This NY Rapper Went to South Africa As Trump Became President—and 'Valley of Grace' Was Born
How Elucid made his sophomore album while feeling like an alien in South Africa.
Rapper and producer Elucid’s gritty, experimental debut album, Save Yourself, was recorded in what he calls a “proudly crumbling brownstone” in the East New York neighborhood of Brooklyn—but his latest project was inspired by a two-month trip to South Africa he took last year. Titled Valley Of Grace, the 11-track hip-hop travelogue features beats that fuse post-rock, noise, and gospel samples and mixes them off-kilter percussion ticks. Over this hazy concoction, Elucid documents the experiences of an “African-American alien wandering the Motherland.” The record couldn't have been set against a more powerful background: the 2016 U.S. presidential election, which Elucid said was like watching “America burn from distant shores."
Today, Elucid is back in Brooklyn. I spoke to him about Valley Of Grace, how the gentrification of Brooklyn compares to that in places like Cape Town and Johannesburg, and how the shadow of Donald Trump’s administration has been interpreted on South African shores.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
TrackRecord: What were your first impressions when you arrived in South Africa?
Elucid: The first thing I noticed when I landed in Johannesburg was that there were no trees! It was like, the most urban place I'd ever been. I stayed there for a few weeks, and then [my wife and I] were in Cape Town for the remainder of [our trip]. They’re vastly different cities, with vastly different climates and people. I loved Johannesburg more but the natural beauty of Cape Town was, wow—I’ve never seen anywhere more beautiful. You've got the mountains there, the vineyards, you can see all of downtown Cape Town, and there's really interesting history.
TR: When did you decide to record a project while you were in South Africa?
E: I just had more time on my hands than I figured. I’d brought my equipment with me—a laptop and a sampler—so I was ready to record if needed. I didn't realize how big Johannesburg was, and there were times when I was like, “You know what? I don't really feel like going into the heart of the city.” So in the morning, my wife would go to work and I'd go get some coffee, smoke a little something, and then I'd be in that zone to do something. I was working on tons of ideas and stockpiling things, and then I picked what I thought was the coolest and [those songs] ended up on Valley Of Grace.
TR: What inspired the music that ended up being on Valley Of Grace?
E: The concept for the project came out of conversations I had with a few different people I met there, just like hanging out in bars and having really interesting talks. South Africans are 22 years out of apartheid and there are people my age who lived with it and have seen the switch. I learned some things. I mean, I was at a comedy show, and it was the first time I heard someone mock Nelson Mandela or speak negatively of the man—I've never heard that here in America, it's a different kind of thing there.
There's also a lot of talk of freeing the land and a lot of land-rights issues concerning women and widows and farmland and vineyard country over there. So it's all based on my conversations I had with people in Johannesburg and Cape Town and the vibes I was picking up there.
TR: Can you break down one of these conversations you had that inspired the project?
E: I met this filmmaker Kurt Orderson and he'd started making this movie called Not In My Neighborhood. He's tracking gentrification in Cape Town, New York City and São Paulo, Brazil. I had conversations with him about gentrification and seeing the parallels. We talked about the history of being in somewhere like Soweto where people are forcibly removed from their homes at gunpoint and then placed in townships.
TR: Do you see any similarities between what’s going on in Brooklyn and cities in South Africa?
E: Over there it’s more extreme; here, it's gradual. Over there it's pretty quick—you’re in and you're out. But the similarity is that once these folks are cleared from their homes, it makes way for luxury apartments and nice bars and restaurants and then there’s displaced folks being left out again.
Where we were staying in Joburg was more or less the gentrified arts district. It was called the 12 Decades [Johannesburg Art] Hotel and it's basically an art hotel for foreigners. That district has been made into a safe haven for foreigners to come and you're surrounded by what in America I'd call housing projects—I know a housing project when I see one. Just like here, these gentrified neighborhoods are ensconced within the ghetto: If you walk three blocks in the wrong direction, you're in front of vacant buildings and people in front of open fires to keep warm and people selling all sorts of shit.
But aside from that, there wasn't much of a lifestyle difference. A lot of places had nicer coffee shops than where I'm at in Brooklyn now! There were beautifully made lattes and freshly made pastries.
TR: Did you pick up on any local resentment towards tourists who stay in these gentrified areas?
E: I think maybe there is in South Africa at large... My wife and I tried to get married over there but the people were definitely distant to us. We weren't sure why—we just knew it was funny style from the attitude we received the moment we walked in. The attitude of the clerk was like, “Where are your visas?” I didn’t have one. They look at my wife's ID and said they were pretty backed up [to register the marriage] and gave a date in October that was the exact date her passport would expire! She was like, playing with her. We talked to other people about that and they were like, “That's kinda how South Africa is and they don't fuck with foreigners.”
Also, when we were there, the news everyday was about people coming in from Zimbabwe and Botswana and it was like Americans to Mexican immigrants: “You’ve got to leave, you're taking all our jobs, you’ve taken all our women, you're bringing in crime.” It’s the same rhetoric that we get from the Trump administration—it's the same thing over there from the surrounding countries.
TR: What do the people you spoke with in South Africa think about Trump?
E: It was a big joke for them. They’d be like, “That guy's pretty crazy, right?” I was like, “He’s not so crazy and here's why if you look at American history…” For me, I felt like Trump was gonna win [the election] before I left. I actually bet [collaborator and fellow rapper] Billy Woods before I left that he would win and Woods still owes me dinner. You compare histories of countries, and it's like, “This person here, he's not actually crazy—it’s how it's supposed to be right now.” I think he's very cold and very logical and he's a mirror of what America has become.
TR: On the song “colonizers corpse,” you have a line about how “click tongues sound both ancient and futuristic.”
E: Xhosa, yeah!
TR: What did you think when you first heard someone speaking that way?
E: I thought it was beautiful. I couldn't understand why I'd heard so many black Americans making jokes about it—like I grew up with BET in the late ‘90s and they'd always joke about people in Africa speaking with a click. But when I heard it, it sounded very old to me but also futuristic. It’s a word but it's also a sound, like post-language, like they can convey emotion and feeling through a sound. It's beautiful.
TR: Another line on Valley Of Grace talks about you buying a Zulu hat from the ghost of the rapper Ms. Melodie. What inspired that?
E: Zulu hats are really popular there. They had these open-air markets on the weekend, and when I saw the hats, I was like, “I remember these from being a child and seeing my mom's friends wear them.” It was a very popular hat in the late '80s, when it was a cool thing to be Afrocentric, and you had the Native Tongues and Boogie Down Productions and people wearing African medallions and kentes. I hadn't seen one again until I got to South Africa, and then I remembered that picture of Ms. Melodie with KRS-One with the hat. It just kinda made sense.