HAJJI BLACKSTONE is releasing his first solo project, entitled "Lil Senegal" and is proud to highlight the Harlem location characterized by a large concentration of Senegalese and West African residents. A Senegalese-American, Hajji has been a musician for years, participated in various group projects and group albums, but "Lil Senegal" will be his debut as an independent artist, and he couldn't have picked a more timely moment in history to highlight the immigrant story, and the cross-section of American dreams.
He's lived in America since the early 90's, and identifies most with the New York City/east coast lifestyle although he now resides in California, and grew up in the D.C. area. Despite there being various Senegalese communities in different states across the U.S., Hajji feels that the closest thing to Senegal on the continent, is the New York neighbourhood referenced in his project.
Challenging himself to a different sonic vibe, Hajji strives to incorporate more of his influences in this project, and differentiate himself from the popular hip hop cadences and tones. "I dared myself to be different," said Hajji. "But most importantly to be me. I went in the studio thinking I just want to make feel good music, and speak from the heart.
His creative inspirations come from all sources. "It could be a word someone said, a movie, a song, an epiphany, a book, a painting, an experience...an interview, anything. I operate off feeling. If I don't feel it, I'd rather not create. I don't like forcing the process; I just keep living and let it come to me naturally."
One of his most powerful motivators is pursuing his music, despite the doubts and discouragements of some.
"Where I'm from, people think you're crazy if you want to get involved in music, and sports, and things like that," Hajji said. "I could have been anything in the world, but I chose this route because I felt it was my calling. I believe artists can make a big difference in the world--even bigger than presidents, or any government."
Using Bob Marley as an example, Hajji notes that although he passed away decades ago, his messages still live on. Strongly. He would like his legacy to follow in the spiritual footsteps of his predecessors in music: "That's the type of legacy I would like to leave behind. Something positive, and durable. Something thought-provoking. Ideas live forever!"
Influenced by music from across the globe, Hajji speaks (and thinks!) in six languages. He's had the opportunity to visit almost every continent, with the exception of Latin America. He believes his home country of Senegal is a country of intellectuals, and tries to integrate that element of his culture in his music.
"Africa as a whole, and its diaspora definitely plays a big role in my work," he said. "Here in the States, and in Canada, everyone reps their hood, or their block. Well, I wanna show that I'm proud of where I'm from as well, and that I can run with the best of them. I would like to make my Senegalese people proud, you know...and God willing, also be able to make a real change. At the end of the day, Senegal is still a developing country. I say Senegal because that's where I'm from, but I relate to the struggle worldwide. Period. I've always sided with the underworld, and the underdogs. That's just me."
His core messages have always revolved around unity in diversity, although sometimes due to life and personal circumstances, he admits to having strayed from that main focus. Overall, he ensures that his message is positive, but he understands that the youth that listen to his music, and the music of others, are the future, and all artists do have a responsibility in their messaging.
"There's no love in these streets: I had to learn that the hard way," Hajji said. "I understand that it's a privilege to hold a microphone in front of people...so if I say something, I try to say something that I can be proud of at the end of the day. Something that can affect and gear someone in the right directions, and make them think...but also feel good."
He's lived in Canada as well, and attended school in Montreal. With a group of musical friends from Washington, D.C., they migrated to Montreal because it was a bilingual city, and they would easily fit in, having come from a French school. He believed strongly in their vision as a group, as the friends performed in Canada, and also had the opportunity to travel to France and Africa for festivals as well.
"I thought we were going to be the next big thing, so I sacrificed everything for music...but unfortunately, we all went our separate ways after a while, for various reasons."
Hajji took this opportunity to take a hiatus from music, and realign himself to find his own sound. He believes that living in Canada helped to shape him as an artist, for live shows in particular. It was his first time living on his own, and he was proud of the name he was able to build for himself along with his peers.
"I have nothing but love for Canada," he said. "It's one of the most multicultural places I've ever lived."
Now a resident of California, Hajji is acutely aware of the volatile political climate, racial climate, and tries to hold his corner where he can.
"Like Talib Kweli once said his lyrics...'I don't f*ck with politics, I don't even follow it,'" he stated, citing his father's influence when it came to politics. "Growing up, my dad always used to tell me to never get involved in politics...especially coming from Africa, poli-tricks was like a synonym for corruption to us. I have never voted a day in my life, and I don't think I will ever vote...but that's just the rebel in me."
He's received backlash for his dis-interest in participating in the American politics, but he feels strongly that overall, history repeats itself. A strong believer in self-governance and self-empowerment, he thinks that the current state of affairs in the U.S. is sad.
"If I could sum it up in 3 letters, it would say: FDT!" he joked.
Overall, his main message to those paying attention to his career, his lyrics, and his voice in general, is that it's OK to be yourself as an artist.
"You don't always need to portray an image of who you are not, just to try to satisfy the public. Most people will tell you to do what's working, or what sells as the moment...I am all about doing what I do best, and trying to make it work. Granted, I haven't accomplished anything too crazy yet, and I'm still on the rise...but I think being yourself is the greatest satisfaction and reward of all."
Everything else that he has to say is in his music. The "Lil Senegal" project is on the way, and will be released this year via Spotify, iTunes, Tidal, and all major digital outlets. One single has already dropped, and he plans to release the remainder of the project this year when he believes it's maximized its potential as a whole, quality-wise.
You can connect with Hajji Blackstone on Instagram at @h_blackstone, or via Facebook at "Hajji Blackstone." Catch samples of his music via Soundcloud at HajjiBlackstoneMusic.
Written by Stacey Marie Robinson for Kya Publishing's "Urban Toronto Tales" blog.