Interview March 10, 2012
Chief Boima
Chief Boima is a Brooklyn-based DJ and producer who recently released a new EP via Dutty Artz titled African in New York. The EP showcases Boima's knack for remixing and updating styles of African music and making them club-ready for a new, younger audience. However, Boima is more than just a DJ. He recently traveled to Liberia where he compiled music from popular local styles of music gbema and hipco and released a compilation called Lone Stars via Akwabaa Music. Boima also writes frequently for the always poignant Africa is a Country while contributing to  the Dutty Artz blog and Ghetto Bassquake. If that wasn't enough, he is also getting his Masters in International Affairs at The New School in New York City. Talking with Boima, it becomes immediately clear that he thinks critically about his music, DJ culture and what it means to remix take a song out of Africa, remix and present it to a new, Western audience. He is passionate about his cultural background and has strong, thoughful opinions on how music from Africa and elsewhere is presented to that audience, how it shapes that audience's perception and the cultural exchange that can take place if presented well. In other words, Boima was just the type of person Afropop Worldwide likes to chat with. We interviewed Boima specifically for our forthcoming "Crate-Diggers & Remixers" show. Below is the full conversation. Saxon Baird - How did you got started DJing and producing? Chief Boima - I grew up there playing music from a young age. Started experimenting with making my own music around high school and that really opened the door into electronic music and DJing. In college I was mostly hip-hop and reggae, but started experimenting with some kind of like “world music sounds.” Then I went to Europe for a year and got really exposed to contemporary global dance music from Africa, the Caribbean, South America in a club atmosphere. And that’s where I started to really deal in this multi-cultural identity that I’m putting out today. After those formative years I ended up in California where I DJed in a bar called Little Baobab, which is a Senegalese restaurant.  At night it’s a nightclub, and it’s this pan-African, pan-Global dance party. It’s also one of the best places you’ll ever have a good time. SB- I thought for some reason that you had a Liberian background. CB- No- I’m Sierra Leonean, but from the southern part of Sierra Leone, which makes my family straddle the border between Liberia and Sierra Leone. So you have Tuckers on both sides of the border. My specific lineage, the family roots that I have is from a village in southern Sierra Leone, but we’ve branched out, obviously, around the world. SB – Let’s start with just talking about some of the remixes. The Sam Fan Thomas remix by Banana Clipz is particularly sick. It’s also a pretty famous song. Why did you choose it and how did it come about? CB- I knew the song growing up. It’s a classic. Every African party you ever went to they played that song and everybody sings it.  The remix is actually part of a session that I call the Banana Clipz sessions. And Banana Clipz was a group that I was working with in the bay area of California. I met DJ Oro11, out there, who is now LA-based. We were both in Oakland for a summer, and we linked up at a party, and we were like “lets make music, you know. We have the summer to do it” and we spent a summer making music, and we actually have an album that’s free for download, online, you can get it through my website. And that was one of the leftover instrumentals from those sessions. We came up with the instrumental from scratch, and then we were like, “okay, we gotta give this to a vocalist some time, or let’ just try to chop and remix.” We had done this other track called “Push Am Forward,” which is Afro National- that’s a Sierra Leone group. That one worked out really well, so I thought maybe that would be our thing. Looking through all my instrumentals and I thought that the track would be perfect. It kinda wasn’t the perfect tuning, but I thought it would work anyway with the nice rhythms, and I kind of just threw it on and it worked really well. So that how that came about. SB- What about the Sorie Kondi remix? CB- Sorie Kondi I heard about through Banker White, who is associated with the Sierra Leone Refugee All-Stars. He had started a program called WeOwnTV. So he had gone on a trip with them and he had brought this music video and shared it.  I wanted it right away so I just right away found the track on iTunes and remixed it. That was really a couple of years ago. It kind of just sat around. I gave it to someone for a Fader mix, a long time ago but that’s it and I didn’t really do anything with it. Then I had the idea to do a follow up to the African by the Bay, and it was perfect because I really liked the tune and I kind of finished it up. That was kind of a reverse process. Me doing the remixing to the original verses. Having an original and putting the other song on. SB - That brings up an interesting point with that remix, in that, by adding this sort of dance, electronic music element to it, you are kind of lending it to a new audience. Is that something that you are purposely trying to do, often? CB - Not everytime. Well…yes. In a big sense, for me, identity-wise. So, I was born in the US to an ex-pat father, who came here, and brought his culture, and passed it on to me. The things that I retained from him were some language, food, and music. I