Al Agami: Truth to Power

Al Agami: Truth to Power

Al Agami is a real-life prince. His father was the king of Lado, a kingdom in Central Africa that no longer exists. He fled Lado at the age of three and now reigns as Danish hip hop royalty. We talk about the challenges of raising a mixed race son in a country that prides itself on making room for everyone. He reflects on what it means to wield the power of words as a stateless refugee without a recognized voice and why the neighborhood of Christiania is the true beating heart of Copenhagen.

When did you come to Denmark? 

From around 1980 until now, I’ve been here. My father got posted in Kabul, Afghanistan, so we were there until the Russians were on the border. He was working with UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) over there, and then we came back to Denmark. 

Luckily, with my music and stuff, I’ve had the opportunity to travel. 

I love traveling. I love meeting people, having cultural exchanges, and giving breaks to people that don’t have those breaks.

Going to Africa was a natural place for me to start. I went down digging to hear stories. Ghana has a lot of connections with Denmark because that was the old slave trade. So a lot of slaves that came to the Atlantics and the States—Denmark had a lot to do with that. I first went to Ghana and then Cameroon, South Africa, Tanzania, Kenya, and Zanzibar as well as Ethiopia.

When Oprah was here, she didn't show what I would show. 

What did she show?
The usual shit. Hans Christian Andersen, The Little Mermaid, maybe Christiania. I think she was here because the segment was about the type of socialism that's in Denmark. People are very well taken care of by the State and we have a very high taxation system to pay for everything. But, there is a very big security net under everybody. Juxtapose that with the United States, for example, or a place like France where your health insurance comes through work. Not here. 

The Danes, though, almost want to be Americans, so the liberal winds of change are really blowing hard. Like why should I pay for that guy because he ain’t even trying to fucking work and shit like that?

Are they starting to think that way?
Oh yeah, man. And they are cutting the grants for culture. Everything is getting downsized.

You’re originally not from Denmark, but from the Kingdom of Lado, which no longer exists. Did you still feel connected to Lado or Africa when you visited?

The connection that you get is sort of like a recollection. One thing that hit me was smells. It was the smells I could recognize—it was really weird. 

I didn’t know how I would react because it could be sort of a romantic thing about home and so forth, but when you’ve been removed from what is home and what is society, and the norms that shape you, it can go both ways.

And you’re not a Danish citizen? 
Nope. I have what they call permanent residence from the United Nations because I came as a refugee. They offered citizenship, but I kindly said no. I’m all about statements. It’s a whole discussion about what are borders. If I was to take a Danish citizenship, that would be a sell-out move. It would be turning my back on my ancestors, and I can’t do that. 

My life mission has been how I can have influence without having voting power and I have a lot of influence because I was one of the first black faces you could see in a very white country.

What is the hip hop community like in Denmark?

Rap has grown and hip hop as a culture and as a music form has spread all over the world. People are sort of defining their own sound, which is super cool but the problem is when it’s crossed over and becomes mainstream, then it’s different. The stuff you really like, you really have to dig for. The easy pickings are what I think is bringing hip hop down. You find it in the underground, but now everyone and their mom thinks they can rap. 

When I started rapping in the 1980s, you hung out with the graffiti cats and the dancers. It was more of a collective thing. Rap wasn’t as commercial in Denmark as it is today.

It’s very hard to make a hip hop club in this country. We’ve been trying for 30 years. There are some hip hop clubs, but it’s all mainstream stuff or just flavor of the month type of thing. We’re trying to get a venue that mixes in the spoken word with people who have something to say. We’re going to have conversations about what hip hop is about, as well as the music. 

What do you think hip hop is about?
It’s not about killing. It’s not about drugs. It’s not about ego. It’s about positive competition and the message is love. That’s a simple story. If you want to talk about how many women you fucked or how many cars you got and all that, it’s basically nonsense. My brothers Joseph and Kuku rap as well. We’ve become a minority within a minority in a sense. 

You re-released your debut album. Do the messages still resonate after so many years?
It was about the same thing. It was called Covert Operations. And it’s basically my thoughts: why I’ve been brought to a foreign country to the same people whose fault it is that I don’t have my own country and how I have to be the bigger person. 

