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Perhaps the French would’ve taken the Germans in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 to 1871 if they had had Henry Koba Jr. represent them in a rap slamfest. France’s Emperor Napoleon III received a brutal ass-whupping back then; but in Friday night’s German/French hiphop rally at Howard University, the Francophone contingent proved victorious.
Bastian Boettcher, a clever, middle-class white boy from Weimar, made an earnest attempt to bring German hiphop to a Howard audience. Last summer, he scored a rap hit on MTV Europe with “Sommersonne” (“Summer Sun”). Friday night, he recited his urban schtick, all the while staying “true to my background,” as he repeatedly stated.
One song, roughly translated, goes like this: “Saturday night on a party run/Folks moving from club to local pub/Relaxed—becoming very cool/Let in by the doorman then left alone.”
Representatives from the Goethe Institut, the German cultural organization that sponsored the event, insisted that German can be funny and even pleasant to the ear. “The German language has plenty of rhythm and humor, and I hope you will enjoy that,” went one introduction for Boettcher. But somewhere over the course of the next two hours, something was lost in translation. Hiphop seems a strange medium in which to describe wintertime sledding in the Bavarian Alps.
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Koba, a former Howard student, performed two numbers. Both were accompanied by well-received, pumping background beats. “Hiphop around the world,” he sang occasionally, the phrase sandwiched between pleasant-sounding French verses.
To judge from the crowd’s positive reaction, English-speakers have a greater visceral appreciation for French; German is a bit more difficult to swallow. And, although he no longer performs professionally, Koba retains a credible stage presence. After all, he used to rap in a French teenybopper hiphop act called Color.
“We used to play in Paris, Lyon—all over France. We would open for acts like MC Solaar,” Koba recalls. His parents are diplomats from the Central African Republic who were once assigned to Washington; Koba ended up staying. In December, he’ll graduate from the University of Maryland.
“When I perform, I say I’m a magnificent MC,” he says. “I oversee the other MCs. I say that whenever you sample [other people’s music], stay true to the art—look out for other MCs.”
After he finishes his business degree, he expects to get back into the mix. He knows a few producers in town and is pretty keen on trying to popularize French rap in the area. “Hiphop culture is something that I’m embracing,” he says. “It’s a descendant of African culture that was brought by slaves to America. All it is is a variation on the music of my culture.”
Still, Koba believes that people like Boettcher can produce legitimate hiphop: “You can be bourgeoisie or an MC from the streets. Hiphop touches people from all different classes.” —Guy Raz