Congolese producer, rapper, and student of philosophy, Alec Lomami chats with Boima Tucker about the value of telling more than one story and his travels from New Orleans to Zimbabwe.
Words and interview by Boima Tucker
Many artists today take the label international to a point where they in some ways become a nation unto themselves. As an artist with multi-layered influences, Alec Lomami is building his own nation in front of our eyes. He’s had quite a journey over the past couple of years, graduating college in Louisiana, moving to his mother’s house in North Carolina, flirting with the Afropolitan scene of New York, and most recently settling down at Stellenbosch University outside of Cape Town to pursue a master’s degree in philosophy after brief stints in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Zimbabwe.
The producer-rapper arrived on the scene a year and a half ago with the release of his single Kinshasa, a dedication to the capital city of his country of origin in the midst of a sort of falling out with his country of residence, the United States. Last week he finally released Mélancolie Joyeuse, a free EP on Bandcamp, with “Kinshasa” and three other songs that each speak to his personal experience over the past couple of years. This week, Alec graciously took time to do a late night interview, and answer a few questions between library sessions at the university.
So in the wake of the immigration issue that you faced in the U.S., how did you end up in South Africa?
What happened is my mom ended up becoming a US Citizen, and she declared me and it was approved. But even when its approved it actually takes awhile before your green card is evaluated and given to you. It depends on when you apply, so my green card would have been valuable in 2015 or 2016. So I was like, Well I didn’t want to stay in limbo again. So technically I would have been there … and there was a lot of red tape, so I just needed a break. I was like you know what, “I can just go somewhere and do what I gotta do, and if in 2 years it doesn’t work out I can come back, and if I like where I am I can stay.” I just needed to move. It’s not that I got deported, I just chose to leave.
So how do feel about the coverage your immigration issue received when you first started getting press?
That’s actually a good question. When I first brought up the immigration [issue] it was kind of a passing comment, cause I was asked a specific question. The question was “what inspired the song Kinshasa?”
Well, I was in jail [immigration detention] when I wrote the song, and when I had the idea. Part of the reason I brought the subject up was, I felt like most of my friends didn’t even know the situation I was in. I had maybe one friend who knew my situation. I didn’t tell nobody. It’s kind of something that’s shameful and embarrassing. You hear your own friends say, “oh, these immigrants, they come in our country take our jobs” blah blah blah. So I don’t want to be like, “well I’m one of those,” and you don’t want to be judged, so I never even told people that sort of thing. So then one of the reasons I even wanted to talk about it was I felt like, it was a good way to show that those immigrants aren’t all criminal, they’re just normal.
I felt like I wanted [to bring it up] for a good place to start at least a conversation about the situation, but we never really got to that. No one ever really asked me a real question about it. It just became like a marketing kind of thing, like a cute thing to say. And it hit the high point for me when there was this one blog that wrote something like, “Alec Lomami, arrested in America, now in South Africa.” So I’m just like “what?” [After that] I didn’t even want to mention, or talk about it, just because it turned into something I didn’t intend it to. But, I don’t mind talking about it at all if I feel like we’re actually talking about something meaningful, versus, “oh this guy, poor him, he was in jail, and he did this song in jail” cause that’s not really what I wanted to do.
Also, I didn’t have that much music out at that time and I wondered if people were covering me because of this story, or because of my music?
Your story is very emblematic of this idea of Afropolitanism, or a globally mobile African diaspora. What do you think about that idea, especially after experiencing it from the US perspective, and now being in Africa?
I feel like views on it has changed ever since I’ve moved back [to Africa]. When I was in New Orleans, there was barely any Africans that I knew. I just wasn’t around a lot of Africans and stuff. So to me, when I first started doing music, and I discovered the New York scene, that was just something exciting and new for me. Before it was just me and my cousin having all these ideas, you know we want to do this, and that we didn’t like how Africa was represented. I didn’t even know there was other people thinking the same way. So that was exciting and stuff, that was pretty cool.
But when I moved, when I came back – and [in the States] we had all these ideas, when you think about Africans back home, we felt like the people back home weren’t necessarily carrying the flag of Africa like they should. They might not like the traditional music, they might not like… you know, so you have all these ideas – but when I came [home] I was like well, “for the most part people wouldn’t fault a young African-American who’s into hip-hop for not liking jazz because that’s not the music of his time.” But I feel like, in some ways in Africa, if you listen to rap, people say he’s influenced by the outside, he’s not into his own thing.
But all this just kind of nuanced the way I see a lot of these things. I feel like some of it is necessary for a person living in the West, just because you’re always confronted by the fact that you’re a minority, like you’re not from there that sort of thing, so you kind of always have to assert yourself a little stronger. But, when I went to Zimbabwe, when I went to Congo, people just are African. There wasn’t necessarily this strong need to want to overtly preach it out and that sort of thing. I don’t know I just try to figure out what the balance is.
Do you see a difference between Europe and the United States?
When I was in Europe I was really young, so I can’t speak of personal experience any more, aside from people that I know. It seems a bit similar. All I know is that when we were young it was very difficult for an African to actually admit that they were African, and now it’s kind of changing.
