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JuJu Charms: An Interview with Rapper JuJu Rogers

JuJu Charms (Screengrab from "Real Shit" / YouTube)

Though the rapper's skill set proves him a worthy contender against any of the reigning MCs currently taking the airwaves by storm, JuJu Rogers remains a king in search of a throne.

Caught between two cultures and two languages, JuJu Rogers (born Julian) was never going to walk a straight and easy line growing up. His music is about the tension that lies between diametrically opposing cultures. Born to an African-American father and a German mother, Rogers grew up speaking both English and German and perhaps, as is the very nature of hip-hop's increasingly heterogeneous culture, he found a way to bridge disparities through rhyme and song.

It started with Rogers' father's record collection, the young upstart simply taking in the sounds of the blues. And from there a series of life choices that would see him on either side of the tracks – experiences chronicled on his 2015 debut album, From the Life a Good-for-Nothing (Jakarta). Before Rogers could come up as an artist in his own right, he cut his teeth as one-third of Man of Booom, a hip-hop collective comprising of both German and British players.

Rogers got his first taste of success as part of the collective, signing to the German underground hip-hop label Sichtexot and touring across Europe to promote their one and (so far) only release, 2013's Back to the Booom, an album which traded on a lot of jazz, humour, and bluesy slams. Rogers' time with the group was spent wisely, soaking up the experience so that he may move forward as an independent.

From the Life of a Good-for-Nothing, the rapper's 2015 debut as a solo artist, mellowed out Man of Booom's more raucous traits for a smoother, more rounded sound. Finding a counterpoint between his sing-song raps, Euro-hip-hop and the East Coast slams of American boom-bap, numbers like "Hungry" and "The Story of Warren" ring thickly with buttery blues and '70s funk. This is the preserve from which the rapper works for much of the album and Rogers employs the essential designs of hip-hop, working an agreeable friction of his vocals against the pounding of MPC drums. Executing expert flows over lushly bumping grooves, his delivery is optioned with some understatement, though the spirit of jazz lifts high the grooves so that the numbers are arched with an air of joy and defiance.

From the Life of a Good-for-Nothing did well in the hip-hop underground, its moody atmospheres and banging rhythms keeping pace with like-minded works such as J. Cole's 2014 release Forest Hill Drive and Bilal's In Another Life (2015). An EP with Bluestaeb, Lost in Translation (abbreviated to LIT), appeared in 2017. A more subdued effort that played up the soul and jazz elements, Rogers burrowed deeper into his niche as hip-hop's resident beatnik, eschewing bling for a sort of urban I Ching philosophy.

Two years of writing and recording delivered the rapper's latest, 2019's 40 Acres N Sum Mula. The album teeters precariously over a precipice of braggadocious aggression, leaning some ways away from the collected cool of his debut. It charms and bruises in equal turns. This time, his anger unchecked, Rogers urges on a sound of heedless indulgence; monstrous bass drops explode dangerously upon the subwoofers, threatening to obliterate them wholly. His politics are now sharpened to an exacting point, aimed at targets far and wide, such as the puppet masters behind social media platforms and the government hands across the globe responsible for the undoing of Africa.

Bridging a harder funk to his normally genial charms pitches the rapper's latest offering at an uncomfortable slant. The trappish "Babylon" approaches a moment of pop before its hook detours into an eerie sonic chasm. On the booming "Follow Me", Rogers holds court with a subsonic bass pattern before a sudden shift takes the number into the gentle, underwater trills of its coda. And on the shuffling slide-and-clap of "Real Shit", a melodic rap careens artfully around the groove until yet another sonic shift brings the song to its clipped and minimal close. It's clear the rapper is making musical wanderlust his business here and the unusual dynamics on the album oblige easily the stylistic flips

Rogers has yet to make a familiar name for himself in North America. Though he remains a relatively obscure curio on American shores, his skill set proves him a worthy contender against any of the reigning MCs currently taking the airwaves by storm. As it stands, he is a king in search of a throne.

(courtesy of Jakarta Records)

It took you four years to follow up your solo debut. What was happening in that time until the release of your new album?

