Words by Mercia Tucker
Just as soon as I’d entered the Universal Music boardroom, I was engulfed in a bear hug by Bas. He’d performed in three South African cities the week before. I’d assumed the familiarity to be the residual high from his sold out show in Joburg, but as the interview progressed, revealed itself to be his naturally warm demeanour.
“The shows – me and the homies were talking about the show at The Sands the other night – rivals any show we’ve ever done in the world. New York, LA, London; we usually look at those as the big shows and this was just as big, just as loud, if not louder, just as fun as any show we’ve ever done.”
Born to Sudanese parents in Paris, the family moved to the US when Abbas “Bas” Hamad was 8 years old. On his identity and heritage being formed in three different parts of the world, he says “I think it’s just given me a wider scope to relate to people from. When I’m in Queens, I’m the African kid in Queens; when I’m in Africa, I’m the New Yorker in Africa; when I’m in Paris, I’m the Sudanese-American Muslim in Paris. So you always have another culture to draw from to kinda make the connections with people. And it helps even with things like song writing because at the end of the day song writing is about relatability, it’s about people being able to hear your words and be like ‘man, I went through that’ or ‘I felt that’ or ‘I’ve had that experience’ So it’s just given me a wider scope of experience to just pull inspiration from.”
Never feeling out of place in each place, he credits his parents’ efforts in keeping the kids grounded and in touch with their identity. “When we were younger, it’d be summer in New York and all of our friends are going to basketball camp and we’re flying to Sudan in the dead heat of July, just miserable. But now as an adult, when I look back on it, it was some of the most important times of my youth.”
Coming back to Africa to tour the new album was the sole objective when making it. “I told Derick [Okolie, Dreamville executive and Bas’ business partner] even, like, a year ago I was like this is really our only goal with this album. I wasn’t worried about numbers, I wasn’t worried about no album list, no awards, no nothing. I’m like we have to be able to do shows in Africa after we put out this album. So that was our only goal, literally our only goal.”
Far from the lofty and detached demeanour that some international artists bear when gracing our shores, Bas ingratiated himself to the Joburg community by jumping on stage at the South African Hip Hop Awards, attending a house party in the hood, and chilling with kids on the streets of Soweto.
After being adopted by a South African family for Christmas and spending New Year in Johannesburg, he had to postpone his scheduled show in Khartoum on January 4th due to the political unrest in the country. A show he was looking forward to, he described his last trip to Sudan in 2017.
“So I did a meet and greet just randomly. I went to the radio station last year when I was there and a bunch of kids just started showing up to the radio station while I was on air so I’m like ‘Tomorrow, meet me at this venue and I’ll take pictures and sign autographs and stuff,’ and we get to the venue and it was like 500 people over capacity. And they weren’t there for a picture, they were like ‘we wanna hear some songs.’ It was just me – I didn’t have none of my crew – it was me and a friend of mine Olu who’s an artist in this group EARTHGANG that’s also signed to Dreamville, and he just plugged in an auxiliary cable to his iPhone and gave me a mic and we just performed a few songs off the iPhone.”
The significance of being the only Sudanese artist to have the success he’s had internationally isn’t lost on him. “I get that all the time from kids in Sudan and even just Sudanese kids and East African kids in the States too. I think for a lot of us, our elders and our parents came from a much tougher generation so stability is the thing they preach; they want everyone to be an engineer or a doctor or a lawyer. I think we’re part of the first generation that’s had a more privileged upbringing. We were able to go and discover the arts and music and filmmaking and all the stuff they didn’t have time to do. It’s a blessing. I’m excited to even see what our kids are gonna contribute, the next generation is gonna contribute to world culture. I think our region, and Africa as a whole, is in like a cultural renaissance. The whole world is copying things, the whole world is being inspired by the sound, the arts, the dances, so I think that is gonna keep growing.”
