“When I was 13, said by 25, I want to be the best rapper alive,” Negash Ali declares on his latest single, “Fire In The Sky.” If there really is such a thing as a true “rags-to-riches” star, then the Eritrean rapper is it. Born in Scandinavia, raised in Denmark, and now living in London, Negash spent most of his childhood in a refugee camp—and he’s got the scars to prove it. He has a backstory that is authentically rugged, but it’s his familiarity with hard reality that makes his breakout all the more remarkable. So far, his career has been dictated mostly by hard graft. In 2009, the 23-year-old released his critically-acclaimed debut album, Asmarino, which propelled him into the mainstream arena.
But having spent the last few years penning songs for other artists as well as touring with the likes of Ne-Yo, Wiz Khalifa and Nas—Negash is now eager to become a prominent name in his own right. His latest EP, The African Dream, is a compilation of lyrical poetry that is brimming with emotion and wisdom. Scandinavia isn’t exactly known as a hip-hop capital, but Negash is on track to change that. Curious as to how the rapper, songwriter and producer intends to do so, we caught up with him as he prepared for the release of his latest project.
RESPECT: Let’s begin by talking about your progression. How are you finding it? Music is a really different place compared to what it used to be.
It’s definitely not the same playing field like it was five years ago, so many things have changed. When I started out I was primarily doing full projects – studio albums,nothing else – up until everything went all digital. Now things are different because when you do an album, you have to work quickly because the stuff that’s on there might be outdated. So that just means you have to be more connected with the movement and more immediate than before. However, it’s kind of like a double-edged sword, because it can also compromise the level of the music because of the rush to get it out there at a certain time.
How did you hone your style? Did it take a lot of practice or did you come out of the womb spitting?
[Laughs] I obviously had a knack for it, but originally I started when I was around 11 or 12. I really practiced my ass off, listening to old tapes. In terms of honing the craft, it’s just hard labor, man. At one point, I was getting inspiration from so many different places, which usually would have come out in my rap.
You create tales of physical and psychological mayhem in your music. It’s something that most artists do, but for many people these tales are very realist. Do you deliberately aim to create in your own space?
I think that if it connects with me it will connect with other people, so in that sense I feel like every time I’m doing something that’s not true or connecting with me, I have a great sense that it won’t connect with other people as well. So I feel like I just have a responsibility to myself when I write. It could be hypothetical but it should at least have some sort of real-life affliction, something that a listener can essentially relate to on some level. The landscape is very much talking about stuff that you don’t have and constantly talking about stuff that you want, but a lot of that stuff don’t connect with me. I try to make things that where people can feel my personality and connect with me.
I think there’s something striking about going against the expected and perhaps finding importance in things that aren’t necessarily recognized. Do you feel that sense of responsibility with your music, like wanting to educate people?
I go into the studio every time to tell a story and whether that story is emotional or rational, I think that my aim is to make a track that will converse that story. I feel like a lot of people are oblivious to a lot of immigrants’ pasts. I feel that a bigger understanding at certain times between human beings from different cultures is something I would really like to bridge with my music. It’s important for Africans in Europe to be unique. We always look towards the American dream, but never tend to look in the direction of our own roots.
What was the impetus to begin The African Dream EP and create this account of your journey from childhood to current life?
I used to write a lot of stuff for other people and spent much of my time focusing on writing and whatnot. I moved to London from Denmark to kind of get some new air and a broader spectrum of outlets, and I just felt that it was time for me to tell that story of who I really I am, where I really come from and things that are important to me. I wanted to present the paradox of every time I’m back home in Africa and every time I speak to my family, they express their dream to come here. At the end of the day, the African dream is a commentary of my life.
Are you living the African dream?
I would definitely say that, yes. Every African living in Europe, in the eyes of Africans back home, is living the African dream.
Your lyrical approach, particularly on “Fire In The Sky”, is very poetic. Is that intentional?
What I really wanted it to be about was general ups and downs and to kind of have a strong sense of purpose, you know, that voice that everyone hears telling them, “I’m destined for something great.” I also wanted to touch on my personal struggles to get to a place where I can live off my music. After getting signed a lot of people started to have the idea that I was lucky, but no, that’s not true. I managed to get a sense of my purpose, and I spent a great deal of time working my ass off for many years. I just wanted to tell that story and mellow it out with Siff’s soft vocals on the hook, with some aggressive verses. The hook might not be very hip hop, but the verses are still in that lane. I draw from so many different places that a lot of the time they all collide.
There’s a line on “Fire In The Sky” — “When I was 13, said by 25, I want to be the best rapper alive”— How confident are you that this will happen?
If I can stay on the same course and go extremely, extremely hard and raise my focus, I think it’s very possible. You have to think like that as a rapper, you don’t want to fucking go for second best, you know what I mean?
