Chosan: Till I Touch the Sun

YodM5Tn9S0C3iOM7RjImA4q_Vo88gxRb3bN9b1FKArMWhen Kanye West’s Grammy-winning lead song, “Diamonds from Sierra Leone”, was released in 2005, we applauded Kanye for his activism-like lyrics. Still a crowd’s favorite, the song shines light on the plight of children, conditions of mining [conflict] diamonds and, as honorably stated by Kanye himself, “how it all connects back to us.” As popular as the song was, hardly anything was said about the Sierra Leonean MC out of Harlem, a consultant to the story and a guest feature in the video. A feature where he sets the story in motion with a narrative that adds credence to the song and takes us on a subliminal voyage to his native. Chosan aka Sheku kef-Kamara is a Sierra Leonean born emcee residing in New York who contributed to the making of Kanye’s Grammy-winning song. When asked, Chosan does not express any anger or bitterness when telling the account, albeit not having received credit where credit is due. Instead, keeping his industrious immigrant story close to his heart and ambition, his conviction and eyes on the forward path, the conscious MC was not held back, he moved on, cutting his loss to tell crowds of [other] stories.

Chosan, at a young age, migrated with his parents to Canada from Sierra Leone; shortly after, he moved to London with his mother. In 2001, responding to hip-hop’s call he relocated to New York. He moved with one thing in mind, hip-hop; and without too many relations journeyed to join the big city of dreams. Working through elaborate New York, he built his credibility and name way before his feature on Kanye’s song, in the ubiquitous and overly territorial landscape of hip-hop. Part of a generation of African hip-hop emcees on the rise, his story like most immigrants, is a mosaic of struggle, triumph, loss, pain, and beautiful things. The poet-cum-emcee, who lives to call himself a storyteller or a socio-political commentator, weaves verses and waxes lyrical about the everyman, everyday ‘beautiful side of misery’. His metaphoric rhymes cascade over beats that sound like down south meets west coast to meet the north, a rhythmic bed for his limpid flow. Chosan has released 3 independent albums, all self-written and co-produced. His earliest, The Beautiful Side of Misery, was born out of tragedy and beauty. Flash-forward to Chosan’s third full-length release, Till I Touch the Sun, is acollection of powerfully creative affirmations over beats that ride through the west coast and around the world.

In conversation with Chosan over skype, from his hometown in Harlem, we got an in-depth look at the prolific and noble emcee’s life, from Sierra Leone to New York. An exclusive Africaspeaks4Africa interview featuring his journey to America, the aftermath of a fatal car accident that inspired the making of an album, his work with inner city kids, his project in support of a school in Sierra Leone, and the sounds of hip-hop –with a feature of some of his tracks and videos.


When did hip-hop become your artistic mode of expression(s)?

When we moved to England it was just my mother and I. My mum had the typical immigrant story; she had to work two jobs. So as child I was bouncing around, constantly moving from one nanny to the next while my mum was doing what she had to do for us. During this process, as I was an outgoing but at the same time a withdrawing child writing poetry became my outlet, something I could claim. It was mine. Regardless of how much I had to be moved around, poetry and writing were constant, mine to express, my pain and claim. So I can say, through expressions and the art of storytelling is how it all began.

You rap a lot about struggle, striving, dad not being there, your mother raising you, pain, triumph, faith, etc., and underneath all of that there seems to be a yearning for something better, for positive change.

Tell us about the making of the album, The Beautiful side of Misery. What do you mean by misery’s beautiful side?

When I first got to America, my whole point of being here and focus was to make music. I never looked beyond getting famous, until this one day. It was a normal day in the Bronx; I was walking back from trying to visit my girlfriend who was not home. As I was crossing the street I was hit by an SUV. Crazy thing is, I didn’t even see it coming. The only thing I remember is flying in the air and finally hitting the ground. What saved me was the hoddie on my head and the backup I was carrying. I was conscious enough and remember praying, “Lord please, don’t let me die on these cold streets in the Bronx”. It was a turning point, my life changed. Everything that I wanted prior to that –the fame, money or platinum –didn’t matter anymore. I just wanted to live. This all happened during my first year in America, in 2002.

The caterpillar and butterfly is actually the same thing but we praise and adore the glamorous (the exterior) but not necessarily the inner process of beauty.

