Out of Africa

From the streets of Ghana comes one of Northeast Ohio's most promising rappers.

Blitz Cleveland Arts Festival at the corner of West 25th Street and Lorain Avenue Noon, September 4
Rebel with a cause: In addition to his rap career, Blitz - manages a nonprofit organization aimed at raising - AIDS awareness in Africa. - Walter  Novak
Rebel with a cause: In addition to his rap career, Blitz manages a nonprofit organization aimed at raising AIDS awareness in Africa.
Blitz was 10 years old when Public Enemy came to Ghana. It was the first major hip-hop show in his native country, and the future MC was as impressionable as wet cement.

"I never got to go to the show -- I was very little. But I just remember seeing their logo," the 22-year-old rhymer says, his eyes widening as if he's just seen a ghost. "There were a lot of T-shirts printed, with that dude with the gun and the scope. I said, 'You know what? This is interesting.' Through that, I started picking up tapes and just really getting into the whole culture. For me, just hearing hip-hop, dude, that was freedom."

Of course, hip-hop was hard to come by in a small West African nation. CDs were scarce, as was equipment on which to play them (there was a stereo for every five families, Blitz estimates). A hip-hop mix show on state radio Fridays at midnight was the aspiring MC's only outlet for rap. He'd imitate the voices he heard -- Chuck D., KRS-One, Method Man -- but with no turntables and no instrumental tracks available to rhyme over, Blitz was forced to make his own beats by recording the endings of other rappers' songs.

"We'd have to tape the last seconds of a beat over and over again. That's how we got beats," says Blitz (Samuel Bazawule to his mom). He's lounging inside his attractive Kent apartment, whose blue floral interior gives way to a bedroom plastered with pages from rap magazines. "What we used to do is get a double-deck tape player, fast-forward to the end of the song where the beat just runs out, tape it, stop it, rewind it, then tape it again. We had to start from scratch. That's how basic it was."

But if Blitz's equipment was crude, his skills on the mic were anything but. Coming with a fleet but forceful flow that resonates like the crack of a Smith and Wesson, he lit up school talent contests and eventually won a rap battle on the mix show he grew up listening to. In 1998, still a teen, he immigrated to New York City, staying with friends while he began pursuing a career in hip-hop. Three years ago, Blitz enrolled at Kent State, where his career has blossomed.

This spring, he released Soul Rebel, a gritty, galvanized disc that's one of the strongest regional rap releases in some time. Referencing the works of Marcus Garvey, Gil Scott Heron, and Carter G. Wilson, Blitz doesn't speak of black power so much as unleash it, venting on everything from blue-collar students dealing with bad credit to Third World strife. Despite the heavy themes, Blitz tones down the dogma by goofing on gangsta posturing ("Every rapper's a killer/I might invest in a funeral home"), backing his vitriol with playful production and samples that range from Jesse Jackson to Megadeth.

Blitz's heritage is also palpable on his debut, with djembe, touches of Swahili diction, and African chants adding an exotic edge to the record, whose cover features a chilling picture of a young African boy clutching a rifle, his stare cold enough to freeze the Pacific.

"That was a chance for me to say, 'There's a kid in Sierra Leone, right now, who actually has a gun in his hands,'" says Blitz, clad in a black Yankees cap, a red Bob Marley T-shirt, and camouflage shorts. He punches his palms as he speaks, gesticulating briskly, as if he's directing traffic. He constantly shifts about in his seat. When he gets excited, which is often, a slight English accent is discernible, a by-product of Ghana's past as a British colony. "Some people will not be happy with it, not at all, because the imagery is very political. I don't fight it, because it's reality. If an artist is on his album cover advertising spinners, why can't I represent a kid who's going through some real stuff that I grew up on? A lot of people in Ghana are refugees. I used to go to refugee camps and help out through outreach work. I knew people like that kid. I might as well be that kid, because Africa is that volatile."

Blitz's homeland is much on his mind these days. He founded a nonprofit organization called R.E.A.D. (Re-Educating the African Diaspora), which is dedicated to promoting AIDS awareness on his home continent. He hopes to return to Ghana this winter and throw a benefit concert to further his cause. He also runs his own label, Reprisal Records (whose logo is a clenched fist), which he plans to focus on full-time after graduating next spring. In the meantime, he's using his schooling as a business primer.

"Honestly, before I got here, I just wanted to rap," Blitz smiles with a grin that suggests he's slept through his share of 9 a.m. classes. "That's all I wanted to do. Period. But I took a marketing class, I took an accounting class, I took a consumer behavior class, and it's like, 'Dude, I'm not gonna use that for IBM, I'm gonna use that for Blitz.' I used to not want to go to class, because it was like, 'It doesn't matter, I take the test, I get a good grade, we're good.' But now, it's like, 'Wow, what did you say again, Professor?' I want to know that shit. Right out of my business book, I drew up my business plan."

And business is good. Blitz recently returned from two weeks' worth of shows in England, packing small clubs in such places as Nottingham and Brixton, on a tour that he arranged for himself. He also did a set at this year's Scribblejam, the well-attended annual DJ and MC convention in Cincinnati, and recently shared the stage with Cee-Lo and Jean Grae at a fest outside Minneapolis. Having performed on three different continents, Blitz has seen firsthand how international the culture of hip-hop has become. If it weren't, he wouldn't even be here.

"I'm in London, and people live their lives to what Jay-Z says, they dance to what Jay-Z says, they dress the way Jay-Z says -- same as in South America, Africa, Japan. Hip-hop is huge," Blitz exclaims. "You have this powerful tool that we've never had. Now, if you say anything, the world hears it. The kind of influence hip-hop has, it affects every culture, regardless of race," he says, his voice rising. "We all speak the same language: Hip-hop."

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