I’m actually helping to build up this society without blowing my trumpet too much, and I don’t get any props, love, respect or how do you do for it. I mean, I’m just a nigger or a refugee trying to take their money and you wouldn’t believe all the shit that we’ve been through.

I’m reflecting historically and also maybe looking at it through my son’s eyes. He’s cafe con leche as I call it. His mother is Danish, white Danish, and he never had a problem. It was never an issue. As soon as he started school, all the racism stuff kicked in.  

I didn’t have a tool for him to deal with that and when he asked me I told him what we did. We put up the dukes and fought racists. We hit them in the fucking nose as hard as we could. That’s not a lesson I should be giving to my son if we want to break the chain and maybe educate some people who don’t know about losing everything that you have and having to start up again in a different place, which is the universal story of an immigrant. 

You go through a lot of shit and then maybe four or five generations down the line stuff gets better. But it’s going the other way now. Things are not getting better and legislation is made in a very populistic way. 

People don’t have a voice and the voiceless people don’t vote. I’m trying to speak a little bit of truth to power and that’s what art can do...that’s what music can do.

The idea of Christiana, at least historical, seems to have similar aspirations? 
The dream of Christiania was that there’s room for everybody. Now, the people who were actually the first to occupy the place—they’re not there anymore. So it’s like generation three maybe. Christiania is one year older than me, so it’s funny to see how the people change. Even though the outside is beautiful, it’s a tourist attraction and it’s actually still very free. But, there are forces working against that freedom which is why it was occupied in the first place and why the government actually let it slide. Because that’s where there’s creativity. For me, it’s like the heart of the city. When we finished the album, we played the whole album and had a surprise release for people. It had to be in Christiania. It had to be. That was the place that always had hope and was sweet. 

Al Agami walking in a Christiana tunnel
They didn’t give a fuck about where I was from. We need more places like that in general. Not only in Denmark, but everywhere.

Thinking back to when you made your first album. If you could have imagined having a son, could you have imagined he’d be facing the same things?

I didn’t want to have a kid in this country. I knew if I got beef, he was going to have twice the grief or burden. My life was better than my parent’s life and the stuff that they dealt with. My son’s life actually is better than mine, but the problems are the same. 

I actually asked him, "How is it for you?" and it broke my heart when he was small and spoke wise words about pain and powerlessness. That was exactly what I was trying to dodge by not having kids. Now that I have one and I have to do the best that I can. I can’t shelter him from the world so I gotta give him tools to deal with it.

Very few people in my family lived and died of natural deaths, very few of them. When you have to explain to someone why I’m mad or don’t have a smiling face and tell them the truth, it’s hard to talk to someone who is the spitting image of a person who can take a little baby and throw them in a hole—bury a baby alive to send the parents a message.

That’s what the British did to my great-grandmother, stuff like that. When you talk to people today that say I wasn’t there or it isn’t my responsibility, but we all owe that to each other to make it better. Because if we don’t make it better and don’t care it just gets worse and worse. 

People say the only negative thing about Denmark is that society is flat and people are afraid to exist outside of institutionalized norms. Is that the typical Danish experience?
With Danish people, the idea is don’t stick your nose too far and don’t think you’re better than anybody else. That is not Danish. Get out of the cities, go out to the coast, and meet some fisherman on the peninsula, which sticks out to Germany. That I think is where the Danish people live. Country people, hearty folk, descendants of the Vikings, and stuff like that.
And you appreciate that? Do you feel connected to them? 
Oh yeah, I feel connected to that, the traveling spirit of a nomad. But, I have asked a lot of Danish people what it is because every time they ask me, "Well you are Danish?" I say hell no. I went to a Danish school and I speak better Danish than a lot of Danes. Does that make me Danish? If you get a Danish citizenship you have to do these tests and score high on those tests. A lot of Danish people don’t—they don’t have to. 

I was always on the outside and trying to shake that outside looking in thing. I’m actually also inside, looking out. I forget that.
Al Agami
Al Agami: Truth to Power

Photography by Robiee Ziegler, unless otherwise noted. Interviews edited for flow and clarity.