“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!