New Bedford's African immigrant excels in musicBy SIMON RIOS , Associated Press
Jun. 1, 2013 2:31 AM ET
NEW BEDFORD, Mass. (AP) — For Abdourahmane Doumbouya, aka Caliph, New Bedford isn't the Secret City because of its relation to the law — the name is rooted in all of the city's undiscovered brilliance.
"The real reason why it's called The Secret City ... (is because) it's known for having so much talent but no one knowing about it," said Caliph.
Born in the country of Senegal in West Africa, the 23-year-old was brought to New Bedford via France at the age of seven. Too young to know he didn't have legal status in the country, it would be years before he learned he lacked the rights of his peers.
But what can be an insurmountable state for some was something of a blessing for Caliph: He's turned the entirety of his experience into poetry in the form of hip hop.
"My focus is being that voice, to talk about the struggles of what it's like, and just to open the eyes of kids that are here that have the opportunities," he said.
Philosophical in his words, Caliph is a smooth character with eyeglasses reminiscent of Malcolm X.
He recently left New Bedford to pursue his rap career in Boston. In early May, he launched a new CD at a concert in Boston, drawing more than 150 people. Later in the week, he performed at Miller's Homeport in New Bedford.
The album, entitled "Heart in Mind," centers on the dichotomy between emotion and reason.
Caliph's lyrics draw from a long tradition of "conscious rappers," from the current Lupe Fiasco to the old-school Public Enemy. But his style also takes lessons from the "commercial rappers," performers like Jay-Z and Kanye West. His aim is to bridge the gap between the topical lyricism of the former and the rhythmic catchiness of the latter.
"Heart in Mind" contains recordings of Malcolm X and samples from Jay-Z songs, laced with quickly-spit rhymes delving into Caliph's life experience, whether it's about lost love or immigration or family life.
Among the verses on the first track: "My first child got aborted when I was living in daily fear of being deported."
He also raps about losing a scholarship as a result of his status. He still hasn't been able to attend college but aspires to do so in the years ahead.
Part of what inspired Caliph to become a rapper was the absence of a music that spoke to his experience: that of an undocumented African youth living in a post-industrial New England city. Those lyrics to be found nowhere but in his own mind, sung through his own voice.
"Even listening to other people talk about their struggles in music, there was nothing that I really felt I connected with that," he said. "We didn't have a voice; we didn't have anybody that was speaking for us."
Spoken word artist Erik Andrade agrees that Caliph is a legitimate voice of the community. Andrade, an instructor at YouthBuild New Bedford, a program for kids with promise who didn't succeed in the mainstream schools, recently brought Caliph to speak to the class.
Andrade said his words were inspiring to the kids — one even remarked that he wanted to make music.
"His message was about working hard and there's going to be struggle in life but you can get through that," Andrade said.
In addition to his story, it's Caliph's music that Andrade qualified with raised eyebrows as "amazing."
"As a musician, I would say that he's probably one of the better (ones) that I've heard in the last 10 years in hip hop, and that's not just for this local area, that's in general," Andrade said.
Although he's moved away from New Bedford, Caliph says the city is still dear to him, and as an ambassador he hopes to put it on the map through hip hop.
"I got a lot out of New Bedford," he said. "I learned so much. I am who I am thanks to what I've learned and experienced in New Bedford. But it was my turn to tell the rest of the world our story — and my story."
Part of that was because of the struggles he faced growing up here, like moving from one part of town to another — a seemingly minor transition compared with the one between Senegal and the U.S. — but not to a kid trying to find himself.
"I worked so hard to get over being a new kid in the South End that when I got to the North End I had to start over," he said. "When you're a kid you don't really realize it, but when you grow up, it builds that character and it builds a certain sense of self."
"Heart in Mind" can be streamed at caliphmusic.com.