There's more than one way for a rapper to spread his name around the world. The quick and easy method might involve moving to L.A. and cozying up to Jay-Z. But freestylist Kokayi ("summoning the people" in Swahili -- although his given name is Carl Walker) discovered a truer, if more circuitous path.
In 2006, as a resident of our nation's capital, he hooked up with the Department of State, and with his hip-hop fusion band Opus Akoben embarked on a goodwill tour of the Middle East called "Rhythm Roads." As a goodwill ambassador for the United States, Kokayi ran workshops and rocked spots in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia (performing to a roomful of imams), Jordan, Egypt, Israel and the Palestinian territories. The following summer, he did something similar in China, Mongolia and Russia.
But don't peg him as a smiley-faced stooge of Western imperialism. Kokayi's story deserves deeper perusal. Inspired by his brother's purchase of a Run-DMC 12-inch, he made his life's goal the pursuit of skillful rhymes. By day, he's an electrical engineer, but at night he participates in ciphers at D.C. hotspots. His penchant for top-of-the-dome lyrical creativity made him the perfect candidate to join avant-garde saxophonist Steve Coleman (founder of the M-Base movement, which merged funk and experimentalism) and his latest project, The Metrics. Kokayi toured 11 countries and appeared on four albums with Coleman. He's also released two albums in France (on BMG and Label Bleu) for Opus Akoben.
Overseas travels notwithstanding, Kokayi was just as keen on remaining in D.C. He's married, with a 3-year-old-son, Dahvi -- to whom he dedicates a standout track, "SonSun Dun," on his solo debut Mass Instructions, which came out in November. The record is peppered with unusual production -- from orchestral stabs to horn licks -- but the most memorable element of Instructions is his sing-song cadence, which some compare to such legendary conscious emcees as Common, KRS One, and Pharaohe Monche.
Although Kokayi lives in the shadow of the government, don't expect him to toe the Republican line. On the Jamaican-flavored "Babylon," he lambastes the Iraq war for its waste of resources; on "God in You," he deconstructs the concept of a personal savior. "ArgYou" is about not wanting to fight with his wife, but Kokayi's not serious all the time: It takes a deft sense of humor to cram the mentions of more than two dozen games into the track "Life (Game Of)" -- from Jenga to Jeopardy, Minesweeper to Tetris.
By the end of Instructions, you sense how ordinary and real Kokayi is -- no swell-headed rap ego there. When he's not kickin' it in the world of hip hop and jazz fusion, Kokayi very possibly enjoys sitting back on the couch and playing video games with his son. He's a man who positively can do all the things that make us laugh and cry.
Kokayi. 9 p.m. Thu., Jan. 10. Shadow Lounge, 5972 Baum Blvd., East Liberty. 412-363-8227
- Well-traveled homebody: Kokayi