On a recent Saturday afternoon in July, local hip-hop trio A2VT are rehearsing for an upcoming concert at Studio A on North Winooski Avenue in Burlington’s Old North End. The band’s three members and a guest percussionist wait onstage, visibly eager to begin, as David Cooper preps the sound system. Said Bulle leans in to his microphone, which has just shorted out.
“Uncle Dave,” he calls out to Cooper, still speaking into his dead mic. “It’s not working.”
“Yup. I know,” replies a harried Cooper from the sound booth at the back of the hall. “I’m on it.”
Bulle taps the mic and grins. “I hope so, Uncle Dave,” he teases, his Somali accent bending the last word in singsong fashion.
A few minutes later, sound quirks ironed out, the bombastic strains of the band’s self-titled theme song, “A2VT,” fill the hall as they begin practicing. But this is no ordinary rehearsal. Scattered around the room are about 30 members of a Somali refugee soccer team from Portland, Maine, who happen to be in town for a match. Somehow they heard that a group of African refugees would be playing hip-hop at the studio that day.
As the band launches in to the song’s refrain, several members of the team, all clad in bright-yellow jerseys, flood the dance floor, gyrating and stomping with gleeful abandon. For the next two hours, this is less a rehearsal than an all-out dance party. Then again, given the infectious rhythms and hooks found on the band’s debut album, Africa, Vermont, it may be good practice: There’s a strong chance A2VT’s CD release party this Friday, July 27, will be more of a hip-hop dance party than is your typical concert at Studio A.
A2VT, meaning Africa to Vermont, is composed of three African refugees who now live in Winooski: Bulle, George Mnyonge and Cadoux Fanoy. Each moved to Vermont as a teenager — Bulle from Somalia and Kenya, Mnyonge from a refugee camp in Tanzania, and Fanoy from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Brought together by music, they represent the youthful face of an increasingly diverse African refugee community in Vermont. The trio’s debut album is an electric and multilingual mix of African and Western beats, flows and melodies. It reflects the young men’s varied experiences assimilating into their adopted home, and offers a glimpse of the struggles that African refugees face here.
Bulle, 23, remembers the exact day he arrived in the Green Mountains: September 23, 2004. “You remember when something like this happens,” he says, displaying a scar on his arm. Barely in the country for 24 hours, Bulle was riding a bicycle in Burlington. Most American bikes have the front brake on the left handle. In Africa, the front brake is on the right.
“I was going down a hill, and I confused the brakes,” he says, making an end-over-end motion with his hands. “I used the front one.”
“That happened to me, too!” says Mnyonge, his shoulder-length dreadlocks swaying as he chuckles.
Bicycle brakes are just one of countless cultural differences that Bulle, Mnyonge and Fanoy have had to navigate since their arrival in the U.S.
“Life in Africa is a lot different than life in America,” Bulle understates.
As an example, he cites the rules involved with driving a car in the U.S. — getting a driver’s license, buying insurance. “In Africa, all you have to do is put gas in the car and go,” he says.
Food — and its relative scarcity — is another profound difference, according to Bulle. He says lack of food and water, coupled with rampant poverty, resulted in widespread violence in his native town of Jilib in Somalia.
“A lot of people get shot,” he says. “People kill each other for food all the time. But then one family kills someone, so the other family kills one of theirs, and it never stops.”
Mnyonge, 22, who emigrated in 2007, recalls similar struggles with drought, famine and violence in Tanzania. He remembers elderly women walking miles to fetch water in 20-liter jugs, which they carried on their heads.
“They’d go six or seven times a day,” he says.
While basic necessities are readily available to refugees in Vermont, their efforts to fit into a completely foreign world still occasion immense culture shock.
“But if you build a drum, you’ve gotta learn how to play it, right?” says Bulle. “You choose to come to the United States; you’re learning a new life, a new culture, new rules,” he goes on. “So I learned how to play the drum.”
Cooper, who moved to Vermont from New York City in 2007, has helped Bulle and the rest of A2VT learn to play the metaphorical drum. “Uncle Dave,” as the band refers to him, has become something of a mentor to the band members, in addition to engineering and producing their record from his home studio in the Old North End.
Cooper met Mnyonge in February 2008. He was leaving the Department of Motor Vehicles after registering his car when Mnyonge approached him from a bus stop.
