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Kokou Kah: Casually lit, seriously committed to music and community

Kokou Kah.
Kokou Kah.courtesy the artist

by Jay Gabler

December 31, 2021

In a biweekly series of features, we’re inviting Minnesota artists to introduce themselves to our audience. Today: Kokou Kah, a rapper who describes his music as a “true fusion.” The artist, currently living in Brooklyn Center, is part of the lineup at First Avenue’s Best New Bands on Jan. 7. Update 1/5: Best New Bands has been postponed to March 4.

My cousins and I used to rap: just beating on the tables, you know, making beats. In high school, I started a rock band, just kind of playing around with it. When I went into college, I was able to put on shows, put up different artists in the city. I put on shows at the Cabooze, at Amsterdam Bar & Hall, the Nomad, and places like that. I had a group of artists I was friends with, just wanting to help them out. My favorite word is ubuntu: I am because you are, and you are because I am. If I live in the same space as you and coexist, why should I not help you?

Coming to Minnesota

I've been helped a lot myself. I’m a Liberian immigrant; I came here when I was six years old. I became homeless when I was 17. I had some friends who I was making music with that helped me out. Those friends became like family. I used to go by Willie Art back then. My middle name is Wilmot: Kokou Wilmot Kah. When I graduated college is when I started going by Kokou, just to be able to take ownership for who I am, because people used to make fun of me because of my first name.

When I was homeless, I got taken by a family, and they were nice and they were helpful, but I also experienced racial bias in their home as well, and I had to deal with that. Even at Bethel University, when I went there, there was a lot of racial bias against folks that look like me. I led a march over there, because one time there was a rock incident. You could write anything on the rock, just to uplift or whatever, and when Philando Castile got shot and killed somebody wrote his name on there. Students came in, crossed it out, put “blue lives matter.”

Music has always been who I am. It keeps me uplifted, keeps me hopeful, and it just allows me to express my story. It can make you dance, but also there's that little piece that makes you think about it. Music allows me to orchestrate the character that I want to be, not what I'm supposed to be, who I should be. My uncle, who taught me how to write music, he got incarcerated when I was in was seventh grade. Then he got deported back home to Liberia, and then he got murdered by his own dad. That's the stuff I've gone through. I’m dealing with that.

What music means

The music industry is very competition-based. I don't care about that. I just want to make you shake your foot, I want to make you dance, I want to make you think. I’ve spent a lot of time by myself, reading books: I was an English major at Bethel. In the books I find my own world, my own understanding, create my own essence of who I want to be, because I can be a lot of things. I just want to let people know: you can still do your own dance, you can find your own jig. You don't have to be the caricature of what somebody depicts in their mind, nor do you have to run away from their depictions. You can just stand still and be as you are.

Music takes time. I'm 27, and I've always backed away from the scenes that I knew weren't genuine or weren't ready: I just can't dive into that world. That’s cost me, maybe, notoriety or connections or whatever, but I just like to stay true to who I am. And, you know, I'm not perfect. I have a song called “Bridges”: “I'm not perfect/ I'm just trying to find my way.” It’s Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. It's about going from Canterbury, the old, to London, to the new world. You live in between those worlds.

I'm not really too political. I'm not really too over-the-top, but I get involved because I know what it takes to cause change. When I perform, I will say “Black lives matter” on stage. Stuff like that matters, you know, because people have to understand: it's not a knock on you. This is history, and this is what has been done. This is how you can uplift. Many people have marched and many people have cried.

Liberia was founded because of free slaves. James Monroe, when he was president, he decided to send slaves back, thinking that it was going to help them. So you had free slaves that were sent back and created Liberia, which became Monrovia, and they were mixing with indigenous people. That's why you have one star in the Liberian flag, but it looks like the American flag.

Music allows me at least this one scope that I can say who I want to be. I’m trying to build a world that I think is genuine and I can make other people feel good. When I’ve done wrong, I admit it, and oftentimes I admit it in my songs. So that's just my vibe, and just who I am.

Music and identity

When I do photo shoots, I wear makeup. I wore a skirt at this fashion show, and people started asking me “Are you gay? What's your sexuality?” I don't think, at the end of the day, like, my identity depends on if I'm gay, Muslim, Christian, any of that. It shouldn’t depict how you view me, no matter what. I'm a clean slate kind of guy. Let's just remain neutral. Don't even put anything on me until I tell you, “This is what it is.” We have to be able to hold it all in the same space.