I couldn’t walk for months. I was on crutches, going to physical therapy everyday, for about 8 months. Through it, the only person I had by my side was my girlfriend. Being crippled I was dependent on her, but in the end it was too much of a strain on her too. I talk about this in the song “Ride”. This period of being depressed, unsure about my life and losing meaning was also the time when I started to write my rhymes for the album. Eventually leading me to see the beautiful side of misery. How all the pain, the devastation had changed my life for the better. For me, that is the beautiful side of it all. The pain made me a better person. Most of the songs on the album are reflections of what I went through. Embedded are messages to people, and subconsciously to myself, no matter what you go through, to get up and keep going.

After I healed, I traveled back to Sierra Leone to visit my father’s grave. A lot of release and healing happened there. It was also a place of inspiration for my album cover. The picture on the cover is a young kid, my cousin, with Sierra Leone’s landscape as the backdrop. An image that symbolizes the beginning of everything.

From your most recent album, Till I Touch the Sun, the lead single features an interesting opening proverb in the video: “We live in a world where we turn our nose up at the caterpillar but yet, adore and praise the beauty of the butterfly.” Why did you choose that particular proverb and how does it fit in to your body of music? What is the intended message?

It’s coming from two places: from a personal, coming out of a bad relationship; secondly, from a place where nobody really applauds or pays attention to the person that really tries to make something happen. That whole phase, the ugly stage of struggle does not receive credit. Instead, people turn their nose up on people with the notion that the single mum with two kids will never move out of the projects or, the newly arrived Nigerian guy that works at McDonalds, drives a cab and goes to school will never amount to anything. America is such a fast culture that wants instant wealth, fame, and glamour; as a result, it tends to turn its nose up on those that work hard to get somewhere. The caterpillar and butterfly is actually the same thing but we praise and adore the glamorous (the exterior) but not necessarily the inner process of beauty. That’s how life is; especially living here in America, that’s how I perceive it to be.

Overall, the album sounds very unique to your journey in America, with verses that speak to the struggle felt in the hip-hop game and expressions of social injustice on tracks like: “Hoddie on” –an ode to Trayvon Martin, “Another day”, etc. Tell us about the concept behind the making of the album.

I was in a very bad place last year. I had moved from New York to Baltimore for the purpose of love. I was away from home, from friends; Baltimore was hard. It showed me the other side of America, how it can be depressing. People were really struggling. The conditions of the city broke my heart, its really rough. And plus, personally, I was in a challenging relationship. So both mentally and spiritually I felt challenged, I felt beat down. As strong and as faithful as I am, I think I almost crashed. The album is structured around that journey. “Till I Touch the Sun,” the song itself is about the process of getting back up when everything seems like it has crashed. When it feels like there is not hope and your back is up against the wall. The third verse of the song is actually a conversation I’m having with God, asking Him, “Do you see me out here?” But basically, the album is my personal journey of getting back up. I didn’t want to create a gloomy album; I wanted something bright and uplifting, expressing how salvation can be found through struggle. A message of inspiration, to never stop believing ‘until you touch the sun’ –all the songs basically reflect that stride.

Without having to go too deep into the Kanye West subject, I realized you produced a short documentary responding to him –“Kanye tell me something”, delivered in a real heartfelt but respectable manner. Why did you decide to speak out after two years from the release of “Diamonds from Sierra Leone”?

Initially, because of my character I just wanted to let it go. Secondly, I didn’t know where to start. The people that I knew, those in his circle including the lady that set up the meeting with him, where unreachable or all of sudden claimed to not have his number. So I just left it. But my friends pushed me to do something, they were the reason I came to a settlement. It was also a reason for the production of the documentary; I wanted to respond to a song that he had put out called “You can’t tell me nothing”. In the song he raps, “I’m just talkin’ like its you and me…people suing me…” I thought it was interesting he would say that but I also felt like it was a stab. So I responded with, “Kanye tell me something”. I wanted to address him but at the same time I didn’t want to sound like an angry man.

In the same video, in the context of ‘speaking for Africa’, you make a very strong statement: “When it’s convenient for people to talk about Africa, when they’re getting something from it, it’s all good. After that, they just move on.” Can you elaborate a little more on this?

This statement isn’t just about Kanye but generally I feel like so many people to do that. There is so much on Africa. Africa this, Africa that on t-shirts, Starbucks coffee, we are sending money to ‘help’ the ‘starving Africans’ or in my mocking tone -‘the starving-savage Africans in the wilderness who can’t do nothing for themselves’… It’s just absurd and funny how celebrities jump on things one week after the other. One week its getting ‘water to Africa’, another week ‘going to Africa to help the helpless,’ all while taking pictures hugging or shaking some African’s hand and getting the necessary press to come back for the recognition. But who are they? Far too many use Africa to claim their celebrity status while making ridiculous statements like, “I found peace after seeing all the children who touched my soul”. The intention feels like they want to build their PR around being a humanitarian, get the rewards and win an award. It feels like they need Africa more than African needs them. As an African it hurts. I don’t downplay anyone that genuinely helps but we rarely hear about the people that truly do. Especially the African that does the good work.

