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Blitz the ambassador

James Bartlett on MoCADA, The Fear of Failing and Beating the NYC Grind

James Bartlett on MoCADA, The Fear of Failing and Beating the NYC Grind

Jamesbartlett

James Bartlett has a lot on his plate but you wouldn't know it. His calm coolness suggest he's often the laid back dude among the late night revelers, observing the chaos without being overrun by it. As the Executive Director of MoCADA, The Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts, James is constantly visioning and implementing, along with his tight staff, to showcase new and innovative work within the African Diaspora and create a space that values community outreach and interaction. 

In addition to his work with MoCADA, James is the co-founder of MVMT, "a collective of artists, entrepreneurs, and organizers whose missions align to promote the arts, social entrepreneurship, and collective empowerment." We spoke about the paradox of the New York grind, his epiphany on his last trip to Ghana, and why the process and the present is all we have.

You’re from the South right?

Well, I’m from Louisville, Kentucky, born and raised. My father is, and was, a musician and singer but it just felt like it was a regular job to me. So in hindsight I had a lot of exposure to the arts but it didn’t feel like it growing up. It was just my dad’s job, he played piano and he sang.

Do you play any instruments?

I don’t. I just recently started dabbling on the piano.  Growing up my dad didn’t discourage us from getting into music but he didn’t push us. I think secretly or subconsciously he didn’t want us to go into music because it’s a tough life. I like music but I wasn’t drawn to playing. I was drawn to basketball and played in high school and college. I  came to NYU for grad school and got my masters in magazine publishing and I was bit with the entrepreneurial bug. I liked the magazine world but it was just one potential form of artistic and entrepreneurial expression and I was more interested in the arts in general, so I started exploring the business of the arts.

I stared a company with Terence Nance and Rolando Brown called MVMT. We had our own internal artistic projects and offered consulting services to arts organizations. On our own artistic projects, we settled into music and film. I worked and managed Blitz the Ambassador for about five or six years. I executive produced his first album and worked with him over the course of the next several years. On the film side, I worked with Terrance on his first feature film, An Oversimplification of Her Beauty.

I did the MVMT thing for about six or seven years but we started working with MoCADA as a client about four years ago. I fell more and more in love with the mission of the museum and even developed some projects from scratch like the MoCADA journeys program, a travel program I conceived and produced. Our first trip was to Ghana was in 2012 for about 35 people and I produced a concert featuring Blitz the Ambassador and Les Nubians; about 2000 people came out to the concert. The people that came on the trip from the states loved it. We’re actually planning a trip to Kenya next year.

MoCADA is kind of the intersection of the majority of my personal passions and interests. It combines so many things - from visual arts to performing arts etc. I also realized that in the six or seven years of doing MVMT, I‘ve always been the person who supported others artistic vision.  I found that a skill I have is getting peoples artistic visions out but also being the museum director gives me the opportunity to create my own end vision as well. At the end of the day I set the tone, direction and the programming so for me it’s the perfect balance of facilitating the creation of art by others but also having a vision of my own that is very specific.

A museum is a very Western concept. It is the idea that art and culture needs to be housed in a building. I like to look at art and culture from a more African context. In Africa art is about community, connections, interaction, creativity, preservation of historical traditions, etc.

Can you talk a bit about the work MoCADA does with marginalized groups of folks in New York City? You're one of the only museums I know taking such a hands-on approach to working with residents of lower socio-economic neighborhoods. Museums typically have a really high-brow/elite type of aesthetic. Why is it important for you to change that ideology?

MoCADA really tries to reach people where they live, rather than insisting that they come to us. For that reason we put art programming in public schools, parks, small business, and public housing.  We believe that art has the ability to transform lives and communities, and that it shouldn't be confined to a box, or reserved for the elite.   The fact that we are even called a "museum," for me personally, is just to give funders a general box to put us in for grant purposes. We are much more than that.  A museum is a very Western concept.  It is the idea that art and culture needs to be housed in a building.  I like to look at art and culture from a more African context.  In Africa art is about community, connections, interaction, creativity, preservation of historical traditions, etc.

Obviously you work with many artists, do you ever feel like there's an artist in you that wants to be expressed?

I’ve always been very content with helping other people get out their vision. I’ve always felt like I was an artist in the sense that everyone is an artist. I always feel creative. I guess when I think of artists, I think of someone with a very specific vision that if changed, is compromised. I always think of my vision as very malleable and flexible and that my vision is bigger than anything I would have the capacity to create. I inherently have to enlist the support of others in creating their visions that are part of my overall vision. My personal artistic creativity is more just being a whole human being in the sense that art and creation is just a part of being human.

I always think of my vision as very malleable and flexible and that my vision is bigger than anything I would have the capacity to create. I inherently have to enlist the support of others in creating their visions that are part of my overall vision.