“This guy came up to me and said he’d been waiting for the bus for an hour and it was really cold out, and could I give him a ride into town,” Cooper recalls. During the ride, the two connected over a shared interest in music. At the time, Cooper was producing a CD for a New York friend, Amy Coleman, who wanted to give a world-music treatment to one of her songs. Cooper soon invited Mnyonge and Bulle, who’d made friends while attending Burlington High School, to the studio to add vocals to the track. “They were hooked after that,” he says.
Around the same time, Bulle and Mnyonge met another refugee, Fanoy, at BHS and introduced him to Cooper. The threesome began writing material together, with Cooper’s help, and in 2009, A2VT was born.
Cooper works with several local refugee acts, but A2VT are the first to release a proper album.
“If you told me, when I moved to Vermont from New York, I would be working with mostly African musicians, I would not have believed it,” says Cooper. “But most of the clients I work with are young and from the refugee community.”
Cooper adds that, because of financial constraints, most of the refugee artists bring tracks by other artists to rap or sing over — the mix-tape model — which is how A2VT started. But a grant from the Vermont Community Foundation allowed them to hire a few local musicians, including Ken French and Linda Bassick. The backing material on the band’s debut album is all original, except for three songs written by Cooper’s old New York City band, 46bliss. These were completely remixed as new A2VT tunes.
A2VT’s members name a few American artists as influences, among them rappers Akon and T-Pain, and their music reveals other Western influences — including the liberal use of Auto-Tune on a few tracks and a nod to dubstep. But the band doesn’t stray far from its African roots. Specifically, Mnyonge cites Nigerian twin rappers P-Square as an inspiration.
Cooper, whose own background is in rock and electronic music, explains that the members of A2VT “would bring music in for me to listen to, and then it would all kind of go into a big pot.” Producing hip-hop and world music is new territory for him. When asked to describe a genre where the band fits, Cooper admits he’s not sure.
“Someone called it urban global, which I liked,” he says. “It’s not quite hip-hop, and it’s not quite pop. It’s world music, but not strictly so. It crosses a lot of boundaries.”
Jacob Edgar, the founder of Charlotte-based world-music label Cumbancha, regularly travels the globe searching for cutting-edge new music. He reports a surge in hip-hop from Africa: “It’s a big movement across the continent, and there are a lot of different styles.”
Edgar says that African hip-hop, like much of A2VT’s music, is generally more upbeat and catchy than its Western counterpart. “It tends to be more poppy in terms of melody and beats,” he explains. “And I definitely hear that in A2VT. It’s in keeping with a lot of African hip-hop I’ve heard recently.”
Specifically, Edgar compares A2VT to Senegalese rap trio Daara J. “A2VT remind me a lot of them,” he says. He also hears similarities to a rising Malian artist, Mokobé, and to the groundswell of music coming out of Tanzania and Kenya. “Hip-hop in East Africa is really exploding,” Edgar says.
A2VT’s music is “written in several languages, with acoustic African hand drums, and samples and loops,” Cooper says. “It’s really eclectic. But, like the [album’s] title says, it’s Africa, Vermont. So it’s the crashing together of cultures and what’s produced through that. It’s uniquely Vermont, because of the situation of African immigrants here. So this is what it looks like when those cultures come together.”
That’s true not only in the larger sense, but in the way each writer expresses himself and relates his personal cultural experiences in the context of the band.
“Our stories are really different, but also similar in some ways. So when they come together, it’s really interesting,” says Fanoy. “We’ll talk about one topic in a song, but in three different ways.”
Because the band writes in at least five languages, translations of the lyrics are sometimes difficult to divine. For example, the Somali dialect Mai-Mai is strictly oral, and numerous phrases don’t have literal English translations.
“There are certain things I can say in Mai-Mai that I can’t say in English, because they don’t really mean the same thing,” Bulle says.
Further complicating matters, sometimes the band will sing and rap in an English-African — and occasionally French — hybrid.
“We call it Mai-Mai-lish, or Swahil-ish,” says Cooper, referring to two of the languages the MCs fuse with English in their lyrics.
Still, even without precise translations, it’s clear that searching for a sense of home and community is a fundamental theme of the record.
“Here, you live next to your neighbors, and you don’t even know them,” says Fanoy. “In my town, you know everyone, even if they’re five miles away from you.”
