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In Conversation with Congolese NBA Player Emmanuel Mudiay: 'I want more African players in the NBA.'

The Utah Jazz player talks about being African in the NBA, supporting basketball in the DRC and how 'everybody knows about Burna Boy'.

Inspired by his basketball-playing older brothers, by second grade, Emmanuel Mudiay already knew that he wanted to play in the American National Basketball Association. Then in 2001 his family, fleeing the war in Democratic Republic of Congo, sought asylum in the United States.

In America, Mudiay saw basketball as a way for him to improve his situation. After impressive high school and college careers, he moved to China to play pro ball. Picked 7th overall in the 2015 NBA draft, the now 23-year-old guard has made a name for himself this season coming off the bench for the Utah Jazz.

Mudiay attests to the sport having changed not only his life but that of his siblings. Basketball gave them all a chance at a good education and the opportunity to dream without conditions. Now he wants to see other talented African players make it too.

We caught up with him to talk about his experience as an African player in the NBA, his hopes for basketball on the African continent and who he and his teammates jam out to in their locker rooms.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Last year there were about eight African players who were drafted into the NBA. What do you feel that says about not only African talent but the recognition of that talent when it comes to basketball within the NBA?

I think it's definitely heading into the right direction. Looks like the NBA's just trying to go global, not only Africa, but Europe as well. But I think as far as just Africa, they're definitely heading into the right direction. We're starting to have a plan more so than anything.

I think we're sending a lot more people that know about the game to Africa so they can get kids to start at a younger age and to learn the game at a younger age. So by the time they get a little older, by the time they get to the point where they can come over for college or they can come for the NBA, they'll be well-prepared.

I think the main focus has been just growing the game. Everybody's always been talented in Africa, but it was just the lack of resources. Getting people over there that can teach them how to play at a young age has been the most improvement. And, obviously, they got the NBA Africa over there that's been doing very, very well. They just started up the league, as well.

How would you describe your experience being a part of the Utah Jazz so far?

Everybody here is great people. The organization, they've been very good to me and they're just an A-1 organization. They have a lot of class. Everything is well put together. The preparation, like I said, has been very, very good. This is the first winning organization I've been a part of in a long time. The fact that they have a goal in mind that trying to accomplish it has been great.

Photo courtesy of CSA Global.

What are your hopes for the NBA in terms of representation in the next five years?

Man, I think it's growing so fast. How would I want the NBA look like? I would say me being an African, I guess I would want more African players as well. Like I said, it's just it's going so fast and it's going into the right direction. I think the fans are appreciative of it, and I think as far as just being more involved with the community as well. You can never go wrong with that, and just making people feel as involved as they can with us. So that's where I would like to see the NBA going, and doing a lot more stuff, doing a lot more stuff in Africa as well.

Sport undoubtedly has the ability to bring communities together. Would you say basketball has brought together communities within the African diaspora?

Yeah. You know you say sports in general brings everybody together. Sports, whether it's sports, music, or fashion, has everybody connected because they want to see what's going on. And even here in America, people hear about certain players in different countries as well.

I think sports has always been connected and it's a great thing because it has a purpose, and especially growing up how it gets you to dream as a kid. You get to have a dream, and it's something that you can put in perspective, and it's a goal that you can have in mind to try to target.

Growing up, basketball was something that I always wanted to do and I saw my brothers doing it. And even in Africa, that's where my brothers started playing. Then when we came to America, it was just something that I felt is the only kind of opportunity I had to get my situation better. That's how I looked at it.

"Sports can definitely change lives is how I look at it."

Would you say when you started playing basketball, particularly in school, the goal was always to make it to the NBA?

Personally, the aim was always to make the NBA. My mom, she wanted us to use it as a way to get an education because you know you can make a way from sports getting a free degree and stuff like that to get your school to pay for it. But I have papers, I have letters of me writing in second grade that I wanted to play in the NBA. I think that's always been a dream of mine.

What do you want to see more of in terms of basketball in your home country of the DRC?