don’t know the experience of living in Sierra Leone. I’ve visited I didn’t experience what my cousins and brothers that are there have. So, for me, I want to represent who I am and this cultural identity in an environment that isn’t necessarily open to it, or understanding of it. Because I felt that growing up in the US as a youngster, people didn’t really understand what an African was. I mean, growing up, I got called “African booty scratcher.” And these are things that still exist today. Just on the corner of my block the other day, there was three kids playing like “hungry Africans,” trying to find some food. And I don’t know their background, I mean, they were black kids, they could have been African themselves. But my point is, these kinds of stereotypes exist, and these are things that young people have to deal with, so like my thing is that- I want to put my cultural identity out there, so people who come after me, and are in the same position as me, don’t have to go through the same processes and can be really proud of where they come from. I think that this can have implications for how people see home, and how much people invest in back home or if people visit. How many Sierra Leonean kids came here at a young age or were born here and have never been back in twenty years, and how many of those people could contribute to the welfare of our country and are not because of perceived stereotypes? SB - So relate that back to your music. CB- Yeah, that’s what that does. Music that I can dance to in the club right now, that’s my identity? That has value. That has meaning. So that’s something I should invest in. I think music, that’s what that does. I think especially remix culture, and specifically the Sorie Kondi collaboration. Now I’ve been able to work with him one on one, raised some money to get him over here for a tour, we might be producing his album to release in the United States. I’m in a position to give some resources to help him with his career because he’s an amazing talented genius that the world really should, the world should know that this exists. So it’s like a dual thing. For me its personal identity, something that I’m trying to do for myself, and for maybe my kids or younger people, but also something that I hope I can do for “my people” in quotes, right now. SB - That’s really interesting. Okay, so it’s like two years old, and I’m not going to hold you to every word that you’ve written on the internet but- I want to talk about the “Scramble for Vinyl” piece you wrote for Africa is a Country. You mentioned that your biggest concern was not that these compilations or crate-diggers aren’t focusing on artists, but rather that they concentrate too much on the forms of music that they, the DJ’s, want to tell about the music. CB- I still agree with that, 100 percent. SB- Can you explain that, and then give me an example of how that’s being done? CB- The environment has changed a bit since I wrote that. Soundway signed Batida, you got Honest Jons putting out amazing new progressive music. At that time, though, you were caught up in this idea, these traps of things like “authenticity,” or some sort of “strange kind of weird funky this that.” These releases were narratives that were being framed that, for me, weren’t accurate. I would walk into a record store and I would want African music, because I wanted music to play in the club that I could enjoy and likeminded people like myself who knew contemporary African music, or music that we grew up with. I wanted that experience. And I would find that, in the cut outs, the dollar bins of these record stores.  I have a bunch of records of like soukous and makossa and highlife from the 70’s and 80’s that were popular tunes, that people get down to, right? That was my experience of going and digging. Now, I would go to the record store, and displayed prominently, right in front, on top of all this stuff, was some compilation that was like, “Yo, crazy funky jumping Africans.” And I’m being exaggerated, but its like not the frame that I saw myself, or my culture, or my friends, or my community represented in, and I felt like somebody was doing this that was not really connected to these communities, and was doing it through an outsider, other, orientalist lens. Now, I’ve been criticized that its’ not about orientalism, It’s about unfairness in practices, it’s about money, but for me at the time it was like, “No!” Fine that some people are getting restored careers or whatever. Like Orchestra Poly-Rythmo is one of those groups that like, yeah, we listened to as a kid. But at the same time, identity and representation add to the notions of fairness. Because if you don’t believe of someone that you’re working with is a capable human, equal on the same level as you, your never gonna them that voice. Your never gonna give them the fair opportunity to take control of their own economic future or destiny, you know? SB -  I guess I’m also curious about the responsibility of someone who is going over there and getting this music. It sounds like you’re concerned also with the way that they are also rewriting the musical history of Africa. What do you feel should be the record collector’s responsibility for those going to Africa and bringing back records for to re-release? What would be a responsible way of releasing that music? CB- Well, that’s the thing. At what level are you engaging? So for me, with the Lone Stars compilation, I was in a situation where I was like, “hey, I’m here, I’m