PREMIERE: Bas Hits Tokyo in New Mini-Doc
"Travel is the best educator." The Queens wordsmith gets in-depth with 'Mass Appeal' on Trump, the travel ban, his new album, and what to do post-Obama
As Bas recounts the events of the past year—from his personal journeys, to the election—he sounds more relaxed than ever. This is impressive, considering the fact that he has family in Sudan who can’t make it to his brother’s wedding thanks to Trump’s travel ban, and considering the daily outpouring of media propaganda that continually marginalizes Middle Eastern culture. But despite his tone, it’s all a big deal to the Queens-based rapper, born Abbas Hamad, whose family has East African Muslim roots.
The Dreamville-affiliated artist has spent the last year-and-change traveling, including at least three trips to Tokyo—he’s an avid fan of anime and the cutting-edge technology Japan is known for. After his first visit to the city, he returned home to America and brought members of his tight-knit team with him, including his manager Derek and labelmate Cozz. They eventually produced a mini documentary, which he’s premiering with Mass Appeal today. “You can read about it all you want, and you can look it up, but until you just jump into another culture, with its own social norms and traditions and all of those things, and really immerse yourself in it, there’s no way to know,” Bas explains.
The short’s concept, derived from Bas’ personal travels, is analogous to today’s political ethos. As the 45th President of the United States continues to look down on anything not born and bred in America—or maybe Russia—it’s important to maintain a fundamental understanding of how different cultures can work together towards a common goal. Bas talked with us about how that understanding has affected his community, his relationships and the direction of his highly anticipated third LP.
Mass Appeal: Why was Tokyo such a draw for you?
Bas: Since I was younger I’ve always been into stuff like anime, the cars—all those things that came from there were always intriguing to me. A friend of mine had gone and just kept talking about it, and I was like, “Man, I gotta check it out and see it for myself.” First time I went out there I was with my brother and another friend of mine. I ended up going back like three times in that year. So, yeah, I just dig it.
The doc talks about how important it is to unify cultures, but also shows the importance in respecting the differences. What do you think ordinary civilians can do to move in that direction?
I think we have to just get out of the bubble. All these bubbles that keep people apart are really just built off of misinformation and propaganda, and all types of ways that people’s thinking is manipulated. When you actually have the experiences for yourself, or give someone else that experience that they’ve never had, you’re shattering all those stereotypes and breaking people out of their bubble. Everyone should at least attempt to do that for your own growth, and of course for the next man.
You were born in Europe, but you grew up in America and spent a lot of your formative years here. What was it like coming up in a place like Queens? To some extent Queens can be the world to a lot of people. How do you communicate with your peers and let them know there’s a lot more out there?
The most important thing you get from growing up in these different places, or from experiences in other countries, is you get to understand people better. So the more that you can see, the easier it is to make connections with people. I remember having those problems when I was making friends, or meeting new people, because you learn how people are everywhere, and it kind of helps you apply it to communications with people you knew. So with my homies—and with anyone—you just have to show them. It’s like you saw at the end of the doc piece, when we’re talking about travel being the best form of education. There’s no other way to gain that perspective. You can read about it all you want, and you can look it up, but until you go and just jump into another culture, with its own social norms and traditions and all of those things, and really immerse yourself in it, there’s no way to know. There’s nothing like just doing it, taking your time, setting aside the resources and knowing you’ll probably get more out of that than you know—any materialistic things you’re spending that money on.
I’ve never in life regretted spending on travel. You never do. You’ll have those experiences that really help shape who you are, who you’ll become, and the way you view the world. You know, there’s a reason that bit with Cozz is the first thing you see. That’s the mission statement behind this piece. I want to dive into all these cultures that we enjoy and learn from, and try to bridge the gap.
I remember when you released Too High to Riot. how precarious the political landscape was at the time. We weren’t quite in the ‘Holy shit, this Trump thing is going to happen’ part yet, but there were signs. What was the moment that you can point to that made you realize that THTR was the album that you had to make right at that moment in your career and in American society?
It goes back to travel and gaining perspective. I can’t point to one moment, but a lifetime of seeing these things. You see inequality, and some of the ways these things are being handled in other places. The way we worship money here, there’s nothing above it, whether it’s child care or education. But then you go to other places and those things are subsidized. Then it’s like, ‘What’s up with our priorities?’ And you’re right, it wasn’t Trump yet, but all those things were already obvious and happening, and to me Trump is just really the effects of the way inequality is moving in a sense.
How it’s manifested itself in every corner of society.
Trump’s the by-product of that.
Right, you’ve got a billionaire TV character with no political experience. And he’s not a president. So, you know, all those things were appearing, and he was the icing on that cake.
In that vein, I just re-watched the “Penthouse” video, which was shot in Shibuya, the heart of Tokyo. When you’re walking out of the building when the first verse starts, you look up at the sky and pull your hoodie over your head looking exasperated, and you say, “If lawyers steal and doctors lie/ What’s really left for you and I?” Do you feel like there’s a threshold of optimism that we now can’t reach, considering the way things have gone over the last 18 months?
It’s not the most hopeful of times. You feel betrayed, in a sense, by what’s going on. We don’t all conduct ourselves a certain way, we don’t all believe certain things. And I believe the majority of us don’t live our lives in a certain way, but we’re the ones taking the Ls. And it’s a good question you asked about the optimism, because I’m really just trying to be honest. But these are the thoughts I have. I’m a pretty optimistic person, but I have to paint the reality. You have those thoughts. You think about the other side of the coin and what keeps you grounded in reality. You’re not just living in a fantasy world. And the funny thing is, a lot of us were. No one was expecting this.