Well, on one hand, I worked on different projects like the LIT (Lost in Translation) record with Bluestaeb and other features and collaborations, but mainly, I believe that's life, you know. I moved to a metropolis of four million, the most international and cultural city of Germany. I've been able to travel inside and outside of Europe. I've studied and tried to deal with life like any other person in this world. It was a very intense time of reassuring and readjusting perspectives and understanding this crazy journey called life!

How would you compare From the Life of a Good-For-Nothing with 40 Acres N Sum Mula stylistically and artistically? How has your music developed since your first album?

I don't. I don't compare works from maybe five years ago to now. I feel like it makes no sense at all because life is a dynamic process and so is creating music. I can only ask myself if the core is still the same. The intention, the love, the honesty. Everything else just reflects the time and mood I'm currently in. I believe it's a bit more personal, more unapologetic and definitely more clear in its positioning. Maybe I also challenged myself more here and there, you know, with the singing and generally using my voice more. But in my personal opinion it's just a continuation of JuJu's path, after all.

On the new album, 40 Acres N Sum Mula, you sing a lot more. You've spent much of your career rapping. There's still a very strong hip-hop current that runs through the album, but the music leans a little heavier on the soul side. Did you consciously set out to make an album where you could explore the more soul elements and, therefore, sing more?

Most of the times I let go and let the spirit do its thing. It sounds funny for many people but it's the truth! I definitely wanted to challenge myself on the musical side, though. So, I think the answer is yes. I consciously challenged myself with singing, playing the trumpet, using my voice more even when rapping, etc.

But it wasn't about bringing "more soul" or anything, you feel me? It was more of a "let's try things out freely and push ourselves further and further." Sometimes it works out beautifully and sometimes it's like, "OK nah, let's try something else." I honestly loved that feeling during the many recording sessions.

There is also a stronger socially-conscious vibe on this new album. What are some of the topics and themes you explore on the new album?

The album has a chronological order, you see. After reintroducing myself, I wanted to talk about real shit and the realest shit I felt I could talk about was depression and self-medication, especially in the young generation nowadays. In times and moments of weakness, of course temptation is very strong, so I wanted to address this too. The capitalistic system with all its contradictions, like racism and poverty and, of course, the consequences like mass incarceration play a role. The question of identity in this world as well as spiritual questions are posed and some are possibly even answered. Afrofuturism and the tradition of liberation holds it all together.

You traveled quite a bit before recording your second album. Where did you go? Did your travels influence the new work? If so, in what ways?

Aside from simply being able to travel to many places in Europe that I have never seen before, I've also visited Tunisia, Sudan, and Morocco. Each voyage added to who I am today. Not only that I changed many of my perspectives but it made me understand my life and my position better. I feel like traveling always helps me to reflect on life from a certain distance, with a different "normal" and another perspective. It's just been super enlightening and helpful.

I can't really get into specifics because I've had life changing experiences out there, man. Sudan and its people were especially a huge gift for me and I will forever be thankful for this experience!

Your song "Follow Me" seems to outline social media culture's relationship to the way people make music today. You are not particularly involved with social media to a large degree. How do you feel this culture has affected the way many people observe hip-hop culture today?

To be very honest, I'm not really concerned with how people observe hip-hop today. I feel like I should actively work on what I do and how I can make a difference. How can I use this amazing culture to change things or to address certain things? I'm very, very sensitive, sir.

What I'm trying to say is I don't want to get distracted or get involved with other people making maybe negative music or reproducing patriarchy and capitalism. I'd rather focus on myself and my flaws and weaknesses and false understandings, etc. and put all my energy into working on myself and bettering myself. You feel me?

Tell us about your life growing up in Germany. What do you remember of your childhood -- particularly your first musical experiences?

I grew up in a small working-class town in the rather conservative south of Germany. Five thousand US troops were stationed there, there was a huge Turkish migration during the '60s and basically most of the people working in industrial jobs somehow connected to ball bearings. I would say it was a multicultural yet conservative working-class small town. My parents worked very hard to make things happen for their children, so I must admit my childhood was a blessing.

I give thanks for both of my parents! It was them who brought me -- and mind you this shit is expensive for working class families with three children -- to music school where I was able to learn playing the trumpet for about ten years. Mama especially made sure I got a good musical education.

