radical diaspora: blitz the ambassador

September 27, 2018

interview by: kennedy ashinze

words by: jay nichvolodov

He remembers mobile movie theaters, towed around by evangelical preachers, set up in soccer fields in Accra. They displayed the kind of low-production value religious films with those white-skinned, blue-eyed, B and C-rated actors playing Jesus and company. And even today, despite knowing otherwise, the thought of our Lord and Savior still brings to mind sun-kissed blonde hair and pigment-less skin. “We have constantly acquiesced to the outside,” Blitz the Ambassador reminisces. "For too long we have looked to the outside for definition and approval."

Those kinds of films weren’t his stories, they weren’t Ghana’s stories. Shaped by these early experiences and others, Blitz is on a divine mission, one could say, to reclaim mediums, narratives, and perspectives. To reorient what is told and presented about Africans, for Africans.

A renaissance man, Blitz has his hands in a dizzying number of projects: hip-hop MC, filmmaker, storyteller. Samuel Bazawule turned Blitz the Ambassador after he touched down on American shores after 18 years in Ghana. The mixing of cultural waters woke him up, and he now takes up all tools at his disposal. “We cannot underestimate any of the channels we have available to us.” he stresses, “We must fire on all cylinders.” Instead of allowing non-Africans to shape identity and understanding, he calls for “a new canon of African storytellers” engaging in “non-linear, complex” dialogue to reclaim and enrich African identities.

We caught Blitz for a sit-down in Lagos, Nigeria in the midst of a whirlwind weekend. The Friday prior, he'd brought his bands' Afrobeat-meets-hip-hop sound to Afropolitan Vibes, the visionary monthly festival spearheaded by Ade Bantu, an iconic figure in his own right. The following evening Blitz screens one of his films at the inspired, members-only space Miliki on Victoria Island, tapping into his visual, aesthetic sensibilities. In the midst, he took time to sit down with us and sift through his catalog of work, his artistic vision, and the projects he has on the go.

We cannot underestimate any of the channels we have available to us. We must fire on all cylinders.

Work tumbles out of him, often sending him around the world in the process. With no less than four studio albums under his belt, his latest - Diasporadical - dropped with praise and acclaim, which is to say nothing of his string of EPs and mixtapes. His collaborations are no less impressive, with songs with the venerable Seun Kuti of Egyptian 80 and the fiery Brazilian MC Emicada bridging diverse cultural and geographical territory. While his foundations in Afrobeat and Juju are clear, the magic of his music is in the inventive mix of sources. A pivotal moment came with the influence of that diasporic sound from across the sea, the hip-hop of the late 80s and early 90s. The new subcultural vehicle afforded fresh, dangerous room for expression and subversion: “Some of it was rude, some of it was straight disrespectful, vulgar, and some of it was spiritual, cultural.” Blitz wound the influence of those sounds into something truly West African. 

Matched with his musical output is his ambitious, insightful filmwork. Blitz explores African spirituality in his Diasporadical Trilogy, beginning in Accra in the first installment, soaking up Brooklyn in the second, and finishing in Bahia, Brazil. In Running, the last of the trilogy, an Afro-Brazilian grandmother swings a smoking incense pot over a young boy in ritual fashion, while a gathering of folks dressed all in white perform a ceremony at a waterfront. The work resists festishizing spirituality, avoiding age-old caricatures and the belittling and mystifying of African spiritual practices. Instead, those white robes, symbolic face-paint and sacred altars read as organic, belonging. The entire production carries a distinctly intimate, experiential quality that puts African and diasporic spirituality front and center without the filters and lenses we have seen (and absorbed) so many times. This isn't storytelling through the eyes of a detached reporter or anthropologist, but instead through those of participant: someone integrally involved. Someone who belongs. Taking back these hidden, repressed and misrepresented traditions is Blitz’s aim: “Who we are has been such a suppressed part of the global narrative of human evolution," he says, "constantly left out.” Each of the three films explores uncommon, deserved angles on African spirituality and practices, what it means to be African, and where these African influences have ended up.

Blitz stands on the shoulders of giants, and he readily acknowledges the “groundwork laid globally” that enables him to do what he does. Rising from an award-winning career in painting, Blitz takes aim at “how visually unrepresented Africa is." As seen above, he melds the diasporic traditions with African rootedness, but operates out of gratitude for the forebearers - and he sees himself as taking up the torch.

The responsibility artists like myself have is enormous: we gotta educate, but you gotta stay fly; you gotta be ancient, but you gotta be current.

Blitz doesn’t want anyone on the sidelines. Getting people out, involved and inspired, that is what Blitz is about, and we see this charge in his art as well as his activism. “Just because your body there,” he says, “don’t mean your mind there.” He wants people engaged, creative and awake. “It’s not a soliloquy, it’s a dialogue.”

Chatting with Blitz, two targets rise to the top for him: personal agency and engagement, and the bolstering of independent spaces. “For a long time we were waiting for government to step in, supplement, make space, allow us, and now we’re learning that we have to take space, we have to claim space, make it ours.” With this in mind, Blitz contributes to dynamic new spaces like Miliki in Lagos (as mentioned above - read our story on that space here), an open-ended spot for creatives encouraging inspired performance and an environment of exploration and creativity. “Space is critical. As African people, we haven’t had much of it.” Networking and bringing like-minded people together follows naturally from this inclusive, creative drive. He champions festivals like Accra’s street art festival Chale Wote and, of course, Lagos’ concert series Afropolitan Vibes. It’s a high order, this carving out of independent space, but Blitz says he sees it as vital for the identity and consciousness Africans to further bloom.

Landing in Lagos just days before sitting down with us, Blitz made note of the effortless style and care people dressed with despite perhaps meager means. This is what he’s getting at: even those with less take up their independence and wear it with pride. He recognizes the independence flourishing around him in West Africa and abroad, and he wants to be part of and in support of that. In his words: “If we don’t choose to step into this space and say we’re going to actively create, curate - not necessarily for the external world, but internally, you know, whatever happens is a consequence, it’s a byproduct, but for us, it’s how do we see ourselves, I feel like that’s how it begins, because so little emphasis has been placed on ourselves.”

Maybe everything Blitz says, on artistic independence and the creation of narratives and curating creative spaces and resistance, can be summarized with his simple parting words: “Brah, it’s on us.”

Watch us IN CONVERSATION with Blitz in the video below: