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Commonwealth Times - News
Issue: 2/10/03

Akilimanjaro: Ascension of a lyricist
By Devon Marrow

Akili Addae Obika emerged in 1987. He wasn't born in the biological sense; instead, he's the product of a man's mental and emotional transformation. His name means wisdom and understanding and reverberates an East-African culture.

He knows his heritage is of that land and therefore any attempts to find out his previous identity are futile.

"If you write a check to my old name, then I can't cash it because I'm Akili now," he said and smiled.

His middle name, Addae, which means "morning sun," came a little later and he and his wife both adopted the surname Obika, which means "family is supreme."

But that's not where Obika's reinventing abilities end.

By day he's a VCU math instructor of five years, teaching students who walk into his classroom everything from Shapely-Shubik to math logic.

But by night he becomes Akilimanjaro, a lyrical Superman, making appearances at local nightspots to rap and spread a message through what he refers to as his spoken poetry.

"Most, if not all, music was message-oriented at one time," he said. "There was more political and social commentary involved."

While Obika notes that rap tended to focus solely on the black community, he describes his sound as more introspective.

"Issues are more universal," he said. "However, black people have an extra step that involves getting comfortable in the package we come in.

"In this society it takes a little extra work to boost our esteem -- with that foundation we can get metaphysical and begin to ask questions like: What is the meaning of life?"

Obika said before he figured out who he was going to be musically, he emulated the likes of Run DMC and Public Enemy, but now he's comfortable in his own skin.

"I just say what's on my mind," he said.

But he's quick to point out that his style is not quite freestyle.

"There is some thought to it. I don't just stand up and say look there's a man in blue...look at that woman's red shoe," he said.

Obika keeps a notebook to write down observations and thoughts that occur to him throughout the day, which contributes to what he refers to as his "streams of consciousness" style of rap.

His longtime interest in hip-hop always centered around the quality of the content, but Obika said that as he grew up and matured the content didn't. At 33, he found himself in a rut listening to music he loved, but it didn't speak to him in the same way it did before.

So he set out to scratch that itch for himself and others like him.

"I do this because I enjoy creating and making music that's meaningful to me," he said. "I'm a contemplative person...that's the kind of music I like to hear.

I've learned from my performances that other people do, too."

Obika said it's a task to keep his message from derailing as he tries to avoid gimmicks, buzz words and generalizations that can sometimes be associated with rap.

"There's more to life than our material needs, but when I tell people I rap, the same images come up. It's either rapping about the glamorous lifestyle I want or poverty," he said.

Obika added that he likes to perform in a mask from time to time, but he doesn't make it a habit.

"I don't want get caught being called The Masked Math Teacher or something like that," he said. "I want people to forget the man behind the mask, I want them to congregate around what's being said--not who's saying it. I'm not trying to be an idol."

Ultimately, Obika would like to take his music to the next level and perform for a larger audience. He's already recorded and released four independent albums. But for now he's sticking to local venues such as The Wax Museum at Chopstix, an open-mic style medium for local artists to share their music.

"I know that I have to start from the ground up," he said. "I'm looking for a real connection with the audience so that a community of like-minded folks will stand up behind me."

Like the lyrics say in one of his songs, Obika is on a journey and he's bringing a message with him.

"I place my sight on infinite heights as I begin my flight/ With no trace of fright and in spite of /Gravity or negativity around me/ I ascend and extend my capabilities."