Two emcees take the stage at Ann Arbor's B-Side, a concert venue, dressed all in black and with half opera masks on. Backed by a live three-piece hip-hop group, the frontmen kick into their first song, working the stage hard in character. Just as you're trying to figure out what just happened, they're off for the first of many quick costume changes of the show.
They come out in business suits for a song, dashikis for another, and dressed as thugs for the next song. Eye-popping Asian-inspired masks come next. It becomes clear these aren't just characters for the performers to inhabit. They're just as much different worlds for their songs to inhabit.
It's like Sun Ra, P-Funk and the Roots all gave birth to a band that immediately decided to throw any preconceived notions of what a hip-hop group should be out the window, instead putting together a manifesto of their own and running with it. Beneath the masks, the emcees look a lot like the prolific Buff1 and Majestik Legend from Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti.
The two emcees Nokbai and Sensu don't deny this as much as they dismiss it as irrelevant. TBO (officially The.Black.Opera.) is a clear break from past notions of who the performers are and what hip hop is, freeing them to take up whole new worlds to rap about. TBO comes off as much as an art movement or a social consciousness movement as a great live hip-hop band. Or like a great movie trilogy with layers of stories to be revealed upon further examination.
Their collaborator in the visual realm is Kensah (who might be Kyla Lin), who is as important as the music to TBO (TBO albums are called "audio demonstrations" and videos "video demonstrations"). Mello Music Group just released TBO's third record last week — the full-length Libretto: of King Legend, which features a guest spot from Mayer Hawthorne. We caught up with TBO via email, or was that interstellar communication?
Metro Times: Who are the members of the Black Opera?
Nokbai: I am Nokbai, that means "peace," in our language called "Opian."
Sensu: I am Sensu, which means "war."
Kensah: I am Kensah, "love."
MT: How did TBO come together?
Sensu: We came together in the name of creativity years ago. Our ancestors banded together to protect their tribe led by the incredible King Legend under a name believed to be "The Black Operation." From our ancestors' name we derived "The Black Opera."
Nokbai: We are a band of vocal, auditory and visual innovators sourced from a tribe of ancient freedom fighters known as "The Black Operation." Our lineage spans many generations and many continents. We are the new breed of Opians, and the torch is in our hands.
MT: TBO just dropped a new album Libretto: Of King Legend — who is King Legend?
Nokbai: Our album shares bits and pieces of the story of King Legend. The complete story of King Legend will be fully explained in our upcoming literary debut: Book: Of King Legend. King Legend was born Nyame Dua, which means "tree of god." We are representatives of his lineage. He was the leader of the Black Operation.
Kensah: We carry on the tradition of King Legend's greatest attributes. We represent the three sides of King Legend that he fought within himself: peace, war and love — Nokbai, Sensu and Kensah.
MT: What's the concept or idea behind the Black Opera?
Kensah: The idea is that there is no idea. TBO just is. Each complete body of work we present is an era: a glimpse into the livelihood of our tribe. Libretto is a series of snapshots, showcasing the life and times of our leader, King Legend. Each song represents an element that contributes to our story as a whole — a story about our King, told by members of our tribe.
MT: How is the Black Opera different from your previous projects?
Sensu: In our minds, there were no previous individual incarnations or projects prior to learning the greatness our collective heritage, the Black Opera. The freedom that the Black Opera provides us is similar to a complete rebirth. We have all experienced a creative baptism in complete darkness in order to sharpen the strength of our unified light.
MT: You performed at a Deepak Chopra event. How did that come about?
Nokbai: Deepak Chopra is the homie; he knows us. He invited us to be a part of his legendary event: Sages & Scientists Symposium 2012. He took care of us — everything was perfect. I feel that the intellectual lectures took our state of thinking to another level. We performed among Noble Prize-nominated neurologists and world-famous entertainers.
Sensu: It's always an honor to be around such a brilliant mind. Deepak Chopra has continually supported us. We consider him family.
MT: How did the visual element come about in TBO's shows? What do the characters represent?
Sensu: Our goal is to match the vibe of each audio demonstration with a look that suits it best. Much of our visual presentation is to be credited to Kensah.
Kensah: Our goal is to paint a picture. We are auditory impressionist artists. Live shows and videos each are a canvas on which we are able to engage our audience in the rituals and celebrations of our tribe.
Nokbai: Through all of our visual presentations, TBO and the entire Black Operation are able to express our ultimate and most important goal, which is freedom.
MT: Why do you call your records "audio demonstration" and your videos "video demonstrations"?
Kensah: We are creative freedom fighters. We demonstrate for our cause through our artistic pieces.
Nokbai: Our audio, video and visuals all have a simple face value and a hidden complex meaning. Each one of our creative works start with a direct intention that only a chosen few actually ever figure out. These chosen few are the TBO Enlightened.
MT: I've heard rumors that the members of TBO are Majestik Legend, Black Milk, Buff1 and/or Ro Spit. Is any of that true?
Kensah: Speculation has been one of the most rewarding elements to the TBO collective. Who we are is not important. What we do, what we say, and who we represent is where the attention should be focused.
Nokbai: We are all of them. We are Black Milk and Magestik Legend. We are Buff1 and Ro Spit. We are Tupac and Biggie. We are Malcolm and Martin. We are Obama and Romney. We are Shaq and Kobe. We are Prince Akim and Semi. We are Jay-Z and Nas. We are Warhol and Basquiat. We are one.
MT: What Detroit music are you digging right now?
Sensu: Detroit has some amazing creators. We've discovered in our travels that Michigan as a whole is just brilliant. We've been listening to Jack White, Nick Speed, Mayer Hawthorne, Boldy James, Danny Brown, T. Calmese, Clear Soul Forces ... the list goes on for eons. Waajeed is creating some great art works from his musical experiments. House shoes has a solid record out too that music lovers should support.
Nokbai: Recently, we've gotten into a couple of the more known Detroit trend-rappers. The ones talking about high fashion this, designer drug that. Makes for an interesting perspective hearing the stories from these guys. What a life.
Kensah: Our musical preferences extend larger than the city of Detroit. However, Detroit has its own lineage, and in a way, it's own King Legend story.
MT: Do you see any precedent for what TBO is doing with hip hop? Are there other hip-hop artists who inspired the project?
Kensah: We are inspired by life, lust, love, peace and war. Music plays a part in all those things. We're living beings, all living beings are influenced. It's what you do with that inspiration that sets you apart. We are life imitating art imitating life. Everything is inspiration. Nothing is original.
Sensu: It is possible that our art is inspiring other artists, actually. We are here to uncover a saga and lineage that was all but lost. In the process of doing so, we see others studying our story and embracing it (even implementing it) into their own methods of creation.
Doug Coombe writes and shoots photos for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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