By Kofi Kufuor
From Frying Pan to Fire
In 1992, Zaire was a hotbed for sociopolitical strife. The country’s leader, Mobutu Sese Seko, had held onto power by successfully undermining the efforts of one of Africa’s most popular leaders in Patrice Lumumba. He changed his own name from Joseph-Desire Mobutu to Mobutu Sese Seko Koko Ngbendu Wa Za Banga, which means “the all-powerful warrior who because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, will go from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake.” He would preside over a more than thirty year period of turbulence, civil unrest and poverty. During that time, Mobutu became one of Africa’s richest men. It was within this setting, as Mobutu’s reign threatened to implode, that a mother realized that this was no place to build a life with her infant son. This decision would take them to Charlotte, North Carolina.
Thus begins the story of “Tripp,” a North Carolina-based rap artist who made the move with his mom from their homeland of Zaire to the United States when he was only three years old.
This was a drastic step for a single mother and licensed doctor. Upon arrival, Tripp’s mom was faced with a whole new set of challenges. After years spent practicing medicine in Zaire, she was forced to accept the harsh reality that her certification meant nothing in her new home. She was compelled to perform menial jobs, an unfortunate outcome that many African migrants encounter upon arrival. She washed dishes at restaurants, cleaned hotel rooms and watched other people’s children to support her and her three-year-old son. She had to start all over. The weight of this transition would become the foundation upon which Tripp began to develop his artistic instinct.
Tripp and I crossed paths some months back on a cold Saturday night in Raleigh. I was at Imurj, a creative and collaborative space for emerging artists in the area. I soaked up the night by enjoying some authentic R&B, Rap, and local Hip-Hop. Tripp didn’t perform that day, but was, like me, there to support a friend. In no time, I asked him where he was from, to which he replied that he originally hailed from Zaire. This and countless other conversations, facilitated by gin, rap lyrics and “the motherland,” compelled me to tell his story.
Dancing In the Fire
It’s best to let Tripp tell it. As an only child, he had to find ways to occupy himself. He knew he had siblings on his father’s side, but knew little about them growing up. He remembers meeting his father, but only once and right before he left Zaire. That is the only memory he has of him. Listening to music became a way of passing time and enjoying the hours he spent alone.
Tripp recently hopped on a plane to San Diego to spend some time with his mother. While he was there, nostalgia set in and evoked memories of listening to Snoop Dogg’s “Gin & Juice” on his couch at his childhood home. He first heard the track back in 1995. Yet, he says it stuck with him, recalling Snoop’s puffed up Afro and laid back delivery. This initial exposure soon developed into break-time and after school rap cyphers. It was there he found a new crop of friends and a support system that fueled his new-found passion to create.
This reminded me of my own high school friends back in Ghana, who made a habit of booking library rooms and free-styling next to the air conditioning. (They decided to call themselves the AC-Crew).
Several years later and thousands miles across the Atlantic, a similar creative process was unfolding as Tripp sought to balance his African upbringing with the unforgiving truth of his “foreignness.” Music was his solace and he found assurance of hope in anything music related. At age thirteen, Tripp decided to give the bass a try. He stuck with it until he was fifteen. But in his own words, he “didn’t appreciate it like he should have.” Being a part of the band allowed him to develop an appreciation for the technical and creative process that went into the final entertaining product. This even lead Tripp to join the school band, which allowed him to study the fine technicalities of music, breaking down the many intricacies that went into a composition.
It was at this point, shortly after turning fifteen, that Tripp’s musical journey was put on hold. Challenge after challenge threatened to break down the sturdy foundations of trust, self-assurance and family he had developed. He was in high school, a critical point in every teenagers’ life. A multitude of forces was pulling him at every turn, threatening even the most self-assured sixteen year old’s sense of self. Few however, can imagine the challenges that a boy of African descent, six feet and four inches in height, and built like an offensive lineman would face.
Tripp offers a grim summary of that period in his life. Simply put, he says, “I started being bad.” This is a harsh and generalized assessment. It is an all too familiar reality for young African and African American boys in American society. It has the effect of burdening boys of color with irreparable guilt, in a society that perpetuates the school to prison pipeline. He was arrested at age sixteen for a minor misdemeanor offense, an event that became particularly burdensome on him. He recalled an overwhelming sense of shame, stemming from the feeling that he had disappointed his mother and grandmother. The Charlotte newspapers posted his photo among all those who were arrested during the week. Such embarrassment can serve as a crippling blow to most anyone, but particular so for a kid his age. Furthermore, for those who lack father figures in their lives, there exists the perpetual threat that a lack of male guidance to navigate that difficulty, would lead to the worst. Nonetheless, Tripp persevered.
