Baloji (whose name means “sorcerer” in Swahili), is a rapper with a complicated heritage. He's from Lubumbashi of the Democratic Republic of Congo, born in 1978, but when he was four, he was sent to join his father’s family in Liège, Belgium. He left the family at 16, squatting and committing minor thievery to sustain himself. However, he was exposed to the musical scene including French and American hip hop and, with a number of his friends, formed the Belgian rap group Starflam. Starflam became well-known within Belgium and abroad, but Baloji left after the release of their third album due to tension within the group. He turned his back on music until he received a letter from his birth mother who had seen and recognized a clip of him from television. His response to her questions became Hotel Impala, his debut album as a solo artist. In his second album Kinshasa Succursale, released on Crammed Discs Records, Baloji returns to the country of his youth—immersing himself in his lost heritage. The album, which was released in 2011, also features a number of prominent Kinshasa musicians, who bring to the album the traditional sounds of Congo. Baloji is currently touring with his recently formed live band, dubbed Orchestre de la Katuba.
Though hip hop is one of the most quintessentially American genres of music, over the last ten years, there has been a raft of artists exploring the sound around the world. While some MCs have been content to mimic the sound of their influences, international hip hop is at its most potent when an artist combines the genre's American roots with the sounds of his or her youth, and this 33-year-old MC belongs firmly in that camp. Born in Lubumbashi in the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo, Baloji moved to Belgium in his youth, but is clearly still driven by his African roots. He raps in Swahili and French, and much of the backbeats on his explosive, breakthrough LP Kinshasa Succursale are dripping with his hometown sound. Favoring hand drums, slinky guitars and dexterous basslines to 808s, Baloji's music feels more alive than many of his American genre-mates, and though his painful background remains apparent throughout, there is a perpetual undercurrent of hope and joy, something that exists in lots of African music. From track to track, the thing that really stands out about Kinshasa Succursale is its sheer sonic versatility. For example, one of its real standouts, "Karibu Ya Bintou," is structured much like a traditional American hip hop song—a head-nodding beat, three straight-ahead verses, a repetitive chorus—and is very reminiscent of Rage Against the Machine-mainman Zack De La Rocha's One Day As A Lion project. However, the next track, "Indépendance Cha-Cha" is a spacey, certifiably funky cut that is, recalls Steely Dan jamming with the Police. There are also traditional African influences (opener "Le Jour D’Après / Siku Ya Baabaye"), soul tracks ("Nazongi Ndako") and even folky cuts like "De L'Autre Côté de la Mère." Simply put, this guy is doing a whole lot more than just imitating his heroes. It doesn't seem overtly presumptuous to surmise that much of Baloji's penchant for sonic experimentation stems from his unique background. His music is a potent blend of Western influences and the freewheeling spirit of his homeland. In an increasingly muddled international rap scene, his diversity and versatility make him stand out from the crowd.