a DJ, this is what I’m capable of doing.” People were like “great” we’ve been waiting for you, please do this. I’m in this position of privilege where I have access to a passport that will get me across borders,  credit, money, all these things. I have access to all this stuff, I’m at a level that’s financially, resourcefully here, and other people are resourcefully there. That’s like the world that we’re existing in, that were born into, we are born with these issues of privilege. But I think from my own experience from life, I’ve been able to identify those privileges, be conscious of them, and try -- in my interactions with people -- to be more conscious of them. I think we should be more conscious and think. It doesn’t mean we need to stop what we are doing or anything like that, its just that means we have to think about what we are doing, and try to be as responsible as possible. I never told anyone to stop what they are doing, and I still don’t tell people to stop what they are doing. That’s not what it’s about. Its just about providing more access and always having in mind that people’s voices that aren’t being heard. It’s about keeping in mind that the infrastructural problems that need to be addressed. And that’s it. I’m not like a militant anti- anything. I’m pro-more. I want more, not less. SB - Let’s look at a more hard, concrete example. Sam Fan Thomas is probably somewhere out there, still alive, probably not active. Did you get his approval? CB- No. SB -  Okay. So, do you think it’s responsible for people who are going over there and using the music to get approval from the artist? Lets use another example with the Lone Stars compilation. All those guys are active and creating music. Do you think it’s responsible for a label or producer, or whoever to go over there and actually try to help those artists in some way financially? CB - With the example of Sam Fan Thomas, it’s somebody that I look up to, and its hard for me to conceptualize that I’m in a more privileged place in the music industry than him. He’s world-wide known, it’s just maybe that people aren’t really buying his records any more. So if I can do something that can help people buy his records, which is the common excuse, I know. Whether people really do that or not, I don’t know. However, we’re in a world where remix culture is this thing where… I feel like I’m fighting a different fight then that, then giving money to Sam Fan Thomas, right? Now, in Liberia when I went there, and I see exactly what their situation is, it’s easy for me to insert myself in that situation in a sense where I feel like I can contribute to the betterment of their goals. I guess this is a multi-part question. As far as the Liberia stuff, I feel like, yes, insert myself into that situation, because I know the situation, I have personal relationships with them and also doing a lot of crate-digging where you go to a place and your in a place and your extracting something and taking it somewhere else. Now, with remix culture, I’m kind of in the school of thought where I like open culture is better. Sam Fan Thomas borrowed from somebody, his ideas, and then it transfers, and I feel like we live in an age where cutting and pasting and remix culture is something that has become so technically perfect, like digital ones and zeros it transfers so perfectly, people couldn’t really do that with analog tools or before that, it was about transferring in other ways. It was very much about passing down culture. Also, I feel like “African Typic Collection” was likely passed down to me in a cultural manner, so there is that question of fairness, too. I have a friend who talks a lot about the law, and about how the law and copyright becomes distorted as the measure of fairness. So copyright becomes a stand-in for morality. And I agree with her totally that it’s like “oh, because I infringed on copyright then I’m being immoral.” No, I don’t believe that at all. I believe that morality is based on judgment of individuals, about what they understand about right and wrong, and fairness between individuals. And I think that’s how we need to measure it. I don’t think that copywrite is a measure of that. Because copyright is often in service of people who are way more privileged then anybody else. Copyright is more in service of corporate interests and more in service of government interests, then your average person in general anyway. So, that’s how I would answer those contradictions. SB - I think bringing up the issue that just because the law says its illegal doesn’t mean its something that we shouldn’t do it is interesting. And I think that the whole idea of passing on music in various ways is a thoughtful approach. It’s more like a musical exchange rather then just a stealing. CB - I mean, I could have, in the legal realm, tracked down Sam Fan Thomas, and giving him a percentage of the zero dollars that I’m going to make on this bootleg compilation. Morally I could have done that. If I was Kanye or Jay-Z, and I know that I was gonna make a ton of money, and I have the resources to actually go and find him and do all this stuff, then I would do it.  