By Rashad D. Grove
(AllHipHop Features) Born in Ghana and adopted by Brooklyn, Samuel Bazawule aka Blitz the Ambassador, is an artist in the truest sense of the word. He’s a celebrated MC with an impressive discography. Also, Blitz has released several films, the latest being the critically acclaimed The Burial of Kojo which has been receiving rave reviews from The L.A. Times, The New York Times, and The New Yorker as one of the best films of the year. The Burial of Kojo won the Grand Prize for Best Narrative Feature at the Luxor African Film Festival. We caught up with Blitz to talk about the connection between MCing and filmmaking, the Hip-Hop scene in Ghana, and partnering with Ava Duvernay to bring his film to Netflix.
AllHipHop: A friend of mine once told me that Ghana is the pathway to the continent. Is this true?
Blitz: HAHA! Listen, honestly, the way our country was set up as was one of the first independent states in Africa and because of its independence, it was one of the first Pan-African hubs. Think about cats like W.E.B. DuBois who withdrew his American citizenship and moved to Ghana where he is buried. The foundation of our country was birthed out of the most brilliant minds on the continent and in the Diaspora. And they all came through Ghana.
Also, because we were lucky to have a first president who understood that if we were going to win, it wasn't just on the continent, it was what were doing in the Diaspora in North America, South America, and the Caribbean. So even though things may have fallen off, most Ghanaians have a Pan-Africanist vibe. We come to learn that no matter how well we try, we’ll never to fit into the Euro normative structure.
Right now, we’re celebrating the Year of Return, because 400 years ago, this year, in 1619 the first slave ships that left our shores. So, the Government of Ghana is really trying to reconnect and bring back as much of a Diaspora together, not just to kick it, but listen to how can we properly work together.
AllHipHop: Tell me about the Hip-Hop scene in Ghana.
Blitz: When Public Enemy performed at the University of Ghana in 1992 it was a seismic shift. Prior to all of this, the kind of music that existed in Ghana was something we call Highlife which is similar to Afrobeat. It’s our parent’s music that we grew up on.
Simultaneously, we had just come out of a military dictatorship. Freedom of speech wasn't given, and things were still very testy. Young people listening to this Highlife music, was non-reflective of the society, because all of them songs about love. It didn’t make sense.
When we heard Hip-Hop music, from people who look just like us, from a completely different side of the pond who were going through the same struggles.
Hip-Hop was born out of anger of what was going on, a similar thing happened in Ghana, where we were getting so tired of Highlife and those love songs. So, then we created Hip-Life, which was a combination of Hip-Hop and Highlife.
Similar to how Hip-Hop was sampling jazz and funk records, we were sampling Afrobeat and Highlife, adding hard drum loops. There’s a guy called Reggie Rock Stone, who’s pretty much the Kool Herc of Hip-Life. He was the one who was like, “Okay, this is how we going to do it, and this is what we're going to call it.” It became a force and a major employer for a lot of young people. So, when you go to a club, and they’re playing Afrobeat, it's really a derivative of what Rock stone and them started.
AllHipHop: How has your own Diasporic experiences across the world informed you as filmmaker and an MC?
Blitz: As a 10-year-old seeing Public Enemy and chopping it up with Chuck D many years later, I explained to him how much of that is the reason I am, who I am. Seeing Public Enemy come to Ghana, bro, it transformed the whole energy. The only connection with Black Americans we had was through CNN. There was no was no real way in which we were connected. So Hip-Hop in the 80’s, early 90’s, and even late 90s when it was a lot more Afro-centric, we were seeing brothers and sisters rocking, dashikis, African medallions and it was transformative for me. We were like, “They know us.”
I been trying to reciprocate it, you know, and in my travels, whether it's been to the US or Brazil, or wherever I've been with Black and Brown people, man, like, I have tried my very best to be that connector, because I remember what, what PE and them did for me, as a young child growing up in Ghana, in terms of just knowing that knowledge itself was critical. And understanding that we had a part to play as black people on this planet.
AllHipHop: So, tell me how has the history of Brooklyn emceeing inspired you? You even opened for the legendary Big Daddy Kane. How did it feel to be embraced by the BK?