The differences that we think are there, let's celebrate. Celebrate looking good. Let’s celebrate being in love with someone of the same sex. Let’s celebrate being Muslim, let's celebrate being Hindu, celebrate all of it. If we're celebrating it, let's keep on doing it. If we're not celebrating it, then [let’s try] to find a reason why we're not celebrating it and deal with that. That’s kind of my vibe: casually lit.

My music is a true fusion, because I've met so many different people throughout my life. You’ve got hip-hop, you’ve got jazz, you’ve got some trap music in there. My song “Wanderlust” has got an electronic vibe. I’ve worked with some cool producers. I worked with Lazerbeak on “Bridges,” “Love is Therapy,” and “Riding Smooth.” I’ve got that Afro-fusion, dancehall vibe as well.

“Bridges” talks about the issues are going on in the world. “This city’s on fire, and there’s 10,000 lakes/ We’re drowning in tears; if we could, we’d wipe them all away.” This is real: there’s so much around us that could put out the fire. This is a lot of the stuff that I feel on the daily. Then the second verse is like, “I don't feel right these days…trapped in a box, but they blame it on me.” I feel stuck sometimes in life, like I'm trying my best to be this or represent that or not be the stereotype, just because where I come from.

You know, not having my mom or dad or grandpa or anyone like that, I'm going into these white spaces that don't understand who I am, into these homes that take me in because they see, okay, I'm not a threat to them. My own grandma told me - my birth grandma - she was like, “Most kids in your situation will end up in the streets.” I'm like, yeah, but you're the reason why I’ve had to dodge all these situations.

So that song really just speaks to a lot of the stuff that I've been through. There's been a lot of bridges burned, but I'm still trying to find my way and swim through. I'll learn how to swim, if I have to swim to get across. I learned how to flow with the current, figure it out. You can create a bridge for yourself and others around you. It’s sometimes about error, and being humble enough to say, okay, I'm not perfect. We can do that.

There's situations when people use my skin color as a threat to me. I can get mad - I've been there, of course, because it's not fun - but as I've gotten older, I'm learning that people can be taught. I may not want to be the teacher, but at the end of the day, we all can be taught. Those that outright say they don't want to learn or they don't care about it, it's like…well, if this is brought to the table, and you don't want to eat, and I can't force you to eat, but at least let it be brought to the table.

So “Bridges” is really one of those songs, trying to create the picture of the world that I want. It's the first one I'll be performing at the show [Best New Bands], just kind of rock it out with the band and try to get people grooving.

What’s next

I'm dropping a song called “Too Sad,” [produced by] Balloon Beats. He’s out of Massachusetts. It’s got an EDM vibe. It talks about [how] in music, I've lost some of my close friends. There's also people [who] when they see me going in other spaces, then they, contact me. I'm like, no, I just want to grow love. I love making music because I enjoy it, but it's not the embodiment of who I am: I'm a full human being. So [the song is] like, “Fake friends/ All up in my text message, replace them/ It's really unfortunate/ This knife hurts, backstab, I can’t escape/ Can be too sad/ I ignore the red flags.”

I've gone back to places where I've been abandoned and abused, because I grew up on the Christian faith, and I forgive when people do wrong. So I kind of let people walk over me oftentimes, because I care, give my shirt off my back, time and time again. It's oftentimes just for money or a situation like…I got close to my birth dad, actually, he hit me up from Africa. And he's talking to me, and eventually it came down to, “Oh, just bring me to America.” I'm like, bro, I've been sleeping out of my car. I've been homeless since I was a kid. Just because I'm making music and stuff, that doesn't mean I have it all. I've been struggling and trying to make it.

I haven't had a manager or anything like that; just kind of been blasting people who are in the industry, and I’ve built relationships with. It's all about relationships, and keeping them genuine, listening to other people and sharing stories. I think the music industry can be a place where that's cultivated, and we teach people how to really live, and how to build a good community.

We’ve got to stop being “Minnesota nice”; we’ve got to open our eyes. For too long we’ve ignored the red flags. I will tell people about the racism that was going on in my life. And oftentimes it doesn't get believed until George Floyd gets killed, you know? And then we get too sad, and it's like, we can't be too sad, because this has been here in our face. The things you ignore are always gonna come back and show up, so we just have to be awake.

I want to make people dance, make them feel awake. Don’t fall asleep. Oprah Winfrey talks about being the highest and truest expression of yourself. You’ve just got to be that, and we can't be too sad: we’ve got to be awakened. But I just want to dance it out… “Too sad, I ignore the red flags/ I’ve been lost, but I’ve found myself again.” It’s like: let’s go!

Stylized portrait of Kokou Kah against white background.
Kokou Kah.
courtesy the artist
Clean Water Land & Legacy Amendment
This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.