How does culture influence one’s artistic vision? What’s the power of language? We sat down with Kris, Wes and Sam of Hong Kong-based hip hop collective, XABITAT, to answer these questions from the perspective of their experiences and surroundings. XABITAT stands out with its ability to embrace different cultures and use them as a source of inspiration for their tracks.
QU: Did the place you grew up in influence your art in any way?
WES: I grew in the northern suburbs of Paris, what we would commonly call the projects (even though I was never living that “hood life”, I just grew up around it) and similarly to the US, the most popular music genre in these neighbourhoods has always been Hip Hop. Because that was the life most people there were living. So this is what I grew up listening to and this is what I fell in love with, so yes, it definitely influences my art and my music.
SAM: I grew up in Cotonou, Benin up to the age of 15 years old. That was when I moved to Hong Kong for my studies. So I kind of grew up in both places. The influence of both places is tangible in my personality and character which is reflected in my art. The Benin side is where my spirituality comes from and the Hong Kong side is where my « urban » side comes from and you can hear and see it in my art.
KRIS: Absolutely. I spent most of my teenage and adult years travelling between countries. The art I put out always reflects my surroundings to a degree. This could be through subject matter (lyrics in music, scenery in music videos etc)
QU: What was the experience that left you speechless and had an impact on your life as a creative?
WES: I would say the very first Hip Hop concert I attended, Kanye West, in 2008. It was the Glow n the Dark Tour, and it really left me speechless because it was so much more than a “regular” concert. It was a whole story, so much work and attention to detail. This really showed me I always have to push further in my creativity, to try and stand out, the same way Kanye had pushed further than just a microphone and backup musicians for his show. It was a movie!
SAM: It was when we toured Asia with XABITAT. It impacted me to the point that I know people love what we do!
XABITAT’s namesake debut album incorporates the Asian influences into the context of modern hip hop and pop culture. The album’s title track ‘Bruce Lee’ uses motifs from traditional Chinese music as its base, complemented by a steady beat. XABITAT managed to put Chinese folkloric elements into the context both fresh and modern through the use of qipao-inspired garments and quintessentially Hong Kong locations.
KRIS: My first professional studio session. I remember my neighbour (DMC Kelz) in my dormitory in Moscow had booked a collaborative studio session but his mate wasn’t able to make it that day. He asked if I rapped and wanted to accompany him to the studio. That experience changed my whole approach to music and motivated me to take my craft more seriously. I started to invest in my craft to improve the quality of my production. Prior to that, I recorded in my dorm room using my inbuilt laptop microphone.
QU: What is a collaboration to you, and its value to you as a musical artist?
WES: To me a collaboration has to happen between artists that are somehow “in sync”, artists that have the same energy, if that makes sense. That’s why so far I’ve only collaborated with artists I know personally and that I get along with. It has to push the artists further and enhance what they already know how to do, and I think it’s harder to achieve with artists that do not know each other or artists just trying to collaborate for some clout only. I think collaborating is very important because always working alone can have you going in circles creatively and always do the same thing.
SAM: A collaboration is the coming together of two entities and energies to create something or be productive together. As a musical artist, collaborations open doors to new sounds and audiences. It broadens the scope of what I can do. Collaborations also bring in more money because « Two is better than one. »
KRIS: In regards to music, I love to collaborate with artists that I have real relationships with because my lyrics tend to reflect my reality. If an artist could be beneficial to my career through collaboration but I don’t get along with him or her in reality, I wouldn’t work with that artist. Because I wouldn’t be able to paint an accurate picture of my reality. And it just wouldn’t be an enjoyable process which comes first for me. Gotta love and embrace the process of creation in order for listeners to embrace the product in the same manner.
QU: How did the multilingual environment change your way of communication and thinking?
WES: Well I was raised speaking two languages, English at home and French outside/at school, and I’m so thankful for it. I think it really opens your mind and instantly allows you to understand and be curious about other cultures because you already know more than one. So that was definitely an advantage coming to HK, even though I do not speak Cantonese, I was never scared to live in a country with a different medium.
SAM: I’m a third culture kid who grew up in a French-speaking environment and is currently speaking and rapping in English. The change is that I can express myself more and bring in different cultures into my art because I communicate through that. Bringing in such an environment allows me to perceive things and understand things more clearly and broadly.
KRIS: Most importantly it’s about getting to meet people from different cultural backgrounds. Learning about their experiences and seeing how it differs from mine is a whole learning experience on its own. We grow as individuals through communicating and learning from others. Every country I’ve lived in expanded my mind to lengths it wouldn’t have reached without travelling.
QU: Do you see a way communication can evolve beyond language?
WES: If we think of language as speaking, then I think communication has already evolved beyond it. For example, you can already convey so much with body language alone (which is technically a language, yes lol but still). And more importantly, art. You can express so much through art, whether it is visual or auditory. You do not need to be speaking to someone directly for them to understand what you want to express. A complete stranger can be seeing/watching/listening to your creation, miles away from you, and you’re still communicating with that person. And the beauty of it is that sometimes they can even have their own take on it.
SAM: Of course I do! But what I also think is that we should look at our definition of language again. A message can be passed on through letters, music, videos, sign language, still images, hand gestures etc all those means are languages I think. Music is a language. Dreams are a language. It’s not just limited to words; Videos are a language. Do you get me? For communication to evolve beyond “language” we need to understand this.
KRIS: To an extent. Technology would have a bigger role to play realistically, to keep up with this fast paced world we live in. Communication through art has already been proven through sound and visuals. We’re able to tell stories and trigger emotions without words. Anything beyond this would involve advanced technology and research (neurophysics) to be exact.
QU: What message do you hope for people to receive while listening to your music?
WES: I guess I have two answers for that. The Xabitat answer would be that it is possible to live in a country that is not yours, in a culture that is not yours, and still strive and push to be the best you be. This is why we chose this name, none of us is from HK but it has become our habitat, our home away from home.
SAM: I simply want to give hope, motivation and point to Christ /God as a signpost with my music.
KRIS: I hope to trigger their emotions. The same ones I felt while creating that particular record. That’s real. Even if it’s just one individual, I'm cool with it.
Written by Gennady Oreshkin and Julia Horvath
Image Courtesy of Xabitat