Arts, Culture & Media

Congolese singer Baloji aims to change his country through music

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Credit: Marco Werman
Boloji

If you were to take a red marker and color in the African nations at war, the center of the continent would look like a giant red blotch right about now.

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We've been telling you about the crises in South Sudan and the Central African Republic on The World lately.

Today, I want to talk about the Democratic Republic of Congo, a place that's seen its own pitched battles between rebels and the government in recent days.

In all three of those countries, the news is discouraging, but there are young Africans who are invested in real change and making things better.

I want to tell you about one of those young people, a musician from Congo.

His name is Baloji. He was born in 1978, when the Democratic Republic of Congo was known as Zaire and was firmly under the thumb of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.

When Baloji was seven, he moved to Belgium with his dad. In Europe, he got into hip-hop, but then he happened to sample a bit of Cameroon's Manu Dibango, and reconnected with his own roots.

Baloji would go on to record a tune that became huge in Congo. It sampled a 1960 track called "Independence Cha Cha" written by singer Joseph Kabasela to embrace Congo's independence from Belgium in 1960.

Baloji’s version is critical of the lack of progress since independence, though.

To give his song the authenticity he wanted, Baloji told me, he went back to Kinshasa to record it — and shoot the video — with local musicians.

“I went back to Kinshasa because I felt this urge to do music, and wherever we were doing music, people were always talking about politics,” remembers Baloji.

“Can you imagine? A country like Congo has its first election in 2007,” says Baloji. “It’s almost like a revolution and the song talks about that. We have to accept that it’s only a small step, but we don’t have to lose the idea that we are on the right path, either.”

The song was critical, he says, because “when we recorded the song, most musicians didn’t want to be on that record.”

The lyrics of the original were changed quite a bit. Now, it questioned what happened after independence from Belgium and suggested that nothing really changed.

It’s not easy to spread political themes in Congo. “There are no record labels,” says Baloji. “The only way for a musician to have recognition is to work with beer or telecom companies, so, you have to be politically correct. “

It was a little bit easier for Baloji who, being an expat, is regarded as an outsider, although he considers himself to be 100 percent Congolese.

Baloji will be performing at Global Fest in New York on Sunday.

 

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