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By Marc Gabriel Amigone
"Dry Eye is like being bold, not being afraid to say what you wanna say. It's like being outspoken, you understand?" That's what it means to be "Dry Eye" according to Bajah, frontman of Bajah + The Dry Eye Crew, a burgeoning hip-hop group from Sierra Leone who released their first mixtape to American audiences earlier this week. Already national superstars in their native Sierra Leone, The Dry Eye Crew are one of the fastest rising acts on the international music scene today. They've released ten albums since 2000 in Sierra Leone, and their first full-length LP is due out in the fall with guest appearances from hip-hop luminaries Talib Kweli, Black Thought, ?uestlove, and fellow African hip-hop sensation K'Naan from Somalia.
Bajah + The Dry Eye Crew consist of Bajah, A-Klazz and Dovy Dovy. The three rappers came together in Sierra Leone where they're embraced as 'the voice of the voiceless.' Sierra Leone has a history of suppressing the freedom of the press, so when musicians take an active role in creating conscious dialogue, people take notice. It helps, of course, that The Crew has an electric stage presence and energy led by Bajah's rapid fire lyrics reinforced by live instrumentation and call and response refrains. They have the floor shaking rhythm of dance hall with the social consciousness of Fela Kuti, a combination that's creating a craze around their name.
Bajah + The Dry Eye Crew first made headway in the American market with the help of their record label, Modiba Productions, in the summer of 2007. Label president Eric Herman described how the process unfolded, "Vanessa Wruble [manager] reached out to Modiba after having been recommended us on a music listserve. We met them at a coffee shop with about a dozen of their friends -- fairly overwhelming. First thing Bajah told us: 'I wanna be bigger than Akon'. I was out of town during that summer on tour with Vieux Farka Toure -- Jesse Brenner helped Bajah and Dry Eye put some shows together in NYC and kept reporting back to me how phenomenal they were. The night I got back from tour they played a showcase at Joe's Pub and they knocked me on my ass. We started moving towards signing them the next day."
It's been a gradual process for Modiba and Dry Eye. Bajah's first single in Sierra Leone, "Grap n Clap", was featured on the soundtrack for 2006 film Blood Diamond . Then in August of 2007, their first single "Ease the Tension", was released online as a free download and was eventually featured in the Canadian drama TV show "The Border" on CBC last year. And earlier this week their first mixtape, Kings of Salone: The DJ Gravy Mixtape, was released online through the their website and okayplayer.com websites. (Salone is what natives call Sierra Leone.)
The Crew is now living in Brooklyn, NY and are focused on penetrating the US market. Bajah commented on the transition from Sierra Leone to Brooklyn, "Well, you know Sierra Leone is the least developed country, so if we can [survive] in Sierra Leone we can [survive] any other place. We're trying to adapt to the American style. Sierra Leone is our homeland, so people already know what we're capable of doing, the fans are already going crazy for us, they really love what we're doing you know? We're for the people, and they already know us back home, but in Brooklyn, we're not yet known, so sometimes people give us the Dry Eye sign, and we'll keep things moving."
Bajah has high hopes for Dry Eye's first full length album, but having released ten albums already in Sierra Leone, he knows it's a process, "Since this is my first album, I really want it to be huge, but since it's my first, I just want to see the reception of the people. I don't know what people are going to like. When I did my thing in Sierra Leone I put out my first album in a different style and saw how people reacted and then changed things up from there." The process of working with icons like Talib Kweli and ?uestlove was a humbling experience for him, "Back in the day when I was still in Africa, I used to see ?uestlove, Talib Kweli, I used to see these people on TV, I never knew I was gonna meet these people, shake hands with them, work with them, you know, so it's a blessing."
Bajah speaks on the Wall Street Journal-hosted Planet Hip-Hop panel at Lincoln Center August 4th, alongside ?uestlove, Chuck D. and Steve Stoute, discussing international hip-hop. Then August 6th, Bajah + the Dry Eye Crew perform at Lincoln Center's Damrosch Park Bandshell as part of the free show, Hip-Hop Generation Next.
Marc Gabriel Amigone is a free-lance music writer who blogs about all things African music related at afrobeatblog.blogspot.com
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