Blitz: I'm telling you that’s was such a privilege bro. I was that kid with everybody on my wall. And back in the day to, you know, The Source Magazine was like, was like, literally the Bible. And it was it was so scarce. If somebody was traveling, you figured out how to get them a little bit of money and they'll come back with one and that one was circulated, and everybody got a hand on it. Eventually, if you were lucky to be the last person to get a hold of it, you could get a page or two out of it.
I remember that show like it was yesterday, man, at Prospect Park, with Big Daddy Kane. You know, Kane put J (Jay-Z) on. He was like royalty for me, you know. I've been blessed. Transitioning into film, Spike Lee, also from Brooklyn, had a big impact on me. I remember when we first saw the “Fight the Power” video and the Malcolm X film, just knowing that one day, I will come to this Mecca, this this force field, and I knew that if I touched down in this force field, I could use it as a springboard to not only go back home better, but then to connect to much of our Diaspora that has been fragmented bro. So, like expanding, using Brooklyn as a springboard has been, honestly one of the one of the biggest privileges and blessings in my life man.
AllHipHop: In your incredible film The Burial of Kojo**, I've read that you, came across a story about the about Africans mining, taking all the risks and not getting the financial rewards. Tell me why it’s important to tell this story about the legacy of colonization and** how outside people are exploiting the continent of its resources. You tell the story with a modern lens.
Blitz: Absolutely, man. You're so right. I didn't want to center the film around the colonizer either. I mean, if you notice the film, they only show up very briefly.
But for me, it was about capturing an energy. I also wanted to show that the baton has been passed from European colonization, which I'm not saying it's over, but there's a new dog in town, there's a new imperialist in town and they're not playing.
If nothing at all, the film was must be a testament to say that listen, we were all not asleep when this thing was happening. We're going to look up one day, and it's all going to be gone. And we're going to wake up and be like, “But how did it happen?” I want people to be able to know that there was work that at least addressed its beginning.
And that is what the film is about. If you look at the relationships of key characters like Kojo, his brother, and everyone else in the film, as it relates to foreigners, you can always see the Continental African, always kind of, you know, in a subservient role.
So, whether it was the Arab guy who was buying the gold, whether it was the Chinese, like, everybody's setting the standard but us. It was important that we make this film, and show it from a very multi-level, multi-layered perspective.
When I watch movies like Do The Right Thing, it’s not only a love letter to Brooklyn, but a multi-layered testament. When police brutality continues and Laquan McDonald, Trayvon Martin, and all these kids who were killed, somebody saw that way back. Spike was trying to tell us that with death of Radio Raheem. It was a premonition and it was almost like a beginning.
AllHipHop: You self-funded funded, produced, wrote, and directed the film. How was the feeling when you were contacted by Ava DuVernay about releasing the film on the Netflix platform?
Blitz: It was mind boggling. When Ava comes around, and she's like, “I see you and appreciate what you guys have done and I'm going to give you the biggest platform.” It was the biggest vindication ever. We were prepared to go for broke on this one. We were like, if nothing happens at all we would have contributed to the cannon even if only 10 people knew about it. That was okay for us. Now we will have 100 million people watching it.
AllHipHop: How did she get in contact with you? How did you she see the film?
Blitz: She was listening to my music for a while. She had my albums! So, Tina Farris, the road manager for The Roots and her partner Suede saw the film and they were like “Ava is already a fan.” So, Ava watched the film and she was like, “Listen, it's like his music. Why not?” I mean that that was the connection, but it's been it's been life changing brother.
AllHipHop: What is connection between MCing and filmmaking?
Blitz: I made this film the same way I produce my records The first cut became the original sample, right? And then I put all the stuff back into the sampler. Then I used the editing software, like an MPC, banging on it, you know, creating a completely different rhythm of the script that I had. So, for most people, the first cut would have been the film. But as a Hip-Hop artist, I understand that the Hip-Hop philosophy is to never just doing anything as it is. That's why you know, Grandmaster Caz and all these guys could just take a regular record and with their hands, create, you know, five minutes, loop out of just spinning records. Like, that's what the culture allows you to do. It is the most innovative culture.