M.I. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Op-Ed: M.I Is The Greatest African Rapper Alive

The Nigerian rapper and CEO of Chocolate City, the country's largest record label, talks about his two 2018 albums, the socio-political state of Nigeria, black excellence, and more.

In August last year, the rapper M.I got into a heated argument with the hosts of Loose Talk, a popular Nigerian culture podcast over an article written by co-host Ayomide O. Tayo which questioned why M.I's music had "suffered" and the rapper's "spark [was] gone, the flows are not the same and the bars have gone soft. It seems there is no more soul in [the] music. Everything has gone cold."

Egos, facts and emotions may have dictated the tenor of the interview, but integrity was what was at stake: that of M.I's who sits atop the continent's rap stratum, and that of the hosts of Loose Talk with its large and loyal following of young Nigerians, who, for their part, are never short of strong opinions.

M.I's guest episode has garnered 45-thousand views on Youtube, the highest for the pop culture podcast and the most popular in the country. The debate metastasized on Twitter spawning related questions about media etiquette, the state of music journalism (in print), and the dearth of rap in Nigeria.

In March, the rapper released Rendezvous, his fourth studio album, which he's described as a "playlist" and is made of 15 well crafted songs that are roundly collaborative on account of the myriad features and producers from the finest young talents in afropop today. Rendezvous comes after The Chairman (2014), M.I 2 (2010) and Talk About It (2008), alongside a mixtape series—Illegal Music (2009), Illegal Music (2012) and Illegal Music Finale (2015)—and one compilation album titled The Indestructible Choc Boi Nation.

Rendezvous is released five months after our interview in September last year after his visit to Oxford in the UK where he's a fellow of the Desmond Tutu Leadership Fellowship, which selects an "elite group of Africa's highest potential young leaders, representing a wide range of sectors." His next stop was London where I met him in a terraced house in leafy Portobello Road after which he would return to Nigeria.

M.I's sonorous voice and articulate manner of speaking commands attention in person and in song. As impressive is how attuned he is to every beat of a conversation, whether frivolous or intellectual, segued or completely off topic. Tayo, the co-host of Loose Talk may have argued in his "open letter" that the rapper's fallow period has lasted since the release of The Chairman in 2014, but he was also keen to state that he regarded M.I as a "Top Five" MC from the continent.

This space between fandom and critical appraisal could be filled with any amount of genuine respect, admIration but also contempt and even disdain, though both parties (artists and journalists) on M.I's guest episode on Loose Talk calibrated themselves and each other when the dispute seemed to boil over. Reflecting on the heated exchange he told me that "if you hold yourself to a high standard, whatever your emotional reaction to a song or whatever it is, you're going to write a dope article. If you're real upset by M.I, you're going to write a really dope article. Don't say, I don't like M.I, I have disrespect for M.I and write some shitty article with a bunch of no facts and whatever."

M.I. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Tayo continues: "people can make up their mind, but an artist has to get to the point where they're able to see their worth and their work and their value outside of public perception. I really listen to what Jay Z says about his work, I really listen to what Wenger says about his work. And then I start to draw my conclusions from the person experiencing it, right? Not from people that [are] just out making judgment calls based on their expectations." This may be true but the goal post, in this part of the debate, may have shifted from one of the artist versus the critic, onto the near-existential one of artist versus his art—and also one of expectations from people versus that of things as they are.

In a old interview, M.I half-bragged about reading "The Chronicles of Narnia" three times by the age of 10, quite a feat considering CS Lewis's tome is close to 800 pages. He soon got bored of the "normal books" and moved on to seemingly abnormal ones like "Mere Christianity," also by Lewis, and a seminal text of Christian apologetic thinking. His father, Pastor Chris Abaga, was once a travellng evangelist and now runs a ministry along with his mother, Mrs. Lydia Abaga, who is also a counsellor and gospel artist.

