When it comes to African Hip Hop, Uganda is not a country that quickly comes to mind. Such might be my ignorance but even in my years of following Hip Hop religiously I only got to hear Klear Kut and Navio. Then again, in those days music was very hard to find – I am talking 15 or so years. We had to rely on the African music channels like Channel O to hear something different. Hardly any artists were putting music on the internet and hardly anyone went on the internet besides checking their email really. Enough of that though, I am here for an entirely different reason.
From the moment I got my hands on African Reality by Ajo, I had my expectations set high. I was looking forward to being engulfed with Pan Africanism in music form. The Ugandan rapper had previously impressed me with his single Nuba. It features on this album and deserves its spot on a complete body of work. His is an ode to being who you are. When he says “never forget who you are or who your kin is…” I felt that. Being part of the African diaspora as long as I have, it’s fairly easy to lose sight of what is important especially when the Western ways infiltrate your life ever so subtly. From an African perspective we grow up being told to never forget our origins time and again through stories and proverbs. Ours are cultures that are strongest in unity. The message in this song encourages Africans to be proud of who they are. There’s no need to be apologetic about it. The Nuba video on the other hand is truly artistic. It is not over the top in any manner but an acknowledgement of our Africaness. A beauty to watch.
The African Reality album opens up with ‘African Tales’ where Ajo collaborated with songstress Sandra Kay. It has a boom bap pattern that reminds me of 90s hip hop yet the instrument selection blew me away with its modernity. The interchange between chorus and verse was nothing short of masterful with a commanding beat that keeps you hooked. Sandra Kay impressed with her measured vocals while resisting the allure of overperforming. A fantastic way to start an album.
‘Rebirth’ equates mental slavery to a disease that many Africans don’t realise they have. This is the kind of conversation that is very difficult to have on any level. At the same time, to have it on a record feels personal and it made me think long and hard about what elements of mental slavery exist in my own life. This is what this album makes you do if you really listen; introspect.
‘Icarus’ featuring Akongo is one of my favourite pieces on the album. It starts with a gut wrenching story about a man who was abducted together with his siblings and had his brother killed by rebels for asking for water. Akongo’s vocals – DAMN!!!!! Nuff said. Other songs that tickled my fancy: Emali, Angels Die and Transcend. It would be an injustice not to mention the impressive interlude by Jason Nta. Just listen to it, you won’t regret it.
I could well go through every single track and point out the intricate details but for the purposes of this review, I won’t. Simply because there is too much to write about in that space. There is plenty of knowledge dropped here that I would have to Google a lot of it. That is how well-researched African Reality is. Some of the stuff is pretty nuanced so your History has to be in check.
Ajo’s flow is very energetic and his style embodies a true MC. He’s got bars. He won’t fill dead space on a song repeating words. Not Ajo, he’s not the type. African Reality is not the album to trap to either, this is an album of introspection, storytelling and knowledge. I could feel so much pain in this project. I wonder how emotionally taxing it was for him to put so many heartbreaking things on a record such as the heartbreak of losing his mother.
From start to finish, one aspect of this album that really shone for me was the use of audio space. From well-timed pans to expansion of the stereo element, African Reality paints a very vivid picture whilst utilizing real life sounds like bombs, laughter, shackles and more. The detail to this album is exceptional. Inclusion of famous speech extracts from the likes of Professor P.L.O Lumumba also enhanced this offering. When it comes to sound design, not many African musicians go through this much trouble to make their stories as close to real in how you hear them as possible.
Concerning how listenable this project is, I can say that it is quite niched. First of all, the subject matter is about a variety of topics like black pride, excellence, corruption, humanity, slavery, racism and life in general. At its very centre, what you get is a tough, hard-hitting call for embracing blackness as more than a tag assigned by colonialists. It calls for all Africans to stand against the injustices of self-doubt and letting others dictate who we are to us. Ajo knows his African history beyond the average person or African for that matter. He even makes reference to the atrocities of the murderous Cecil John Rhodes in then Rhodesia towards the black people. I could relate and understand, I am Zimbabwean after all.
A lot of the lyrics WILL fly over people’s heads. I found that I started catching more detail after the third time of listening. In that sense, African Reality won’t necessarily be an album I listen to everyday yet it always comes recommended in a state of mind where I want to dig deeper into my Pan African stance. There is room for him to get even better, especially when he does multi-syllabic rhyming. It suits his style and all he needs to do is pick and choose when to use it to elevate a song. I think where he sometimes leaves the listener wanting is trying to impart very complex messages in such a short space of time within a song. Sometimes it’s hard to get the lyrics without listening a number of times. I would also like to hear Ajo rapping more in his native tongue to tap into his musicality more naturally. But what’s a project without room to do even better next time, right?
African Reality is indeed a product of hard work and this is easy to see. Ajo speaks up about issues in a time when many of us are bullied into submission. This makes his music fresh and different. There is plenty of potential for Ajo and he has a product that can appeal to many. He is as talented as they come and his time is surely coming.
Well done brother!