigeon, it’s clear that there’s emotion and purpose behind his lyrics, even when we can’t understand what he’s saying. Throughout the album, Blitz is poignant and steadfast in his message. On standout track and letter to his homeland, “Dear Africa”, Blitz spits “Swiss bank accounts, they hiding all your funds / Instead of education, they patiently giving children guns / So while I write you this letter I need some clarity / People think that Africa’s synonymous with charity”. The majority of Native Sun refuses to follow a familiar verse/chorus/verse format and instead flows at its own pace, forcing the listener to grapple with the feel of each song instead of clinging to catchy hooks. “Accra City Blues”, a smooth bluesy track that lasts nearly six minutes, features only a 16 bar verse from Blitz and is accompanied by some laid back sung vocals while the majority of the song is simply gorgeous instrumentation.
One of Native Sun’s interlude tracks, “The Oracle”, is blessed with a shout-out from Chuck D himself, in which he caps off his nod to Blitz with the oft-used phrase “It’s not where you from, it’s where you at”. This sentiment deeply connects Blitz with his boyhood idol. Chuck D’s rise from inner city New York to voice of a generation as a rapper in the ‘80s and ‘90s as well as being a continual viable political and social commentator in the hip-hop community is a story of overcoming obstacles through a skillfully delivered persistent message. Therein lies the heart of hip hop. Public Enemy sampled records. Blitz harnesses the sound of Africa through his live band. Regardless of the end product’s sound, the message is the same and is still as relevant in 2011 as it was in decades past. Blitz is taking his opportunity to speak seriously and as a result, is impacting a new generation that stretches across borders and language barriers. Let’s hope the trend continues.