(photo credits: Shako Oteka)
It was summer ’09 in humid New Orleans and Alec Lomami just wanted to give a recently recorded song a test drive. Literally. As part of his quality control check for new tracks, he would drive around with the song blasting from his speakers.
Minutes into the drive, he was pulled over.
“The policeman said I hadn’t paid a ticket, which I argued I had,” he explained. “So he ended up arresting me.”
After a night in jail, the judge apologetically released Lomami on the unpaid fine charge (which he had indeed paid), but he was immediately taken into immigration custody. What would follow were three angst-filled years of US immigration system court dates and a nine-month stint in an immigration jail.
“I wasn’t even going to use that track,” he chuckles thinking of the song that started it all. “But I’m gonna use it now in the EP because I went to jail for it.”
On the strength of just two songs, Lomami has invited the courtship of taste-maker sites such as Fader and MTV Iggy. His second single, Pop Revolution feat. his cousin Well$, was just released under a month ago to positive reviews.
“Alec Lomami came straight outta…nowhere, really,” Sam Backer of Afropop worldwide wrote in late February. “And in many ways, that has been the fascinating thing about Lomami since he dropped his first single Kinshasa about 8 months ago.”
Outside of his music, the 28-year-old is mostly known for two things—his sartorial choices and his volatile immigration journey. Born in Belgium and bred in Congo, Lomami was in the U.S. visiting relatives when he decided to seek asylum in 1998 due to the war back home in DRC. This all led up to that summer 2009 encounter.
“Because I wasn’t born in Congo, (Congo) didn’t want to take me in,” he said. “And because I wasn’t a Belgian citizen, they didn’t want to take me in.”
“I was in limbo.”
It’s a fascinating story that is neatly packaged to be easily sold by basic publicity standards: a dapper nomadic anglo-franco afropolitan rapper who has been to jail.
“Sometimes I wonder if people are interested in the music or the story behind the music,” he said. “At the same time I’ve only released so much. But I want to tell my story because there are other people who are in the same position, yet I’d prefer people to focus on the music more than the story. It’s something I wrestle with”
I first met Lomami on a rainy November in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg. He was immaculately dressed, fitting right in with the hipster stylings of the neighborhood. Dapper is a word often used to describe Lomami. Also: Natty. Stylish. Sartorial.
“I used to describe (my style) as minimalist modern retro, but I am branching out so that title doesn’t fit,” he tells me. “I wear what I like but I’ve added more layers. So the minimalist part is disappearing.”
He is Congolese, a people stereotypically known all over the continent to be well dressed and perfectly coiffed following le SAPE tradition.
Later on that week, I saw him at the New York launch of Helen Jennings, Arise Magazine editor’s book New African Fashion. He was just as smartly dressed, in an outfit later featured in the street style pages of Essence Magazine.
Events like these, over the course of a two-week trip to New York, helped inspire the release of Pop Revolution.
“I was meeting some real cool Africans: writers, models, fashion designers, musicians…I felt like I was part of some African renaissance,” Lomami explained.
Around the same time, Lomami was also closely watching the November presidential election in DRC, the country’s second attempt at elections since the civil war. It was a tense run-off between ten-year incumbent Joseph Kabila and Etienne Tshisekedi. The election season was fraught with accusations of fraud and fears of a likely violent response.
“Generally we Congolese have a laissez-faire attitude,” he said. “But something was different.”
“So on one end I saw Africans challenging stereotypes of what it meant to be African is, or look like, acts like…” he explained, “and on the other end, I saw Congolese fighting for their freedom and challenging the powers that be.”
He put these thoughts down in song, which almost became a throwaway track if family members had not interceded and convinced him to release the song. His reasoning was that he didn’t think it was up to standard.
“I don’t think I’d be happy if the music blew up to be super big, he said. “I’m a just a reclusive person and I prefer steady growth.”
This explains his seeming lack of urgency. He appears unconcerned with capitalizing on the current buzz, although to be fair, he has two music videos slated in the pipeline.
“Let the chips fall where they may,” he shrugs. “I just want to do the music I like and push myself musically.”
Congo, unsurprisingly, plays a big role in Lomami’s music. His first single Kinshasa was a testament to that. The chorus of the song, “Na Za Mwana Kin” is a cry of Kinshasan pride similar to the oft-chanted “Brooklyn” by natives of that New York borough.
He was first inspired to write the track while detained.
“It’s about growing up in Kinshasa and being eager to leave to come America and play basketball,” he explained. “It took me being out of the city to be inspired to look back to it.”
The song is Lomami’s exploration of what it means to be young and Congolese today and the pride that comes with that. Particularly musically. Outside of big name ambassadors like Fally Ipupa and Baloji, there are few new sounds coming out of this (once) musical giant that has since lost its edge in the African music scene in recent decades
“There was a time in the late 80s and 90s where Congolese music was African music,” Lomami said even pointing that he would love to collaborate with Papa Wemba, one of the country’s greats of that era. “Congolese were some of the biggest African stars. The guys big then, are still big now.”
“There’s no space for young people to flourish. There is a Congolese sound. And anytime someone tries to branch out, it can be rejected. Look at Baloji,” he said of the Belgian-based rapper. “He is an amazing lyricist, but I have many young friends back home who don’t know who he is.”
Although most of his music has been picked up by the international anglophone African population, Lomami’s aimed audience has always been the Congolese. This is seen with his unapologetic mix of Lingala and French lyrics. Most of his punch lines are in Lingala and his topics are Congo-centric.
“I’d never translate my music,” he said admitting he gets asked that often. “It’s not the same. I’d rather give you a gist of what I’m saying than translate it.”
He uses Baloji’s lyricism as a prime example of this.
“Baloji is one of the dopest lyricists I‘ve heard. His music does not translate. He brings that western lyricism but layers it on an African sound. I do the opposite. I bring a western sound with an African lyricism.”
So for his Anglophone fans, they can deal. Or learn French.
“Growing up, I got used to listening to music I didn’t understand. That’s just part of being African.”
But he is closer to Kinshasa now more than ever. Tired of dealing with U.S. immigration, he moved to Zimbabwe last month, releasing Pop Revolution as farewell gift. As he settles into Harare life, he continues to put the finishing touches to his six-song E.P., Melancholy Joyeuse, to make it live up to the hype.
“I’m getting all this press for (two) songs. A lot of it feels likes it early. What if the rest sucks?”
We’ll know if it does or doesn’t when the album drops in May.