I just hate to say that it comes down to the money, but if we are going to judge morality based on law, that’s what you have to judge it on. I’m trying to bring the conversation to other places besides money. To me it’s not about only money, it’s about cultural representation and empowerment, and these kinds of things. That’s where I want the conversation to lead, I don’t want them to only be about money. To me, it’s not the ends, its definitely a means, but its not the ends. SB-  I assume you got approval from Sorie Kondi? CB - Sorie Kondi I have a relationship with. It’s still all this grey legal bullshit, though. The fact is I’m working with Sorie Kondi. Why do I have to sign a contract? It’s a bootleg, nobody is making any money. The real money is in touring. We are in this world where nobody is buying music. I mean people will buy my album, but it will go back to distributors and labels and I haven’t seen a dollar from any album I’ve done in my life, I haven’t seen a penny from any album except for stuff I’ve bootlegged myself, and sold at shows, directly hand to hand. So how do you have a conversation about fairness and copyright when that’s the state of the music industry. I think that we really need to do is look at new ways to imagine what the music industry is, imagine what recorded music means, redefine culture away from the commercial realm only, and understand how culture effects everybody in their daily life. SB -  I agree with you. I’m more just challenging you for your thoughts because there is definitely an on-going discussion that’s out there. CB - I didn’t sample Sam Fan Thomas and then was like oh, I’m not gonna credit him. I figure everybody knows that song. Even people were writing me and saying “I love that Sam Fan Thomas cover or remix or whatever.”  People know these songs, I’m not doing some obscure…and that was never my intention, to do some obscure sample. My thing was always to represent for the African diaspora or Africans. That’s always been my goal to put that out there. I’ve never tried to hide anything. If anyone ever wrote me “who is this artist?” I will openly tell them. Now it would be a more fair world if we could just somehow share our culture and credit where credit is due, without these legal loopholes to jump through, but we don’t live in that world. So how does the independent artist, somebody with not a lot of resources, somebody who is not making any money of their music, do that? SB - Diplo is an example of someone who drops free mixes all the time and has a running list of whoever is in it.  I think we are maybe moving towards a world- at least online- where that’s ok. CB - That’s the thing. I had a conversation with Diplo, and I had a conversation with some other guys on this, and they always try to trap me by talking about what samples they are paying for. To me, it’s not about how much your paying anybody. That’s a section of it, but there’s this whole other piece of the pie that your ignoring, that you’re not talking about when you look at it that way. And maybe they don’t understand because they are not in this position where you have to fight for your right to speak. That’s what privilege does. It puts you in a position where you never have to question your right to speak, your right to exist, your right to create. You never question that.  Society puts blocks on people for skin-color, class, nationality. There are people who experience that, experience that everyday every moment. It’s not like one day I’m like, “oh I’m not thinking about that.” I’m always thinking about race, thinking about culture, and it’s because that’s what my experience is. I walk out on the street, and that’s what I have to deal with. Here’s another example, men will never understand the experience of women. You know how many women walk down the street and get hollered at in New York? We will never fully understand that as men, because that is not our reality. And when a woman steps up and complains about it, men should not shut them down, because we are the ones creating the situation. SB - So going back to the DJs like Diplo; you’re saying that because they don’t have that culture experience, or that cultural motivation or understanding, because that’s not his experience then they think about it in those economic terms, not so much as a cultural exchange? CB - I don’t want to talk about Diplo specifically when he’s not here. But from my understanding of talking to him is that it’s really about class.  He’s coming from a place where- maybe he’s middle class, but maybe lower middle class or something -- and he’s coming from this experience where like, he worked his way up. But there are other social constructions of priviledge besides class. People in positions of privilege don't necessarily always understand how power sustains their status. And that’s something that I try to be aware of in my work. That’s why when I did the Liberian compilation I wrote those articles, to be like, I understand that this is what’s happening but this is why I’m doing it. If I fail, then I’m going to keep trying with something different. SB - So tell me a little bit about your experience in Liberia. CB - I went to Liberia because of its connection to Sierra Leone. I’m in school and I’m getting a Masters in International Affairs, and part of the program is to do a field experience abroad, and Liberia came up as an option. Since I went to Sierra Leone in 2006, I’ve been going to west Africa pretty much once or twice a year since. So we were doing a lot of stuff around the elections, and that was the focus of our trip. And I was like, well Liberia, their conflict is connected to Sierra Leone, and I thought I could learn a little bit about what happened in the region by going there. Then, once I got there, I actually found out that my family had connections on that side of the border, because