The young M.I knew that this taste for reading which was rioting his imagination was something to cherish, "I had to say to myself, please don't lose that. Don't listen to critics, because the world sort of frames you to think in a different way." But his next words supposedly to his young self; "always be inquisitive, always ask questions, never assume that you're right, never assume that you know how to do it"— no doubt felt and sincere, are more likely the sophisticated reflection of an adult.

Today, M.I, as well as being an active musician is the CEO of Chocolate City Group, "a 360-degree company consisting of a record label, event planning company, management consulting firm, and, advertising and media consultancy company." Does he find time to read anywhere as obsessively as he did as a kid? "The biggest book I read every day is Wikipedia," he said.

The all knowing Wikipedia—a Babel of knowledge and opinions that would have confounded Jorge Luis Borges if he'd lived to see it. He lists recent discoveries he's made about Latvia after an encounter with a native, realising Laos was a country and of the famine in Yemen. The Desmond Tutu Fellowship he's on is circling him back to the act of reading for which he has drawn a list of "maybe 50 books that I want to actually buy and read." As for other sources of nourishment, he keeps a steady diet of podcast which allocates "Wednesday for Joe Budden, Thursday for Brilliant Idiots," both of which are concerned largely with hip-hop. He says he's too enmeshed in to give brain-space to much else.

M.I. Photo courtesy of the artist.

To make Rendezvous, M.I enlisted a host of producers to redo, from scratch, an album worth of material he had already recorded, drawing from the rich, new crop off Nigerian artists and producers that include Santi, Remy Baggins, GMK, Tay Iwar, TMXO, G-Clef, Chillz and the aptly named Odunsi (The Engine), one of the chief nexus of the entire operation who made his dissatisfaction with the original material M.I first played clear. "It just didn't feel good enough, it didn't feel great enough," Odunsi mentions. "I expressed that to him and he seemed to understand it. He didn't agree totally but he seemed to understand where I was coming from."

Speaking from his base in Nigeria via whatsapp, Odunsi recalls the week long recording process in Lagos "banging in beats, the demos coming from everywhere outside the country, in the country, just different things, samples. It was crazy. It was a myriad of creativity and everyone was just working and I'd never been in that kind of environment in my life."

A confessed lifelong fan of M.I, Odunsi's debut EP is titled "Time Of Our Lives" (2016) and his latest single "In The Morning" is distributed by Universal Music Group. As a school boy, the first music album Odunsi recalled buying was M.I's debut Talk About It using his pocket money. The opportunity to work on Rendezvous and possibly dictate the final result is one he cherishes, "I never ever imagined something like that happening in this country with that many young people, with that many fresh people or people who are just getting their first opportunities to give, to put themselves on the platform. So that was what was beautiful about it." For his part, M.I is full of praise for the newer talents of Nigerian pop who he believes "are not just for Nigeria, they're for the international scene." Some of them were profiled last July by OkayAfrica as artists from the new school of afrobeats.

M.I. Photo courtesy of the artist.

African-American popular culture may have immense global purchase but M.I is staunch in his belief that "we have to create or start to envision and work towards the utopia for black people. For Negus from around the world because as long as we don't have a home worth defending and worth dying for we'll never be respected anywhere else. And so we see other civilizations doing that." The word "Negus" is Amharic and denotes Ethiopian royalty but is also freighted by its relation to "Nigger" whose history and use in the public sphere OkayAfrica contributor, Abel Shiferaw, examined in this essay.

On the homefront, north of Nigeria, a long standing ethno-religious battle has continued. In M.I's homestate of Plateau, over 7,000 lives are estimated to have have been lost in the clashes over the last ten years.

In 2000, Kaduna State, which shares a border with Plateau, was the site of one of the country's worst ethno-religious crises over a forced introduction of Sharia Law in the state, a move strongly contested by Christians country-wide which lead to riots and the loss of over 3,000 lives and billions worth of property which set the "capital of the north" decades back in social cohesiveness and infrastructure. Over the past year in Kaduna and most recently in Benue, Fulani (and Muslim) herdsmen reportedly lay waste to lives and properties in rural communities that identify as Christian.