You also give mention to Tupac, who was such a pioneer for hip hop. Is there anyone that you see from our generation that’s continuing his legacy?
I really think Kendrick Lemar is on to it. I look forward to his next album and can’t wait to see which direction he will be taking. He has that same type of prophet delivery about him and also Kanye West.
Everything I’ve read in your bio seems to focus on your background in a refugee camp, where you spent most of your years in Scandinavia. What does survival mean to you?
I would say that there’s two main dimensions to life; there’s the one where you’re surviving and there’s the other where you’re living. But survival is essentially what the word says and making sure that you have all the factors you need to stay alive. You really have to consider those things, so that you don’t end up trying to find time for self-realization.
Do you think that coming from Scandinavia as opposed to New York or London has enabled you to create your own style?
Yeah, I definitely think so. In Scandinavia, it’s so different. In the early ‘90s you had to be a hip-hop fanatic to be able to find music. It wasn’t accessible at all. You couldn’t just go to the record shop and pick up a Tupac or Eminem CD; you had to be very proactive. People in Scandinavia are very different from people in the UK, and coming over here I’ve seen the difference in the way people carry themselves. Leaving a traditional Muslim home and coming into the western world, I feel like that’s the kind of vibe that is reflected on the EP.
What do you see when you look in the mirror?
I feel like I’ve obviously taken qualities from my religion, my surroundings and the culture that I have grown up around. In many sense, I am living in two worlds, which can be contradictory at times, so you become that person in the middle in search of peace. So when I look in the mirror now, I see a lot of colors that have kind of made a new color.
What really put you on the radar, I think, was writing for Jadakiss and supporting the likes of Ne-Yo, Wiz Khalifa and Nas. I sense that sort of exposure adds a lot of layers to your work?
Yeah, and I also think from just being around their energy. There’s nothing more exhilarating than standing in front of 10,000 or 20,000 people and just seeing hands in the air. To me, that is the biggest feeling next to playing a track that you haven’t even finished and watching the reaction from another person. On the other hand, performing and receiving that reaction in real-time is definitely something you can’t really grasp. You travel with these artists from gig to gig and watch them from behind and you’re like “These guys are not just musicians, they’re super fucking entertainers.” A lot of those live experiences made me think about the whole process of creating music like, how it’s going to sound when you present it in front of a live audience.
Your vocal style often draws parallels to Jadakiss. I think your voice does have that gritty kind of feel. You almost sound like him. Do you worry that such comparisons will overshadow you?
I will be honest with you; I really don’t [laughs]. Then again, I like the fact that Jadakiss and Busta Rhymes, who have super characteristic voices, were the voices I loved when growing up. I used to always say, “That’s how I’m going to rap.” However, I think I’m now at that level where I want my style to be unique, which is a journey that will obviously take time. Nevertheless, I’m happy that you’ve said that because it was definitely my aim when I was a kid.
Let’s talk about “What You Got.” Was that track inspired from a personal experience?
I just wanted to write from the different channels of frustration, you know, that person I was when I use to say, “Fuck the system.” I just wanted to put that perspective across. For example, when you’re driving around in a car and you’re just looking for trouble, you know that fuck-the-world vibe? “What You Got” was just fluent and very natural. I want it to be the soundtrack for people when they are riding around looking for trouble [laughs].
Some people say hip hop has run out of creativity. What are you doing to overcome this ethos?
It’s extremely important for me not to listen to too much hip hop. I don’t know why, but I tend to go for motions in different genres and then try to convert them into my music. Generally, I would say it’s become a lot humorous in hip hop. It’s hard to kind of draw that line between hip hop and rap sometimes. I’m happy for artists like J. Cole, Drake and Kendrick Lemar, who are at their peak. I’ve watched them for years and for me, I feel like I’m going towards that peak, which is what makes rap super interesting again. In terms of creativity, I feel like it’s now opening up a bit more.
I recently had somebody say to me that rappers today don’t want to be stars anymore. They want to be artists. Can you relate to that?
Yeah. I think it’s become normal for rappers to shout about people and influential artists like Andy Warhol. Fashion and music and everything is also becoming so integrated that your image is equally important.
If you were on house arrest for a week and couldn’t smoke, drink, make music, use social media or watch TV, what would you do?
Can I read?
Yes, I guess so…
[Laughs] Well, that will be a good reason for me to pick up a book for once.
You might also like
More from Features
Up and coming artist, Goon Des Garcons* has recently released his debut album, Sheesh! and this is one project you …
5ive Talks About Being From the South That Birthed of Hip-Hop Music, Having a Distinctive Sound and More
RESPECT.: How did you get your name? What is the meaning of it and how it spelt? I got the name …
RESPECT.: How did you come up with the song “Sundress?” What were the vibes of it? I was on Facebook and …