Talking about growing up with African immigrant parents, he recalls a story about his dad. “My Dad got his PhD in France, in French literature, after he graduated from the University of Khartoum, where he met my mom. So they spent 30 years in France and I was just born during the last 6 or 7. So all my older siblings are progressively better French speakers, I can only speak French when I’m drunk. My brain goes to a place where… I’m incredible when I’m drunk, it all comes back to me. So they spent a lot of time there and I remember when we went and played a venue in France on tour with Cole and I was talking to my dad saying we’re playing this venue and he was like ‘Man, in the 70s, when I was going to school, they wouldn’t even allow us to go in that spot.’ So I was like ‘Aight, don’t worry, today we’re gonna make them our bitches.’ We went in there, the whole squad, we were just in there smoking everywhere… The whole staff was like ‘What’s wrong with y’all?’ We were like ‘Nah, we’re doing this for the big homie, we run this today, you can’t tell us nothing.’”
His relationship with J. Cole was formed through his older brother Ibrahim, who attended university with Cole and later managed him. “When I met Cole I didn’t even know he rapped. One day me and my brother were in the car and he was like ‘You know Jermaine raps? I just found out Jermaine raps.’ I was like ‘Naaaaaaah! Light-skinned Jermaine?’ He was like yeah. I’m like ‘Play me something.’ So he played me some records and I was like oh he RAPS raps!”
The first signing to J Cole’s Dreamville Records, Bas wrote his very first rap at 23. “We would just be in Queens handing them [CDs] out, or we would go to whatever small show Cole was doing in New York and just hand out CDs. We were just supporting the homie. And when I started making music, he was one of the first people who, you know… I remember he called me once like ‘Yo, E played me some music. It’s crazy that you sound like you’re your own person. Very quickly. You don’t sound like anybody. I can’t wait to see where you’re gonna be in two and a half years.’ It was a very specific time frame. Literally two and a half, three years later, I ended up signing to Dreamville. So I guess he was right from that regard.”
A collective that value self-expression above all, Dreamville’s ethos is the key to its success. “I think the thing that connects us to our audience the most is honesty and relatability. We’re not the flashiest. We work because we connect with people. They find things or emotions or experiences that we relay in our songs, they’ve been through and they’ve lived through and they own and relate to. I think that’s Dreamville-wide: regardless of your style or the production you get on, the underlying thing is a very raw honesty.”
The supernovas of labels like TDE or Dreamville sometimes outshine the efforts of artists on the label who are equally yoked in their levels of talent but don’t have the corresponding commercial success. My takeaway from the opener on Bas’ most recent offering, Milky Way, was an artist grappling with the manifestation of insecurities as a result of that shadow. He concurred.
“Milky Way was about finding your identity, finding love of self, love of others, it was me grounding myself. That’s why it starts off with me flying too close to the sun because you have those moments where that’s where all your thoughts are. You can find yourself playing with your mental health in a sense, not appreciating any of the blessings, or any of the progress or any of the success.”
“You could get caught in a constant cycle. I’ve seen some of the most successful artists of our generation and sometimes you’ll be like ‘damn, you’re still not happy.’ So you gotta learn that that’s not it. That’s kinda the journey, that’s why it starts with Icarus because that’s me still feeling that way and by the time you get to Tribe it’s like.. Making it is having someone in your life you love, having people in your life you love, having fans that sing every single word that you’ve ever written – damn near – when you go to a show. That was kind of the conceptual journey of that album is me kinda finding ground and coming back down before you burn out like Icarus.”
Being a 31 year old rap artist, his age isn’t a deterrent to the levels of success he aims to reach with his career. “No two paths are alike and I think if you try to compare yourself to a lot of paths around you, you’re never gonna be happy that way, you’re never gonna enjoy the incredible things you’re actually doing.”
On the future, “I’m excited with what I started with Milky Way. I almost feel like it’s a second phase in my career where I’m going more so from being regarded as a New York artist to more of a global artist and more of my identity and roots are being recognised in the music. I’m excited to keep expanding on that, keep telling my story, keep telling the story of the African diaspora in a sense. We’re everywhere but there’s ways we’re all similar and I think music is one of the most powerful ways to bridge that.”