ONIPA's 'Tapes Of Utopia' Channels Afrofuturism And The Influence Of African Mix Tapes

Sep 18, 2021
Originally published on September 18, 2021 5:59 am
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOKOLE")

ONIPA: (Singing in non-English language).

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

ONIPA means human in one of Ghana's ancient languages and is also the name of a London-based musical ensemble. Their new album, "Tapes Of Utopia," celebrates the collaborative spirit and eclectic sound of the mix tapes that are sold in many African markets. It can be a mingling of old and new, traditional African percussion and electronic music that's interwoven with proverbial rap stories that they call Afrofuturism. The bandleaders, K.O.G. and Tom Excell, join us now from London. Gentlemen, thanks so much for being with us.

TOM EXCELL: Thank you, Scott.

K O G: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: Let me begin with you, if we could, K.O.G. I don't want to throw around the term Afrofuturism without asking exactly what it means.

K O G: Well, Afrofuturism gives us a platform using imagination. We are projecting the future through an African lens, project an African tradition, African culture, African social life, African politics and style. We feel, through our music and our imagination, idealisms and values of Africa in the diaspora.

SIMON: Well, there's a story with each song. And I want to play a little of what's become my favorite, "Chicken No Dey Fly."

EXCELL: Nice. Good choice.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHICKEN NO DEY FLY")

ONIPA: (Rapping) Feel a new beginning when the wind blow. Still, I'm a livin' on the brink so. Slippin' in the middle of a sinkhole. Still, I'm a king, never sink though. Feel it in the air, feel the wind blow. Look for the chain through the window. Change really never let me think so. Struggle, the struggle the whole life. So whatever with the (unintelligible) the whole (unintelligible). Man, I runnin' it, up in it, all night. Tell a woman (unintelligible) it's all right. All eyes on the hustle, discussin' the whole prize.

SIMON: The video is well worth seeing (laughter) with everybody dressed up as a chicken.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Tom Excell, that's a proverb, isn't it?

EXCELL: Yeah, chicken no dey fly is saying that the chicken can be focusing on just eating grain and not really seeing much around. But then suddenly, when trouble pops off, they can spread their wings and fly away. And I think there's a lot of metaphors in the video and in the song about some of the troubled times that we're living through and not always having your head down and feeding on the grain and looking around and trying to find ways that we can fly to escape some of the adversities of life.

SIMON: Yeah, and it's sung to a single egg in a carton.

K O G: (Laughter) You know, I come from a society - I come from Ghana, and I come from a society where, you know, politics has been played with fully - you know, corruption. And you know, so, like, growing up around very, like, political songs - Fela Kuti - they used art, you know, as the best means of, you know, communicating their messages. And using proverbs and using riddles has always been part of African literature, really. And bringing it into music is quite a beautiful way of expressing art as well without instigating or, like, inciting anything but just using art to tickle people's minds to be like, it's about time people woke up a little bit and look around them.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GBOMO (MTUKUDZI HOMAGE)")

ONIPA: (Singing in non-English language).

SIMON: And let me ask you about the mix you have within the group - four band members. Three are British. And you, K.O.G, are Ghanaian. Do you each represent something? Does that all come apart when you make music together?

EXCELL: I think for myself, speaking as one of the white British members of the band, I don't really connect with my own personal cultural background as British music. All of the music I love has its roots in Black music. I was actually brought up listening to a lot of African records. My dad got into collecting African records through the likes of John Peel and Andy Kershaw. That's always been the music of my childhood, the soundtrack of my life growing up that I connected with and, as I got older and started getting into music more seriously, trying to study and meet with more African musicians and travel to Africa to collaborate and learn.

SIMON: Yeah. K.O.G., that mix is important to everyone in the group, I gather.

K O G: We kind of revel and relish in the fact that we are a group of very different people. It brings so much magic because we have a really different - we think differently. But then the beauty of when we sit down to create music from everybody's influence and from everybody's journey, really - that's why, really, background - it doesn't matter to us. But then the story of each individual is what matters. Your story you've got to offer to the world is bigger than your color.

SIMON: Another song we want to listen to with you, if we could, and that's "Porridge."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PORRIDGE")

ONIPA: (Singing in non-English language)

SIMON: K.O.G., why porridge?

K O G: (Laughter) Tom, why did we name that song "Porridge"? When I was growing up, one of the government appointees in our village - he came with a Fiat Punto. And then the next year, he just bought like a big, massive Range Rover.

SIMON: Well, a year of public service was very good...

K O G: Yeah (laughter).

SIMON: ...Good to him, I guess.

K O G: Exactly. So - and you are left with - what? - porridge. When is things going to change? It's all from my upbringing and where I lived, how I grew up. I use that in.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PORRIDGE")

ONIPA: (Singing) Aweh, aweh, Yahweh, Yahweh, aweh, Yahweh, aweh, ooh.

K O G: That's what - Yahweh, Yahweh. Yahweh is - like, we're talking about - is the whole old Hebrew word for God. It's only the God in universe that - only Yahweh, Yahweh knows how it's going to end.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FUTURE")

ONIPA: (Singing) We are here. We are to see the future.

SIMON: You have the song "Future."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FUTURE")

ONIPA: (Singing) We are here. We are to see the future.

SIMON: Based on what we've all learned for these almost past two years, how do - what do you see in the future for art, music, us?

EXCELL: There's a powerful message in that song for us because Kweku's children are singing in the intro of that song, and I have a child on the way, as well. And I think reading the future right now for me feels almost impossible. But there is a burning desire in us and in the message of the music to try and create the best possible future that we can for the next generation.

SIMON: K.O.G.?

K O G: Yeah, I'm so positive. Even having my children on is the most exciting thing as much as things are temporary because no condition is ever permanent. And things might look quite hazy. And we trying to have this vision of a future that everybody can thrive. Everybody is equal. Everybody is free, you know, to be able to be autonomous and think for themselves.

SIMON: K.O.G., Tom Excell. ONIPA's new album is "Tapes Of Utopia." Thank you both very much for being with us.

K O G: Oh, thank you so much for having us, you guys.

EXCELL: Thank you so much. It's been a real pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF ONIPA SONG, "FUTURE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.