Sink or Swim
Newfound brotherhood served a helping hand. In 2013, Tripp met “Joel Venom.” As the son of an immigrant from the Ivory Coast, the two immediately built a bond that transcended music. Their brotherhood also found new roots in music when Tripp began free styling on Venom’s beats. Venom encouraged creativity in Tripp. Venom is also born of immigrant parents from the Ivory Coast, but grew up from a young age here in Durham. He immediately began picking up on Tripp’s keen sense for lyrical arrangements, contextual creativity, and his ability to sway an audience with clever wordplay and wittiness.
The mutually beneficial nature of their relationship convinced Tripp to move to Durham. Before the move, he had been working regular 9-5 jobs while music lingered in the background, persistently drawing him closer. People like Venom provided balance with life outside of music. Holidays and birthdays were commonly spent with each other’s families. The francophone connection, musical influences like coupé-décalé, similar cuisine, and most importantly the music, allowed the two to seamlessly integrate their private and professional relationship. The music began to pick up, as did his energy. Another test however, was yet to come.
In 2016, Tripp shattered his femur in a freak accident. The incident left him immobile for close to six months. Tripp describes the time as a “mental process more than anything,” but also a blessing in disguise perhaps. During that period, he did some extensive reading. The most notable of these books was Osho’s The Buddha Said. The truths he read helped him discover and establish certain foundations that became a bedrock for development as a person and artist. “Among these,” Tripp says, “were patience, a recognition that it is not about what happens in life, but how one responds, and to let go of things one cannot change.” In that period, he also pulled a lot of strength from his past. In daily retrospect on that hospital bed, he also recalled a sense of realization that he had taken a lot for granted in his life. Atop the list was the recognition that he was surrounded by the immovable love and support of family and a select few friends, who had been there through the fire.
Time to Fly
Tripp notes that The Buddha Said taught him that patience was a way to deal with the journey that his musical pursuit required. He confesses he had not been one to exercise patience in his youth. Rash decisions had cost him significantly—time, money, and valuable relationships had been lost.
Osho’s narrative taught him that he needed to let go of the guilt that haunted him. The foolish decisions he had made in his past had to be bypassed. The new reality showed that progress and success walked hand in hand on a journey. However, the path was fraught with many distractions.
Most importantly, the lessons taught him that the right attitude goes a long way towards dealing with life’s disappointments. The leg break was perhaps the most readily apparent example of this. During the period of his immobility, he seized an opportunity to be more introspective, patient and constructive. It was time to set his eyes on his path, and although he didn’t know where it would lead him, he decided he would be patient, positive and objective in his journey.
Today, Tripp’s commitment is firmly grounded in his music, family and faith. It is no surprise to catch up with him after a month and find out that during that period, he has successfully recorded close to twenty songs. His new project, “Bedlamite,” is aimed at bringing attention to the complex mind of a man misunderstood (Bedlamite meaning insane). This concern arises from the constant reminder of his trinity: being African, American and African American.
When I asked which three tracks he wants the world to hear the most, he recommended “Serenade,” “Sacrifice,” and “Postcard.” "Serenade" details his lifetime journey, navigating his high school trials, whereas “Sacrifice” speaks to his period of transition. That track recognizes his ability to emerge from his difficulties, as the end-product of his increasing desire to make more meaningful sacrifices as he grew up. Finally, “Postcard” details his current mindset: it takes an optimistic view on his current situation, and summarizes the three life themes of struggle, acceptance and peace. I was honored to be able to sit in when the track was made. He collaborated with Viridian Muse, another up-and-coming R&B artist from North Carolina.
Tripp’s story is far from over. His work ethic is a testament to his gratitude for life and the faith that his journey leads to greatness. His musical motivation is aimed at eventually starting an independent label as well as youth initiatives that support children in single parent homes like the one he grew up in. He shared with me that it’s hard being a young man with no dad to help overcome challenges like the ones he went through. I am excited for the course that he is taking and look forward to hearing about the greatness that is to come his way. Tripp regularly performs in the area. He looks to take advantage of Durham’s burgeoning music scene. Open mic nights at “Skewers Bar & Grill” are coming up soon to get him more familiar with the Durham audience.
Listen to Tripp’s music here.