You have so much on your plate. How do you stay in the process, especially in a city like New York, which is constantly moving and going?

When I first came to New York I was super focused and driven and singularly focused on ‘making it’ and being successful - whatever that means. I worked constantly - to the point that even when I wasn’t working, my mind was working and I had zero down time. I went through years of that. It wasn’t a bad thing - it got me a lot of places. I think it was a period I had to go though. But I had this epiphany in Ghana. I realized being in Ghana that I had largely, on my own, produced this trip for 35 people and these 35 people would not be in Ghana had it not been for a random conversation I had had 18 months prior. Combined with that was the fact that for me, it was one of the most fulfilling things I had ever participated in in my life. The people were so amazing, and it was Blitz’s first concert in Ghana ever – his family was there.

It was a very rewarding experience and the epiphany was that in the process of doing the planning for that trip, for me, in the ranking of priorities that year, I don’t even think it cracked the top ten. I was doing it on the side of the million things I felt I had to do. And so in the process of it, I was not at all present. I was just used to working constantly and doing a lot of things and this was just another thing. Then I look up and I’m in Ghana and I was like ‘wow – this is one of the most rewarding and fulfilling things I have ever done.’ As I was planning it, I did not value it on that level at all. It was just, ‘let me get it done because I have to do it.’ It really made me rethink my priorities and how I prioritize things and think about what I want to be doing, what I need to be doing, how I spend my time and how I want to spend my life. It made me much more selective with the projects I take on and more present to the process.

It sounds like you started choosing quality over quantity. What do you think was driving you to take so much on?

I had to be really honest with myself. I think a large part of that period of my life was fear - fear of failing, fear of not accomplishing and when you’re afraid of that you kind of just throw everything at the wall like ‘ok I’m not going to sleep, I’m just gonna work. Who cares about relationships. I’m gonna make it.’ But you only do that if you’re afraid there’s a chance you’re not going to make it.

I think a large part of that period of my life was fear - fear of failing, fear of not accomplishing and when you’re afraid of that you kind of just throw everything at the wall like, ok I’m not going to sleep, I’m just gonna work..but you only do that if you’re afraid there’s a chance you’re not going to make it.

Now I’m more confident and secure in myself, my abilities, the direction I’m going in. I can further enjoy the process and it’s not all about the end goal or the end result. The process is all you have. If you’re always striving for goals, you’re never going to be satisfied. For the majority of my life I lived in the future, I defined myself not by where I was or what I was doing but where I was going and where I wanted to be. I think that is a coping strategy for being a young struggling artist or entrepreneur. You kinda have to justify the struggle like ‘I’m doing this for this because next year I’m going to be here.’ But all we have is right now. So, if you don’t fully embrace the now then who cares about the future.

Right, and then when we get what you want, we don’t fully enjoy it because we’re on to the next thing.

Right. Even though you accomplished that future you envisioned a year ago, you’re now in a new future.

For the majority of my life I lived in the future, I defined myself not by where I was or what I was doing but where I was going and where I wanted to be. I think that is a coping strategy for being a young struggling artist or entrepreneur.

And then it’s never enough.

Right, it’s never enough.

Do you have any tools you use to stay present and in the process?

I would still very much consider myself a novice but I’ve started meditating more and pursuing more practices that aren’t geared towards a specific end goal. Like, I’ve started dabbling on the piano or I started learning French. Not for a specific goal just to explore different ways of expression, different ways to use my brain. Again, I think it’s just about being more comfortable with myself and where I am. You’re less concerned about getting to the future when you feel that momentum carrying you there. It reminds me of a rather interesting quote I heard, ‘fall in love with the process and the results will come.’

Interview by Jahan Mantin

Born and raised on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Jahan is an OG of pre-gentrified New York. She is a traveler, book nerd, creative coach, music lover, editor and the Co-Founder of Project Inkblot. 

Blitz The Ambassador On Afropolitan Dreams And Life As An "African In NYC"

Blitz The Ambassador On Afropolitan Dreams And Life As An "African In NYC"

Blitz The Ambassador

Yesterday (April 28), Blitz the Ambassador released his second album for the Berlin-based label Jakarta Records. The release, Afropolitan Dreams, quickly feels like the Ghanaian rapper’s most centered piece. Beyond an eclectic mix of mostly African features, the album is built on Ghanaian high-life tendencies more than any boom-bap revisionism. Still, he trades American Hip Hop references with Accra-specific mentions as well as he ever has before and has an endearing way of slipping into and out of either continent’s slang. Now in his early 30’s, Blitz moved to New York City in 2001 as a teenager. Living in Brooklyn—and then Ohio for college before back to the borough—he built a career in the same place that many of his own Hip Hop idols rapped about on record twenty years ago.

