Baloji Finds His Freedom In Between Genres

Apr 27, 2019
Originally published on April 28, 2019 11:12 am

Baloji is an artist who finds strength in his roots but freedom in between genres. He was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but has lived in Belgium most of his life. The rapper is a well-known name in Belgium and France. He's received music honors for his work, but his life has been a journey of struggle and perseverance.

At 3 years old, Baloji's father took him to Belgium without telling his mother. After dropping out of school and leaving home at 14, Baloji discovered hip-hop. Performing under the name MC Balo, the young upstart joined the hip-hop group Starflam. As the group began to gain popularity, Baloji received a letter from his mother that changed the course of his life and career.

"I was 26 years old when I received that letter for my mom. I thought at first it was fraud," Baloji says. But his mother knew his birth date and sent him photos of when he was a baby. The letter impacted him greatly.

Baloji's mother had seen him on TV performing with Starflam. "Your dad told me that he brought you to Belgium ... to the land of Marvin Gaye," she wrote. The American artist used to reside in Ostend, Belgium, the same city Baloji first moved to. Gaye's music became the inspiration for his first solo project, especially the song "I Am Going Home." "That really stuck in my head and inspired me to do my first album, which is dedicated to my mom," Baloji says.

Baloji's debut album, 2008's Hotel Impala, was a collection of all his life experiences leading up to seeing his mother again. Ten years later, the artist's 2018 album, 137 Avenue Kaniama and his upcoming follow-up, Kaniama: The Yellow Version, relate back to the message of Hotel Impala. For example, on "La Derniere Pluie," the centerpiece of the album, Baloji remembers meeting his mother for the first time as an adult in the DRC and realizing their cultural differences.

"This song is talking about how we met physically, how it happened, how I was feeling, how she was feeling and how we were both nervous," Baloji explains. Baloji had invited his mother to an upscale restaurant, but the expensive menu made his mother uncomfortable. "Every meal costs at least 20 dollars, we can buy a pack of rice for that price that will last a month," she told him. "I was expecting us to hug and be in a loving relationship, and for her — I had to take care of her and his siblings," Baloji adds.

Baloji music tackles issues large and small. From his family history, to the experience of refugees in Europe, to our dependence on smartphones. His goal, he says, is to create art that lasts and he can be proud of.

Listen to the conversation at the audio link.

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BALOJI: Hi, my name is Baloji. I'm from Congo, DRC. I'm based in Belgium. I'm a singer-songwriter, producer and video director.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PASSAT AND BOVARY")

BALOJI: (Rapping in French).

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Baloji is a well-known name in Belgium and France. He's received many honors for his work, but his life has been a journey of struggle and perseverance. He was born out of wedlock. When he was 3 years old, his father brought him to Belgium but did not tell his mother.

BALOJI: One day, she came to pick me up at school, and I was not there. So she was like, oh. So she called my dad. And he said, yeah, I bring him to the land of Marvin Gaye. And he will come back when he's 18.

SIMON: Marvin Gaye had once lived in Ostend, Belgium. That's where Baloji grew up. The years that followed were often difficult. He left home when he was 14 and dropped out of school. At 15, he was introduced to rap and joined a hip-hop collective that got some notice. But it was a surprise letter from his mother that changed Baloji's life and launched his solo career.

BALOJI: I was 26 years old when I received that letter from my mom. I thought it was, first, a fraud or somebody trying to take advantage. But she knew a lot of information and pictures of me and her when we were a kid. So it was, like, a very strong moment in my life. She said, hey, I saw you on TV with your hip-hop group. It's funny. Your dad told me that he bring you in Belgium to the land of Marvin Gaye.

So that really stuck in my head and inspired me to do my first album, which is dedicated to my mom. And it has this big Marvin Gaye influence that's inspired by a song called "I'm Going Home" to see my mom.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M GOING HOME")

MARVIN GAYE: (Singing) I'm going home to see my mother. I'm going home to see my dear, old dad.

BALOJI: So I thought about doing a record for her with all the different moments in my life till the moment I finally go back to meet her.

SIMON: He named his debut album "Hotel Impala."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOTEL IMPALA")

BALOJI: (Rapping in French).

SIMON: Baloji's latest album tells the story of what happened.

BALOJI: So my latest album is called "137 Avenue Kaniama." Yeah, it's related to "Hotel Impala" because, for example, it talk about the day I finally met with my mom with the song called "La Derniere Pluie," which is like the centerpiece of the album. And this song is talking about how we met, physically, how it happened, how I was feeling, how she was feeling and how we were both nervous.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA DERNIERE PLUIE")

BALOJI: (Rapping in French).

So basically, I'm talking about the fact that I'm, for the first time, going back to DRC, meeting my mom. I invite her for dinner in a very fancy restaurant in a way. She came with my aunt. And they looked at the menu. And they say, yeah, every meal costs at least $20, so we not going to pay that because we can buy a pack of rice for that price. And the moment she told me this, it really - it's like reality check.

But the song detail the whole dinner, the whole cultural differences that we had just by the way we were eating on the table and how we were sharing different experiences of communicating with each other. And for me, it was connecting with my mom. And I was expecting us to hug and to just be in a love relationship. And for her, it was like, I have to take care of her and my little siblings. And that's what she asked me for. And she didn't really expect me to give her a present that was not money, basically.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA DERNIERE PLUIE")

BALOJI: (Rapping in French).

So I will add that people will listen to my music, just understand the freedoms in terms of the form that we can be extremely creative with whatever we do. And I think that's something I learned in the three, four years is just whatever happen, just do something that will last and that will you always be proud of.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "L'HIVER INDIEN - GHETTO MIRADOR")

BALOJI: (Rapping in French).

SIMON: Congolese Belgian artist Baloji. His remixed album "Kaniama: The Yellow Version" will be out next week.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "L'HIVER INDIEN - GHETTO MIRADOR")

BALOJI: (Rapping in French). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.