Chatting with Baloji is a bit like listening to his music, and just as fascinating. His responses to my questions weave together different threads in the same way his songs combine his unique range of influences. “I go into a black hole and lose my train of thought sometimes,” he admits.
Musically, those influences include hip hop, soul, funk and electro, as well as old-school Afrobeats and traditional vocals recognising his Congolese heritage – then smooth French rap is poured over the top like caramel. It’s a spectacular mix of flavours that makes his third album, 137 Avenue Kaniama, one to savour.
His stage name makes some sense of this alchemy – Baloji means sorcerer in Congolese. The 30-year-old was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but raised by his father in Belgium. It was a tough adolescence that led to petty crime until music changed his life. At 15, he started hip hop collective Starflam. By 23, they’d gone platinum with their second album, Survivant.
For solo album number three, he’s reconnected with his Congolese roots, and made the musical and emotional journey back to his mother. Heavy subject matter, but all delivered in a way that demands listeners sway their hips and raise their hands in unity. Which is exactly what we’ll be doing when we catch him on tour.
There’s a bit of everything in your music. Would you call it hip hop?
“My new album is Congolese, Ghanaian, Zimbabwean… And it’s influenced by Jamaican and electronic music, but I’m still a hip hop artist – it’s just that people see that genre in a one-dimensional way when it’s in the French language. I wouldn’t get asked that question if I incorporated, say, rock music into my style, because that’s the norm for Belgian rap.”
How do you feel about African-influenced music becoming more mainstream in Europe?
“It’s crucial to have musical diversity that incorporates the diaspora, and the cultural and musical influences brought by it. African music is not a passing fad. As long as it’s not treated that way by mainstream artists, it’s all good.”
You’re about to embark on a world tour. How are you feeling about it?
“It’s a huge opportunity and it would be unforgivable to not make the most of it, especially as it’s a shared experience with my band, who I’ve had so much love for over the past eight years. We’re super happy and proud to start the tour knowing that the venues will be packed out.”
How do you get in the zone before a big show?
“I’m always frantic with nerves. On stage, if I think of anything but my lyrics, I lose my way – and because I don’t perform with other MCs, there’s no way to escape. The thought of that haunts me. But even though I always dread going up there, when I do, I say to myself: ‘I’m just going give 100% and be myself.’”
Lastly, you’re often seen rocking a bow tie. Where do you get yours?
“I’m not buying any more, but both the Belgian brand Café Costume and Gucci have sublime ones.”
Baloji is currently on tour in France, Belgium and the UK.