Oh, man. That's a good question. What I would like to see more of is just more of us players going back and trying to make a difference in the kids' lives by changing the mentality of what's going on. There's a lot of stuff that the country and the continent has been through. I have a big vision as far as starting up programs over there, whether it's a school program, a basketball program, even food program because there's a lot of people who are dying of not having enough food as well.

My foundations that work there, we definitely have a plan on growing the continent as far as in any way needed, whether that's providing more food, providing more education, trying to get schools going. A lot of stuff that needs to be going on over there, whether building up the streets and stuff like that and getting people in safer places.

Photo courtesy of CSA Global.

Would you say that there is still resistance to basketball on a continent that greatly reveres soccer?

Yeah, for sure. I think the reason why the NBA is pushing for it so much is because you're seeing some good players coming out of Africa now, so there's no question that there's talent there in basketball. It's just a matter of sending the right people over there, and like I said, starting basketball programs up.

Every day in America, kids start camps at six years old, eight years old. In Africa, they don't get the chance to start basketball until probably 14, 16 years old. But I think the main thing is starting up basketball programs like opening up gyms. Like there's no access to indoor gyms. Everything's in the outdoors and stuff like that. When I went over there, there's kids there playing basketball with no shoes or non-basketball shoes.

And then in soccer, it's a little different because soccer is already outside. But basketball, in the NBA, is not played outside, so that's the thing that's a little different.

Do you think it's coincidental that this recognition of African talent (artists, musicians, film makers) across the globe is happening at the same time?

Definitely not. What's funny is me and my friend was just talking about this a couple of days ago. Probably 10, 15 years ago if you told somebody you was African, they would look at you kind of different, look at you kind of funny. But today, when you tell them you're African, they want to know more about it. They want to go over there. They feel like you're somebody special that's from the continent.

I think that's just because there's a lot of great stuff happening and Africa is putting out great stuff like you say with the pop culture and for some reason everybody's listening to Afrobeats now.

Everything is going good for Africa right now. I think that actually it's going in the right direction. And I think a lot of people just wasn't knowledgeable when it came to Africa, but I think with social media. that has helped the way it's been going. There's a lot more positive stuff that's been put out there.

Do you think that the rest of the world is making genuine headway in terms of the perception of Africa outside of tired stereotypes?

Yeah. For sure. Out here [in America] they have these tests that they take to find out what part they're from in a African country. Everybody always comes back to me and tells me I have this type of African in me and then they're trying to figure you out even more about being African.

When you see that, I think that's pretty cool because some of those people are the people that were saying negative stuff about Africans just in general. The minute they find out that that's in them, they want to find out a lot more about it and they think differently, and they start respecting the continent more and they want to dive deeper into the history of their ancestors. So, I think that's pretty cool to see.

To go back to your point on the rise in popularity of Afrobeats particularly, what personal impact would you say African music has had on your own life?

"Right now, I mean everybody knows about Burna Boy."

Everybody keeps talking about him, especially out here. I mean my teammates, American teammates and I even got some French teammates that when you walk in the locker room and they're playing his music and you wouldn't be hearing that four or five years ago.

I think the fact that everybody now is trying to get the Afrobeats thing going is pretty big. And like you said, African music, fashion, even sports, this stuff makes everybody connect. Some of the folks don't even understand some of the stuff Burna's saying but they're saying what he's saying anyway.

If you had to sum up what you want to bring to basketball and to the NBA this year in one word, what would that be?

Growth. I think just growth, honestly. Where life is right now there's so much going on around the country, but I think everybody just kind of got to go with an open mind and I think we all got to just keep growing because staying stagnant isn't good for nobody. There's a lot of stuff that we could change and there's a lot of stuff that can improve for sure so I think growth would be the main thing.

I mean I'm driving myself to being a whole different person than I was a few years ago, two years ago, even a year ago. I think with time, there's going to be a lot of stuff that can be changed and a lot of stuff always going to change. Like I said, now everybody somehow wants to be African.

