Say the words “I am the stone that the builder refused” and you already know who Gabriel Benn is. Asheru’s words have been the opening of every episode of The Boondocks since it debuted on TV in 2005. Asheru had been an underground favorite long before that, dating all the way back to the late 1990’s, culminating in the album “Soon Come…” in 2001. Fame has not really been Asheru’s first priority though, as he holds a master’s degree in education and works both locally in Washington D.C. and nationally to uplift our youth. He even co-created H.E.L.P., the Hip-Hop Educational Literary Project, to find ways to bring positive and informational rap into the classroom – furthering the very concept of “Edutainment” KRS-One originated. We should all stop and take a moment to applaud Asheru’s efforts on behalf of hip-hop music and culture – he’s a true leader.
As busy as Asheru has been in the classroom and as an activist, it has necessarily led his artistic output to be generously described as SPORADIC. 2013’s “Sleepless in Soweto” is an overdue return to form for one of rap’s most important voices. The title may at first seem to be a pun on a famous Tom Hanks film, and while it no doubt has roots there, it’s directly inspired by his frequent trips back and forth between D.C. and South Africa. There were undoubtedly some sleepless days and nights after so many long flights and frequent bouts of jet lag, which makes it more remarkable that he chose to record this entire 12 track album while on the road. As such I can even excuse the obvious sampling rejack of the opening track “Simphiwe’s Theme,” though I’m likely the only person who remembers Diamond D’s “Freestyle” from “Stunts, Blunts & Hip Hop.” Asheru rips it so well it’s more than fair to let him share the same beat 20 years later:
“Oh now you an entertainer, you rap, you don’t trap?
You just tryin to get your name up, throwin them thangs up
Let the vampire say you ain’t no one of them
Now you got your fangs up and I don’t comprehend
To the chorus; a hip-hop purist
that won’t let you front, niggaz can’t discouraged
Different cities worldwide like a tourist
Crowds of people sing a rhyme like a chorus
Huh! It ain’t a game, it’s a sport
More like a job with no health insurance (my man)
I mean – wealth is important
but man can’t live on bread alone…”
When Asheru vows to “help self and hood at the same damn time” it’s not an empty epithet – he already has the credentials as an educator to back it up. The integrity he brings to his words makes the loquacious and eloquent flow of his rhymes that much more impactful. “It’s a struggle for the progress/victory’s in the process” quips Asheru, and we are only 3 minutes into the album. Can he top this? Oh yes. With production by Choppy Chop, Omar Hunter El (Mr. HU), Funk Ark and Thaso, “Sleepless in Soweto” sings from track to track. “Funky DC” lives up to its credo, as it has the disco/jazz/funk/retro sound of the 1970’s written all over it – complete with long drawn out horn stabs and echoing vocals. The highest compliment I can pay Funk Ark’s beat is that it sounds like The Roots, and I think even Black Thought would recognize his similarity to Asheru here.
“Soweto” doesn’t just pay lip service to South Africa in its title by virtue of Asheru having been there repeatedly. He sought out and got cross-collaborative songs with artists who most U.S. listeners will not be familiar with before this album. “We don’t want a better life, we demand it” spits Pantsula HHP on “Last Days,” with a scratchy vocal tone that’s reminiscent of Jadakiss if he came from Jamaica. Grammy nominated singer Wayna Wondwossen comes in on the hook of “No Matter Where You Go,” another amazingly Roots-esque track. He’s also got domestic collaborators though as crooner Raheem Devaughan joins Ash for a song on “Gauteng (Land of Gold).” The piano chorus rolling in the backdrop set them up lovely.
No song title sums up “Sleepless in Soweto” better than “Make Magic.” Asheru dedicates his song “to all the alchemists out there” who make hip-hop but doesn’t waste long on shoutouts before getting profound: “Classroom to boardroom, avoid the courtroom/black life is real man, this is not a cartoon/feel like a tiger in the zoo, wish a muh’fucker would/try to take from me and mine – like a muh’fucker could!” None will any time soon Asheru, which is why when he raps “this is food for the soul/pull up a chair” it’s hard to resist the invitation. Asheru is confident about his place in hip-hop but he’s also realistic about its importance in his personal life. While sharing the spotlight with Pro’verb, Kaygee and Pantsula on “Life After the Show” he drops this gem: “How about someone a little more seasoned/that don’t, just be shootin the gift with no reason?” Everything in Asheru’s life has a reason. “My shine comes from knowing I’m just a reflection from it.”