Hip-hop artist Blitz ‘The Ambassador’s’ musical journey led him under the shadow of Lady Liberty to New York a decade ago. He was imbued with the sounds of afrobeat and the highlife music indigenous to his native Ghana, and inspired by the brazen voices of ’90s afrocentric rap. Since then he has garnered respect with the blend of African music and hip-hop that he calls ‘afrohop’, and has worked with artists like The Roots, Mos Def and Talib Kweli, even getting a shoutout from legendary rapper Chuck D of Public Enemy on his latest album Native Sun.

So you grew up in Ghana; could you tell us a bit about your first experiences with music, and how you ended up in the States?

My dad collected a whole lot of records in his travels, so we had a household full of music. That was a positive thing, because we got a chance to be exposed to a lot of very, very great soul music, jazz music, sometimes blues music. Those were really important for me growing up. Later down the line I got put onto hip-hop and that made the most sense to me as a young person growing up and looking for music that was more indicative of my own kind. That’s kind of where hip-hop came in. I got an opportunity to travel to the States for college, after I completed high school, and because making music was something I always wanted to do, I continued doing so even through college and after I graduated. I have been making music full-time ever since.

How was it adapting to that culture of hip-hop in the States, where there is a much larger following, coming from Ghana where it was considerably smaller?

Oh yeah, well, it was never really that difficult bridging those gaps mainly because hip-hop has a very universal sound, it has a very universal vibe to it. So the elements that existed in American hip-hop, hip-hop in New York, were similar to the elements that existed in the hip-hop community in Ghana, or Accra. I mean some elements are pretty standard, you know, the camaraderie, the music, the vibe, everybody being fully into the culture. You know, those were the things that I was very hype about and very into. And so it was pretty much a continuation, the only thing that changed was the environment, everything else pretty much remained the same.


Your earliest influences were Public Enemy, Rakim and other afrocentric rappers of the ’90s. Now Chuck D is giving you shout-outs on your new album Native Sun and you’re doing shows with The Roots, Mos Def and Talib Kweli. How does it feel to be at this point of your musical journey?

It’s an amazing change for anybody who is a fan and really just gets into it to be a fan and just to enjoy the culture. To be at a level where I’m actually either recognised by my idols as people who I grew up listening to or, you know, recognised by my peers, I think that’s an amazing thing. I mean I always hoped for great things getting into the culture, but I never really anticipated being somebody at the cusp of creating something new that is inspired by the culture.”

You moved to the U.S. a decade ago, yet your music sounds closer to home than ever. Tell us what it means to be ‘The Ambassador’ and how that influences your music?

For a long time I was away from home and like most immigrants my main goal was to try to fit into the circle that I was in, the culture that I was in, and the environment. So it wasn’t really about having elements that stand out as an individual, but it was really about trying to fit in. However, as years went by I realised that I was missing a piece of me and that piece was back home. And my attempts to bridge those gaps and attempts to bridge those worlds that I’m a part of, that’s inspired the birth of Native Sun… So that’s just really a part of me that has a lot of nostalgia, but also a lot of hope for the future, in being able to bridge the worlds that I’m thoroughly invested in and am a part of.


Will we hear any content coming out of the recent uprisings which swept through Africa, for example in Libya and Egypt? Have you got any take on that musically?

Yeah absolutely! You know what I mean; my music is always a reflection of hope to bridge gaps. To, how do I call it? Um… to further speak on the environments that exist, be it here in America or be it on the continent (African). So obviously I’m always keeping an ear out for what’s happening back home. I’m really trying to find a way to put it together so it’s on a level where it can be understood by the masses. I feel like it’s really difficult for the people to filter through the news that they hear. It’s difficult for them to identify with the news that they hear when it comes from major news outlets, it’s a lot of jargon that a lot of people don’t understand, whether it is people from the continent or people away from the continent. So my goal has always been to keep my ear to the street and find a way to re-process the news and be a ‘documentarian’ of sorts. So yes, I’m greatly influenced by all revolutions, especially the ones that are happening on the continent, be it South, North, ya know, East, West I’m always paying attention. I’ve had a lot of conversations with people from Egypt, people from Morocco, you know, just the northern part, and how all these changes are affecting their lives and it’s obviously going to play a part in the future work that I do.


You have a 6-piece band, Embassy Ensemble, which is uncommon in today’s hiphop. Can you explain some of the refreshing African sounds they blend together?

