Talk about taking it back to the motherland. A few years ago while reading Maya Angelou's "All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes," M.anifest ran into a familiar name in the book: that of his maternal grandfather back in Ghana.
"I always only thought of him as the guy my mother and I lived with growing up," the Twin Cities hip-hop star said of J.H. Kwabena Nketia, who is one of Africa's most respected ethnomusicologists. He employed Angelou when she lived in Ghana in the 1960s.
"It opened my eyes to that musical connection I have with my grandfather, and with all of Ghana," the rapper said.
Reading about his grandfather helped push the real-life Kwame Amet Tsikata, 29, into reclaiming his West African roots -- a sort of reverse rite of passage that plays a big role in his buoyant, personal new album, "Immigrant Chronicles: Coming to America," which he celebrates with a release party Saturday at the Fine Line. It was also one of several serendipitous cross-continent connections that have become defining points in a music career now on the verge of an international breakthrough.
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M.anifest's Cross-Atlantic Serendipity, Case #2: M.anifest moved to Minnesota from Ghana in 2001 to attend Macalester College, knowing nothing about the Twin Cities music scene or its African population. He started rapping in high school, but only after he arrived did he learn the Twin Cities has the kind of hip-hop scene "generous enough to accept an outsider like me."
"And I'm from far outside the scene," he cracked last week over a lunch of sambusa at Midtown Global Market's Safari Express. His attire spoke volumes: a wooden Africa-shaped necklace and colorful batik-style shirt under a black Puma track jacket that any other rapper in town might show up wearing.
M.anifest hit the scene in a relatively big way straight out of college in 2007, when he issued his debut, "Manifestations." The album earned interest nationally (a track was used in an online Pepsi ad) and internationally (labels in Europe and Japan reissued it). Locally, it ranked No. 5 in our year-end Twin Cities Critics Tally and quickly made him a fixture at hip-hop and world-music gigs.
"M.anifest was accepted because he is what he creates," said scene ringleader Toki Wright, host of Saturday's release party. "He says, lives, breathes, and performs the same authenticity. He's not trying to fit into some category of what's 'acceptable' Minnesota hip-hop."
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M.anifest's Cross-Atlantic Serendipity, Case #3: The connection that could blow up M.anifest's international profile happened over in Spain -- with a British rock star.
Yes, that was our M.anifest hanging with Damon Albarn of Blur and other rock royalty (Mick Jones of the Clash, Bobby Womack) backstage at Target Center last October, when the all-star Gorillaz tour came to town. Albarn, the group's Afrobeat-loving leader, enlisted M.anifest the previous summer in his revolving-cast music ensemble Africa Express for festivals in Spain and France.
"He complemented me on my performance and suggested the possibility of doing something else in the future," M.anifest recounted. "I took the compliment, but I really didn't think anything was going to happen."
He can't say much yet about what did happen, since the project is still under wraps. We do know he traveled to London for recording sessions in March. The British press reported that Albarn was working on a record featuring Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, legendary Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen (from Fela Kuti's band) and more.
We also now know -- since news broke of their Oct. 25 gig at Ireland's Cork Jazz Fest -- that Albarn, Flea and Allen are heading up a 25-member band for a European tour through November. M.anifest is confirmed for that, too.
"Somebody asked me, 'Wow, why is Flea following you on Twitter?'" the still-tight-lipped rapper said with a sly smirk. "My only response was, 'Why are you looking to see who's following me on Twitter?'"
(Lo and behold, @Flea333 sent out this tweet as we went to press Wednesday: "@manifestive is a great MC straight out of Ghana! i highly recommend his awesome new record 'Immigrant Chronicles.' ")
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M.anifest's Cross-Atlantic Serendipity, Case #4: Aspiring filmmaker and journalist Justin Schell already planned to go to Ghana last fall when he learned the rapper's grandfather was somebody he studied in school. For that same trip, M.anifest learned that his Minnesota-made music raised his profile in Ghana enough to perform there with the country's biggest rapper, Reggie Rockstone.
"This was the guy who showed me I can rap about my life and my surroundings, because they were his world, too," said the rapper, who also listened to Nas, Naughty by Nature and 2Pac as a teenager (along with reggae, which is king in Ghana).
"I could see he was definitely proud to be from there and be going back with his own music," said Schell, who filmed the trip for his upcoming documentary, "We Rock Long Distance." The movie also follows Twin Cities rappers Maria Isa and Tou SaiKo Lee back to Puerto Rico and Thailand, respectively.
M.anifest grew up in a neighborhood outside Ghana's capital city, Accra, which Schell described as "dusty, with roosters on every street." The rapper said it "isn't the worst, but also isn't the best" part of town. His parents -- who never married -- were educated as lawyers, but his mother chose to become a Christian minister instead.
Ghana itself is not the best or worst as African nations go, with relative peace and economic prosperity since it won independence from Britain in 1957. English is one of many languages spoken there, but the rapper grew up speaking Twi, which you can get a feel for on his new album's opening track, "Ghana-Must-Go."
That opening is just a hint at the Afrocentric flavor spiked into "Immigrant Chronicles." There are plenty of references to Minnesota -- in "Over and Under," he rhymes, "Choking on my tears because it's freezing cold" -- but the album is largely about his life between the two continents.
In the album's hopeful and infectious single, "Suffer," M.anifest celebrates the troubling life of an immigrant ("If you got a name like Mohammed or Mustafa, flying might be tougher / My sympathies, brother"), punctuated with the hook, "You've never known joy if you've never had to suffer." In the sultrier "Asa," he raps in Twi again with Ghanian female pop singer Efya as his Rihanna. And the richly rhythmic, Afrobeat-tinged "Motherland" pays homage to struggles back home.
Schell is not surprised by Ghana's influence on the new album. "I came home believing he eventually will move back there," Schell said. "It's home to him."
M.anifest isn't so sure. For one thing, he has a year-old son, Dela Mandla Tsikata, in Minneapolis. For another, his trusted producers either live here (including G Mo and his stage partner DJ Last Word) or work here often (Budo, who also helmed his side-project A.R.M). However, M.anifest admitted that his performances back in Ghana felt extra special.
"In the same way that Atmosphere can provoke such a major reaction from fans in Minnesota, I feel like I provoke things from people over there," he said. "It's where I'm from."
The compromise, he said, is likely to find him splitting his time between the two countries in years to come, with perhaps European treks squeezed in between if the Albarn-led tour leads to more. Logistically, the idea seems impractical. However, there's no question M.anifest has enjoyed good luck with his cross-continent connections so far.