London based, Denmark raised Eritrean rapper/songwriter Negash Ali follows up his tracks What You Got and Fire In The Sky with a brand new EP entitled The African Dream due out in mid-February. The Warner/Chappell Music signed artist sat down with SB.TV to speak about bringing his home country into the spotlight, his frustrated teenage years and which leading man would play him in Negash: The Movie…
First off, your teeth are amazing. What’s going on there? Were you born with them?
[Laughs] No, I’m not gonna lie to you.
They’re amazing. That’s some damn good work.
Everything besides the front teeth had small gaps in between, so I kinda had them moved in a little when I was ten years old. [Laughs]
They’re like Tinie Tempah’s teeth, like freakin’ porcelain.
They call me ‘Colgate teeth’ – really [laughs].
Yeah, well I see why. Your own personal road to get where you are now has been pretty action-packed. Your family was forced to flee a war-torn Eritrea and eventually settle in Denmark after spending half a decade and a portion of your childhood living in various refugee camps. Considering where you could’ve ended up, it’s kinda amazing that you’re even sat here with me today. Don’t you think?
I guess some could consider it that, it’s one of those journey’s where you look back at your life and you realise any change in the small details would’ve made the painting look completely different.
Looking at what’s it taken you to get where you are now, do you think you’ve been blessed with a bit more…perspective? You’re surrounded by industry folk, have you ever been in a situation where someone is complaining about the more negative aspects of the business and you’ve thought ‘look, it could be much worse than it is now?’
I think I had a major wake up call, I went to Africa three times between the ages of five and eight, and then at the age of thirteen I visited my family in Sudan – and this was during the Darfur crisis. I was a teenager in Denmark – which like the UK is a well-off country – and what your peers and the people in your age group have becomes normality for you. Then you go back and you see people who have nothing but they give more, they are more generous. They have a lot of spirituality and they appreciate everything. Despite being a war-torn country, there are good values there. A lot of that ‘till this day still gives me perspective to understand that everything I deal with is a first world problem – at the end of the day it is.
So there’ll be no complaining about the paparazzi and all that from you?
[Laughs] If that time comes – definitely not. I can’t put myself in someone’s shoes if they are being followed around 24/7, but I’m still saying that everything is a first world problem.
I watched an interview of yours where you mentioned that creating music gives you an opportunity to know yourself a little better. What did you learn about yourself making The African Dream EP?
In many ways I got reconnected to my purpose. Back when I started making music I wanted to express and I also wanted to enlighten. Everybody’s telling you, ‘people won’t understand your story, people won’t be able to put themselves in your shoes.’ They were saying, ‘don’t go too wide, box yourself in so people can understand you.’ Whereas coming to London, I was like – I want people to know Negash for Negash. I want to people to know where I come from and the fabric that I am made of. So the process really made me connect to a lot of my roots, to my original purpose and why I came into music.
I was going over some of the lyrics buried within your track What You Got, and it turns out the track is more forthright than I initially thought. For example you say, “poppin pills because we ain’t got pots to piss”, “eat your raw sushi, you Zimmerman” and “going head to head with these liars, spreading like virus.” Who – or what – are those kinds of lyrics aimed at?
I was writing that song from a teenage, frustrated Negash. I was a young, black man out there…riding round in a car looking for trouble. Looking for some kind of way to air that frustration, which usually just comes out in violence. At that point being raised where I was, we were part of the first big stream of immigrants in Denmark and we all got placed in one area and our parents weren’t highly educated people – they were tribes people. It was a lethal environment for us young ones, and I just felt like I had never written a song about the state of mind of mind that I was in. We were young, frustrated and ‘f**k the system’ – I wanted the song to be the soundtrack to that, to that energy.
Is ‘Rebel Negash’ still in there, does that frame of mind have a still have a place within you today?
Less so. I still have those moments where you feel like –
Up middle finger the entire planet?
Yeah, and it’s not like we live in an equal world. It’s not like we live in a world were heritage does not play a factor. I feel less like I did because you learn to become the master of your own destiny. That song is a testament to blaming everything and everybody for your own misfortune. I’ve learnt to filter out that mentality…I don’t do that anymore.
I was randomly thinking to myself the other day about India and Brazil; places that could overshadow Africa in terms of poverty. However when you say India or Brazil or even south America, the poverty there is not necessarily the first thing that comes to mind. But when it comes to Africa, the brain genuinely seems to – at least initially – prioritise the poverty over all the other aspects of the continent.