I ran into people from our area there. So it was more motivation to be in the region. The reason that I’m not in West Africa, all year round, is because I don’t have the resources to do what I want to do when I’m there. So the goal for me, right now, is to get to that point where I can just go there and be there more full time, because I would have the resources to do what I want to do there, you know, ways to generate money and these kinds of things. I think that’s what’s stopping a lot of people my age from going back home, full time, is that lack of resources. That’s why you see now in Ghana and Nigeria, people from the UK and the US are flooding back home, to go and be creative. There’s like jazz nights in Lagos and art openings because now Lagos is becoming this place that has all these resources, and it’s connected to this global kind of market. That’s really what I want for the Liberia/Sierra Leone region, is to have these places be just as vibrant and connected as Ghana and Nigeria. That’s my motivation for continuing working there. I’m comfortable in west Africa, I feel at home in a lot of ways that I don’t feel at home in the states. I feel relaxed. It’s a beautiful land, and I think that needs to be said more. That it’s a beautiful place to be and beautiful people and if you can feel at home there, you feel at home and it’s a good place to be. SB - How were you getting the music? CB - That was a tough process, because I was hearing stuff on the streets or in the clubs and I would like that song then I want the world to hear it basically so I would decide that I wanted to find the artists. Then I would ask everybody. There was this one song,  I heard it several times and I never asked and finally it was the last three days I was in Liberia and I just had to find out who this artist is. And I asked my friend who thought he knew then he asked his friends, and eventually we found out it was Deboy Crew. Then we were like, who knows d-boy crew? So we found someone abd this person call this person, and it was just like this chain of events.  Then we got to this person who used to work with them, who was working with a studio I had a relationship with. So he brought my friend and I to the studio and we met them kind of out of the blue. We just showed up and were like, ok, we’re hear, we are gonna sign this song and release it. They thought with was kind of weird and were curious who we were but eventually agreed to do it. They were cool. That was probably one of the most difficult experiences. We had to go on the other side of Monrovia, we took shared taxis, like three or four shared taxis to get there. Most westerners take, they hire individual cabs, but it was me and my friend. So it was a difficult journey, just time-wise, just to get across the city, but it was fun. And I learned a lot about licensing, and the experience of tracking down people. It was good. I want to keep doing it. SB - What was the situation that you found all these artists in. Were they thriving, were they stars? Also, why did you have trouble figuring out who these artists were, did the people in cafés or wherever you were hearing them just not know who they were? CB- Songs get popular and they don’t get called their actual names. Like Junior Freeman was called the Area-Man. Everyone was like, that’s the area man. People didn’t even know who the artist was. They published his name eventually in the newspaper, and they found out but, you know, it’s a fragmented society just like the US. It’s three million people,  but its fragmented. You have your political and economic elites, who have their identity, their cultural identity, and then you have the youth, who are the majority, and many of them are poor and disenfranchised, and they have their identities, and then you have the westerners, 15,000 UN peace-keepers and they have their identity. Everybody has their own kind of section. Monrovia is a very diverse place. So I was associating in the circles that was the young people who were into hipco and gbema music, and into going to the clubs. I was going to their local drinking spots, and I also went to the western clubs were they don’t play any Liberian music, places that actually have the funds to support a local music scene that aren’t supporting it. I was going to places where they have free entrances, places where these people are super-stars, but the kids that are frequenting these places have no money, and can’t support an industry. So I think that was a part of the motivation for me to want to get involved was because I saw that there was a disconnect between the money and the people, and I thought that hopefully I could start the ball rolling to change that kind of situation. SB - Before we go, can you tell me about this Liberian festivalyou are trying to put on? CB- Well, the plan is to do a month long series of workshops between people I know from New York as well as some other people, a filmmaker from North Carolina, and a couple other people, to go over and do a month long series of media trainings and workshops, with people in the industry or people who are aspiring. I met people of all levels of fame and capacity in the country, so I want to work with the most established people and the least established people, and try to do these workshops, and have a really diverse input to come up with a unique cultural project. So I’m trying to raise money to do that right now, applying to some grants, maybe you’ll see a Kickstarter campaign soon. (laughs)