St. Paul Hip-Hop Artist Tackles Fear of Making Music with New Album

African-born Zaire Huruku released album “Born to Do It,” detailing life in his home country and the struggles of making it in the music industry

Courtesy of Zaire Huruku

Rap and R&B artist Zaire Huruku had to leave his home country of Zaire, now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, when the First Congo War put his and his family’s safety at risk. After losing his parents and many other loved ones, he moved to Cameroon with his adoptive family, then to the United States in 2001. They settled in Montgomery-Lonsdale, Minnesota, a place Huruku describes as isolated, where they were the only black family in town. Other children didn’t understand why the new neighbors looked different. Today, Huruku lives in St. Paul and fights a new battle: succeeding in the music industry. Here, at least, he can focus on his craft and connect with other artists, with hopes to create a home recording studio.

His recent album, Born to Do It, mixes American hip-hop with imagery that takes listeners to Central Africa. Huruku, knowing Swahili, French, Lingala, and English, has an accent that combines those languages’ dialects and stands out over his hip-hop beats. He sings about longing for beautiful women, about proudly representing the country of Zaire, and about his hunger to succeed in the music industry. On the one hand, the music can sound exactly like American hip-hop: made on a computer, with various levels of beats on top of one another, plus fast and repetitive sounds. On the other hand, many of his tracks have a summery flair, where you can hear an acoustic guitar and drums create a slower rhythm that takes you somewhere warm. Many of the island-vibe beats remind me of something Jamaican artists Sean Paul or Shaggy would make music to.

While Huruku’s voice and tales of Zaire deliver African flavor, he makes space for one of his guest artists to rap a French love song. Combining international sounds with the local styles of Twin Cities artists makes Huruku’s album both local and global. I got to sit down with him to ask about how Minnesota and his home country of Zaire factor into his music.

Courtesy of Zaire Huruku

MNMO: How did you become active in the Twin Cities music scene?

Huruku: I was afraid of doing music when I was young. My older brother was doing music in the Twin Cities before, so I was following him around. I had been in school my entire life, and I didn’t have a job, so I decided to do something else. I decided to try music. I was always afraid to do it. I started writing songs in Minneapolis and I recorded an EP at Broken Home studios. I recorded at some bigger studios here and at B96 [radio station]. I’ve been trying to learn as I go. I don’t have a mentor, so I’m just doing it myself. I was hoping I would have a mentor—like, someone who is already established in music. I work with a lot of local artists, but some other people are cocky. They don’t want to work with anyone. I’m not like other guys that send their mix tapes out. I send emails. I take my time sending emails to other artists out there, and it takes me an hour because I want it to be just right. I even sent an email to Oprah. Not a lot of doors have opened for me. But I’m hoping one will open.

MNMO: Why were you afraid to pursue music?

Huruku: It was forbidden for me to do. My parents did not want me to do music. They’re OK with it, but they don’t approve that much. They consider artists to be thugs, drug dealers, who talk bad about women. They were against it because they’re very religious. I tell them that I’m still the person that they raised, I’m still the same guy—it’s just that I’m doing music. I’m writing it the mature way, as someone that has been through school, someone that has been through hardship. I’ve been through different cultures. My way of writing is global.

MNMO: You mentioned you were in school. Did you study music?

Huruku: I was studying music at Rochester Community and Technical College, and my father told me that music doesn’t pay. He told me I needed to get a job that pays. I transferred to Winona State University and switched my major to public relations. Then my advisor told me public relations is made to lie to people, and I don’t like to lie to people. So I switched my major again to sociology. We study people and help them. I transferred because I couldn’t afford school, but I was almost done. (I’m an African; just because things don’t work out doesn’t mean I’m going to stop.) So, I transferred to Metro State, and I was homeless at the time. I had to sleep in friends’ basements. My education journey has been a challenge, just like my music.

MNMO: Now that you’ve been breaking into the music scene here, how would you describe your sound?

Huruku: I studied the craft of American trap music. Even though they talk about drugs and the streets, I decided to use that energy, but talk about what happened in my life. I call it Afro Trap. Since I sing as well, I had to add something to it, so I decided to call it Afro Trap R&B. I learned this when I was doing art in school, when I would mix two paints together. I can do this in the music industry as well. If I want to be unique, I have to come up with something different. Everyone is rapping the same way. I decided to be unique and do it differently than others because I’m a rebel. Anytime someone tells me what to do, I do it a different way. I only pick beats that move my soul.

MNMO: What music artists inspire you?

Huruku: I listen to my older brother a lot. He does urban hip-hop. I also listen to the Fugees, Wyclef Jean, and Mos Def. I used to listen to Jay-Z, but not that much anymore. Lucky Dube is my number-one idol. I listen to his music 24/7.  My mother was always playing his music. He was this Rastaman from South Africa, he was in the same caliber as Bob Marley. I’ve been listening to a few local artists here, like Skinny, who I’ve been working with a lot.

MNMO: How does your background come out in your music?

Huruku: I’m from Zaire, which is dangerous to say in my country now. They call themselves Congolese now. There was a name change, there was a flag change. I don’t really understand it. I haven’t been there in 16 years. I only know what I see in the media. Up here, I can say I’m from Zaire. So I try to bring that out in my music. I try to bring stories that I heard in the villages around the fire into my music. We decided to release a song called “Anywhere,” which is saying where I’m from is beautiful. It’s paradise. It’s not just war. I’m singing to let people know that there was a war, there’s war everywhere, but there are also beautiful places in those areas that people don’t see.

MNMO: How did you come up with your album title?

Huruku: I called my album Born To Do It. The album picture is me when I was 10 or 12 because I started doing music at that age. It was either going to be Born to Do It, or Afro Elegant, but I decided to save [Afro Elegant] for later. I released my album because I want it to be better than my EP. When I did my EP, I sounded shy. This album showed that I was really sure about the music and I was ready to compete with the big dogs.

MNMO: You have some features on the album. Who are these artists and how did you connect with them?

Huruku: These are local artists that I’ve met through the years and I’ve built a relationship with. I was introduced to Skinny Hardaway. Yosa is a local artist in Rochester—he has an Asian background. So, I do music with all cultures. Doesn’t matter if someone is white, black, Asian, Indian. I feel the music. I’m more of a cultural person. I also have a track with my cousin on the album. I’m trying to be familiar with the music industry since it’s very complex. Some artists have contacted me if they have read about me. Others were introduced to me. Or I’ll go to them and listen to how they sound. I would tell my agent, I like him, I want him on this song, and my agent would say, OK, we’ll make it happen.

MNMO: What are your goals moving forward?

Huruku: I have many projects in my folders, but I need to slow down and space them out. They’re all different styles of music. I want all of my music to sound different. I’m focusing on my album and my projects that I’m releasing this summer. I have two mix tapes that I’m gonna release. Afro Elegant is the name of a future music project, but it’s also my business. I’m releasing a clothing line with my girlfriend that’s gonna be out soon.

Huruku has a show at the Minnesota Music Coalition on June 22, where he will perform with other musicians and friends.