Born in Paris, bred in New York, hip-hop lyricist Napoleon Da Legend tells us about his links to the continent, how he collaborated with Raekwon and the inspiration behind his dope videos.
You live in America currently. What connection do you feel to Africa?
First off, it’s in my DNA so it’s a part of me. My parents are both from the Comoro Islands (Anjouan and Mayotte). I was born in Paris, France and we migrated to Washington DC when I was four.
Growing up the music that was played in the house, the food, the language spoken, the company felt like being there. We weren’t eating hot dogs and TV dinners just because we lived in the US. We ate rice, meat and manioc leaves with homemade hot sauce. They made sure we would go back often so I could know where I came from and it made me never take where I was at for granted in return.
I always felt I was stuck in a space between that part of me and living in the US.
The way of life when I would go there was simpler and basic; it’s a third-world country. Electricity and water would cut off at a moment’s notice, the food preparation; the overall culture is so different than in America.
Over there we would go to a well for water and my grandmother had chickens and goats. We used old-fashioned toilets and took a baths in a plastic container with a tin can. I always felt I was stuck in a space between that part of me and living in the US. I embrace it, it makes my experience and expression very unique from that standpoint and it reflects in my lyrics and music. My father would repeatedly tell me ‘never forget your roots’.
Have you ever lived in the Comoro Islands?
I have never lived there but have visited countless times for vacation and due to life events (weddings, funerals and sick family members). The longest stretch I have done there was four months. I’ve been to Ngazija, Anjouan and Mayotte. I appreciated being there and not having a mobile phone, house keys or wallet on hand for weeks at a time. It has breathtaking scenery. People would walk in and out each other’s houses.
There’s a true sense of community. It was not an economic superpower, but there was no homelessness at the time (things may be changing), people would come to aid one another when someone was hungry or struggling.
It just made me appreciate the beauty of my home country.
There’s drug addiction, alcoholism and juvenile delinquency like everywhere else. It just made me appreciate the beauty of my home country. I know I would always have a home out there.
Also it made me appreciate the opportunities and luxuries I have in the US. It made me realise that we all have our own battles to fight every day wherever we live and whatever amount of income we may or may not earn. I think everybody wherever they may be should travel. It’s a long trip to the Comoros from where I am today, but it’s worth it every time I have the privilege to go.
When and why did you start rapping?
I fell in love with hip hop. Music always spoke to me. It was always playing at home. Once I heard it on the radio and watched shows like Rap City and Yo! MTV Raps, I was hooked. It wasn’t even a pre-meditated thought; it felt right from the start.
Hip hop is so accessible. All you need is a beat.
Just like the first time I picked up a basketball. That was it, I had to do it. I have so much to say, often more than in conversation. Hip hop is so accessible. All you need is a beat.
What’s the creative process behind your music?
My creative process is pretty simple. I don’t write in my spare time, I only write with the intent of making a song or being on a song. I just play the beat and let my mind go. I’m privileged that inspiration taps me on my shoulder most of the time. Sometimes I’m driving or walking and get an idea which I will type on my phone. However, it’s really just me and the beat. That’s the formula that creates the art for me. I draw from inside of myself. It hasn’t failed me yet so if it ain’t broke why fix it?
How did Oxygen with Raekwon come about?
A friend of mine got a contact with Raekwon’s close circle and put the idea in my head to make a song with him. They were down, so I picked one of my friend UnOwn’s beats and laid a verse and hook. I wanted to make it as easy a process as I could for Raekwon. I put myself in his shoes like when someone sends me a song with a verse and a hook on it, the concept is there. That’s an alley-oop. I set the legend up for the slam didn’t even have to look; I already knew what he was going to come up with.
It made pretty much every hip-hop blog out there.
He’s one of my favourite rappers. Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… is one of my favourite albums of all-time in any genre. I would have never imagined being on the same song with this legend.
It was a great milestone in my career and the response from the hip-hop world was overwhelming. It made pretty much every hip-hop blog out there. Till this day people come up to me telling me that song is a classic to them. I’m very much humbled by it all.
Your music videos are all very varied, from Dancing in the Rain to Wise Men. How much input do you have in their production?
It depends on the video and the song. For Dancing in the Rain, Edson Flores directed it and came up with the basic idea for it. I told him that I wanted to look like a movie, not like a music video. It was the most personal song on my Awakening album. The video capture the spirit of the emotional pain and confusion I endured during the period I wrote the song.
Wise Men was a concept my friend Bryan Winston came up with. It was such an ‘out the box’ idea to kidnap a bubblegum rapper along with the CEO of his label that I immediately was convinced WE had to do it. Cyril Mahe shot it and we worked closely into putting the vision onto the screen. It is my most fun shoot to date. Sean Price (RIP) was really into the role we wrote for him and that was like the icing on the cake. This is another video that keeps circulating on social media and keeps getting brought up in conversation.
We got such an avalanche of questions about the concept and how we put it together that we actually uploaded a behind-the-scenes on YouTube explaining how the video came about.
What other artists inspire you?
A lot of reggae/dancehall artists inspire me such as Capleton and Damian Marley… They are so prolific, versatile and such great performers. For me that is the total package. I also look up to people like Michael Jackson (RIP), Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Nas, Jay-Z, 2Pac (RIP).
Their music speaks to me and inspires me to keep going.
I’m into artists who not only have created so much but have such a high quality in their output. Their music speaks to me and inspires me to keep going. The sky is not the limit. All of them pushed the sky further up. I’m over here doing my part.
What have you got coming up in terms of releases?
I am working on an EP produced by DJ Boogie Blind of The X-Ecutioners right now, which is almost finished. I will also be putting out an exclusive solo project this year. Stay tuned.
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Follow Napoleon Da Legend on Twitter @TeamNDL