“Black traveller duty”

I’ve been on the road this past couple of weeks (in fact, I’m in a coach somewhere in Israel as I write this). I don’t get to do as much travel writing as I would like to, so I’m really enjoying this time – and there’ll be a few articles appearing in different places at some point in the near future. This short blog post sprang from an outtake from the diary I’ve been keeping whilst on the road. it’s about something I sometimes find myself having to do from time to time whilst travelling; something I call my ‘black traveller duty’. Let me explain…

Back at home, whenever I meet a Spanish or Latino person, I use the opportunity to practise my Spanish. Something similar happens to me when I travel to certain countries – and judging by stories I’ve heard, a lot of black people have had similar experiences.

‘Urban’ culture is a global phenomenon; no-one can deny that. One side effect of this is that as a black person trekking through foreign climes (especially countries not known for having large black communities), you will, sooner or later, meet a local who wants to ‘practise their Urban’ on you.

I normally don’t get offended when this happens; the people involved mean well and it’s usually light-hearted and certainly not mean-spirited. And anyway it usually amounts to nothing more than a daft handshake – like yesterday in Shef’amer, when I had to fist-bump a young Palestinian man who works in the restaurant I had dinner in. Sometimes, though, it does get a bit weird. In Turkey last week, a market trader in Turgetreis introduced himself to me as AJ – “A to the mother____ing J”.

Ah, well – it’s all good (strangely, no-one’s said that to me yet). And I should remind myself of this next time I meet Alvaro from Cali and want to launch into “Oye, hermano – como te gusta Londres?”

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In a taxi with Baloji

balojialbumcoverLast November, the Congolese rapper Baloji paid London a flying visit for a gig at the Village Underground in Shoreditch.

It was a hip hop gig, all right; the swagger and all the other elements that make up a good hip hop act were all present and correct. But it was so much more besides. It was oldies night for African music fans of a certain age; it was a political rally… and it a good old party, with a charismatic host and a very tight band.

I was due to interview Baloji the next day, just before he hopped on a Eurostar train back to Belgium where he lives. Unfortunately, certain wires got crossed somewhere along the line in the booking process, and I ended up having to do the interview in the taxi that took him from his hotel in Whitechapel to St Pancras station where he was catching the train. With London lunchtime traffic, the ride took just under 20 minutes – just about enough time for him to give me the run-down on his music, his acting aspirations, his concerns about his country and his hopes for the future.

Here, for your listening pleasure, are some edited highlights of that interview – plus snippets of tracks from Baloji’s album Kinshasa Succursale. Enjoy.

In a cab with Baloji by George Luke on Mixcloud

Mally & Me

I’ve heard stories in the past of some hip hop superstar or other who started their climb to the top by selling copies of their debut recording out of the boot of their car. But until Christmas Eve, I’d never actually seen it happen in real life (and anyway, after so many years as a music journo, you tend to dismiss those stories as something the artists’ publicists made up).

I had just landed in Atlanta an hour or two earlier, and hopped on the Metro Atlanta Rapid Transport Authority (or MARTA  for short) train to Indian Creek station, where my cousin was going to pick me up. I was sitting in the station’s passenger pick-up/set-down area, minding my own business and enjoying the rare spectacle (for a Brit) of warm sunshine in December (they don’t call this place “Hotlanta” for nothing) when young a man came walking by, carrying a stack of CDs in clear plastic wallets.

He stopped, introduced himself as Jamal – aka “Mally G” – and offered me a copy of his debut CD for whatever amount I was prepared to pay for it. I offered him $5; he gave me a CD, thanked me and wished me well and then went over to where a handful of cab drivers were waiting for fares and did his sales pitch again.

And that was when I had a crazy idea: why not interview the guy?

And why not? After all, I had my recording machine with me and I wasn’t going anywhere! And so I called him over after he’d sold a few copies to the cabbies. He came over; I explained what I wanted to do; we sat down and I got him to, as we say, tell me about himself. “That was a very nice thing you did,” said the lady who was sitting nearby waiting for her ride (and who took this photo of the two of us).

Here, for your listening pleasure, is that interview, packaged nicely with a selection of tracks from Mally G’s album. Think of this as a random snapshot; that was what I had in mind when I put it together…