In that sense, I think America might be a little harsher, because in Europe, people already knew you were African, you might get teased or whatever, but in America it came not only from Europeans, or you know white people, but is also came from African-Americans. But I [still] think it’s pretty similar.
And when I say my view changed, I kind of get a little funny with diaspora, it seems like although there’s a lot of criticism, there’s a lot of talk about post-colonialism and that sort of thing, it seems like a lot of them when they come to Africa they pretty much have the same mentality. It’s not necessarily that they feel that they’re better.
You mean the so-called Afropolitans in the U.S. and Europe, when they come home they feel superior?
I mean again, that’s from my subjective perspective. I haven’t done a [sociological] study on the matter, but for example, a lot of people when they come back, you hear stories like, “well I came home, and I don’t really fit in, and I don’t speak the language, therefore people do this.” You hear this story all the time, but that’s just not my experience. Like, I went to Zimbabwe, I’m not from Zimbabwe. I did not go over there and wave the American card like, “oh look at me I’m American.” Everybody knows if you wave the American card, people are most likely gonna treat you better. Those are just the facts. I didn’t wave the American card, I didn’t go there pretending to be American, or even tell people that I lived in America. You know I went there, people treated me well. It was fun. I had a great time, I felt like I could actually come and live there, and I don’t speak their language or anything.
I feel like for the most part, when people come back … alright, let me put it this way. If any of us Africans go to Paris, or China, or Japan, or any other country, what do we do? We get ready, we want to study the culture, know what’s the food, what’s the do’s and don’ts in those countries. There’s a lot of things that we try to do so that the transition will be good. But, when we come back home, we don’t do none of that. Most of us come home, we just want to go home, and expect people to worship us, and once they don’t, we draw the conclusion that they just don’t like us, we don’t fit in, or this and that. And that’s just not been my experience, whatever country I’ve been it’s been a great experience. So just on that fact I feel like I can live in any African country and be okay, you know for the most part.
What do you feel the role of the artist is in the global African movement?
I think in telling my story, people can connect to it, or be challenged by it, without me having to necessarily playing the role of the teacher. That’s kinda how I see my role.
[Versus what happened with] Chimamanda Adichie’s “The danger of a single story,” which become the go-to line for everyone. In doing so it undercut the main thesis since it actually became the single story, which was, “Africa we are cool and we are doing well.” Any mention of suffering was rejected. And, I realized that I was doing it too without even knowing it, because once I went to Congo I was confronted with a high level of suffering that I couldn’t just ignore. In South Africa I can avoid seeing that type of thing if I don’t go to the township, same with Zimbabwe. So it was easier to snap a beautiful picture.
It seems like you’ve gotten a lot of epiphanies or new experiences that have changed your life or changed your perspective on yourself, how has that effected your artistic output?
I mean, definitely it has changed. Cause every one of the songs that I ended up releasing, I was still in the US when I wrote them, so I just wanted this first project to embody that time, and that experience that I had. That EP reflects where I was then, and the new songs will reflect more of where I am at now.
So when do we get to hear these new songs?
I’m shooting for now three to four months from now. Just because with this one, there wasn’t really that much new material. I mean there was other songs that were supposed to be on it and I ended up taking it out just because I wanted to keep the same feel, same mood, and same concept, and I felt like some songs I feel like I was just forcing it to fit that. And it was taking me longer and longer, so I just decided to drop this one [as is].
So does it feel good to get this EP out then?
Yeah, I mean definitely. That’s the thing, sometimes I don’t even want to say certain things cause it sounds too made up, too perfect, too good to be true, but it’s the truth, so I don’t know what else to say. I mean, I don’t have it here with me, but I still have those notepads that I wrote where I have the plan that I wrote out [for the EP]. Like, if I come out [of jail] I’m gonna write this album, this is the name of this song, this is how the chorus is gonna go, I still have those things. And I still remember actually listening to the radio every Sunday night, and there was this Afropop radio station, it used to come on I think on Sunday night. [I thought], if I drop this song I think I want it to be on this show, and just last week they played my song on the show, so all these things happen, and it just feels too well-laid to even talk about. It just feels good to say, “okay, I had this plan, and I did it, it’s out now.”
And its funny about the human mind, cause even now if you ask me about the time in jail, if you ask me about it today, cause I stay in touch with some of the people who were there with me, honestly I only remember the good times. It’s almost like you just forget. You just remember the camaraderie, the good times that you had with people, I actually have a fond memory of that time at this point. So bringing out [the EP] is kind of reminding me how things were, because today I only remember the so-called good time that I had there.
So your next release are you going to try to go more into commercial music? Are you gonna go full-length album, are you gonna look for a label? What is your plan?
The next EP that I’m doing, I’m definitely gonna do one that’s free, but after that I have an actual album that I’m working on. The first EP was very sample-based, and the new EP will be less sample-based. Its a lot slower and darker. Besides that I’m producing my cousin Well$ second record.
I’m not really looking into [signing with a label], but we signed an digital distribution deal with INgrooves Fontana, the same guys who distribute Mac Miller, Tame Impala, Wiz Khalifa. By “we” I mean Immaculate Taste, which is the record label I’m putting together. So, I’m pretty excited about that.