It’s Hitting Hard: Ed Balloon on Life as a Young Black Artist at the Dawn of the Trump Age

Posted by on January 5, 2017

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As submissions go, Ed Balloon’s email regarding his Yellow 20-Somethings mixtape stood out. For the music it contained, certainly, because Balloon knows his way around a tune, but also for the way, in a single short paragraph, the Boston native encapsulated the fear and uncertainty that America — if not much of the planet — felt as the sun rose over a world in which Donald Trump could be elected President.

“Hopefully you can help,” it read. “Trump has just become President and it’s hitting hard for everyone, especially those marginalized. Music helps me and I hope it can help others. I have two songs, “Trap Karaoke” and “Bounce Back,” that I feel can help in this healing process of hurting. So I ask if you will be able to help share my music.”

In essence, “help.” That one word, repeated five times across what was not so much an introduction as a tentative toe dipping into frigid post-election waters. Just how far had we rewound over night? Was artistic expression — not least that by a young, inventive African American — still permitted? The urgency was palpable; he needed confirmation his voice could still be heard in the frenzy and he needed it desperately, not just for himself but for everyone like him who woke up on November 9 in a country so far removed from people’s expectations of it, it almost didn’t seem real.

A response on our part seemed imperative, if only to assure Ed we were still here, but merely sharing his music somehow didn’t seem like enough. As excellent as Yellow 20-Somethings is, the email demanded engagement — certainly as its tone seemed so at odds with the dude we thought we knew best through the gleefully kitsch “Cool Guy,” the bonkers dance moves he busts out in the video for “Graduate” from his stellar debut tape No Smoking for Deathbomb Arc.

 

Ed Balloon’s real name is Edmund Oribhabor. He was born in Malden, MA, to parents who moved to the States from Nigeria in search of “better living” but divorced not long after their arrival. His formative years were in Boston, on tough “predominantly black and Spanish” streets where gun crime was common but which he now thanks for teaching him “how to crack jokes, dance and really sing” — all qualities plainly displayed across his EPs and videos. “Being poor [wasn’t] good,” he explains, “but I guess when you are poor, you find the beauty in simple things. My neighbourhood was where I really came into myself.”

“I spent the Obama years just trying to be the best I can be,” he explains, when I ask him about his impressive ascension, which — as his email address betrays — includes a philosophy degree from Brandeis University. But Trump’s election has seemingly overshadowed it all for the time being. “I have been writing a lot of music,” he tells me. “It has always helped me cope with things.” Political developments, I suspect, have forced Balloon to hark back to the days of his youth, where he’d take time out from his parents’ break-up by listening to “Fela, Motown, TLC, Prince and Immature,” and he admits to using the same methods today. “It is very therapeutic to me,” he says, “I am [still] fond of going on walks in Boston listening to music. A good amount of the time [as a kid] I would see my parents outwardly expressing their difficulties, so music has always been my way of escaping. I love to imagine things, and storytell.”

As the interview progresses, Balloon’s answers become more abrupt. The initial enthusiasm to talk about his situation post-election seems to wane and my attempts to burrow into his motivation as a musician fail. I can’t work out whether Trump’s victory has knocked him back or if my questions have become too prying. My intention was to try and get to the bottom of why his initial email was so compelling an introduction, so genuine a summation of the planet’s incredulity in the wake of the result. I even briefly doubt his intentions, was his first email more cynical than my reading? For a musician whose work is so much fun, so varied and seemingly so carefree he’s a surprisingly hard nut to crack.

As a last resort I fire his own words back at him — the original email in all its desperate glory — and he reacts, a week after we began. “It is still very tough,” he responds. “I think a lot of us are exhausted. We still have to fight, even though we know that is what we have always had to do. We just thought, or at least I thought, that after Obama I wouldn’t have to fight so hard to feel valued in the country I am from.”

In my mind I imagine black music will rise up against Trump’s premiership in the way it did in the ’70s — the fact that Baz Luhrmann’s dramatized hip-hop history The Get Down and the documentary series Hip-Hop Evolution both aired in 2016 seems so apt — and Balloon, thrillingly, shares the same vision to an extent. In a year when the best-of lists have all been packed with black artists, from big hitters like Beyonce and Frank Ocean, to emerging readymades like Kamaiyah and Balloon’s incendiary labelmate JPEGMAFIA, the stage is set for a revolution. “[Black] independent music is on the rise,” he states. “[We] are making music that I believe defines our culture and our experiences, and that is a beautiful thing to see.” Having said that, overt political statements certainly don’t define Ed Balloon’s music just yet, but that is not to say it mightn’t change. He points to two tracks from Yellow 20-Somethings which he says were written with recent developments in mind, both of which were mentioned in his first message to Decoder. “”Trap Karaoke” I made to talk about how black people just try to enjoy life and then we are hit with some shit like police brutality,” he ventures, “and “Bounce Back” talks about dealing with racism and trying to find every way possible not to go off… life is unfair but you have no choice but to deal with it and fight through.”

Two EPs in and it’s clear Balloon is still trying to find his focus, but who defines politics anyway? For all the sadness and confusion he’s feeling right now, it’s heartening when he closes our conversation with a vision of his music for the future that does not necessarily involve constitutional fire-stoking: “I see my music as a [form of] therapy. It is helping me get through this and I think it will help [other] people. Music is the universal language.”