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The first disco record to earn a spot on the Billboard Top 40 was from the Republic of Cameroon, the Central African nation east of Nigeria, southwest of Chad and just north of the Congo. That was Manu Dibango's "Soul Makossa." The record was discovered in 1972 by the American DJ David Mancuso, who began playing it at his dance parties in Greenwich Village, where it quickly caught on. This sort of thing happens every now and then, part of an ongoing transatlantic interchange between African and American pop, staged over the airwaves and in our record collections. Sometimes it's obvious — Paul Simon's "Graceland," Brian Jones and the Master Musicians of Joujouka, "Fela!" on Broadway — and sometimes it's subtle. But it wouldn't happen at all without intermediaries, those sometimes invisible figures (like Mancuso) who connect one culture to the other, going out of their way to seek out and promote music nobody else around them is listening for.
Enter Little Rock's Rachel Burks, co-founder and proprietor of New Bell Music, a record label specializing in hip-hop and R&B produced in Cameroon. In the past year the label's artists have been nominated for MTV Africa Music Awards and KORA Awards (the sub-Saharan equivalent of the Grammys); they have been featured by the BBC and The Guardian; and, as of last week, they have collaborated with Grammy-nominated singer and rapper Akon. New Bell has a diverse roster of local talent, which has been credited with helping to spark a resurgence of Cameroonian rap. And for the time being, Burks is managing all this between waitressing shifts at The Pantry Crest in Hillcrest.
Born in Eureka Springs and raised in Little Rock, Burks first left the U.S. in the mid-'90s, after getting her degree from the University of Arkansas, and for many years she didn't look back. She served in the Peace Corps in Bangladesh, got her master's degree in conflict resolution in England, and spent a few years working for a consulting firm in India. It was during this last stretch, in India, that Burks met an aspiring rapper and producer from Cameroon named Ndukong Godlove Nfor (Jovi, for short) and the two immediately hit it off.
Burks had a modest background in music — she'd taken opera classes over the years and had studied music theory in college — but Jovi's music was unlike any she'd heard, steeped in traditional Camerooonian pop genres like makossa and bikutsi, but also heavily indebted to contemporary American street rap — energetic and brash and fun. Jovi liked her voice and suggested they work together; he was moving back to Cameroon and had big plans. Burks weighed her options: She could stay on in India, mediating land disputes for the energy sector, or join an upstart music scene in a far-off African nation she knew nothing about. "My interest in going overseas initially was just, I'm very interested in learning about other cultures," Burks explained recently. "But I was getting really burned out." A few months after Jovi left, Burks quit her job and left India to join him.
"When we started, there wasn't much local music online," Burks said. "I found very few local artists on the Internet in 2011. Most of the time, you bought CDs from people who sold them on the streets. There are also some shops that sell CDs, but it's not very common. And the only hip-hop I'd ever hear was from the U.S."
This started to change after the release of Jovi's acclaimed 2012 debut "H.I.V. (Humanity Is Vanishing)." Jovi, who cites Timbaland and Dr. Dre as his major production influences, raps in pidgin English, or Cameroonian Creole, playfully slipping in and out of intelligibility. The African culture magazine Bakwa hailed his emergence as "a new chapter in Cameroonian hip-hop," citing "the long awaited arrival of a self-assured emcee very conscious of his abilities."
Jovi's new album, "Mboko God," is — to my ears — even more sonically ambitious, a thrilling and aggressively international blend of dancehall, afro-pop and trap rap. The record also initially struck me as overtly political, pointedly engaged with the realities of West African poverty. Yes and no, Burks told me. "There are a lot of social issues addressed," she said, "but really it's just about everyday life in Cameroon. People in the U.S. may not understand how difficult it can be, so just describing your life there can seem like a political statement."
With Burks handling publicity and promotion, the label's roster has grown over the last few years. There's Reniss, who "writes everything from gospel to really bright, fun dance," Burks said, "and what one writer called 'tribal pop' — she really likes that term, because there are a lot of traditional Cameroonian influences in what she does." There's Pascal, another young rapper Burks calls "super energetic and a lot of fun," and Shey, "more R&B and dancehall oriented." Burks has also contributed herself — recording under the name RCHL — and plans to release a solo EP of her own soon.
All of New Bell's releases are available for free online, via Bandcamp and YouTube. "If we were based in the U.S., we'd probably be trying to sell this stuff a lot more," Burks said, "rather than just giving it away. But because we're based in Cameroon, it's very difficult. So pretty much everything we make, we put it online so people can stream it. We want people to hear it, you know?" Hasn't it been disorienting, I asked her, as an Arkansan, breaking into the African music industry? "Breaking into the music industry is hard period," Burks said. "It doesn't really matter where you're from. Making an independent record label successful is just very, very difficult."
Because of her visa status, Burks has to divide her time between Africa and the U.S. I asked her how people in Little Rock responded when they heard about her Cameroonian career, and she said, "It's interesting. People certainly don't expect it — whether I'm in Arkansas or in Cameroon. People in Arkansas are always surprised. I think a lot of times they don't really know what to say. And I think they don't realize that it's a pretty [successful] label in Africa, and a serious business, unless I show it to them. Then they're like, 'Oh!' " And in Cameroon? "Very rarely have I ever met anyone overseas who has heard of Arkansas," she laughed. "The only thing people really know about from Arkansas is Bill Clinton — that's pretty much it."