INTERVIEW| KABWASA “I JUST LIKE TO SPEAK UP WHEN I CAN. WHEN I SEE SOMETHING IS WRONG.” (@MUSICBYKABWASA)

KAB“I just like to speak up when I can. When I see that some­thing is wrong, I’ll say how I feel about it”, says Kab­wasa, an up-and-com­ing Cali­for­ni­an artist with a humong­ous social con­science. Them­at­ic­ally, Kabwasa’s music is a study on his world around him, the rights and wrongs, the grind and everything else that affects his con­science. Son­ic­ally, his music straddles the funk-inspired hip-hop sounds that artists like Ander­son Paak have found a home in and joins it with a con­scious lyr­i­cism inspired by and remin­is­cent of Lupe Fiasco and Lauryn Hill.

This insist­ence on hon­esty and speak­ing up again­st injustice is undoubtedly driv­en by the cur­rent polit­ic­al cli­mate but also stems in part from Kabwasa’s famili­al ties. Born Etien­ne Nkum Abui Kab­wasa Green, his mater­nal grand­father was a polit­ic­al lead­er in the Demo­crat­ic Repub­lic of the Con­go, fight­ing for loc­al rights dur­ing the nation’s tumul­tu­ous recent his­tory.  Kabwasa’s fam­ily now live in the United States, but this desire to hon­our his ances­tral roots, as well as loc­al upbring­ing, shines brightly in his music.

Kab­wasa has been stead­ily build­ing up a loc­al fan­base in Cali­for­nia, fol­low­ing the release of his debut EP Louder for the People in the Back last year. This month Kab­wasa released his latest single Func­tion, avail­able on all digit­al plat­forms. We caught up with Kab­wasa to dis­cuss, his name mean­ing, his music and future.

‘Kab­wasa’ is a Con­golese name, and the name of your grand­father. Can you tell us what it means?

Yeah, Kab­wasa is my grandfather’s last name. His fam­ily is from a small vil­lage in the Demo­crat­ic Repub­lic of the Con­go out­side of Kikwit called Aten. In Aten they speak the Embun lan­guage and Kab­wasa comes from the Embun term “Kal Bwas” which means “Be Open”.

Can you tell us about your envir­on­ment grow­ing up? When did you first recog­nize your music­al tal­ents?

I grew up sur­roun­ded by music my whole life. Even in ele­ment­ary school, I went to an arts school where I was con­stantly singing and dan­cing in plays and per­form­ances. I guess I recog­nized my tal­ent there, but I star­ted focus­ing more on rap in high school and I just kind of went from there.

Who are your major music­al influ­ences?

My major influ­ences are a lot of the clas­sics like James Brown, Stevie Won­der, and the artists from the Funk era. But, in terms of hip-hop, I look up to artist like Lauryn Hill, Kendrick Lamar, and Ander­son. Paak because they all have that kind of funk hip-hop fusion that I love so much.

How did you approach writ­ing your first EP Louder for the People in the Back?

The EP star­ted off as a single that I was going to release because it was going to be a part of a short film about immig­rant farm work­ers. So I wro­te the song “Worker’s Truth” spe­cific­ally for and about minor­it­ies. Then I fol­lowed that up with another song, also for the short film. After those two songs, I talked to the pro­du­cer who helped put them togeth­er and we went for­ward with that and turned it into the EP that is out today!

How con­nec­ted are you with your Afric­an her­it­age? How has it trans­lated into your music?

I have nev­er been to Africa. I don’t have the strongest con­nec­tion with my Afric­an her­it­age, but I know that they are there, and I am lucky to know where I come from, so I want to hold what I do know close to me and be proud of it. This is why I talk about it so much in my music. I try to bring some Con­golese aspects into my art when I can, but the one thing that’s con­stant is whenev­er you hear my name you get my her­it­age.

In an earli­er inter­view you described ‘Work­ers Truth’ as being about some of the chal­lenges migrant work­ers in the USA face. Do you think migrants from Africa face spe­cific chal­lenges that oth­er groups don’t have to deal with when com­ing to Amer­ica? Is this some­thing that your fam­ily has gone through?

I think all immig­rants face extreme chal­lenges com­ing into this coun­try no mat­ter where they are from. It’s a big prob­lem that needs to be addressed. My grand­pa was lucky enough to come to this coun­try on edu­ca­tion­al mer­its, but he wasn’t able to become a cit­izen until recently. We’re talk­ing like… a lot of years (laughs).

As for me, I was born and raised in Cali­for­nia but being around so many immig­rants my whole life I feel a respons­ib­il­ity to speak up and let the voices of these people be heard through my music.

On tracks like Minor­it­ies and Black, you demon­strate a strong polit­ic­al aware­ness. Is this aware­ness driv­en by more recent things hap­pen­ing in Amer­ica, per­haps stem­ming from Trump’s pres­id­ency, or have you always been polit­ic­ally engaged?

I’ve always been like that when I write. I used to write when I was frus­trated as a release. I remem­ber writ­ing a song about Trayvon Mar­tin as a release for my frus­tra­tion when that happened in 2012.

Music is the best way to spread aware­ness and the best out­let for emo­tion, so I have always just writ­ten when I feel. From a real young age until today those feel­ings of pride and power for my people have always been there.

Where can we pin you polit­ic­ally or ideo­lo­gic­ally? Do you involve your­self in a lot of polit­ic­al act­iv­ism?

I just like to speak up when I can. When I see that some­thing is wrong, I’ll say how I feel about it. I’m a very for­ward-think­ing per­son so speak­ing up and being the act­iv­ist that I like to be allows me to only be sur­roun­ded by like-minded people. The more people who can have their voice heard, the bet­ter. So that’s why I speak up all the time.

What’s the plan for the rest of the year? Any more music, pro­jects or tours com­ing this year?

I plan on con­tinu­ing to show love to my com­munity by mak­ing some fun songs just for them. I’ll be work­ing on some music videos, live events, etc. May­be not all polit­ic­ally driv­en but def­in­itely some­thing to bring my people up!

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Mark Mukasa

Mark Mukasa

Mark is a South Lon­don based writer and avid fan of all things hip hop. He’s also an MMA and his­tory enthu­si­ast who tries to keep his love of animé under wraps.

About Mark Mukasa

Mark Mukasa
Mark is a South London based writer and avid fan of all things hip hop. He's also an MMA and history enthusiast who tries to keep his love of anime under wraps.