He has an unpretentious penchant for interpolation, co-opting a Pete Rock & CL Smooth line for his own back-to-Africa sentiment or flipping a popular Sting lyric and melody into his own immigrant anthem. Speaking with Project Inkblot earlier this month, Blitz detailed the inspiration behind his latest album and broke down his relationship with New York as an African immigrant and Hip Hop artist/fan. He has an obvious humility in having made it this far but reserves a fierce sense of belonging.

“There’s a lot now that makes it possible for global voices to really participate in Hip Hop culture,” he says. “I’m biased to this of course because of my trajectory. As a fan growing up in Ghana and being a participant in the culture and having the opportunity to inform people. But when people try to narrow Hip Hop down to just American culture, I have to remind them that Caribbean immigrant culture is a huge part of Hip Hop. Puerto Rican immigrant culture is a huge part of b-boy and breakdance culture. You can’t ever forget that immigrants are the basis of Hip Hop. Now of course as years have gone by it’s American culture but the foundation of it is Kool Herc who is a Jamaican immigrant. So he’s me in a lot of ways. His experience outside of America shaped this culture.”

Can you talk about the African community that you encountered in New York when you arrived in 2001? When you first arrived, did you feel more alienated or embraced as an immigrant and as an African in New York specifically?

It was a bit of both. When you arrive in a place you want to kind of find your own way. You know that there’s a community here that they’re gonna support you when you need it but you also know that you can easily get kind of lost in that community and not experience anything outside of that community. So what I kind of did was a bit of both. I ended up being in Brooklyn which was out the norm for a Ghanaian because most of the Ghanaian community is in the Bronx. So what I would do every week is I’d go up to the Bronx at least once a week because a lot of people that I went to school with and the best restaurants were up there. So I’d go up there to make sure that I’m in touch and linked up but I stayed in Brooklyn so that I could still have some space to experience life outside just the Ghanaian community. And of course I went away to college as well in Ohio which helped create some of that gap but also kept me connected in a way. When you’re away that’s when the longing [starts].

Another thing I was thinking about is that for anybody interested in Hip Hop, regardless of whether or not you’re from this country or not, New York represents this sort of cultural mecca. It all emanates from the Bronx since we’re talking about that. What’s it like to call a place that you seem to have longed for for so long your home?

Yeah man. You know a lot of New York was lived vicariously before I came to New York. Of course there were certain things that I was a bit familiar with. A lot of it from my connection to Hip Hop and the way Hip Hop painted New York. Then some of it too was just experiential, so when I got here I was like, 'Wow, okay. It’s not like it is in the Wu-Tang record. It’s not like it is in the Biggie record.' There’s certain things that words couldn’t even explain what this place is. But I’ve always appreciated New York because it gave me an opportunity to compete and compete on a very high-level that being in any other metropolitan city—even in America—wouldn’t have never given me. To perform with some legends at such an early part of my career. I had opened for KRS-One. I had opened for Big Daddy Kane. I had opened for Rakim. I had opened for Public Enemy. Some of these were in front of thousands of people at places like Summerstage or Celebrate Brooklyn.

A kid who had all these people on his wall in Ghana—then to be backstage with these people, to give’em a pound, to say, ‘Hey listen, you changed my life and here I am.’ I think that’s like one of the most powerful things that could ever happen to anybody with a dream.”

I was still in shock that here I am. A kid who had all these people on his wall in Ghana—the environment, you can’t even compare environments—then to be backstage with these people, to give’em a pound, to say, ‘Hey listen, you changed my life and here I am.’ I think that’s like one of the most powerful things that could ever happen to anybody with a dream. I think that that journey continues to play itself out in amazing ways. I’m still always in awe. I’m in awe at New York. I’m in awe at the culture of Hip Hop. I’m in awe of how full-circle all of this has come. I’m still kind of like pinching myself. Like ‘Wow.’ Like you said, a place that you wanted to call home forever you can call home but not just call it home but be adding to a very rich history of it in a major way. I don’t take that for granted. I’m very privileged.

Being in New York you’re always around Ghanaians and you’re always around Africans, but how has your perspective or emotional attachment to Ghana changed? I guess attached to that, what have you learned about Africa in New York? 

Wow. I’ve learned a lot man. It’s very interesting. I’m realizing that there’s a reverse-longing that’s happening now. The longing that I had to come to America and to live in Brooklyn and to participate in Hip Hop culture and blah blah. I’m beginning to find that the reverse is happening. Now that I’ve lived over a decade in America and a majority of it in New York, I’m finding now that the same way that I was super curious about New York and how I wanted to know everything about it—I wanted to know the slang, I wanted to know what Hip Hop artist was coming out next month, I wanted to know what part of the country they were from, what borough they were from, I wanted to know what street they were talking about—I’m finding out that that the reverse is happening. Now that I live in America my curiosity for Africa has grown.

