Washington D.C. is slowly carving out its own niche in the music industry, with hip-hop star Wale and Grammy nominated singer/songwriter Raheem Devaughn recently putting the nation’s capital on the urban music map. It seems as if these two stars are only the tip of the iceberg in terms of artists that are making major moves from the culturally integrated D.C. music scene, with a host of up and coming acts waiting just below the surface of the water.
Then you have tabi Bonney, who already has one leg out of the water and is the clear cut favorite to be the next one to make it big from the city where great up and coming talent, especially hip-hop, has often been overshadowed by the local Go-Go music scene (see Chuck Brown if you are unfamiliar). It can be argued that Bonney actually personifies D.C. art and culture as much as any other artist.
He was born Tabiabue Bonney in Lome, Togo and spent the first 13 years of his life traveling back and forth between the small West African nation where his father, Itadi Bonney, experienced stardom as an afro-funk artist, and Washington D.C., where his mother is from. Itadi was exiled from Togo when tabi was a teenager, so Bonney attended high school in D.C. then went on to earn two degrees from Florida A&M University including a Masters in Biology and Secondary Education. By that time he had been rhyming for several years and gotten the attention of some of the game’s heavy hitters with his Organized Rhyme rap duo. He blew up D.C. radio in 2006 with his hit single “The Pocket” and became the first completely independent artist on MTV’s Sucker Free Countdown.
His cool, calm delivery reminds me of the more “traditional” hip-hop artist Guru from Gangstarr, while his beat selection, hooks, and lyrical content would mesh well with Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music crew, and reflect the vision of a forward thinking man who has seen the world and is set on making music that is different and fresh (no pun intended). tabi’s new album is fittingly titled Fresh, which really encompasses his personality and larger business aspirations. Bonney designs his own clothes for his Bonney Runway clothing line and directs his own music videos for his production company Cool Kids Forever Films.
With guest appearances by big time rappers such as friends Wale, Curren$y and G.O.O.D. Music signee Pusha T, as well as props from stars Mos Def, and Lil John among others, one would think that Bonney has some sort of master plan to take over the game. However, as he told me in a recent interview, he’s attained this pseudo stardom by simply “Going for what I know, not really having a plan. Just doing whatever I could and it blowing up but not having major backing.” When asked if currently being recognized more by the artists signed to major labels rather than the majors themselves was at all frustrating, he replied very calm and directly “I don’t get frustrated.”
Speaking to tabi Bonney about his parents revealed a lot about how he has become the artist and person he is today. His positive energy, open mind and hard work reflect everything I’ve learned about his mother and father. While his music thus far does not have a lot of direct African influence, Bonney’s experiences abroad and exposure to professional musicians have had an indirect yet immeasurable impact on his creative endeavors, as he learned very early that “the world is much bigger than DC, Africa, Europe or any one country or continent in particular.”
The thought of being exiled from your homeland for speaking out against the government is unfathomable to the average American, but Bonney optimistically takes everything in stride, as if he knows each challenge has and will only add to his arsenal of influences and motivators. He says he often thinks about the fact that his family is now allowed to return to Togo without the fear of being killed, only because the dictator who exiled his father has died. I asked him if he thinks he will write songs commenting on the political issues in Togo, and he replied “When it comes naturally, that type of thing can’t be forced.”
Bonney seems very much at peace with where he is at in life and his music, even though his relentless drive and lyrics about making money might tell you otherwise. But tabi’s family still owns a lot of land in Togo, and he is very much motivated by the desire to give back to the village that played such an integral role in who he is and what he is doing today. Bonney is a person who is much more driven by his dreams and aspirations than he is by money. He just happens to have such a unique blend of experiences, qualities and intelligence that he is able to profit off of these visions and dreams.
Seven of the tracks on the album are from his previous independently released album, and the progression from those early tracks to the ones unique to Fresh was obvious. In fact, my three personal favorites “Go Away,” “Galaxy,” and “Yea Go” are all new tracks, with “Galaxy” set to be the next single. “Go Away” is an upbeat track with a rock feel to it as the entire song builds and rides over a Nirvana sounding bass line, with tabi singing an infectious hook that could be off of a 90’s pop/rock song. “Yea Go,” which is produced by Virginia’s Team Demo, has a lively ¾ groove that definitely brings out the African influence in tabi. I was sure at first that it sampled some obscure Togolese Afro-Funk artist until Mr. Bonney informed me it is an original production, which had me even more impressed.
For more on tabi Bonney, be sure to check out the album, which is available everywhere including iTunes. Also check out Bonney Runway for fresh clothes, and follow tabi Bonney on Twitter for up to the hour updates on how to stay fresh.
Below is some dialogue from the interview about tabi’s parents and more insight into their life in Togo, followed by a super cool video segment, filmed when tabi was very young, about his parents. Keep your eyes open for little tabi sitting on a chair as his father is playing music!
OKA: So what are your parents up to these days?
tabi: They’re pretty much retired, just enjoying life. They’re going back and forth now because we have a lot of land over there, a huge Cocoa farm. They want to pretty much cultivate what we have and make sure that their kids know what we have as well. So before they go, they want us to take advantage of all of the land that we have and to for sure know our roots before they go. They want to build a hospital up in the mountains, do a lot of philanthropic work.
OKA: Do you guys ever talk about how eventually your success will be able to really help out a lot (we hope)?
tabi: Yea I mean to0 much, all of the time (laughs).
OKA: Do you every feel pressured?
tabi: A little bit. But I mean its like if I’m their oldest son and I don’t know about all of this land that we have, what’s going to happen to it if I don’t take charge so I kind of have to be on it.
OKA: Does that help drive you in your music? I notice there is no violence in your lyrics but you do talk about money and things like that. Is that part of the inspiration that eventually you’ll be able to give back?
tabi: Definitely, when you go back and you see, like in any place, you have the rich and extremely poor. And what we have is the extremely poor side and you just want to be able to take back shoes, and clothes every time you go. There are such little things like this phone that can make such a big difference.
- Will Whitney