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The Times did a Q&A with Little Rock's Epiphany, a regular presence on the Arkansas hip-hop scene for years, about his trip with producer Ferocious to Gambia in Western Africa at the behest of the U.S. Embassy in the capital city of Banjul. This version has been edited for length. Go here to see some of Epiphany's photos from the trip.
What prompted your recent trip to Gambia?
The U.S. Embassy. I had a friend from school, and about three years ago they contacted me and were like, "Hey, we'd like you to come down here and teach," and they said they just had to get the money together, and eight weeks ago they contacted me and were like, "Hey, if you still want to do it, we want you to teach, work with the artists, arrange a show," and I was like, "cool." The teaching aspect was going to middle school and teaching about the aspects of hip-hop. Then I worked with 10 of the top Gambian artists there to create new music. And the show actually ended up being real dope because they ended up linking with a third party corporation, Africell. It ended up I was the feature and there were 6,000 to 7,000 people there. It was crazy, and there were billboards in the street and everything like that. It was way more than what I expected. It went from teaching to this huge concert.
Did you teach the kids?
In terms of teaching, each class was two to three hours. I taught them the four elements of hip-hop. Because all they know there is Drake, Lil Wayne and Kanye. They don't even know any of the aspects besides MCing and DJing. I also went down with a producer named Ferocious. So he went on the production team to talk a lot about the DJing aspect. We made it really interactive. We made them choose hip-hop names to represent themselves and made them write a rap. We taught them the premises of production work. We spoke on the three main factors you can take from the culture of hip-hop and use in your everyday life — creativity, discipline and communication.
How was the concert?
The concert was great. When we got there, we had a huge press conference. It was a huge stage, two big video monitors on the side. Also, the Gambian artists each had 10-minute slots and I had a 45-minute slot, but because I know so much stuff works off of familiarity, I integrated them in my show, so actually it wasn't just me.
In all my songs I would replace one of my verses and have them come out. So I had about 15 special artists come out. So if I had a hook that was like a singing hook, I would have one of them come out and sing in their native tongue of Wolof/Mandinka, so it was pretty much an integration of their style and mine. And actually in the middle — they said they were beat boys, but they acted almost more like street performers. They were on stage flipping off of each other's shoulders and spinning on their heads and throwing each other around. It was real cool.
What were some of your most memorable experiences from the trip?
There are three of them. The show was on Saturday, and we flew out Tuesday night and we had one more class to teach on Tuesday, and so it was a class on the outskirts of Banjul, so it was definitely more impoverished, and it was all female. And we were tired. So it was one of those things where it was like, we'll finish it up, but we were definitely tired. We weren't as amped as we were for other stuff. So we got to the school and did our talk. It went really well and the students, you could tell they were way more disciplined and attentive than the other students. One of their traditions is to have one of their students come up and give appreciation. So they chose four students. And one came up and was real meek and was stumbling over her words and the teacher was like, "Since you don't want to come out of your shell, say your poem." So she said it again, and the girl transformed and started doing the Maya Angelou poem "Phenomenal Woman," so it was like this meek, 13-year-old all of a sudden is not just acting out the words, but is believing every word of "Do my curves, my hips intimidate you," and all that stuff. And so one, it was just impactful because, after she finished, she was a different person, she was confident, she was speaking articulately. When we had them all do raps, we helped her believe from our story that you can accomplish anything. She really was encouraged by our coming there.
So kind of just to put it in perspective, from one, with this being done in this school that's in no-man's-land, with the teacher out there and the confidence that she's given these girls that are like the bottom of the bottom of the totem pole. And the aspect that you take for granted is how far a three-hour lesson or conversation can go. Because she was inspired, she talked about what she was going to do, and it was just humbling. You realize how small, yet how large of an impact you make. So, that was actually number one.
The second one was just the show in general, but even more specifically we worked with a live band up there called Humanity Stars, which was a band from Banjul. We worked with them and made up an original song. It was their traditional music, and I did a rap over it. And so because it was the traditional music and it was a real catchy hook, by the end of the show everybody was singing along, and so it was like the whole crowd was singing and chanting with us. That was definitely number two.
And number three was just the experience, especially for Ferocious, it was his first time out of the country, and we both agreed it was like a hopefully not "once-in-a-lifetime," but a "first-in-a-lifetime" experience.
How long were you there?
Ten days. We had eight- to 12-hour workdays, get up at 8 a.m. and sometimes get back at 10 p.m., but I was talking about hip-hop, and the studio, and we were recording in the studio with the artists as well, and performing — it was great. It was like the life that I'm aiming to do a lot more of regularly. And it was in a foreign, beautiful land with good food.
You said it was kind of a cultural exchange. What did you take away from their culture?
More than anything, they had a real positive vibe. A lot of it could have been based off of the fact that this was a special occasion, but it was this kind of sincerity among the artists who worked together. Because the vibe was positive, even when we hit potholes, they were easy to get through. Because everybody was really on some, "we're trying to get an end-product of our art." That was from the artists more or less.
From the students, that was encouragement. For me, I'm big on people who experience other cultures, it was one of those things where you realize how big the world is and how you can play a part in it, so to speak. So it was like, here is this dude from Pine Bluff, Ark., who's speaking to these kids, who are hanging onto every word, in Banjul, Gambia, and who at the end want autographs and everything like that. So even the artists who they know or hear about, who started from wherever they started from, are impacting them over here. So it was kind of like the importance of every move, the interconnectedness or just the web of life. Everything you do does matter and affects somebody. Going on some physics type, equal-and-opposite-reaction stuff.
What's the Gambian hip-hop scene like?
It's cool. Most of it is still influenced by other musical genres. They were really big on dancehall, reggae and some of the traditional sounds, so in terms of their Top 10, two or three of them sounded very Americanized, like westernized. The rest of them were very much dancehall reggae influenced, implementing a lot of the culture in the look and the style of Western hip-hop, even more so than it was in the music. It was almost like they pick and take what they want because a lot of times they would rap in English and switch to their native tongue then they would implement in dancehall elements so they kind of like bastardized it to make it their own creation.
Do you want to go back?
That's the goal. So now not only do I want to go back, I also want to try somewhere new. I know if I go somewhere new it might be a different experience because one of the reasons the concert went so well is because they linked with a third party corporation, which is not always a guarantee. So the embassy will always put on a show, but it won't have as much impact because they're not promoters, so it'd be way, way different. But I'd like to go to a different area, and if I get anywhere in the area of Africa, I'm going to try to go back. That's the goal, to go back, because you get to build some relationships. I'm working on a song getting on the radio up there and stuff like that. The goal is definitely to go back.