“Over there I don’t feel totally Conogolese, and here, I don’t particularly feel Belgian,” says Baloji, a Congolese/Belgian musician who recently released his second album, Kinshasha Succursale. The story of Africa’s Congo is a long and troubled one, outlined in terrifying honesty by Adam Hochschild in King Leopold’s Ghost (yes, that’s suggested reading). In short, the Congo was colonized by Belgium under King Leopold, devastated both numerically and psychologically by the effects of that occupation, and is still suffering from those effects today.
It is this struggle for identity and place that defines Baloji, whose music is some parts soukous, some parts traditional East, West, and South African rhythm and melody, and some parts young urban defiance, which is much the same in Kinshasha as it is in Queens (Baloji often sings in Swahili, a forbidden language under the current president). One of his most popular tracks, “Independence Cha-Cha” is a modern take on the tune written in the 1960s after the election of Patrice Lumumba as the first President of the newly independent Congo. Lumumba was soon assassinated, leading to the seemingly never-ending downward spiral of the Mobuto years.
And below is Baloji’s version, breathing new life into the Congolese standard once heard ringing through the streets of Kinshasa and beyond. Baloji’s blending of styles both African and Western is not particularly new – Cuban rhythms are completely borrowed from West Africa and can now be found all over American pop music, for example. However, the feeling in Baloji’s music is new; that when listening to him I feel like he’s without a home and trying to find it. I misunderstood a lyric once to say “the type of homeless only God could know” (they actually said “onus”), but I prefer the former in this case. Baloji is homeless but comfortable in his musical wandering, bouncing back and forth across the timeline of the Congo’s past.