Of the three, Fanoy, 21, is perhaps the most conceptual writer. Where the amiable Bulle and the bright-eyed Mnyonge, like countless twentysomethings before them, often pen upbeat, love-struck lyrics about girls, Fanoy is more brooding and tends to ruminate on deeper issues of politics and isolation.
“My writing style is about making people read between the lines,” he says, and adds that his approach is a product of listening to a lot of Congolese music.
“The stories in Congolese music are real-life stories,” Fanoy says. That storytelling aspect is also what drew him to Western hip-hop. He says he initially patterned himself after Canadian rapper and singer Drake, because he connected with his storytelling style. “I could relate to him,” he says.
Fanoy was born to a teenage mother, literally on the side of the road, as she walked from her small Congolese town to the nearest city — a journey he says takes weeks on foot. His father abandoned them before he was born. Fanoy says he started writing poetry when he came to Vermont as a way to reconcile himself to separation from his mother.
“It helped me understand the pain of being away from her,” he says.
The album’s closing song, “A2VT (Epilogue),” is essentially Fanoy’s life story condensed into 80 seconds.
“It’s pretty much the story of coming here, going to high school and trying to fit in,” he says. That includes handling problems that accompany having a black face in a very white community.
Fanoy says the racial tensions that have plagued Burlington High School recently were just as prevalent when he was there four years ago.
“There were a lot of fights; a lot of people didn’t get along,” he explains. “Some people see all the African refugees and think we’re just getting handouts from the government and we’re driving their taxes up. What they don’t see is parents working two jobs to send their kids to school, trying to learn a new language. There is a lot of misunderstanding, and it’s been going on for a while.”
Last month, Fanoy was the target of a racially motivated attack in downtown Burlington. He says three young men approached him and his friends in front of a gas station and began using racial slurs. Then things got physical.
“It was terrible,” Fanoy says. “There is obviously still a lot of work to do.”
Mnyonge would most likely agree. In June, he was stabbed several times at a party in Winooski. He declines to comment on the attack, since legal action against his assailant is still pending. But he says he’s recovering well.
“I’m doing OK,” he says. “But it was really scary.”
On the album’s penultimate track, “Bad Boy,” A2VT address the perceptions often associated with being young, dark skinned and foreign in Vermont.
“You come to a new country, and everything is different. There are new rules, but no one tells you what they are,” says Cooper. “That leads to some problems.”
Youth and peer pressure, combined with a desire to fit into new surroundings, can be a volatile recipe for bad choices and mistakes.
“It’s a picture,” Bulle says, stressing that while the song is rooted in the musicians’ experiences, it is not strictly autobiographical. “It’s about what you see around you.”
“The story is sort of celebrating this ‘bad boy’ thing,” adds Cooper, “but then the bookends are ‘Actually, you should go to school.’”
Greg Sharrow is the education director of the Vermont Folklife Center, a Middlebury-based organization that is sponsoring A2VT’s release party and has worked on projects, including musical ones, with local refugees. He prefers not to generalize about African refugees in Vermont, whom Sharrow says number in the thousands and hail from many countries and ethnic regions. But he says the struggles A2VT have faced are not unusual, especially for young refugees.
“Kids in refugee families are bilingual and bicultural,” he says. “So you have kids who live in one world when they walk through the door of their parents’ home, and live in another when they walk through the door of the school. And after a kid has been here long enough, they integrate into both worlds.
“There are fundamental cultural differences and expectations that make resettling here an enormous challenge,” Sharrow continues. As an example, he points out that in the Congo, when a police officer pulls over a car, the offending driver is expected to exit the vehicle and approach the police car. “Imagine what might happen if you do that here,” he says.
Sharrow says he’s not surprised that young refugees would take an interest in hip-hop, though he doubts doing so is really a way to integrate into American culture. Rather, he sees it as a means for artists such as A2VT to maintain their cultural identity.
“Kids, period, are interested in hip-hop. It’s not a strategy for assimilation. It’s a product of being a young person in America,” Sharrow suggests. “But what I find fascinating about A2VT is that these kids aren’t just replicating what they hear here; they’re bringing in their own cultural influences and languages and stories. It’s a form of music that is of this time and of this place, but also refers back to who they are.”
A2VT release "Africa, Vermont," this Friday, July 27, 8 p.m. at Studio A in Burlington. $5. AA.
The album is available at Pure Pop in Burlington and Barnes & Noble in South Burlington.