My goal has always been to find ways of expanding hip-hop culture and I felt the best and easiest way to do so is to have musical flexibility. Hip-hop comes from a very sampled background and I realised quickly that that always restricts your ability to evolve the culture. You’re pretty much stuck in the 8-bar loop. The second thing was being able to perform live to multiple audiences who may not be up on either hip-hop, jazz or African music. Just a large audience. Having a band really helps me be able to communicate across musical lines. My goal is to try to put together the best live show possible and that’s just not possible without the Embassy.



On tracks like ‘Accra City Blues’, if we haven’t been told that’s Blitz, at first you wouldn’t even know that the song is a hip-hop track, but when you come in it all fits together. Is that a very intentional thing?

It definitely is planned, for me my major goal was to, on Native Sun and just in my career in general, has been trying to find a real great intersection point where hip-hop music meets African music and I choose to call that ‘afrohop’, a sound that is neither straight African music and neither hip-hop. It’s kind of a melting pot and that’s where I draw a lot of inspiration from to create the records. I mean, when I say ‘the African sound’ I mean it in a very broad sense because I recognise that the African sound is not just from the African continent.

It’s a very wide Diaspora, be it coming from afro-Brazilian music, afro-Carribean music, afro-European music, afro-Asian music, there’s a very wide scope. And so ‘afrohop’ – as a sound itself – is something that is meant to bridge this gap further and to make it one thing, because it truly is one thing at the end of the day; hip-hop music and traditional African music even if it has obviously evolved in two different places. So Native Sun was a great opportunity. Songs like ‘Wahala’, ‘Accra City Blues’, ‘Akwaaba’, they are as Pete Rock and DJ Premier as they are Fela (Kuti), Ebo Taylor, Miriam Makeba or Hugh Masekela.

What about hip-hop are you trying to preserve or change?

I mean (laughs), that’s such a difficult question. Ummm… you know, I don’t create hip-hop music thinking about preserving or discarding, I think about evolving the art and that’s really my main goal. There are obviously elements that I use more than other elements, because really in trying to evolve the art. My goal has really been to go into the centre of the art and what makes hip-hop central is the sample base, the ability to get to the point in the cleverest way as possible lyrically. And those are pieces that make hi-phop what it is: unique. The beat is really unique, I don’t think of many other art forms that have the beat structure of just a loop, 8-bar, 4-bar that just knocks, you know! These are pieces of the culture that are central.

Obviously a lot of different things have evolved around the culture that make it different from the root of where it started, but I return to the root because in trying to evolve the art I couldn’t take it from circa 2005 or circa 2011 – I have to go to the late ’70s, early ’80s, the earliest records, the early Rakim’s, the early PE’s (Public Enemy), those are the sounds that, to me, were my first introductions to the art and where I base it from. It’s easier for me to evolve the art from that perspective. The same with highlife music, with afrobeat music, there are modern styles of this music now, but I wouldn’t start from the modern highlife even though I appreciate it all, but it wouldn’t make a lot of sense to me to take it from there. I’ll have to return back to the early ’60s, early ’50s, the sound that was coming out of Ghana at the time. So it’s easier to create a new sound when you go down to the root rather than taking it from its current manifestation.


What does it mean to you to live hiphop?

Blitz: Well, it’s everything. Hiphop has been one means of communicating with the world for a long time. Through understanding what was happening around the world, through understanding what was happening in my own world. I was able to rationalise, I was able to communicate. I learnt to speak fluent English listening to hphop records. It’s funny I was riding with my road manager, he’s German, he was telling me how he evaluates his English based on how many words he can understand in a hiphop record. Say ten years ago he could understand 5-10 words in a hiphop song, now you can not only rhyme all these words but you can understand them as well. People don’t realise, where there’s most people growing up outside of America and outside of the culture where English is spoken fluently on an everyday basis, hiphop ends up being a big tool in learning culture, in learning language and learning how to express yourself. So hiphop means everything to me, it has taken me around the world, but I don’t stop there because I know that it’s an evolving art. So my goal is to try to figure out what I can bring to it, not only what I can take from it.
Blitz The Ambassador- Stereotype

What comes first: the music or the message? I mean, if you were in a different situation where you could still make the same type of sound, but you were constrained about the sort of lyrical content. Would you still be doing what you’re doing?

Their is no message without the music and there’s music without the message. As much as I don’t think every music, every sound should have a moral story i feel that it is very necessary to the culture. Specifically for the kind of artist that I am. I will not be making music if it wasn’t about trying to get my point across, because then it’s very shallow and means nothing. So I mean to answer your question: it’s no!