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Kenyan Athlete Eliud Kipchoge Nominated for Sportsman of the Year Award

The record-breaking marathon runner has been nominated for the top prize in the 2020 Laureus World Sports Awards alongside Lionel Messi, Tiger Woods, Lewis Hamilton and Rafael Nadal.

Sport24 reports that Kenyan athlete and marathon runner Eliud Kipchoge has been nominated for Sportsman of the Year in the 2020 Laureus World Sports Awards.

He's made the prestigious nominations list alongside Lionel Messi, Tiger Woods, Lewis Hamilton and Rafael Nadal.

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South Africa's Siya Kolisi Wins Personality of the Year Award

The Springbok captain beat out several others to be named the Rugby Union Writers' Club's 2019 Personality of the Year.

Just a few months ago, South Africa's Springboks brought home the win at the 2019 Rugby World Cup after beating England 32-12. Led by team captain Siya Kolisi, the first Black captain of the national rugby team, it was a moment that inspired genuine hope for many South Africans living within a politically uncertain landscape.

More recently, Kolisi has been named the 2019 Personality of the Year by the Rugby Union Writers' Club (RUWC), according to eNCA.

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Burna Boy Announces 'Twice As Tall' World Tour Dates

The Nigerian star will be playing shows across North America and Europe this summer.

Burna Boy is hitting the road again.

Following the celebrated release of African Giant—which came with nominations at both the Grammys & BRIT Awards and a trophy for Best International Act at the BET Awards—the Nigerian star will be embarking on a long run of shows that will take him across North America and Europe.

The Twice As Tall World Tour will kick off in May in Atlanta, and will see Burna Boy playing concerts across the US, Canada, Norway, France, Portugal, UK, Netherlands, Sweden, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland and more locations.

You can check out the full tour dates for Twice As Tall World Tour below and revisit Burna Boy's performance for Okay Acoustics.

Tickets are available now.

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Angelique Kidjo performs onstage during the 62nd Annual GRAMMY Awards Premiere Ceremony at Microsoft Theater on January 26, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic)

'Take Africa Out of It and There's No Music for Y’all,' Angelique Kidjo on Success, ‘World Music’ & Championing New African Talent

OkayAfrica caught up with the legendary Beninese singer following her recent Grammy win and her feature on the collaborative electronic track 'Milambi.'

Last month, Angelique Kidjo won her fourth Grammy in the 'Best World Music' category. But it wasn't quite like every other year she had been nominated for the award. This time she shared the nomination with fellow African act Burna Boy, the first artist of the continent's current afropop scene to earn a nomination. While there's no question that Kidjo, who won for her 2019 album Celia, was beyond deserving (this was by no means a Kendrick-Macklemore scenario), Kidjo made the conscious decision to dedicate her award to Burna and urged viewers to pay attention to the wealth of new talent coming from the continent. "The new generation of artists coming from Africa are going to take you by storm and the time has come," said the artist.

Her vocal support for African talent isn't new though. As Kidjo notes, she gave a similarly memorable speech when she won four years ago for her album Sings, and she sounds fierce and impassioned as she speaks about it over the phone. After all, Kidjo has always been notably forward-looking in life and in music—experimentation doesn't scare her. Her latest work is on a futuristic, electronic project from Swiss DJ and producer Pablo Nouvelle and she expresses excitement about the novel methods in which African artists are creating and amplifying their music.

We caught up with Kidjo following her latest Grammy win and the release of her joint single with Nouvelle, "Milambi," to discuss her support of the new crop of talent emerging from the continent, fame, the controversy around the 'Best World Music' category, and remaining true to her identity in a Western-oriented music industry.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The Grammys were a big moment. Why did you decide to dedicate your award to Burna Boy and acknowledge the new generation of up-and-coming African artists?

I'm always in contact with my continent. I go back on a regular basis, and that's where my source of inspiration is from. Throughout the years going back and forth, I've been seeing the entrepreneurship of the young generation coming up. When I started music—there was none of that. You just went to the studio, and you found people to help you do your music. Now you can be a self-producer. I have nephews and nieces, and I'll just say "Ok, what's new? Let me listen to the new stuff." And I just realized that the rest of the world has no clue about what's happening in Africa.

