The song is a celebratory apology – an anthem for the beauty and growth in struggle that we often miss, due to life’s painful experiences and our own selfishness. It’s about the nurture and neglect in all relationships – romantic, platonic, parental, spiritual. We look up and before we know it, someone has grown up in spite of and often because of our lack of attention. Isolated and left alone, they have somehow found strength in themselves, their surroundings, the universe and their Creator.
On one level I’m writing about the rise of the entire continent of Africa – which I’ve witnessed up close since 2009 when the African Union named me to the First Congress of African Economists. On another, I’m describing how I felt when in Nairobi, Kenya, meeting the beautiful people of that country. The song also has layers of meaning to it on a personal level. It’s very introspective too.
The African Violet is the first form of life I had the responsibility of nurturing. It’s one of the most sensitive and delicate plants on Earth. You have to water it in a particular way and raise it with careful attention to light. What gives it life can also kill it if you aren’t mindful of it. My Mother gave me my first one when I was 10 years old, living in West Germany. When you realize that the plant is native to both Tanzania and Kenya, so close to where civilization arose, the symbolism and substance of the African Violet is endless. It is a metaphor for how survival, competition and love can create and destroy.
I walked around with this concept for years but never did anything with it because I did not see myself as an artist. Although I started producing music at 15, I fell in love with the business side so young that I put aside the creative element by age 17. It wasn’t until recently that a friend of mine, Cam – an accomplished music producer – convinced me that I should return to the artistic side. That influence along with the love, wisdom and encouragement of James Mtume, reminded me that I had neglected that side of my being and it was time to gain a fuller knowledge and expression of myself. In that sense the song was therapeutic for me.
When my Father died in 2012 it took me almost two years to enjoy listening to music again – it was such a strong bond and reminder of our relationship. But by listening to his vast record collection, the ear that he gave me became sensitive again and I had so many references for the colors that I wanted to combine in a sound that might not only bring Africa and the Diaspora closer together but people from all over the world.
“My African Violet (Nakupenda)” is proof of that. The song is a collaboration of artists from Ghana, Kenya, Sweden, Seattle, D.C. and New Jersey – a marriage between West-African percussion, East African melody, Classical, Go-Go, Gospel, Hip-Hop, Soul and Urban Pop. The first harmony I sought was within my creative inner circle, and then, in the music.
The song is arranged by Curtis Richardson who is a genius. He took my lyrics – realized I was writing to both the head and the heart – and gave the song its soul and structure. He also found the perfect voice for my words – an artist named Christos, whom the world will hear more from, soon. The inflection of his five-octave range brought out the spirit of all of the song’s layered meaning. Curtis and Christos are my Quincy and Michael.
I selected my production partner, Bomani Armah because he understands intellect is a form of art (something Mtume has impressed upon me) and he could help me shape the sound in a way that would appeal to a mature and very young audience – the real essence of ‘pop’ music. He helped me hear something in the tension of the minor chords of the piano and the polyrhythms of African drumming too.
That’s Susy Sun playing acoustic piano. She’s a classically trained pianist, singer and songwriter. We had so much fun experimenting together. I asked her to play what I was only hearing in my head and she, in turn, came up with a style that represents the underbelly of the entire song.
The sound of my producers from Ghana – Bushbeatz – defies description. Derry and Lukeman have helped me conceptualize new ways to play drums, percussion and synths for 4 years now. We’re using over 10 instruments from East, West and Central Africa. They marry electronic and acoustic sounds in such an innovative way. When M-1 of Dead Prez first heard BushBeatz, he told me. “It sounds like nappy hair breaking free from a perm!”
Sound engineers to me are artists too and I turned to one of the best, Gabe MG. He’s mixed 50 Cent, Chris Brown and Trey Songz. He intuitively got it, telling me, “I wanted to make sure everything was dynamic and lively for this song. My focus the whole time was on making sure the song moved and breathed. This song sounds great and you can turn it up loud without it hurting your ears. Crank it and enjoy.”
‘My African Violet,’ is a vision I have for artists to use entertainment as a form of economic development, building the communities from which they come. Political activism and business models in music need as much updating as the sound and I hope this contributes.
Things have come a long way since I sat in the corporate offices of RCA and was told Wu-Tang Clan had sold a grand total of 73 records in all of Africa but we have so much road to travel.
Here, again, the African Violet symbolizes beauty, pain, growth and struggle.