Afrobeats act Fuse ODG was on Newsnight recently and was concerned about the seemingly fixed portrayal his homeland has received in the media over the years. As an Eritrean, do you have the same concerns?
[Pauses] Yeah I do. At the end of the day I do, I feel like the continent is growing in so many ways. Its portrayal in the media is rather one-sided, it’s always been – the media doesn’t really focus on South Africa as an emerging market. A lot of West African cultures are also on the boom – Fuse ODG is a perfect representation of that. So no I don’t think Africa’s coverage is wide enough, the stereotype as just been repeated and repeated and repeated and so now it’s a given.
It’s the first image people have in their heads and probably the first image that we have in our heads – because it’s all that we’ve ever been fed. When you go there, poverty is not the only thing there – far from it. Even with the poorest of people, I can’t speak for all of it but everything that the outer world has told me about my home country and what I saw when I went back…are two different things. To be honest with you, I’m a bit analogue – I don’t watch too much s**t, I try to keep my mind as clean as possible.
The only other person I could find who my audience may know with Eritrean heritage is LA rapper Nipsey Hussle, and so can I assume you’re looking to push the country further into the limelight?
Yeah, definitely. I know he is half Eritrean, Nipsey is ridiculous – the swagger on him is ridiculously nice. I expected Nipsey to blow big two years back, remember that? I have so much respect for him quitting his big deal, going his own route and being super-hot again.
I think it’s safe to say that there are more than a few music careers in the crapper right now needing a new lease of life, and then there are all kinds of bestselling artists craving new songs and new points of view. As a songwriter, have you ever watched music TV and seen an act an thought, ‘I know could write a great track for you?’
There are a few people man. You know what the funny thing is? I lot of the time I hear a lot of R’n’B acts trying to come off some way, wanting to be more urban but they don’t know how to word it like a rapper would. It kind of comes off as a little too sweet, I love Beyoncé’s new album but sometimes when listening to it I think ‘that could have even more of a rapper’s spin on it.’ Because it’s so urban, and it goes so far down that lane that there are a lot of small things where you feel you could contribute. There are lots of people’s projects that I’d love to contribute to, I feel like Big Sean is the continuation of Kanye – just in terms of being witty. He is one of the wittiest rappers out there, I’d love to be in the studio with him.
I just have songs lying around and that ‘s what I love about writing; it doesn’t have to be about me. It could just be my fantasy and I’m projecting it onto someone. I’m big fan of the scene, that’s why I’m here. There are so many great artists, one thing I learnt is that it’s all a matter of taste really.
Because your path so far has been so movie-worthy, imagine I’m Harvey Weinstein and I’ve already gone behind your back and cast Oprah Winfrey to play your mother in Negash: The Movie. If I gave you first dibs to pick an actor to play you who would you pick?
I would say just off the fact that Ray is my favourite movie in the world, I’d give it to Jamie Foxx. If I didn’t give it to him, I’d give it to Forrest Whittaker.
Judging by some of your tweets, you’re a big fan of Kendrick Lamar…
Love Kendrick, love the s**t out of Kendrick.
He seemed to be OK with losing all those 2014 Grammy Awards to Macklemore, who took all four Hip Hop gongs over US rappers Kanye West, Drake, J. Cole and Jay Z. Were you one of the fans waiting to see Lamar get the ultimate music award for Good Kid, M.A.A.D City?
I think Macklemore is great, he’s doing everything himself, he has no major label support – I think his album is massive. I think when you make records like Same Love – which is a great record – the fact that it’s been recorded by rapper makes it become even bigger. It becomes like the Oscars, when your watching a movie and it doesn’t have that great, emotional, American ending – it will never win the big prize at the ceremony. I kinda don’t like the fact that the Grammys has to be the Oscars of music, I can see the argument for it but at the same time it has to represent Hip Hop culture 100%.
In my opinion Good Kid, M.A.A.D City was the best album, there were a lot of great albums but I’d definitely say Good Kid was the best. Sometimes you’d just like to know who voted, I didn’t feel like it was correct in terms of Best Rap Album. He’s got great crossover success and I can tell he means a lot to a lot of people who maybe can’t connect to a lot of mainstream Hip Hop.
Valentine’s Day is upon us, the day when fantasy meets reality. What’s your fantasy for Valentine’s Day and what’s the reality most likely to look like for Negash?
OK, so the fantasy is five women at once. It’s gonna be more like a political conference and they’ll be representing each of the continents.
Nice. [Laugh] very international.
The reality is that I’ll be performing on Thursday onstage at my release party in Denmark.
No rest for the wicked eh?
[Laughs] True, true.