One of the most important principles of the Next Level program is exchange: knowledge is not taught, so much as it is shared. Because of this approach, our most significant moments often reflect lifetimes of diverse experience coming together to create something new. So one way to understand Next Level is to view each residency as a moment in the larger artistic life of the artists who participate in it. How does Next Level fit into the overall story of their lives – both before and after? There may be no better example of this than the MC for the Next Level Thailand residency, Dumi Right.
Dumi Right has been promoting hip-hop internationalism for over twenty-five years, making him a perfect fit for Next Level. Born in the United States to Zimbabwean parents, his family returned to Africa when he was a child. Though he was away from the U.S., he and his siblings did their best to follow the American hip-hop scene very closely. As he points out, this was no small task: “It was hard to follow hip-hop at a distance in an era before the Internet and social media, but we gleaned what we could through imported records, magazines and whatever other rare artifacts we could lay our hands on.” Ultimately, these efforts not only provided them with a solid foundation in hip-hop culture, but also gave them a unique perspective on what it meant.
“We were introduced to hip-hop and started honing our craft in Africa, and then became professionals at it when we came back to America,” he notes. “ So it’s almost like we have feet in both worlds. We’re not just strictly cats from the U.S. that have an interest in international hip-hop. But then we’re also international cats, that grew up learning about the U.S. hip-hop scene from afar.”
Returning to the U.S. after high school, Dumi and his brother Akim Funk Buddha (who will be travelling with Next Level this year to Azerbaijan) founded the group Zimbabwe Legit, and released their first EP, “Doin’ Damage in My Native Language,” in 1992. In the title track and associated video they promoted the fusion of African dance, culture and language with hip hop.
Including tracks produced by Mista Lawnge (of Black Sheep and the Native Tongues collective) during the Afrocentric era of hip-hop when interest in African culture was at an all-time high, Zimbabwe Legit spoke to an audience that was already interested in Africa about the viewpoints and experiences of Africans, and the deep connections between their struggles and those of African Americans.
The fact that this perspective was already part of his worldview – not only artistically, but also spiritually and practically – eventually led him to focus his career on exploring art and social change in the context of the African Diaspora. Since then, he has developed and contributed to many programs designed to bring together international audiences and artists.
“It’s funny,” he remembers. “When I heard about Next Level, I was almost like ‘Man, I should have been doing this.’ Because I always felt like an international hip-hop ambassador. So all the stuff I’ve done since Zimbabwe Legit has tended to involve international MCs or international organizations…I’ve put out projects featuring MCs from different countries. I’ve been featured on projects that other people are doing that featured multi-lingual, multi-cultural MCs.”
“I’ve also worked on different initiatives, awareness events and fundraisers for international organizations, mainly based around the arts. So be it like an organization in Bolivia that does performing and circus arts with underserved youth, or Walking with Angels, which works on HIV-related issues in East Africa. So trying to expand the boundaries of what hip-hop means. And so next level was a good platform to allow that work to continue.”
This outlook not only made him a natural for Next Level, but also provided him with special insight into what Next Level had to offer. Like many Next Level artists, Dumi already had a long history of doing the daily work to build bridges through hip-hop. But now he had the freedom to focus his energies on art and education since Next Level’s infrastructure was taking care of the ground-level organizational details that would otherwise have required much of his time, . He notes that this is an under-recognized benefit of Next Level, just in general: it allows people who were already doing this kind of work to maximize the benefits of their efforts.
It also allows those benefits to continue to ripple after the residency ends. As an example, Dumi cites “Power, Movement,” a song that he produced with students from the Next Level Thailand Residency in Suratthani and Chiang Rai, along with DJ Dirty Digits, who taught deejaying on the residency.
“The track came about when I asked the students to come up with words to express what hip hop meant to them,” Dumi explains. “We took the words that we felt stood out the most and made it the foundation for this track. The words we chose were power, movement, expression, dancing, speaking, ability and understanding.”
You can hear the song here: https://soundcloud.com/dumi-right/nl-thailand-power-movment
After the residency, he also collaborated with a crew of dancers from Next Level Thailand to create a short dance video for a new song he had recorded with another Next Level Thailand producer. The crew told him later that this video, initially done just for fun, ended up landing them a sponsorship with a local company.
Ultimately, he says, it all comes full circle: “I think that was the grand vision of Zimbabwe Legit: to bring our cultural understanding and influence into the music. We should each tell our own story. Different languages can be incorporated into hip-hop to make something brand new. That’s what hip-hop is anyway, right? It’s taking something that already exists and making something fresh and new out of it.”
For more information on Dumi Right, check out these recent projects:
…And his most ambitious independent project yet…
Zimbabwe Legit – House of Stone, featuring a who’s who cast of hip hop luminaries that they encountered or interacted with (or were inspired by) over the years. Mike G (Jungle Brothers), Prince Po (Organized Konfusion), YZ, Vast Aire, Stic Man (dead prez), Chubb Rock, Breez Evahflowin’ and more.