I’m realizing that there’s a reverse-longing that’s happening now...now that I live in America my curiosity for Africa has grown.”

I’m beginning to have that same experience where I want to know what’s happening in Accra. I want to know what’s happening in Abidjan. I want to know who’s the next guy to come out of Nigeria. What street are they talking about? It’s almost a mindfuck when you think about how you long for something you get it, and then you’re like, ‘Oh shit, I’m longing for this other thing now just as equally as the other thing.’ That’s what’s happening to me now and it’s influencing my music greatly. It’s influencing the choices that I’m making. On this record I featured a plethora of artists, none of which were American-born or American Hip Hop artists. I would have never thought about it. Me coming up as an artist that would have been the first thing I would be looking for, ‘How can I get an American artist on my record?’ Specifically a cat from Brooklyn on my record. Now it’s like, I’m here, I’m part of it, I live it. Now I want to feature guys from Brazil, I want to feature singers from Nigeria, I want to feature rappers from Kenya. That’s what I’m curious about now. It’s interesting and I’m enjoying that bit now.

Maybe to them you’re that guy from Brooklyn.

Maybe to them I’m that guy from Brooklyn. It’s kind of crazy. That is fact. It’s a spiral. You don’t even know where you fit in all of that. You just know that it’s happening and you’re apart of it.

You’ve talked a lot about experiencing American Hip Hop as a young person in Ghana. What was it like for you to see groups like A Tribe Called Quest wearing dashikis and Africa pendants?

It was powerful. Having the word Zulu Nation [on] the coolest biggest shows. Seeing the red, black, green. Seeing the red, gold, green. Seeing the big medallions. You knew that they knew that you existed. You know what I mean? And that’s such an important part of existence in itself, when you look up to anything, when that thing acknowledges that you exist and acknowledges that you are an influence in shaping it. It makes you feel good. Of course we would have loved to touch, feel, to see that connection be more tangible, but I think that that’s what’s happening now. Even though we saw those medallions, even though we heard those shout-outs. It didn’t matter what the subject matter was. Matter fact there was a song that Pete Rock and Raekwon on Soul Survival 1 and I remember Raekwon going something random and he was like, “Puffing the marijuana / African gold from Ghana,” I was like, 'Boom, that’s my favorite record.' It made no sense, it wasn’t even like a real shout-out it just rhymed. But what was important to me at the time at least was that he knew Ghana existed. It felt good hearing somebody that you looked up to do that to you.

And that’s such an important part of existence in itself, when you look up to anything, when that thing acknowledges that you exist and acknowledges that you are an influence in shaping it. It makes you feel good.”

That’s kind of what I’ve realized that we’re bringing full circle. So we’re not only just like throwing Ghana in there as a rhyme, we’re talking about Accra city. So I’m imagining how people in Accra city feel everytime they hear me say that on a record that is played on whatever level that is big to them...I think the bridge is slowly coming together. It’s gonna take a lot of dialogue musically or [verbally].

Bringing it forward to what your album, what does the word ‘afropolitan’ mean to you? 

To me what an Afropolitan represents is an African in a global context. There are many contexts in which an African can exist. You can be an African in an African context where the conversation is limited to your immediate environment. Then there is an African in the context that isn’t necessarily [the same] but you still have to navigate through it and find what still makes you African in that environment. I look at it from metropolises and how a metropolitan affects an African young or old. I’m not an anthropologist but I can examine the changes that have occurred in say African immigration to the West. So our parents immigrated, a lot of them fleeing from catastrophe that was happening post-independence and people had to be in exile and it was very shaky at the time. Then comes another wave that come for education. So their jobs are to figure out ways to fit in these new worlds. So they come, they are the best students ever. They’re doctors, they’re attorneys, they do well in that space but don’t really have goals of returning because they fled.

It’s really a journey of arriving and returning and finding your place in that return. And finding what you can contribute in that return.”

Then there’s this generation that’s coming up that isn’t really about fleeing, a lot of it is just about access and how can I gain more access so that I can go back? That’s a more urgent conversation that’s happening now. How do I go back? How do I return home? This is merely a path to try to go back with some access. Whether access means financial resource, intellectual resource, whatever resource, but you know that at home it’s challenging to gain that because you don’t have a footing. So a lot of us leave with that goal...I feel like it’s necessary that a lens is shined on this group. That’s why I called the record Afropolitan Dreams. It’s really a journey of arriving and returning and finding your place in that return. And finding what you can contribute in that return. That’s kind of what I feel defines at least my personal Afropolitan Dream.

Jay Balfour is a Philadelphia based freelance writer and editor. In addition to Project Inkblot Jay has written for publications like HipHopDX, Redbull Music Academy, Bonafide Magazine, and more. Get in contact with or follow Jay on Twitter @jbal4_