Afrika Bambaataa: The Funky Cassandra

Adam Sweeting spreads Bambaataa’s word for Planet Earth

HARD TIMES have come to Planet Rock, the mythic universe of funk created by Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force in 1982. Since then, Bambaataa, the Mr T of funk and the Godfather of Hip-Hop, has watched with an avuncular but concerned eye as rappers have got louder and nastier while the world has done much the same thing. Now he’s back with a new single, a collaboration with UB40 called ‘Reckless’, which makes a misleadingly harmless trailer for an apocalyptically-inclined album called The Light.

Sitting in the twilight of yet another Holiday Inn room, music playing not quite softly enough in the background, Bambaataa is ready and able to give the good word, at length. Shrouded in his blue hooded sweatshirt, wooden Africa-shaped Zulu Nation medallions round his neck, he allows his mind to roam.

His imminent LP features a host of guest stars. From the UK come UB40, Boy George and Jaki Graham to give the disc some pop appeal.

On the second side, funk heroes George Clinton and Bootsy Collins gang up with reggae veterans Yellowman and Sly & Robbie while Bambaataa spreads his message across the planet. The record’s musical scope stretches from Birmingham, Alabama to Brum UK, before speeding off into outer space.

“What I’m saying in The Light is that the Creator has always sent messages and prophets to every country on this planet earth, to bring people back into the knowledge of themselves and bring them back on to the right track,” Bambaataa begins, slipping comfortably into the prophetic mode which appears to be second nature to him. “He also did that with music, and he always gave somebody to make you dance, make you weep, make you think, and also use dance to express yourself. The Light is to tell the whole world it’s time for you to wake up and go back and rewrite history, because I fear there have been a lot of falsehoods written in history, especially dealing with black people.”

Afrika can go on like this, unprompted, at considerable length, but ultimately his view of the world is humane, realistic (despite occasional flights into sci-fi) and rather frightening.

Call him a pessimist if you will, but his tirades about the insidious evil of crack (so addictive that smack addicts kick their previous habit to move into it), the resurgence of racism worldwide, AIDS as a terror-weapon against virtually everybody, and about the unreachable power-brokers who run the planet, have an appalling ring of truth.

With this lot lined up against us, what use is pop music? Quite a lot, if Afrika is to be trusted.

“The Sixties music was message music that helped bring about change from every country on the planet earth,” he asserts, leaning forward massively to emphasise the futility of trying to contradict him. “A lot of recording artists were talking against the war, they were talking for civil rights and human rights, they were talking about the love-power movement.

“Then the Seventies put everybody to sleep. Everybody thought ‘we’ve got this, we’ve made our thing in the Sixties, let’s party or disco-hustle, boogie down and stuff. Then things started happening in the late Seventies with people losing jobs, and you start seeing people talking against blacks and blacks talking against whites.

“Then you see groups like the Klan and the National Front coming back up. So the Eighties are returning to the Sixties again — demonstrations in the streets, people are mad with their governments, the whole Iran-Contra thing… It’s turmoil.”

It would be difficult to overestimate the gravity with which Bambaataa regards his mission. Death, for instance, doesn’t impress him much (“hey, there’s thousands more besides me”), while he merely glides above my insinuation that the massed stars on his new record might just conceivably be connected with a desire to put himself back in the charts.

“Some magazines I’ve read, they don’t like me doin’ certain things with this group or that group, but I don’t pay nobody no mind, cos I’m the renegade, I do what I wanna do as long as it’s funky ‘n’ stuff. I don’t worry about no charts — that’s the record company’s business. They could know this from other records I’ve made.

“When I did ‘World Destruction’ (with John Lydon) and it got on the charts, everybody was happy, but I did the record cos I was making my statement and I like Johnny Rotten. When I did Unity with James Brown, we didn’t worry about being in the charts because James at that time didn’t care about coming back and being rich, he wanted to make a statement and help people. I’m a humble person. I’m not all ‘I’m an entertainer, I must have $50,000 worth of shoes’.”

Bambaataa sees the new generation of rappers and hip-hoppers as torch-bearers for something which he helped to start, and he places enormous faith in them.

However, the violence and inflated boastfulness which have become associated with rap, whether that’s Run-DMC, LL Cool J or the pop-orientated Beastie Boys, have been a source of concern to him, though he’s at pains to point out that the aggressive, paramilitary posturing of Public Enemy carries a positive message. When they sing “my Uzi weighs a ton”, he argues, they really mean the truth they speak carries the weight.

But as early as 1986, Afrika wrote an open letter to the Florida magazine, Jack The Rapper, urging rappers not to encourage violence, to stamp out black-versus-Hispanics prejudice, and to live up to the music’s potential as “another Black (African/American) music art culture”.

Or else? Well, there’s a track off The Light called ‘World Racial War’, a dire warning to the human race to shape up before it’s too late. It’s pretty funky, too.

“I’m saying the problem in South Africa could basically start a whole world racial-type war if it’s not straightened out there,” says Afrika reasonably. “A world racial war will lead to a nuclear war, and this is something real dangerous.”

Yes, he could have a point there. Listen up!

© Adam SweetingThe Guardian, 19 February 1988

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