Your body of work feels like a reflection and composition of the everyday life in America. “This is my America” video impresses on the non-glamorous life in America, narrating America through the eyes of an immigrant while paying homage to the immigrant life. But why did you feel you had to emphasis on ‘my’ and claim ‘your’ America?

This is actually a track off my second album, Diamond in the dirt. The idea of the video came from when I went to visit a friend in London. At the time, as I was talking about America with my friend’s boyfriend, who is from Guinea, I realized how his fixated imagination of America was constructed from music videos. His view of America was about driving Bentleys, hangin’ with girls in videos, throwing money around, strip clubs and Times Square. I had to show him the video to my song “Ride”, to give him a reality check. Needless to say, he was surprised to see how America really is. So it was an interesting concept for me how people in other countries have this image of America based on glamorized and fictional music videos. So “This is my America” is really a response to this idea. It expresses how in America, especially as an immigrant, you have to earn your place through displacement, feelings of homelessness, hustle and pain. That’s where the concept comes from; the notion of, “You think it’s this but, this is ‘my’ America.” I wanted to reflect on the side of America that we don’t talk about. I felt like no one had done this in hip-hop so I wanted to voice it, and do it in a visually graphic way. It’s not a video that will get me fame but a piece of art that I want to leave as my legacy.

Do you believe your artistic form is activism art?

I find that such classifications are sometimes made up of characters. So it may not be for me to decide whether my art is activism or not but, for the people to decided. And if I am an activist, depending on what your definition of an activist may be, I hope that it’s in my activist conduct. I am more comfortable with my art speaking to activism rather than my claim of being an activist or conscious rapper. Being placed in boxes, I feel, can be dangerous.

Not only are you dedicated to the arts but also dedicated to working with the youth, through the arts. Tell us about your involvement with the community.

I’ve been working with the youth ever since I got to America. I’m not sure how it all got started but it was a way of keeping myself busy and getting involved in the community. In Brooklyn, I have run after-school programs; in Baltimore, I worked with AFIA –a music dance, and poetry youth program. I’ve run several summer camps; I’m also a counselor and mentor. Currently, I work with the Harlem Children Zone. In the beginning, working with the youth was rough. I was not used to being around American kids. They were nothing like the kids I knew. I wasn’t sure I was going to stick around, but I remember a guy that I highly respect saying to me, “You’ve got that gift of being able to communicate with these kids…” So since, this work has been a big part of what I do, doing what I love and being around the youth or around instructors who teach the youth. Dedicating my life to the arts and empowering the youth.

Any such involvement with Sierra Leone?

I recently did a drive to donate school supplies for a school in Sierra Leone. With the resources that I have, working in the community, the youth and the different organizations, I managed to get so much stuff. The response I got was so positive; it was a very successful drive. It felt really good. It made me realize that if I can do it everyone can do the same. That’s my only level of involvement, at this time. But, I have the desire and intention to get involved, connect the dots back to Africa, and be able to do some of the work I do here, there. It’s something that I’m working towards.

What are your thoughts on the ubiquitous art of hip-hop and the growing influence of African emcees in Africa?

Parts of it are good. But some of the material that’s coming out is very westernized. Seemingly doing the same thing(s) the west is doing but just doing it in Africa. That gets to my heart. It diminishes the uniqueness of Africa and its beauty. As we take on and imitate the west we lose out. Losing who we are and what we have, even the high spiritual level gets lost.

When I went to Ghana there were guys who were naming territorial ganglands. In Sierra Leone, gang members are identified by colors schemes. Some of the youth take on the destructive culture of the west and glorify it. Also, when you listen to some of the content, you have to ask, what are we talking about? Is it music for pop-culture? The dance culture is really cool, but where is the balance?

What I would like to say to the up-and-coming emcees in Africa is: you have a story and it’s your duty to tell your story to the world, in your unique way. In whatever you do, you have to ask yourself, did you pour water on the flowers so that the flowers can grow or did you pour poison on them?

Whatever you do, dream on and keep moving forward till you touch the sun!

Chosan’s youtube channel can be accessed, here

You can also connect with him through facebook. 

Article by Amira Ali, AS4A Staff

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