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Sankofa, The Silversmiths, and the Art of Collaboration

By Chris Colcord

Fort Wayne Reader


For many artists, Sartre's dictum "Hell is other people" accurately describes the uneasy prospect of letting someone else into your creative laboratory. While it's often essential to rely on other talents and viewpoints to help shape a work, it's never easy to allow another voice to influence your singular vision. Many writers have learned the hard way that it's not always a good idea to let a fellow writer read a "work-in-progress" — often the writer's drive to complete the work gets leached away by too much (or too little) positive feedback. Many artists have learned it's wiser to adopt the James Joyce mantra — silence, exile, cunning — as the battle cry to see a work through completion.

For an artist who's spent years developing a distinctive and personal voice, Sankofa has learned that sometimes it's valuable to "play well" with others. In addition to his numerous ventures as a solo artist, writer/rapper Sankofa has collaborated freely with a number of other artists, including his most recent project — the Silversmiths, a duo formed with West Coast rapper JON?DOE (Tom McCauley). The Silversmith's first CD, The Algol Paradox, was recently released, and two others (Music for Your Mom to Tap Dance To and A Tandem of Giants) are awaiting final mixing and mastering. A Tandem of Giants will also include 6 bonus tracks from a recording session the band completed nearly a decade ago (www.atandemofgiants.com).

In a recent e-mail interview, I asked Sankofa about the new project and how he's able to engage with a peer in creating new works. I also asked him about being a performer in Fort Wayne and the occasional brickbats he's received from smart aleck crowds and critics.

FWR: I've been a theatre guy for decades now, so I've learned how important collaboration is. But I'm also a control freak and I like my own way. You're a writer who's established a singular voice yet you collaborate freely and often.

Sankofa: I think the art to collaboration is humility. With humility comes the open-mindedness to consider that other people's opinions and ideas may well hold more merit than one's own. I see collaboration as a chance to stretch beyond the usual and see what happens. I've been fortunate in that my longest-running collaborator — JON?DOE — is equal parts silly (in regards to having fun) and serious (about the craft itself). Each of us thinks the other is better and, while I wouldn't call our collaborations a contest, we certainly motivate each other to maximize our abilities.

FWR: You seem bemused by the occasional slams/barbs thrown your way via the internet or reviews. I remember you talking about your public access show, and some of the comments you got. Also, I'm curious about "Rose McGowan's Face" — smart song, I liked it, and I was surprised people got mad. You got a thick skin? I know whenever you fling stuff out there, you gotta expect consequences, but you seem pretty level headed about the chirpers. (Editor: "Rose McGowan's Face," Sankofa's 2008 song about the actress' obvious plastic surgery.)

Sankofa: If people are responding, that means they took the time to listen. As for how in-depth they may have listened, that's up for debate. I understand there are fans of Rose McGowan who identify with her to the point that criticism towards her feels like a personal slight. If I hadn't appreciated Rose McGowan, I probably wouldn't have noticed the transformation she'd undergone. The way I see it, if I feel strongly about something and there's a dope beat sitting around, odds are pretty good I'm going to make a song about it. RMF could well have been called “Mickey Rourke's Face,” though the song would need to have been written from the standpoint of a fan rather than an admirer. I understand why people would go for optional plastic surgery, but it's a mostly losing battle on an increasingly sad, slippery slope.

As for thick skin, anonymous assaults on my character or artistic output don't much concern me. Could I have gone back, re-recorded the song and made it better? Yes. Did I want to write and record while the inspiration remained strong? Absolutely. I take personally the criticism from close friends with whom I've worked for years, then remind myself that they're speaking the truth and I should suck it up and listen.

FWR: Not to get into a tricky racial discussion, but: Do you think the time will ever come when you won't be described as a "white" rapper?

Sankofa: No.

FWR: In theatre, actors are encouraged to be thoroughly uninhibited, and often even the most introverted people can get wildly exuberant as actors. Personally, I get exhausted by all those go-for-broke types and I like actors who show some reserve. As a performer, you seem to be a mix of introvert/extrovert, which is interesting to watch. Do you ever think about how you come across, or would that stop you cold?

Sankofa: I am an inaccurate gauge of how I come across, though I certainly put a lot of thought into my set and what would be effective. I suppose it depends on the situation. The way I see it, being a rapper, it’s my job to put on an entertaining set — there are no guitar solos to change the pace, no extended drum breaks — it’s just me. Without feedback, I’ve no idea how my set has gone. Rap is a more interactive performance (what with call and response during the hooks) and I draw a lot of energy from the crowd. In the event the crowd is milling about, I look within myself and see what’s there.

