AE8. "Langston Hughes any day more than Terry Crews"
Rapper Napoleon da Legend on his "reality rap," anti-imperialist politics & recent collaboration with legendary French rapper Akhenaton
In the few weeks that have passed since I recorded the above interview, Brooklyn-based rapper Napoleon da Legend has released 2 studio albums in English, and a single in French, all in collaboration with Akhenaton (of the iconic French rap group IAM). We spoke on the occasion of Napoleon’s 19-minute track “The End of their World II” coming out.
“We’re so much into the success story, like this person went to a bar, sang, got discovered, and the next day they’re a superstar. I’m using him as an example—I know Jay-Z struggled at some point. I’ve heard stories from people about how he was going around labels for years and nobody wanted to sign him; they said he was too old and this and that. I’m not denigrating Jay-Z, I’m a big fan of his, but you don’t hear this in his raps too much. Me, I want to give the whole picture, that’s all.”
In this century of international civil society where struggles of oppressed peoples anywhere are increasingly becoming a part of the lives of ordinary people everywhere, I firmly believe that artists creatively issuing statements of solidarity with and support for these struggles worldwide, absolutely can and must reach the masses regardless of with or without the permission of gatekeepers who ultimately answer to capital. Two encounters with two vastly different artists in vision, form and content—both on friends Jason Myers’s and Pascal Robert’s punk-ass podcast THIS IS REVOLUTION—affirmed this optimism in being “an artist of the people” albeit to different degrees. One was an interaction with Dwayne “Mr. Fish” Booth, an anarchist cartoonist whose repertoire seemed largely to involve giving the war machine the bird, sometimes even on its own dime; the other was my first time on the podcast, and meeting the subject of today’s alien encounter left me with a more badass model of being a revolutionary artist in the present-day—a “Napoleonic Code” that’s nothing like the original.
In just under a decade, Napoleon Da Legend has put out three times as many albums and mixtapes, so much so he lives up to his stage name, which sure enough involves the conceit of “conquering bars” as the artist puts it. Born in Paris, France, to migrant parents from two different African islands, and having grown up playing basketball in Maryland before he moved to Brooklyn in search of the proverbial promised land of independent art, Napoleon in his poetry sounds at once small-town aspirational and international. If he captures the particularities of his immigrant experience growing up through brutally honest confessionals, he offers perceptive commentary—backed often by Black radical wisdom—on the affairs of an increasingly globalized political economy organized around war, oppression and strife, which the rapper sees even hip-hop stars and other purveyors of “Black excellence” as also aiding and abetting, wittingly or unwittingly.
Turning the conceit of rappers talking a big game, Napoleon is most effective when he thus personalizes his anti-imperialist struggle, as he does in these lines from the track “1 Coin 2 Sides,” from The Whole in My Heart Pt. 2, one of this year’s releases:
Politically I’m Cornell more than Kanye West
But still I can enjoy his art, and I wish him all the best
Truthfully take Fred Hampton over O.J. Simpson
Cause my brain wasn’t wired just to obey systems
Dave Chappelle, George Carlin when I’m riding on Harlem
Feel the soul of Marcus Garvey pan-African talking
Langston Hughes any day over Terry Crews
Given how much of a boogeyman the term continues to be in US politics and culture, it’s telling that Napoleon likens himself to the revolutionary poet not only because Hughes was a card-carrying member of Communist Party USA, but also because Napoleon is politically-educated enough—as testified by his routine appearances on leftist podcasts such as The Nomiki Show and previously the late Michael Brooks’s internationalist joint—to know and have alluded to the history of suppression of Black radicals in the US. Indeed, in our conversation, Napoleon points out how even an “uber-masculine figure such as Crews, among other such figures of “Black excellence” in current American society, are confined to holding political positions that don’t stir the pot, especially at times when someone with a platform as large as the Brooklyn Nine-Nine actor could really move the needle if they wanted. What’s Napoleon’s way out of this seeming inevitability of artists having to answer to capital, towards forging a truly independent practice, let alone a revolutionary one such as Gil Scott Heron, Paul Robeson or Langston Hughes forged? Listen to the interview to find out!