A one-on-one with the Congolese bred MC
Words and Interview by Priscilla Djirackor
For Africans, music from the Democratic Republic of Congo has always been a reference, the crème de la crème of music. In a region that has often had to deal with conflict and division, music from former Zaire has been bringing people together for decades. To be sure, rumba, soukous, mutuashi or madiaba are some of the popular genres that have triggered dance crazes far beyond the borders of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, of which they are native. More recently, ndombolo has taken center stage, influencing musical scenes from Ivory Coast to South Africa. Indeed, once you hear it, you get it – for good. We’re talking about the kind of music that reaches your guts, that will move you before you even realize it.
While Didjak Munya is not a familiar face in the US, things will surely change for the uber-talented and inspiring MC from DR Congo (Congolese music here refers to music from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, commonly referred to as Congo-Kinshasa (after its capital city) and formerly known as Zaire, and should not be confused with the Republic of the Congo or Congo-Brazzaville). Winner of the Hip Hop Artist of the Year award at the prestigious Okapi Awards in 2012, the 32-year old Kinshasa-born artist is well-known on the Continent and has recently released his second LP, Oxygène. His sound blends hip-hop, R&B, salsa, traditional African beats, ndombolo – arguably the best dance music in the world – and even Afro-techno. The result is something very unique and irresistible, as is the image of the artist himself. We caught up with Didjak in New York as he was shooting a video for his next single, “Laisse Toi Aller (Let Yourself Go),” set to be released in early February.
Can you tell us a little about your background? Where did you grow up?
I was born and raised in Bandalunguwa, a poor and quite dangerous neighborhood in Kinshasa. My parents died when I was three. I don’t really remember them… I also lost my twin brother around the same time, and moved to my aunt’s and grandmother who raised me. We didn’t have money but I was surrounded by love and raised in the Christian tradition, where family values and sharing were very important. I went to a nearby school under hectic conditions. So when the time came to choose between music and studies, my options were pretty clear to me.
Tell us more about your path to becoming an artist?
I really didn’t think I would be a rapper at first. I’ve always loved dance, but it was more of a hobby to me. When I was 13, some of my friends went with me to an audition to join a group called The Strong Boys. They apparently loved what I could do with a mic and took me in their crew. I was the youngest. A few years later, some tensions started to grow between me and other members – maybe they didn’t like my popularity with the public – so I left to work with a guy named Ely Les Anges. He organized and promoted the biggest rap shows in Kinshasa, where all the major players would perform. It’s really at that point that I started to realize I could do this as a career.
Why did you choose rap as your art form?
I have always loved hip-hop. It really allows me to express myself, to say things I couldn’t otherwise, to reach people. The poetry, the beauty in plays on words are things I am passionate about. I wanted to break from the usual message conveyed in more traditional musical genres such as rumba, which really didn’t talk about anything other than sex and women. Rap gives me the space I need to truly express my ideas and thoughts. Now it’s true that I initially was more attracted to dance – I was born in the early ’80s and had Michael Jackson as a role model and inspiration. I would literally spend days listening to his songs on repeat mode and go to dance contests. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the talent I think. I felt I was definitely more gifted as an MC.
You’ve worked with some of the greatest names in Congolese music including Papa Wemba and Lokua Kanza. How did those collaborations come about?
Well, it had always been a dream of mine to sing with Papa Wemba, especially when his world music album Emotions came out. One day, I was with one of our ‘big brothers’ who is a music aficionado and who also happened to be good friends with Papa Wemba. I told him that I had to sing with Papa Wemba one day. He immediately took out his phone and dialed him! The next day, Papa Wemba was expecting me at his home. I went with a tape with an instrumental of mine. The first thing he told me was how he liked my work. I couldn’t believe he had actually been following me and checked out my work. Three months later, I called him up. He came to the studio although he was sick that day and we recorded together. It was an amazing experience for me.
The story with Lokua Zanza was somehow similar in that I met him through a friend. I had been a fan of his music for years. Lokua was in Kinshasa for a show, and we started exchanging emails and hanging out anytime he was back from his trips. I have a lot of admiration for his work and my music has been influenced by it. He said yes when I asked him to sing with me. So I went to Paris and we recorded together. This was truly an unforgettable experience for me.
Where do you find your inspiration?
It really stems from traditional African melodies and beats and hip-hop. But I also refuse to limit myself to any genre. I love to experiment and stay open to being inspired from all kinds of music. My personal musical taste is actually pretty eclectic. When I hear something I like, I get the urge to blend it with my own music, trying to get a very unique result.
African music is garnering more and more attention from the Western public and media. How do you think this might affect the future of African music in general and Congolese music specifically?
I think African music has a bright future ahead. The huge cultural diversity that exists in Africa will foster incredible melodies and rhythms. Regarding Congolese music, you just can’t do without it in Africa. I mean rumba is everywhere. The problem our artists have though is that their tracks don’t fit the formats commonly used in mainstream media. This prevents them from being broadcasted on major TV channels and radios… I do like the fact that America is showing interest for what we do. It might really help the public discover the younger talents we have on the Continent who struggle because of the lack of production infrastructure and distribution outlets.
Speaking of America, Chris Brown headlined the Kora Awards [the equivalent of the American Grammy’s in sub-Saharan Africa] last month. Do you think non-African artists should headline major African events?
I don’t think it really matters because as far as I remember, there were always guests American artists at the Kora Awards. If the purpose is to get more exposure for the event, I think it’s great. If it’s just motivated by money, as it seemed to have been the case in Abidjan last month, then that’s a different story. But no matter where they’re from, an artist is an artist. What saddens me though is that Kora doesn’t give the same treatment to African artists, as if they aren’t worth it. That’s unacceptable and doesn’t encourage African talent to get out there. Africa must promote its artists as a priority, while remaining open because music and talent are universal.
What inspired your song “My Dream” from your album Oxygène?
For a few years now, I have been working with international NGOs in Congo that work towards protecting children and fighting sexual violence against women, especially in post-conflict regions. African politicians are corrupted and power-greedy, often with the aid of Western governments. They manipulate the people and divide them. They kill women and children and turn children into soldiers. Poverty in some countries leads parents to give up on their kids and let them live on the streets. Why is that? I think every child should have a future, not just those whose parents are politicians or diplomats. That’s why I wrote this song. It’s dedicated to those kids that suffer. I really really care about them and will never stop sending my message of change.
Want to hear more music from the Congo? Dig in here.