The day that I have nothing to talk about and the day that I have nothing to try to pass onto the world, that’s the day that I find a desk job, because that’s pretty much what that is. So I’m very cognisant about that and I’ve made a lot of tough decisions as far as my career is concerned, to make sure that I’m always in a position where I can speak what I feel because without that I have nothing you know, and that’s what attraected me to hiphop, that’s what has attracted me to making music and that’s what attracted me to travel the world. As difficult of a career as it is, it’s pointless if I can’t get my point across.

With the plethora of African hiphop artists coming up, do you think Africans will begin to forge our own definitive style of what hiphop is? Or is it not even about being in a well-defined box?

You know, that’s a very interesting question. I mean, it’s about definition. We live in a world full of definitions and it’s very difficult to create anything that is ambiguous and doesn’t have a well-defined idea. Because unfortunately we live in full of stereotypes and we live in a world full of assumptions. My hope is that African artists find a way to, number one, collaborate more. Number two, form movements, whatever the movements are it’s fine. Like I’m not one of those people who go ‘if you name something then it becomes….’ If you give birth to a child, man, you not just gonna let this child walk the earth with no name. What you gonna do is you’re gonna make sure it’s called a name and it’s name has a meaning and the meaning doesn’t have to be understood by anybody at all. As long as it’s understood by the child. That’s how I feel about the style that African artists are creating. We have to start figuring out ways to define our own sounds, brand our own sound, promote our own sound as our sound. Not as something that is described for us by magazines and by corporations. That’s why it’s always been difficult. You think about subgenres like afrobeat, neo-soul, dubstep, hipster rap, these are all things that you may look at and may have said, ‘man, why box it in?’,but the reality is that it creates identity and as long as the artists- I have no issue with branding the definition- as long as its coming from the right place and it’s coming from the artists.

Artists are free to call whatever they do whatever they feel because it’s coming from a place of integrity and I support that. It’s always dangerous when corporations, major labels, indie labels, magazines, whatever start to kind of create an idea that doesn’t come from a partnership with the artists, because when that ends up happening you end up creating a world that is doomed to fail because it’s not coming from the right place. So my hope is that African artists step up and define what they do, build it, brand it, collaborate more, become movement oriented because any sound you can think about, the reason why it has thrived over the years is because it is movement oriented. If you think about southern rap- it’s movement oriented. If you think about rock- it’s always movement oriented. Neo-soul, whatever you want to think….and so we have to figure out a way that not only those living outside of the continent can benefit but those living inside of the continent can benefit from the global idea of what our sound is.

Talking about this movement, is it happening already? Or on the flipside who are you looking at coming out of Africa that’s kind of big?

Absolutely. I mean it’s both. I feel like what I do outside, I’m in France touring right now and whatever I’m doing for African hiphop, Afrohop, whatever you may call it, it’s two-fold. It does a lot not only for ex-pats living around, but it also does a lot for folks living back at home. Because they can look at that, promoters can look at that, they may say, ‘Ok. Wonderful. How about instead of getting Blitz from the States now let’s get guys from Accra, let’s get guys from Lagos, you know what I mean. And that’s more important if you’re thinking about it as a movement. So I think that however these collaborations are happening. Whether it be in the States- which I’ve seen a few collaborations like that, you know whenever your Nneka is in town, whenever K’naan’s in town, whenever Baloji, whose a guy I found out about and helped get to the States and vice-versa.

Wherever those things are happening they have to be positive and not just something that’s a by-product of… . If you look at the continent, I mean, we having awards like Channel O, MTV Base, the Kora awards. These things are bringing younger artists together from various points of the continent. So now we getting collaborations between South African artists and, for instance, Nigerian artists and vice-versa. So that’s all positive, but we still have to finally make it into something that it can be a global phenom because there are a lot of mouths that can be fed doing it and there’s a lot of points of views that can be gotten across from around the world coming from cats, whether they’re living on the continent or outside the continent.


How do you see the face of music changing with regards to music labels and the role they play now because of programs such as Soundcloud or MySpace?

