Fab 5 Freddy: “The Future Is The Continent Of Africa”

New York hip-hop pioneer Fab 5 Freddy talks contemporary African art in an exclusive interview with Okayafrica.

We caught up with Fab 5 Freddy earlier this month at 1:54 NY, the second-ever U.S. edition of Europe’s largest contemporary African art fair. In the conversation below, the New York hip-hop pioneer shares his thoughts on the state of contemporary art on the continent.

Alyssa Klein for Okayafrica: Tell us about your interest in contemporary African art.

Fab 5 Freddy: I mean, I’ve had an interest in all things Africa since I was a wee lad. I’m currently working as a consultant to The Africa Center. We’re going to build a really huge kind of startup cultural organization in New York City. That’s even heightened my interest and awareness.

Two years ago at this time I was in Dakar for their Biennale, where I got to see a lot of this and actually met the people that put this [1:54] together. They were showing there as well. Just basically a broad interest, and I’m very happy that something like this [1:54] is here.

Photo by Ginny Suss.

What are you most excited about in the contemporary African art space?

I mean, there’s no particular thing. Like with any kind of culture, I go back 20, 30, 40, 50 years, and then I’m today, and what’s next week, next month. I’m always just what’s happening... So I’m constantly learning more. I’m not like a scholar in African culture or the culture from the 54 countries in the Diaspora. Which just to remind everyone is why they call this show 1:54, because Africa has 54 countries. It’s just like I’m constantly learning.

But what I see with the contemporary African artists, as a visual artist myself and a multi-disciplinary artist, I see that they’re looking at art, like they’re using their smartphones or whatever devices they have, to really become advanced and educated about the process of art making. So I see a lot of that in the objects, and I enjoy that, because that’s what I do. I make those incredible pictures myself.

Where else have you been on the continent?

I’ve been to South Africa, I’ve been to Nigeria, I’ve been to Morocco, and once again I’ve been to Senegal, for the Dakar Biennale in 2015. And I’ll visit many more countries on the continent. I’ve got trips to Ghana, trips to Ethiopia, a lot of things are in the works.

That’s a big part of what we’re doing with the Africa Center, is having discussions like this with many many more people. Like what Okayafrica does to just hip people to what’s going on on the continent, so they can see how contemporary, how forward, how the future is the continent of Africa. Because don’t forget to remember, no matter who you are, what you look like, what you talk like, what you sound like, all life on this planet begins on the continent of Africa. So that makes us all Africans.

Welcome to the party, I’m out of here. [Walks away]

Keep up with Fab 5 Freddy on Twitter at @FABNEWYORK. Check out his artwork at


6 Samples From 'Éthiopiques' in Hip-Hop

A brief history of Ethio-jazz cultural exchange featuring songs by Nas & Damian Marley, K'naan, Madlib and more.

This article was originally published on OkayAfrica in March, 2017. We're republishing it here for our Crossroads series.

It's 2000 something. I'm holed up in my bedroom searching for samples to chop up on Fruity Loops. While deep into the free-market jungle of Amazon's suggested music section, I stumble across a compilation of Ethiopian music with faded pictures of nine guys jamming in white suit jackets. I press play on the 30 second sample.

My mind races with the opportunities these breakbeats offered a budding beat maker. Catchy organs, swinging horns, funky guitar riffs, soulful melodies and grainy and pained vocalists swoon over love lost and gained. Sung in my mother tongue—Amharic—this was a far cry from the corny synthesizer music of the 1990s that my parents played on Saturday mornings. I could actually sample this shit.

The next day, I burn a CD and pop it into my dad's car. His eyes light up when the first notes ooze out of the speakers. “Where did you get this?" He asks puzzlingly. “The internet," I respond smiling.

In the 1970s my dad was one of thousands of high school students in Addis Ababa protesting the monarchy. The protests eventually created instability which lead to a coup d'état. The monarchy was overthrown and a Marxist styled military junta composed of low ranking officers called the Derg came to power. The new regime subsequently banned music they deemed to be counter revolutionary. When the Derg came into power, Amha Eshete, a pioneering record producer and founder of Ahma Records, fled to the US and the master recordings of his label's tracks somehow ended up in a warehouse in Greece.

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