My father played record after record at the house and by doing that also subconsciously educated me on all kinds of music. From B.B. King all the way to Kanye West, from the Chi-Lites to the Commodores and more. I was really, really blessed!

Your father, an American, was in the army and was stationed overseas. Which areas of the US did you spend time in and what were your experiences there like?

My father is from New Orleans, or the birthplace of jazz music. He has 13 siblings, meaning I've always spent time in New Orleans. Maybe a little Mississippi and Atlanta, due to the huge family we have but, basically, I stay in New Orleans when I'm in the States.

I can only tell everyone to visit this amazing city. The rich culture and powerful heritage are everywhere! That's my experience whenever I'm over there…I learn new things about New Orleans, the history of African-Americans there and also about myself, of course.

You are bilingual and rap in English. How much do you think in German? Does this bilingualism affect the way you write your lyrics? Is there a "German way" of thinking about things? If so, how does this affect, if at all, your music?

That's such an interesting question! I think in German a lot, even though I believe [while] in Berlin, it does switch a lot. The city is just very international and different languages are spoken here everywhere. I truly believe it not only affects my style but it is my style. My way of thinking and speaking and addressing things, of course, is the product of my environment and upbringing. Using certain phrases or switching languages, having a variety of ways to say certain things will affect the writing, the subjects, the position, etc.

A rapper from LA will most likely, to a certain extent, sound like a West Coast rapper. Same goes for the South or East. The Bay Area has a certain style, the Midwest, etc. Whether the vocabulary or subject matter, it will reflect the environment, I think. It's only right that my style is the influences from my upbringing, so we're just gonna add a little of that to the table now. It's a different perspective, different way of saying and addressing things.

You've seen and experienced both the hip-hop scenes in American and Germany, respectively. How does the German hip-hop scene compare with American hip-hop culture?

I'm not too deep into scenes, brother. Really. I pay small attention to scenes and things like that. I enjoy good music whether English-speaking or German. If you're asking me about German hip hop culture, I would say there's no deep understanding of it at this point. Where it came from, how and why it developed, etc.

But to be very honest, I feel like it's the same in the States right now. Less counterculture and more advocating the status quo capitalist mindset and understanding of the world. And yet I must say, who am I to judge entire scenes? I'd rather create more relevant music and be part of a cultural understanding of this thing called hip-hop.

In your music there's a lot of East Coast American hip-hop influences, as well as a lot of '70s jazz (particularly the works of Pharoah Sanders, Sam Rivers). What influences do you think are notably European? How would you define the European consciousness of your work?

The only "European thing" about my music is the setting. The setting of Europe had an influence on my position, the way I create and what I want to say with my music.

How would you describe your stylistic approach to hip-hop in general? What do you think you are doing that separates your work from the works of others who are making hip-hop?

Feeling! I just listen to my heart and soul. No gimmicks, no games, no play, no Instagram comment spamming, no focus on others in a negative way. I try to listen to my heart all the times and make radical decisions. And last but definitely not least: I want to change the world! That's insane to most people in this world. Especially to rappers. My approach is a different one, I think.

You were with Man of Booom before going solo. How would you describe the person you were when you were in that band? Are there plans for another Man of Booom album?

It's the same person. Just a little older and has seen a little more. I still make mistakes and hopefully learn from them. I feel the same pain, I feel the same hope, I laugh the same way and I cry the same way. I'm still a nerd who's totally in love with this shit. It was simply a different phase in my life. Its progress but the person stays the same. There are no plans for a MOB album at this point, to be honest.

You've made quite a name for yourself in underground hip-hop in Europe. Do you have plans to tour and play shows in North America?

I'd love to play North America. But what about South America? What about Australia and New Zealand and huge Asia? What about Mama? Mama Africa? Where all of this basically comes from.

I wish and hope I can play all over the world and no place is better than the other. The world has become so small sometimes we get caught up in this "USA" thing. I've said it a couple of weeks ago to a friend of mine: if you'd ask me right now where would I rather play, Miami or Accra…there wouldn't be a question. Let's do Ghana!

* * *

JuJu Rogers on Bandcamp

(courtesy of Jakarta Records)

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