FWR: I saw a great show at the Brass Rail a few months back, and I couldn't help notice two stooges, right next to the stage, texting during some of the liveliest and most exciting moments. If I was in the band I would have thrown a pitcher of beer at them. Ever feel the same way?

Sankofa: I feel that if someone is at a bar/venue and by a stage, that implies they are there to see a performance. When those folk are nose deep in their phones, it makes me feel old. From a bottom line standpoint, they did pay cover and are probably drinking, so business has been conducted. Sometimes, performing is like swimming in a lake, I'm just looking for one person to keep me afloat. Believe me, being the guy who doesn't even play an instrument, I require a lot of convincing that I belong on a stage.

I can never tell how a performance is going to be until it's done. Even after performing, I don't know how I did. What will sometimes strike me as a hollow recitation can be well-received, whereas other moments I feel are more indicative of my potential are met with shrugs. One of my last shows at the Rail, I was a last-minute fill-in. The most fun part of the night: after my set, there was a young woman in the smoking area who was telling my friends, "I like hip-hop and rap, but that guy wasn't good at all."

FWR: Since I hang out with middle aged white guys occasionally, I get to hear a defiant "I hate rap" all the time. I can't imagine hating an entire genre — even contemporary country — though I will say, I usually need a guide who knows my personality/tastes to take me through the hip hop landscape to show me what I'll like. I'm still a radio guy when it comes to new music, and every time I flip on the local urban stations, I immediately flip it off. So I need a mentor.

Sankofa: I know how you feel. It's strange for me to see rap so prevalent in popular culture. Cue the “uphill both ways” sentiment in my recollection of high school ('93-'97) being a place where myself and one other guy listened to rap, pretty much everyone else thought it was garbage, and let us know. Record stores with rows of tapes, YO! MTV Raps' debut in '88 (right when I moved to the States) was my tastemaker.

The only good radio is Little Brother Radio. Commercial radio music is Coors Lite, a lot of people consume it because it's everywhere. I sometimes wonder what life would be like if I could magically make one of my songs saturate pop culture, then realize I'm happy where I am and my music's far from for mass consumption. Stations tend to be an indicator of what a larger market deemed the hot new product and parrot accordingly. As for a guide, I'm not much help — I tend to stay in my own world. Cola Zone's “Immortality Skeems” is one hell of an album and, for my money, the best rap release to come out of Fort Wayne.

FWR: I read an interview with Stephen King and he talked about his compulsion to constantly "publish" — to him, his work wasn't real unless he could see it in print. You're very prolific, putting out lots of interesting work, and I wonder if you do it for reasons similar to S. King's.

Sankofa: I like making stuff and I'm fairly one-track minded. When I get inspired, it can last for a while.

FWR: I'm guessing that almost all of the local bands/artists either (a), don't make a nickel doing their work, or (b), actually lose a bunch of their own money putting out music. Am I right?

Sankofa: Got me. I know I stopped making physical CDs a while back because it wasn't fiscally responsible for me being in a relationship and spending about 2000 bucks on what's essentially a vanity project. Life is busy enough without factoring in "how many copies do I need sell to break even?" In typically self-contradictory manner, I do plan to put out another CD at some point.

FWR: I can't believe I'm referencing Stephen King again, but he once talked about remembering the first time he knew he had written a great line in a story. Do you remember the first time you wrote something and went, "Damn, that's pretty good?"

Sankofa: I've been writing long enough that I know there are things I have written that I could never again approach. I'm just thankful I happened to have a pen handy at that time and then saw the track through to completion. My approach is fairly random, in that there's not a lot of science involved. Some things I have done rhythmically, I sit back and wonder how I did it. God knows, I couldn't do it again if I tried. There's something to be said for leaving mysteries unsolved.

FWR: Not to be crass, but do you make any money on iTunes via Sankofa or Silversmiths? How often do you check sales figures? Do you ever get obsessive about it?

Sankofa: I’ve put more money into music than I have made. From shirts, shipping, stickers, magnets, CDs, postcards, flyers, to videos, secret stuff for my upcoming solo, it’s fun. Earlier in the process, I was big about seeing sales numbers, now I just hope what I create finds a receptive listener. I check sales figures fairly rarely and-when my checking account has an unexpected deposit somewhere between 10 and 20 bucks, odds are good my gmail account has a message from CDbaby about sales. Strange thing about iTunes sales is they don’t show up for about a month and a half.

For more on Sankofa and Silversmiths, visit www.atandemofgiants.com

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