Preview of Saturday's Sixth Annual Culture Fest: Exclusive Interview with Mamadou of Gokh-Bi System

I would love to declare that African hip-hop is all the rage. In the past few years, I’ve been astounded by the honesty and purity of such artists as K’Naan and Emmanuel Jal, both of whom remain truer to authentic boom bap principles than does the Young, Yung, and Lil sect. But the takeover has yet to happen; for some reason, commercial rap fans would rather hear about the exploits of poverty than how to rise up out of it.

Here in Massachusetts, we’re fortunate to harbor Northampton’s Gokh-Bi System (pronounced: “go-bee”) - an internationally recognized world music force that was one of the first groups to push African hop-hop into the states. In anticipation of their set at Saturday’s Sixth Annual New England Culture Fest in Lowell (flyer below the interview), we spoke with crew member Mamadou about why MCs from the motherland are so much more mature than the bling boys.

What hip-hop artists were you exposed to as a child in Senegal, and were you able to relate to them at all?

I grew up in a house with my dad playing the drums - surrounded by music. All we knew was our national music. But wanting to do something different - around 15 - we started discovering other music. The first hip-hop band we heard was Black Soul from Senegal around 1992. It really fit our everyday life - what we were living. Then we discovered the Lost Poets. We met and toured with them in 1999 - that was a big experience for us. Just to see them would have been big for us.

Beside the country that it comes from, what makes African hip-hop distinctly African?
It’s something new and different. It has more natural stuff - hip-hop here is all about the machines. With us you can feel the heartbeat, and the drums. That’s how hip-hop started - where the griots started telling stories. We’re losing this feeling [in America] right now, and that’s why I think African hip-hop will be the next best thing. Seventy percent of the rappers here just talk about jewelry. African rappers are more concerned with real life.

Having grown up in a poor village in Dakar, what’s your gut reaction to seeing American rappers bring an “It’s all good in the hood” attitude?
We grew up in a really, really poor neighborhood. You don’t even have supplies to go to school. In the rainy season 50 percent of people are out of their house. You see people struggling - just to put food on the table. It taught us a lot - we knew already what poverty was about. It inspired us to do something different and teach people that it’s up to them to make the difference. You can still be positive.

Are there beefs in African hip-hop? Coastal wars - anything like that?
There is a lot of negativity - we also get all this junk that they get on television here. They think it’s how people really live here - even though it’s not. They don’t know the real life and how it is here. A lot of people just follow that negativity. It’s time to start thinking for ourselves.

How does an African hip-hop outfit end up settling in Massachusetts?
When we first came our agent lived in Northampton. So after a few trips we got familiar with the area. All the free time we had we had a chance to explore it. It’s a cool area compared to New York, where everything was busy. It’s a big hustle - you waste all your time for no money. It just really fit our schedule. We’re city boys from Dakar, though; we’re from the hood - whatever you can find in New York you can find in Dakar.

What’s the most important thing for an African hip-hop artist living in America to remember?

When we were exposed to the public I realized that we needed to have unique music and we needed to know what we were saying. Since we have our own vibe we still get respect today. Hip-hop is from Senegal - it started with the griots. We are from a griot family. We are not trying to be any of these rappers. When they say that hip-hop comes from West Africa - “tassu” - it’s almost the same vibe.

Where is your group most popular? Why do you think that is?
In Senegal. We do a big comeback day every year. We try to go back and make sure that our friends are happy. It’s always about representing Senegal. We’re very excited to go back.

What’s the biggest misconception about African hip-hop, and more specifically about your group?
If I was in Senegal, and there was an American rapper, I would expect something different. I wouldn’t expect him to wear African clothes. People who see us here want to see Africa in your clothes and the way we communicate. We work on that image every day - we are the African hip-hop ambassadors. We’re trying to make that more great than ever.

What’s the worst that you’ve ever heard anyone mispronounce the name of your group?
Ha. I once heard someone say “Gux Bay System.”

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