“I remember talking about putting this album together, and people being like, ‘Why do you want to talk about that? That’s not really gonna make noise,'” says the 39-year-old Brookland resident.
Asheru—real name Gabriel Benn—says he closed his ears to that skepticism. He’s reached a point in his long artistic career where he wants to call his own shots. “I’m just loving the freedom that I have to be able to make the music that I want to make,” he says, “and make statements that I want to make.”
The new video for his song “No Matter Where You Go” is just one part of the larger, globally minded statement on Sleepless in Soweto. Asheru, who works as a hip-hop ambassador with the State Department’s Next Level program, filmed it with director Federico Peixoto while on tour in Costa Rica last August. Between lecturing at Universidad de Costa Rica, the MC found time to shoot at landmarks such as Marcus Garvey’s Black Star Line building in Limón. The point was to emphasize the strong presence of African culture in the country.
“It just opened my eyes to realizing that there’s a whole community of descendants of enslaved Africans” in Costa Rica, Asheru says. “It all came together in realizing that no matter where you go … there you are.”
For the artist—who has an anthropology degree from the University of Virginia—his Sleepless in Soweto album and videos represent a combination of artistry and academia. He shot another Sleepless video in South Africa, and he has one coming from his recent trip to Bangladesh. “It’s all been one big anthropological experience for me with this album,” Asheru says.
Wayna, a local Grammy-nominated singer born in Ethiopia, delivers the silky chorus. The vocalist appears in the video, too, though she didn’t fly down to Costa Rica for the occasion. Asheru and Peixoto just made it look that way—and he declines to say where her scenes were shot. (If you can guess the location, leave a comment, please.)
The video for “No Matter Where You Are” arrived Tuesday, the day after a grand jury decided not to indict white police officer Darren Wilson in the slaying of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown. That timing, of course, was not planned. But it seems appropriate, Asheru says, because he wrote the song right around the time another unarmed black youth, Trayvon Martin, was killed by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in Florida. “That’s why there’s a line in the song saying, ‘Inside of every Trayvon, an Obama.'”
In addition to his next music video, Asheru has another project called Small World in the works. He’s not sure whether that will be an EP, an LP or something else—and he’s intentionally keeping it loose.
After putting years of work into hip-hop, he says, “I feel like now I kind of deserve the right to put music out in whatever format I feel like, instead of trying to model it or time it or put it up against other things that are going on,” he says. “I just want it to be my own bubble.”