"Look, the beginning of the answer is dialogue, I know that. Where are the young people that are Southern Kaduna 'indigenes'? Sit down and start to talk. What is the problem? What's the angst? Why do you pick up arms and kill? How do we together develop this place for both of us? Do we have the cool heads for it? I think two 20-year-old people can have the cool heads for it. I know that two 50-year-old men who have seen so much pain might not be able to, but two 20-year-olds can sit down and discuss it."

Close to five decades since the Nigeria/Biafra war (1967-70), states in Eastern region of the country, made up largely of Igbos, still suffer the material and existential disenfranchisement that contributed to the war. Separatist organizations are still active the most prominent of which are the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) and the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), which is led by Nnamdi Kanu who was detained by the Nigerian government on charges of treason for close two years until his release in April 2017.

I put it to M.I plainly: is the struggle for a Biafra still just in Nigeria today? "So this is the philosophical conundrum" he began clenching folded arms to his body as he leans closer to the voice recorder "we're talking about two things that are completely extreme. One is to say that as long as Nigeria is a sovereign nation anybody from within the country that says "hey we want to break this country" is committing a serious act. But when we say as a citizen I cannot receive my human rights, my people are being killed, and I'm not getting human rights, then there's legitimacy in their claim to no longer be part of this country".

Will there ever be a solution?

"Of course. With every problem on earth that's human made, there is a solution that is man-determined. It's not going to be an easy solution just like you're speaking about the complexities of the problem, right? But we must give it a try. Not trying is not an option. We must begin to try."

Photo courtesy of Sam Soko.

Interview: Sam Soko is the Kenyan Director Behind Sundance Hit, 'Softie'

We meet filmmaker Sam Soko who has made a stirring documentary about the Kenyan protest leader Boniface Mwangi

Filmmaker Sam Soko didn't intend on making a documentary about Kenyan photojournalist-turned-politician Boniface Mwangi.

The original idea he had was to make a manual of sorts, a short video guide, on how to protest, the do's and don't's. Soko, himself an activist artist who cut his teeth convincing friends to let him create political music videos for their apolitical songs, knew Mwangi's experience on the streets both photographing protests and staging them meant he had a lot to share with others.

But then came the blood. A thousand litres of it, to be precise. And the pigs. Dozens of them, with words like MPigs written on them. Like the graphic photos Mwangi had become known for taking—it was a sight you couldn't look away from. It was a protest Mwangi organized, in 2013, to decry corrupt members of the Kenyan parliament who had decided to increase their salaries, 2 months after taking office. And at his side, through the thick red liquid of it all, was Mwangi's wife, Njere, ready to be arrested with him.

"Once I was witness to his relationship, I started seeing him as a family man," Soko tells OkayAfrica. "Because he's planning a protest and all, but when you look at the footage, you start seeing the kids and you start seeing Njere. That's when it started hitting me, in the sense, that she was with him in such a crazy space."

Soko formed a creative and activist hub, called PAWA 254, with Mwangi, as they became part of the groundswell demanding democratic reforms in a country still left scarred from the division sewed between Kikuyu and Luo people by British colonizers. "We had a new Constitution at the time, and there was this hope that we finally could picket without being tear-gassed or being beaten, Like, our civil liberties could be held up." Instead, the government strengthened its police force into a notorious organization condemned by human rights activists. "That's very salient in the film," says Soko. "If you see how the police dress, for instance, at the beginning, it's very different; they become more militant towards the end."

Soko's debut feature-length documentary, Softie, which became the first Kenyan film to ever premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, earlier this year, is at once a love story between Mwangi and his wife and their three children, but also between Mwangi and his beloved Kenya, under president Uhuru Kenyatta. Central to the film is the tussle between how these different loves bump up against each other: what comes first — love of country or love of family?

We spoke to the Nairobi-based director about making the film, which opens in virtual cinemas, starting this Friday, September 18th.

Boniface Mwangi with his wife Photo courtesy of Sam Soko

OA: Early on in the film, we learn how steadfast Boniface Mwangi is — he talks about being willing to die for the ideals he believes in, which made me think of Nelson Mandela and his Rivonia Treason Trial speech. Boniface is someone in the present day who still shares this belief?

