Rapping on the door of opportunity: Kaysha

Boston Globe, May 31, 2009

“I’ve always had a double identity,” says Edward Mokolo, who raps, sings, and produces under the name Kaysha.

And that’s a simple way to put it. Congolese by birth, French by education, American by affinity, Caribbean by adoption, Pan-African by choice, the 35-year-old Kaysha is a walking pop hybrid who draws on all these sources to produce a smooth, club-oriented blend.

A fixture on the French- and Portuguese-speaking circuits behind crossover hits that draw on zouk, soukouss, coupe-decale, house, and kuduro, Kaysha is also a producer and label head. He produces dance music under alter ego “Mr. Shada,” and his Paris-based label, Sushiraw, is home to a half-dozen artists of various African backgrounds.

But in the United States Kaysha is barely known beyond the African immigrant and international-student scene. That’s likely to be the core demographic when he visits 33 Lounge’s Creole Fusion party tonight.

Yet for a time, all Kaysha ever wanted was to make American music. That was in his teenage years, when hip-hop was in full bloom and Kaysha, exposed to the likes of Public Enemy or Naughty by Nature on French music-video channel M6, fancied himself a rapper in that vein.

He taught himself to rap in English, and hung around Paris hip-hop clubs, making beats for rising local MCs. Having left Congo at age 7, he didn’t imagine that he’d some day make “African” music.

“I didn’t recognize myself as an African,” Kaysha says on the phone from a tour stop in Dallas. “I was just this guy living in France wondering why I wasn’t born in America.”

In 1996, he spent a few months in New York for a taste of the dream. But the ball was already rolling in a different direction. Just before flying off, he’d recorded some rap segments for songs by a French Caribbean zouk star, Jean-Michel Rotin. When Kaysha got back to France, he learned the songs were a hit.

“I had no connection at all with zouk,” he says. Outside hip-hop, his early interests were in electronica, like the ’70s soundscapes of Jean-Michel Jarre. But Rotin invited Kaysha on tour, first across France, and then to zouk’s home, the French Antilles.

Soon enough, Kaysha, who admits to being a musical sponge, became a zouk connoisseur. A radio executive in French Guyana took him under his wing, and he spent a year in Cayenne raising his game. By the end, he was producing tracks for the zouk star Tanya St.-Val.

Still, his plan was to get back to hip-hop. But one of his Cayenne recordings, “Bounce Baby” caught fire first. On it, he rapped to a sample from Kassav, the iconic band that virtually invented zouk. The audience response caught him by surprise.

“Girls were collapsing in front of me,” he says. He knew this was a good sign: “A friend told me, `You’ve found your own genre. Stick to it.’ It was the side project but it became the main project.”

Since then, Kaysha has churned out seven albums, including this year’s “Forever Young.” His biggest hit is “On dit quoi,” a 2003 anthem with Congolese and Ivorian rhythms, French and English rapping, and a catchy hook in Ivory Coast slang.

Any Kaysha project comes with a certain smooth aesthetic, complete with slick videos that show scenes from the high life. This, combined with his entrepreneurial streak, echoes certain American rap moguls – not by coincidence.

“I used to read all these articles about how Jay-Z and P Diddy were doing their business,” he says. “I wanted to do the same thing, but in France and around the world.”

For now, Kaysha is operating on a smaller scale. But there’s no doubt that his music captures the soundtrack of today’s polyglot, globalized, tech-savvy African youth culture. (Kaysha himself is an avid Twitter user and sells his music online.)

Now he’s just looking for a way into the broader American market. “In France I’m starting to do shows at places where there isn’t a single black person,” he says. “That just says that you’re becoming mainstream. What I’d like to do here is the same thing.”