America continues to do it’s best impression of an authoritarian police state as the world watches on, both left and right strands of the political spectrum have been reinvigorated in the fight for supremacy but the waters are muddier than before, and the targets more insidious. The millennial generation, shorn of opportunities afforded to their parents face a dying planet and diminished opportunity, while the spectre of global warfare looms large. In Britain, the threats are much the same, a vote to leave the European Union being hailed as the catalyst for change worldwide – hysterical right wing headlines scream the agenda in print and online while critical thinking and creative expression are shouted down by calls to ‘just get on with it’ or else ‘wait and see’.
A few months back, on the afternoon of President Trump’s inauguration, I found myself sat in a Chelsea Harbour apartment in South West London for a conversation with producer slash rapper DAP The Contract. Nigerian born and raised until he left for boarding school in Harrow and now based in the US (where he has graduated from Brown University), DAP is uniquely placed as an international creative. Travelling to three continents in search of educational attainment has given DAP insight into three Nations currently in a state of flux, Nigeria continues to battle Boko Haram while both Britain and America are immersed in their own swell of right wing populism.
DAP sits behind a keyboard with a tangle of cables and headphones on the table about him, an occupational hazard he seems to barely notice as he tells me about his schooling, “I went to a kind of British school in Nigeria, so everyone was kind of similar, right? Then I came to London and going back home – I always went home, every Christmas, Summer and Easter – every time I come home I felt a step removed. Then you’re back to being a white kid in Nigeria.”
We dive straight into our chat, and having been introduced to him via a YouTube video where he worked briefly with Mark Ronson, recording in the infamous Abbey Road Studio as a result of winning a Converse tracks competition; I was already aware of parts of his story. A classically trained pianist since childhood, DAP passed his ABRSM Grade 8 piano with distinction by 13. “I was a really shy and awkward kid through High School, not because I felt lost – I didn’t feel like I don’t know where I’m from – but I just felt kind of like I’m from a middle space here.” After attending High School in Harrow, DAP went on to Berklee College of Music for two semesters as part of a gap year because, when you are raised by socially conservative, African parents there is no time where you should not be learning, concessions have to be made. A gap year, is by no means a by word for frivolity, passions are indulged in an educational setting. Their purpose? To enrich your career prospects. Or else they cease to have relevance entirely. He tells me of his grandfather’s insistence that he prioritise finishing his education before pursuing his dream: “finish your education first, and you can go and bang your drums after”. DAP plays only piano.
“At 18 I applied to Oxbridge, and that’s partly Nigerian culture as well like, the pressure. Education comes first in that culture, so I applied to Oxford and got an interview, but I didn’t get in and then the morning I was about to accept Bristol Uni my dad calls me – one of the best phone calls ever – and says ‘don’t go to Bristol, you should take a gap year, reapply to Oxford and do the SAT’s and apply to the states as well.’ That’s when everything changed for me.”
So DAP took a year off school, he interviewed for Oxford and took his entrance exam for Berklee, although Oxford was to reject DAP once again, he earned a scholarship to Berklee: “My sister is a musician as well, she was there with me – that was like heaven. Everyday I wake up, I have a music assignment, then I have class, then I make my own music and it was just music, music, music. I was learning Jazz a bit, I was classically trained, meeting musicians, going to shows all the time and then I got into Brown and my dad was like ‘go for it, it’s an Ivy League school’.”
So no one can box you in and that was so important to me, opening my mind, and just becoming more open.”
DAP comes from a family structure that is both worldly and wealthy, boarding school, prep school and the application to Ivy League colleges are normal expectations where he is from but it was leaving his Nigerian mansion that showed him the realities of the way a Black man is perceived in the West. A Nigerian kid with a British accent from his days at Harrow, DAP was now beginning to embed himself in American culture; first at Berklee, and then leaving there to start at Brown University a week later. I ask how he felt he fit into these nations, having been travelling the world for his education since boarding school. How quickly was he able to walk the line between cultures? “They love Harry Potter, they love the Queen so they were like ‘oh my god do you drink tea with the Queen?’ and all those questions happened.” he laughs at the memory, exaggerating his American twang for effect, “but all the conversations would be like this:
‘so what’s your name?’
‘Oh. Where are you from?’
‘I’m from Nigeria.’
‘Then why do you sound like that’
‘I went to boarding school in London’
DAP recalls being at Brown University as the time where he really began to come into his own, studying the classics – Greek and Latin – alongside Computer Music and Multimedia he noticed a raft of changes, “that was the first time I saw people wake up when they’re looking at me, like, ‘oh shit, you’re kind of interesting where are you from?’ I remember I went back home and my Godmother, the first thing she said to me was like, ‘wow, you woke up. I don’t know what changed but you’ve found yourself in America.’ So that attachment with that culture became my main expression.” he speaks of his approach to songwriting and his love of melody, “Hip-Hop happened to be the vessel I connected with most and that allowed me to say exactly what wanted to say the easiest. Hip-Hop was the one that I was like I can execute this and represent myself most effectively. This ended up being the centrepiece for everything, then I bring in Jazz, Soul, Afrobeat, Gospel, Highlife.”