When we were working on the edit, and kind of crafting and thinking about what the story was going to be, something that we found that was really, really interesting is, with a lot of the stories, like the story of Nelson Mandela, you'd never see the other side. That's something we see later, up ahead, as a retrospective. We'd hear about Martin Luther King and then we'd read about Coretta Scott in, I think, 1990, like, 'Oh, this his was her struggle.' That sort of thing. But for me, Boniface and Njere represented a present day reality struggle that showcases what Mandela was going through, what Martin Luther was going through. That was kind of like unravelling the curtain; when you see Martin Luther marching, Coretta's at home, trying to help their kids do their homework. And this is the reality.

OA: And the film poses that question of love for your country versus love for your family, and which one should come first?

Exactly. They see it in different ways. Boniface sees it that if you improve the country, you improve the lives of those who you love. Njere's like, you have to have your family's back first. And that means everything else comes second. And she's right; she's not wrong. And he's not wrong.

OA: The film really is privy to some really private moments in Mwangi's life — how did you gain his trust?

When we started filming the short video, he was really involved with the protests, and we started doing the protests with him. So we were—quote, unquote—in the trenches with him in the protests, and somehow that's how he kind of welcomed us to his home. When you've been with someone in the streets, and you're tear-gassed together more than once, you already have a common bond. But then I started developing a relationship with him that was beyond the streets. Just checking up on him and asking, what's going on, what's taking place? That sort of thing. I think it took a while. And I think even from Njere, we kind of developed a kind of camaraderie that was separate from my relationship with Boniface, because I would actually be like, 'Hey, he said that, how does that make you feel?' And not necessarily on camera. But over time, he kind of accepted us to be there with a camera. At some point, I kind of felt like they were talking to me, and not necessarily the camera; like, the camera is kind of this thing that's there, but not there. That kind of trust, again, was built on a respect that I have for them and their values and what they're doing. I think that's something they saw. It made them trust me with their story and trust me with their family.

You're the director of the film, but you're also producer, writer and cinematographer. Did Boniface's own style as a photojournalist influence you in any way?

The film has three cinematographers, and a lot of my cinematography is within the intimate moments, because that's when they would only engage with someone they trust. But him being a photographer actually, to a point, made the work a bit hard because he's constantly looking at how you're doing it. He's in your face about the angle. He's like, 'Hey, why are you standing there, you should be there.' But in some places he did help 'cause he's been filming in the streets and filming protests for a very long time. So when you're there filming, he'll easily tell you, 'Dude, don't stand there. They're about to start tear-gassing. Go to the other side.' And it's weird, when you're on the other side and you're filming, and all of a sudden you see tear gas, you wonder, 'How the hell did he know?' You do that 234 times and you start knowing yourself, 'Oh, this is how,' and he was really helpful in that sense.

I can imagine that filming during the protests must have been one of the big challenges of making this film but what else did you struggle with? There were death threats for Mwangi, did that happen to you as well?

It's so funny, when you're filming and when you're in the protests, it's adrenaline talking. So you're not really thinking about whether you're going to be okay. This one time, I got arrested because the cop said I was a spy for the protesters. [We had everything] from cameras breaking to sound equipment messing up, but when it became a more political story, with death threats, it became scary even for editing the film. Because you don't know who's watching you. This one time, I was with him in the car, filming, and we were being followed. So we kind of had to be very careful who we are telling about the story. It was a very deep secret that we were making this film and there are people who are watching it now asking, 'How could you keep this from us from all these years?' Because we had to do that. Especially when the family was in the US. We had to do that for the sake of safety for him, Boniface, for his family but also the film team. I remember doing the pitches with different names. But then we were also lucky that we had our co-producing partner in Canada, Eye Steel Film, so they were able to house the edit there. I went to Canada to edit and that kind of also gives you a kind of freedom to think and work and create. That was the reality, and now I think we have PTSD from the film. I can't film another protest. I'm sorry. I'm out. Like, it tapped me out.

