by Jose Alberto Orive
Photography by Edwin Joseph
Boston isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you think of hip-hop, unless you’re intense about Mark Wahlberg. However, now that the Internet is where most artists get discovered, geography has lost a lot of its relevance to young fans of the genre.
Nonetheless, it is undeniable that Boston native, Zaafir, cares about his geographical background, so much so that his debut album’s title is an obscure nickname to the Massachusetts capital.
With his October release A.O.A., Zaafir flaunts his raps and rhymes on his first full-length album.
“A lot of time when you hear [about] Boston, Massachusetts you actually think about “The City on the Hill” or “The Bay State” for a nickname for Boston… well, A.O.A. (Athens of America) is also a nickname for Boston… I wanted to pick something a little bit more unique,” he said when explaining the album title.
Upon arriving at the café we had agreed to meet at, I see that it is closed. I quickly found Zaafir at a Dunkin’ Donuts down the streets, completely unfazed, laughing with the friends he brought with him.
As we walk down to his manager’s car, he isn’t keeping his distance. He isn’t talking to his friends. He’s starting a conversation with me, asking me about my passions, aspirations and drives. He’s quick to fill me in on their jokes as we drive around looking for another spot. In true indie fashion, we eventually settled for the top floor of a parking lot.
Growing up around musicians, it was pretty much a given Zaafir would join the family craft.
“My brother, Khalil, actually produces some of my beats, my dad’s a musician, both my sisters play instruments, my godmother is a dancer… I grew up around music. I grew up on stage. I grew up performing. I grew up around the arts and the creative process,” Zaafir said.
Yet it should be noted that hip-hop is nowhere to be found in his musical upbringing. This was a choice for him, and it wasn’t his first. He has an R&B background, and taught himself piano in the third grade.
Now that he has committed himself to the genre, in a way, he finds himself in a place that has a lot of space to grow. Yet, he’s not confining himself to the city limits.
“A lot of people will rep Boston, rep Boston, and rep Boston. Well, Boston is actually Roxbury, Dorchester and other certain places, you know, and that doesn’t include a lot of other places in Massachusetts,” he said. “When you actually look at our teams, for example The Celtics [and] The Patriots, they represent New England… I really want to unite the whole region.”
As rooted to the Northeast as he is, Zaafir is not letting his allegiance to his home narrow his musical perspective.
Zaafir says he has an eclectic taste—he cites classical music, reggaeton and African music as some of the genres he tends to explore.
Not only does he keep an eye out for a more global sound to influence his own music, but also sees hip-hop taking more and more influence from outside of the States as time goes on.
“If I was to be a betting man, the sound is going to be going that very international sound, rooted from the Caribbean, rooted from Africa, from Spain,” said Zaafir. “International sound is gonna get that influence [on] hip-hop.”
This is a curious prediction to make since the style he comes through with on A.O.A. is one of contemporary, traditional hip-hop reminiscent of J. Cole’s early work. With a heavy emphasis on lyric and flow, accompanied by a healthy dose of singing.
For someone with such a traditional hip-hop sound, he’s surprisingly accepting of his stylistically differing peers like Lil Yachty.
“Snoop Dogg explained it best at the BET Hip Hop awards… He was saying that when he first came out, he was misunderstood. Everyone looked at him as like, ‘What are you doing?’ He would come out with this really West Coast song, then he’d come out with this pimp song wearing a fur coat. He was always shaping West Coast rap… there’s a misunderstanding on both sides.”
While Zaafir waits to get the level of Snoop and Lil Yachty, he’ll represent Massachusetts with pride with A.O.A., just like Snoop and his tunes rep the West Coast.
You can check out Zaafir’s debut album, A.O.A., on Itunes Store, Spotify and Apple Music.