Oh man, I mean that label structure has dissolved to where it should have been a long time. When lawyers are making decisions for musicians, when label execs are making decisions for musicians I think art suffers. The art suffered for a very long time. I think what we’re getting back to is a kind of meritocracy which i can respect, where based on the ability of an artist as a performer, as a recording artist, they have an audience and those are the strengths that i have always respected in the culture. There was a time where, based on the kind of label that you were on, based on the kind of attorney you have, you may score a hit based on how much money they can pay the radio you can score a hit. I mean those things are still happening from time to time. It’s getting less and less dependable, less and less believable and I think it’s positive because it creates a democracy where the best artist wins. And I’m living proof of that opportunity where without having a label I have over 30 gigs in two months in Europe. And this is with no major label support, no hit on the radio. This is out of just sheer grind, sheer hard work, sheer energy to perform and record music and I think that’s very positive for the culture and for the industry. I think it really boils down to how much you care about your craft now.

The internet has totally democratised, some for the positive some for the negative. We still have a follower mentality that brews, but I also feel like your audience is readily accessible no matter the kind of music you make. I don’t even think necessarily about- if I’m not a fan of that kind of music I don’t even go on the blog, that person may have two million views, but that’s not my kind of music, you know, the kind of music I check for may have 20 000 views on YouTube, but that’s what I prefer and what I’ll check for. And at a certain point in the evolution of the music industry, those people with 20 000 views would not even have existed as artists, because there was no platform for them and their 20 000 fans. Now there is a platform for everybody to be heard and seen and i think that’s a very democratic way for talent, you know, the right people can get to the top and the not-so-great people fall into the back. It’s got a while to prove itself and a way to filter itself. Of course the flipside of that is the financial hardships that come along with music being downloaded for free and art pretty much being taken without paying for it and so on and so forth, but I feel it has also helped return us to the performing arts element of music, which most people started to forget about, because they were selling five million copies of an album and didn’t even need to tour. Now it’s impossible to do that without a real touring machine that gets you in front of your audience so there is no smoke and mirrors that you can hide behind anymore. So, you know, those are my feelings about the industry.
Native Sun – A short film by Blitz the Ambassador & Terence Nance

You’ve recently released a short film, also called Native Sun, does it come with the album?

No, it does not come with the CD. However, it is free to view on the internet.
How did that project come about and what was the concept behind it?

Well it was simple man. You know, after I was done with the album I recognised that I had a longing to have a visual component to the album because Africa, as a place, is very misconstrued by westerners. And any opportunity that I get to show Africa in all its complexities, visually, I take full opportunity to do that. And I had that opportunity when I was done with Native Sun the album. I came up with the concept for the short film, we went down there, I co-directed it with Terence Nance and the basic idea and concept behind it is basically this journey that we are all on, searching for something that sometimes may elude us, but our fate and destiny always stays with us. That’s kind of the story of most immigrants is, you may travel overseas looking for one thing, but your fate and destiny always takes and leads you somewhere that you may not even understand. I’m living proof of that, you know, I went there for college and ended up contributing to the culture of hiphop in ways that I never even dreamt of. That’s kind of what the basic idea of the film was.

It was best to look at the world through the eyes of a child. It was also our opportunity to show Ghana in all it’s complexity, it’s beauty, it’s ugliness, all the things that makes it what it is. So its not a one-dimensional viewpoint which is what you usually get when it comes to people documenting Africa in any way, whether through short film, full length or documentary. So that was my opportunity to take a camera down to Ghana and shoot it beautifully. I’m very proud of that work and to have also my music play a role in my visual element was also dope, so overall I’m really proud of that project.



When will you make a turn to SA?

Actually, funny you ask. I just got an opportunity to play in Jo’burg. It’s not till February of 2012, but I’m very excited about it. One thing that I’ve been trying to do is start a festival in Accra, Ghana, which I’m going to begin in October of this year. A music festival which will hopefully be a travelling thing and help push the afrohop sound, you know what I mean, as far as possible, and try include artists that are about something, about a message, about trying to push a new sound. I have opportunities to play in Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa and Ghana sometime next year. So I’m very excited about being able to bring the message home because I do recognise that out here people are privileged enough and they could care less about the message, they enjoy the music and that’s cool. However, back home I don’t think we have this privilege.

I think that the message is just as important as the music and if anybody needs the kind of music that we are creating it’s people on the continent of Africa, having an opportunity to hear sounds that aren’t just about party and bullshit, but about how to free themselves from some of the challenges that we have, be it corrupt leadership, be it civil strife, you know, all the challenges that are pretty consistent with where we’re from. I feel like only we can do that. So more than anything, I would like to bring my message home and that’s what I’ll be working towards. Trying to tour the continent as often as possible, bringing this sound, this message to people who really need it.


interview by Rob Cockcroft