There are similarities to the Black Lives Matter protests here in the US, against police brutality and violence but the slogan takes on a different resonance in places like Kenya, where the police force is particularly heavy-handed. How do you see these protests as being similar but also different?

There are two things that you learn with the film. One, our voices can never be silenced. They will try, but I think humanity is like a pressure cooker. The more you boil us, the more you put that heat, the more explosive we become. And through people like Boniface's life, you see that there are human beings who exist, who do extraordinary things.

The other thing is the idea of activism doesn't necessarily just speak to the person who's on the street. It doesn't necessarily speak to the person who's holding the placard. An activist is someone like Njere and her life, and her family. And Khadija [Mohamed, Mwangi's campaign manager]. She's such a strong and powerful activist in her own right. She was Boniface's campaign manager for free. The work they did was so powerful. And you have these other people in the background who are doing such incredible things. The sum total of what they've done is [to] instigate… We have an election next year, but I am so sure that we are going to have so many candidates who are going to be like, 'We want you to donate to our campaign. We have these values and beliefs; this is what we want to do.' That is how we need to go about change or add on to the conversations of change.

The same thing that's happening with the Black Lives Matters movement. Yes, there are people going to the street and we should keep going to the street. But we need to push people to engage in policy and make sure these policy changes are made.

We need to stand for what we believe in, as filmmakers in spaces where we feel oppression exists. Like the rules that have come out with the Academy Awards, these are rules that should be celebrated because they add on to that conversation of diversity and representation. All these things—that sum total—is what makes the difference. It's going beyond the streets and going beyond our Tweets, going beyond our Facebook messages, making films and sharing films. We just need to keep pumping up the volume, keeping the heat up, keep pushing. It's gonna take a while, but we'll get there.

Photojournalist-turned-politician Boniface Mwangi during a protest in Nairobi, Kenya Photo courtesy of Sam Soko

That's where you as a filmmaker come in—this film was the first Kenyan film to get into Sundance, where it won a special editing prize.

There's another film I'm producing and, and, yes, I had my film at Sundance, that's great. But there's this other filmmaker who's making another film, and it's so cool, and this is the thing—we need to keep bouncing off this energy and this light and this vibe, and just keep pushing and making sure that the wheels keep turning. That's what we're all about.

How do you renew your strength, as a filmmaker but also as a Kenyan and as an African?

Being a Kenyan is hard. I think being an African is hard. Like, it's hard. There's a line I heard Boniface say once: 'I love my country, but I am afraid of my government.' But the way in which, personally, I find energy is when I meet new filmmakers, or you know, people who are like starting out and they want to make films that sound totally crazy. And they believe that they can do it. And I'm like, 'yes, yes, keep going!' We are planning to do a premiere. We have not confirmed the date yet but we're thinking it's around going to be early October in Kenya, because Kenyans haven't watched it. The government gave us an adult rating. They're putting us on the same level as porn.

This is the same government that banned Wanuri Kahiu's Rafiki because of its homosexual theme…

Exactly, that's what we're getting but the lemonade that we've made out of all this is, 'Guess what? This is cinema!' We're going to take it to a cinema. People are going to come to watch it in a cinema or watch it at home or watch it in the best way possible. And the people who've watched it have appreciated it as a film and a story, and their story. They've seen a reflection of themselves. That gives me so much joy because the Kenyans who've watched it, when they give you feedback, they say, this is truth; this is our truth. And they don't see just an activist. They see a couple struggling with love. They see our history in the last 10 years. And they're like, 'What the hell, we lived this?' and they see the things that are unresolved — and many things are unresolved. Seeing that reaction gives me so much strength and hope. But it's hard. It's very hard. Because, you know, you have to wake up and see the policeman getting a bribe. And you're like, 'Homie??'

"SOFTIE" Movie Poster

Watch the trailer for Softie here.

Softie | Official Trailer | A film by Sam Soko www.youtube.com

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