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Recap: Freshlyground x Nneka x Blitz The Ambassador Light Up Harlem

Africa Now! brought Freshlyground, Nneka, Blitz the Ambassador, and Lokua Kanza to the historic Apollo Theater in Harlem last Saturday night.


Africa Now! was an inaugural two-day event that wrapped up with a main stage concert on Saturday night at the historic Apollo Theater in Harlem New York. Organizers, including the World Music Institute and the Apollo Theater, chose a quartet of acts that showcased a range of styles to represent contemporary Africa.

South Africa’s Freshlyground (whose latest video for "Take Me To The Dance" we premiered ) kicked off the show to an enthusiastic crowd. They offer a sophisticated take on pop anchored by charismatic lead singer Zolani Mahola, whose flexible voice stretches from an edgy alto to a growl to sweet high notes. “Apollo, I brought you a baby!” she said, showing off her baby bump - but you wouldn’t know it from her tireless energy or dance moves.

They hit all the right notes for the crowd, who were up on their feet dancing by about the second song in. With a sound that ranges from pure pop to smooth jazz, colored from time to time by the bright melodies and harmonic guitar work of South Africa, they add a rich instrumentation that includes violin, flute and sax.

From contemporary pop to classic Congolese melodies; Lokua Kanza, a longtime favorite in his native Congo (Democratic Republic of Congo) was next up. The singer/songwriter plays guitar and the band includes a younger brother on small percussion (including talking drum) and occasionally bass plus two back-up singers - one of them his daughter. Their lush four-part harmonies fill out the sparse instrumentation, topped by his very expressive multi-octave voice, and they had the crowd mesmerized. It was his first visit to the U.S. in a decade. “You don’t see it but you can’t imagine how much I’m shaking,” he said. He has a personable stage presence that added an intimate note to the evening.

German-based Nigerian singer/songwriter/ guitarist Nneka fronts a tight rock band that leans heavily on what you’d call a polyrhythm section. She intrigued the house with a unique sound that blends shades of 1970’s arena rock, reggae and golden era West African guitar grooves with her sweet, breathy voice. Her songs are melodic and feature thoughtful lyrics and she performed a cool version of African dance to her version of Afro-rock.

Ghana-born Brooklynite Samuel Bazawule, aka Blitz the Ambassador, whose moniker is all about his mission to be a bridge between Africa and the U.S., was a fitting end to the show. An African kid who grew up listening to hip-hop, he’s been called ‘the future of African music’ (by Rolling Stone Germany). His seven-piece band includes a horn section and offers up a kinetic show with a unique blend of hip-hop, funk, Afrobeat, highlife, soukous and rock guitar licks.

He’s a storyteller, sometimes in rap and sometimes straight up and his act itself pays tribute to hip-hop and African influences, including classics like Fela and Miriam Makeba along with Ghanaian rappers Osirisa.

It was the first Africa Now! event but organizers promise to continue and said that planning for next year is already underway.

Interview
Photo: Shawn Theodore via Schure Media Group/Roc Nation

Interview: Buju Banton Is a Lyrical Purveyor of African Truth

A candid conversation with the Jamaican icon about his new album, Upside Down 2020, his influence on afrobeats, and the new generation of dancehall.

Devout fans of reggae music have been longing for new musical offerings from Mark Anthony Myrie, widely-known as the iconic reggae superstar Buju Banton. A shining son of Jamaican soil, with humble beginnings as one of 15 siblings in the close-knit community of Salt Lane, Kingston, the 46-year-old musician is now a legend in his own right.

Buju Banton has 12 albums under his belt, one Grammy Award win for Best Reggae Album, numerous classic hits and a 30-year domination of the industry. His larger-than-life persona, however, is more than just the string of accolades that follow in the shadows of his career. It is his dutiful, authentic style of Caribbean storytelling that has captured the minds and hearts of those who have joined him on this long career ride.

The current socio-economic climate of uncertainty that the COVID-19 pandemic has thrusted onto the world, coupled with the intensified fight against racism throughout the diaspora, have taken centre stage within the last few months. Indubitably, this makes Buju—and by extension, his new album—a timely and familiar voice of reason in a revolution that has called for creative evolution.

With his highly-anticipated album, Upside Down 2020, the stage is set for Gargamel. The title of this latest discography feels nothing short of serendipitous, and with tracks such as "Memories" featuring John Legend and the follow-up dancehall single "Blessed," it's clear that this latest body of work is a rare gem that speaks truth to vision and celebrates our polylithic African heritage in its rich fullness and complexities.

Having had an exclusive listen to some other tracks on the album back in April, our candid one-on-one conversation with Buju Banton journeys through his inspiration, collaboration and direction for Upside Down 2020, African cultural linkages and the next generational wave of dancehall and reggae.

This interview has been shortened and edited for clarity.

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