Portrait

A call to GoldLink, one of the rising stars of hip-hop, and a man looking to unite disparate communities with his new album, Diaspora. By Santilla Chingaipe.

Rapper and hip-hop artist GoldLink

My interview with GoldLink has been rescheduled a few times before we finally get to speak via telephone. I’m unsure of how to refer to him – GoldLink? Link? Gold? D’Anthony? “GoldLink is fine,” he assures me.

Born D’Anthony Carlos in Washington, DC, the rapper speaks with a fast rhythmic cadence. The 26-year-old tells me he’s currently in London, where some of the music on his latest album, Diaspora, was recorded.

I’m intrigued by the album art – a stunning black woman with her hair in cornrows and her baby hairs laid perfectly. She’s looking off to the side with sunglasses on her face, shot through a green light and against a green backdrop.

A quick Google search tells me the woman in the photo is singer Justine Skye, who the internet claims is GoldLink’s girlfriend. The image was made by Hailey Bieber – yes, the wife of Justin Bieber.

While I don’t ask GoldLink about the alleged Justine love connection, he tells me placing her on the album cover was a deliberate choice. “It’s a conversation I’ve had with Justine,” he says. “I think she’s important. I think she’s a staple in the black community.”

The Grammy-nominated artist proceeds to share a story that shows how the cover has been generating a conversation about representation. “A friend of mine is from South London – so he’s from the hood. This hood guy comes up to me and says, ‘Yo, my little cousin really loves Justine and is a big fan of Justine and she was saying how white girls think Kylie Jenner’s sick. I think she’s my Kylie. She’s my girl. She’s important to me.’ And I’ve heard that a lot more than you understand.”

Blackness, or the ideas around blackness universally, can be seen as the theme of Diaspora. From GoldLink’s hip-hop roots, the album traverses Afrobeats, reggaeton and dancehall to create a record that connects the African diaspora.

“It’s kind of about me finding myself through the world,” he tells me. “It was more reflective than anything. It wasn’t like I was looking for anything. It was me reflecting back on all the experiences that I had and how that resonated with friends that I have now. New friendships that I have now who are going through the same things in different places.”

Over the years, there have been great hip-hop albums that speak to black identity, but American hip-hop generally feels quite parochial – a conversation for black people in America. But with Diaspora, GoldLink is opening up that conversation with the diaspora – and where he seems unsure, he brings others along to fill in those gaps.

“What’s the point of African-American artists having a conversation with each other?” he asks. “Where does that go? Just regurgitating the same information. I understood that there was a gap. I understood that there was a gap in the system – what that means is there’s black people everywhere.” It’s a “big misconception” that there aren’t black people outside America, he says. “As weird as it is … people don’t understand that. I have friends in DC that think people in London talk like ‘pip pip, cheerio’. They have no clue, no idea, that black people even exist here.”

His aim to open up the dialogue is evident in one of the feel-good anthems on the album, “Zulu Screams”. Named after a southern African ethnic group, the track begins with chanting accompanied by central African rhythms. It features British-Nigerian Afrobeats artist Maleek Berry, and parts of the bridge are sung in Lingala, a Congolese language.

“That’s more of the conversation that’s interesting to me than talking about our upbringing in America,” GoldLink says. “We all know that story – that story’s been told many, many times. What we don’t talk about is first-generation immigrants that come here [to America] and come to France and then migrate to London. People don’t even understand that struggle in America and then a lot of people may not understand being a second-generation black person and not even understanding that they’re from Ghana. That’s actually a bigger conversation that actually needed to be had that no one was having.”

It’s this conversation between African diaspora communities, this focus on their interconnectedness, that makes the album stand out.

“It’s like we’re black; it doesn’t matter if you’re black in China – you’re black still,” he continues. “There’s no difference. The struggles are the same; the intricacies are different but it’s all the same. You could have a struggle as a first generation and the pressures that come with that … I thought immigrants were different from me and I have a completely different struggle but the struggle is the same degree.”

Despite the shared struggles that black people face, what Diaspora does is also celebrate their shared history. GoldLink is quick to tell me the album isn’t just for people of the African diaspora, because diaspora to him means more than just being black. “There’s a sci-fi element that you can relate to if you’re not from the African diaspora, because it wasn’t solely made for the African diaspora – because if it was, I wouldn’t get an Asian artist [Hong Kong rapper Jackson Wang, who features on the song “Rumble”] on it. I was very clear on what my message was; I feel like everyone is a part of it.”

At a time when many artists are using their music to directly address the politics that seek to divide and demonise black people, migrants and refugees, GoldLink shies away from making any explicit commentary. Rather, Diaspora reminds us of our shared humanity – which is a political statement in and of itself.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 28, 2019 as "Linking diaspora". Subscribe here.

Santilla Chingaipe
is a journalist and documentary filmmaker.