DAP’s music is melody rich and bass heavy, in 2014 he released his fourth musical work – a mixtape entitled GoodBye For Never which The Source magazine quickly labelled the best mixtape of 2014. By turns earthy High Life percussion and Hip Hop heritage, he’s never strictly one thing over another, instead his passion lies in the blend. Something that he feels runs right through himself as a person as well as a musician “I still go home and my vowels are changing, you can hear now I’m British, but my vowels sometimes are a bit American so people are then like ‘you’re British, rapping in an American accent but then you can be as Nigerian as anyone in a second.’ So then I just started to enjoy my being ‘lost’ I didn’t see it as that, I just saw it as I can communicate with any human being of any culture. So taking it back to the music, that’s why my whole thing is the blending because I’ve never been one thing. I’ve always had things pulling me in different directions. In Nigeria, I’m British, in London, I’m Nigerian, in America, they don’t know what I am! I just use it all in music to communicate, I think the best thing about my music is the genre blending and culture blending a the same time.”
The creative expression and liberalism on offer to DAP at Brown University are things he credits with developing him as a musician. Candid discussions on sexuality are commonplace, LGBTQ rights are a concern for all people who care about equality. The freedom that comes from simply being yourself is an idea he always wants to transmit through his music and we talk briefly about notions like ‘#CarefreeBlackBoy’ and ‘#BlackBoyJoy’. The first is a term popularised as a reaction to the criticism of Jaden Smith in a skirt – it’s a movement, an aesthetic and a resistance to dated hyper-masculine perceptions. Young Thug, Tyler, The Creator, Dev Hynes and Chance The Rapper alongside Jaden Smith are all prominent figures of the aesthetic. They represent a new perception of black masculinity and musically, creatively, they continue to work unbound by rigid gender rules.
I ask for DAP’s take on the aesthetic – is this a passing trend? Or a genuine generational shift in the direction of progress? “I was just never stressed about presenting how male I am. I never needed to be the most manly man in the room and I think I noticed it changing around me when music changed. That’s the first time I noticed it when – I think there were probably people doing it before Drake but when that whole movement started happening, where it’s cool to sing and talk about love and girls as a rapper because people were doing that in other genres but when it became cool in rap that’s when I noticed, not that everyone was getting rid of hyper masculinity per se, but everyone opened up a bit more, it gave everyone the opportunity to be emotional, I think it gave everyone the opportunity to be themselves more than anything. It’s more about, stop trying so hard and just be.”
His single ‘Right Now’ is the ultimate expression of where DAP finds himself presently, a citizen of the world, DAP is shown flitting between the worlds he calls home, outside the protective confines of his family estate in Nigeria he set out on a path to learn about his real character in a world that seems insecure and changeable.
It would be remiss, I tell him, to have come to Chelsea Harbour and not ask for his thoughts on the incoming President and the changes facing Americans firstly and then the wider world more broadly, I ask how he sees his role as a musician? As citizens get organised and continue to forge paths of resistance where does music fit in? How can you go about taking a stand? “The reason I took to music so young and so strongly is because nothing moved me more from a young age I always felt the most powerful way to move human beings is music. I also understand it’s very personal and subjective. I genuinely believe that spiritually, Michael Jackson is as powerful as any president. Yeah, we live in a society where there’s laws and things have to be changed but I think mentally, spiritually it’s musicians that really force people’s thought – the good ones, the great ones. I’m realising I’m not Nigerian [in America] I wear a snapback, I sag my pants – like, I’m black.” But, Trump supporters he says, aren’t lunatics, “I started to realise there’s that many people they can’t all be crazy, they actually just believe that this guys is what we need. Genuinely. I’m not scared, I think the day-to-day won’t be affected as much – but I do think it’s going to be very apparent when there’s a consequence or partial consequence of Trump becoming president. Like, ‘shit this is Trump’s America’ I don’t think people will shout more racist shit, I don’t think I’ll be followed more, or be in any more danger than I am – that’s going to be the same.”
DAP goes on to explain that inclusion is the only real tool against the left-right battle lines being drawn in the sand the world over, he speaks of the struggle between progress and tradition. Not only in America, but in Nigeria where attitudes to homosexuality remain closely tied to religion and progress remains slow. Being at Brown University has given DAP a look at what life can be when you are truly confident in your own skin, “I feel like my job is to educate and bring people together. Inclusivity, more often than not, is about being in a room and everyone there – all different colours – are there for the same love. Bringing people together is the resistance. You might like Donald Trump, I might like Obama but we both love Drake – being in that space together forces people to realise.”
DAP’s musical fluidity and continued travel has meant he has always had one foot in a scene at any given time, he remembers the ‘wave’ of Grime while he was in London, Wiley, BBK, he recalls the tremors Talkin’ The Hardest made throughout London in ‘07 and Christmas 2016 he was on stage in Nigeria, the opening act for Skepta and Migos. Now, he says Nigerian’s recognise Skepta is truly just like them, he says although things are changing, “they’re very hard to win over within music. They know now that he’s Nigerian for real, like, he’s our own.”
Next up for DAP is his ‘Two Roads’ EP a record that brings together all the threads that make the man, although he’s reluctant to be labelled a rapper he feels most at home on stage, “I think I heard Kanye West say that like, two years ago in an interview: when I’m on stage you cannot do anything to kill me, to stop me, like that is when I’m the most powerful human being and I’m just comfortable.”
‘Two Roads EP’ is out now and you can stream it here.