Do you think maybe black people took their foot off the pedal because Obama was president? People that looked at things closely enough knew that there was a precipice there—there was a cliff that things could potentially fall off. But because Obama was president, do you think there was maybe a tendency to go, “You know what? Don’t worry about it. It’s cool”?
I think maybe we took for granted that it was some sign of change that wasn’t gonna have a major pushback. I think what we’re seeing with the Tea Party, and the way the conservatives and the right have embraced Trump, that’s a response to eight years of Obama. We thought those were things that we were moving forward on, but they’re not going down without a fight, clearly. And, you know, how they’re trying to manipulate everything from the media, to what’s going on in the White House, it’s really troubling what’s going on.
You have family in Sudan, correct?
Have you talked to them recently about the travel ban and how it’s affecting their lives?
I have family members that can’t come for my brother’s wedding. You know, siblings. It’s life, but these are the real life consequences of what’s happening.
How does this frame this next phase of your career? I imagine you’ve been in the studio drawing inspirations from your travels. Your first retail offering, Last Winter was sort of autobiographical to an extent. Whereas on Too High to Riot, you have this traction where you have the ability to pivot, like ‘Now that you guys know me, let me tell you what’s really going on.’ What is the next statement that you have to deliver now?
You know, even with THTR, it wasn’t a political album. It was really based off of my life, my perspective, which has driven all my work, just providing my perspective. In the years since, I’ve just been finding ways to ground myself, with family and friends and love and all these things that sometimes elude you on this road. I think on Too High to Riot I was just really reflecting on being in it for a couple of years, and certain ways in which we compromise the self and certain things we notice and don’t act on. I keep finding more clarity, and I’ve been trying to ground myself on this journey to get from there to here.
I think Too High to Riot was accidentally political in a sense. It was very introspective. There were just some inevitable things that you had to navigate, like “Black Owned Business.” As a black man in America, you can’t have the conversation about financial progress without also having the conversation about unifying black money.
I agree, it wasn’t like I set out to do that, but it ended up being a by-product of the things that were inspiring me. And that’s dope, and I think that’s how I’d always want it to be. I’d want it to be presented in the scope of my life, and how these things going on in the world affect me and affect the people around me, and the people of my generation. But I don’t think I’d ever want to just set out to be [political] for the sake of making a song about it. Even “Black Owned Business,” I wrote that roughly two days after we got back from Ferguson, so it was inspired by conversations we were having amongst ourselves.
So definitely, I think accidentally political is a great way to put it. But also maybe not that accidental, because you look at the artwork, it’s me when I was four years old when we were staying in the Middle East. And I’m holding this toy gun because I used to like Rambo, and all those action movies from back in the day. But you’re looking at it, and you don’t know my life, you can draw the wrong stereotypes out of it. So that was a point that I wanted to make with the artwork, on how the media manipulates. They’ll show you an image of some people overseas, in the Middle East, and it sparks the feeling of criminal and terrorism, and these are things that can keep people in that bubble.
You mentioned Ferguson. I want to know your take on being an artist but also being an activist, or also being someone who’s active on the protest front. How do you react when people say ‘Oh, he’s just doing that because he’s promoting an album,’ or ‘He’s just doing that because J. Cole was out there’?
I mean, those are matters of conviction. It’s not like I’m doing it for anybody, it’s not like I’m doing it because of what someone may think of it. I’m doing it because it feels like the right thing to do, I’d feel wrong for not doing it. I’ve never necessarily even thought of that, nor have I cared. Because it’s something that means something to me. And when something means something to you, you can’t be fazed by how someone else is interpreting it when you know why you’re doing it.
Being grounded enough to understand that this is the mission that you have to go on.
Exactly. If it’s important to you then you have to act on it. You have to act on the things that are important to you. I don’t expect that from everybody, and I don’t think it makes you any less of a good person than me, it’s not about that. It’s about what matters to you, what makes your blood boil or what makes your mind race. You have to address it.
I remember when Jay and Kanye took the Watch the Throne tour to Paris, I remember they did an interview where they spoke to the way an environment—even just the buildings, the aesthetics, the clothes people wear—has an affect on the overall sound of a project. When you recorded in Tokyo, did you feel that energy having an affect on your music?
Yeah. I mean, sonically and a lot of the art direction. The colors we see, and the warmth you take from that, it definitely drew, like, a genesis in Tokyo. And I’ve pretty much been chasing that since, and I’ve been there maybe two or three more times, the most recent trip this past October being the one we’re releasing this documentary for. The working title for the playlist on which I’m arranging my new album is inspired by Tokyo. It’s definitely a huge impact. Even the energy of the city is incredible, people go out, and you could be out until noon or 1 p.m. the next day, and it’s like, that’s normal. It’s constant energy, bright lights, it’s a cool vibe.
What are your thoughts on the latest Dreamville signing of J.I.D.? What’s it been like being around him, if you’ve been around him in a significant capacity?
Me and Ced were like, the first to meet J.I.D. He was on the These Days tour I did with Ab-Soul in 2014, along with Earthgang. Man J.I.D.’s dope, that dude can really rap. He brings the cool twist of Atlanta, but also lyrical in the way that you have to be on Dreamville. You know, I’m excited. His new project, The Never Story, is dope, he played it for me Grammy weekend. That’s coming soon. I think he’s dope and a great addition. I’m excited to get some music done with him.