Four years ago, when I received my Grammy for the album Sings, I said "Brace yourself, because Africa is coming. You have to open your heart, your mind and ears to listen to what is going on and what is coming from the new generation of my contient"— I said that four years ago, and the time has come because [with artists like] Burna Boy, Wizkid, Davido, Yemi Alade and many more from Nigeria, and Sho Madjozi from South Africa—you have so much happening culturally in Africa. I have the feeling that sometimes people just completely turn their head away from Africa and I just wonder how one could possibly turn their head away from where they come from, because Africa is the cradle of humanity. Culture comes from there—there's no music on this planet that doesn't have Africa in it.

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Is this why you've chosen to work with a lot of younger artists from the continent like Yemi Alade most recently?

I'm so proud of this new generation of musicians that are using the technology to tell a positive story about Africa. It's no longer about our suffering. Everybody suffers. So, why should people be focusing only on our suffering and not seeing just the human beings that we are, and how joyful we are? Then suddenly, you realize that joy becomes political because if your society, your people are perceived as joyful, then a leader cannot complain anymore that something is wrong. Beyond all that, [I do it] to pay tribute to the entrepreneurship of the young generation. They aren't waiting on help from anybody. If you are famous in your country and on your continent, there's nothing that can stop you. You have billions of people that will love you, so why should the rest of the world look aside when you're passing by? They should pay attention.

That's why I use my platform to bring the attention of the media to this new generation coming. They don't want to be caught by surprise because I've been telling them to pay attention. If something happens, and they don't pay attention, at least I've done my work.

I do think it's really amazing how new artists have been able to gain traction and put their music out despite their not being a lot of support by African leaders for creative industries. Do you think that African governments, and the folks with money should invest more entertainment?

I think they should because we create jobs. People make money, and it's not only the artists. There's also the people helping them make videos, or cut tracks—music creates jobs.

I think we have to educate our leaders and our business people in Africa. Who can carry their brand better than us? Who are the best ambassadors of our cultures, our countries and our continent? It's us artists across different forms of art, from painters, to storytellers, to people in theatre and movies. Every form of art is about telling the story of ordinary people and the people that have come before us. How do you know about your own history, if not for the elderly people that tell you the story of who you are?

In order for us to tell our story, we need to have a voice. We need to say it through different mediums. Music is one of them. We shouldn't let anyone else tell our stories anymore. That time in history has passed. We have new narratives, we have proof of how entrepreneurial we are. Africans can make money in Africa and anywhere else. The world is open to us—the world is ours. No one can stop us.

So many African artists look to you as an inspiration and a model for longevity in the music industry. I'm wondering which artists served that role for you when you were first coming up.

There are many, many of them. I would say it started with traditional musicians because I was a very curious child. I come from that background of traditional musicians telling me stories through songs. [Growing up] my brothers were playing music, my father brought the instruments for them, and freed a room in a crowded house for them to rehearse. I heard every genre of music in the '60, '70s and '80s through them, but my role models start with traditional musicians, both male and female. [But at a certain point] I noticed that every album that would be brought home had just men on the covers. I was like, "Okay, so women don't sing? They can't do albums too?" Then you had Western women start coming in and I was like, "Okay, at least some women are making it through [in the industry]."

Then Miriam Makeba came and Aretha Franklin came. The day Aretha Franklin came, the singer of my brother's band—who had such a fucking ego, you couldn't even put it anywhere—said "there's no song I can't sing." [But] Aretha came and he couldn't sing. I'm like, "What? A woman is whooping your butt. I like that."

So, there have been strong men and women as musicians that have informed the music that I make today. The only way I could absorb it and make my own music, and become a role model to others today is because I am proud of my culture. I know where I come from, I'm not trying to copy anybody because everybody copied what we have. There wouldn't be any music in America without the input of enslaved people that came from Africa. The blues came from slaves. It doesn't matter how hard the slave owner wanted to dehumanize us—they even took the drum away from us. But we had many ways of celebrating culture. We had many ways of celebrating our humanity—singing was one of them. We sing our pain to lift it up. We sing our joy to share it with people. That's what African music is. The essence of what music is comes from that place. We've seen it all, we've been through hell, yet here we are prevailing still.

"I have to be able to sing my songs till I die."

You've always championed African culture and identity, whether it's through singing in Yoruba, or representing Benin through various endeavors. Did you at any point, ever face pressure from the industry to tone down your "Africanness" to appeal to certain audiences?

They have a saying in my country, that "the advisor is not the payer." [It's about] what you do with the advice people give you. I'm always listening, I'm always ready to sit and hear constructive criticism. But if you want to critique for the sake of criticizing me—I've heard some journalists say that I'm not African enough in France because my music sounds too Western. I said, "What is the music of the West then? Tell me." Take Africa out of it and there's no music for y'all.

For me, I respect everybody, particularly the differences because there lies the genius. We all don't think the same.

People said, "Why don't you show your titties?" I'm like, "Well, I don't feel like showing my titties because my titties ain't singing. My voice is not in my breasts." You've got to be somebody, and I am African. I come from a rich culture. Why should I change to look like what? What do you want me to look like? I've never ever allowed anyone to say to me, "You can't do this." I have fought some producers that try to change my music. I say, "If that's the case, you take the microphone, you sing, it's not mine, I'm out of here." You have to stand for something. If you are afraid of not making it, then you become a fool to somebody.

People will say what they want to say. If I want to dress differently, I do sometimes. When I received the NAACP award, I wore a suit. A well-tailored suit, and I kill it too in a suit. It's not what you wear, it's who you are.

I always say, if anyone wants to work with me, I'm open. The bridge I'm trying to build, everybody's welcome on it in the respect of each other's differences. My strength might be your weakness, and then I supply. My weakness might be your strength. It goes both ways. I don't have the answer to everything, but one thing I know is that if we stop bitching at each other and blaming people for all the things that aren't good in our life will be better off because when we start doing that, what do we do? We create fear, and fear is dangerous.

I wanted to ask you about the controversy surrounding the Best World Music category at the Grammys. Many believe that it doesn't truly encompass the diversity of music coming from the continent. What are your thoughts on the matter?

Don't underestimate the recording academy. They have been thinking about it way before this. It's a conversation that we're going to be engaging in. Africa is not a country, it's a continent. The Latin Grammy exists. We should have the African Grammys too, because it's a continent, because it's vast, it's huge. So, it's a conversation we started having because the academy is also realizing this, and they are, at least, having that conversation. Right now, if you look at the "French Grammys" coming up, there's not one person of African descent [represented]. Not one. They just completely ban what is called "world music" out of it and we're in the 21st century. So, I think criticizing is one thing, finding solutions is another.

Let's work with the recording academy and find out how we can help to come up with something that works for everybody. That's all I'm about. I'm always about solutions. The thing is that we also need to recognize that we cannot be discriminating when it comes to culture. If we don't speak to each other, and we're always blaming and pointing fingers, there's no conversation possible anymore. We should have an open discussion about this and be creative about it. That's all I say.

Speaking on shifting genres, you recently worked with Pablo Nouvelle on his new project Eliso, I saw it described as your "maiden venture into electronic music." What was that experience like for you?

I started with electronic music. If you ask David Byrne, he would tell you that my first album, Logozo was completely electric, but African electric. So for me, working on this album brings me back to the beginning and, I'm not done doing that. I'm going to do it more.

So, we can expect a lot more of this electronic sound that you've already been working on?

I'm not saying anything.

We can't have a hint?

No, nothing, because I always follow my inspiration. If my inspiration changes a little bit, I have to change [my direction].

You just go with whatever feels right?

I have to be able to sing my songs till I die. All my songs, if I can't sing them, with just my voice and a guitar, it means it's not good. When writing a song, less is more because if you add too much stuff, then you kill the song. You're overstating it. Do the minimal. If it feels good to you, and you can sing it in your sleep, wake up dancing to it, and you can feel it in every beat in your body, it's right.

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