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M.anifest Destiny
Kwame Tsikata combines Ghanian heritage and socially-conscious messages to change the American rap game
When Kwame Tsikata, a.k.a MC M.anifest, performs live, he avoids the standard rapper uniform of low-slung jeans, an oversized t-shirt, and gold jewelry. Instead he dons a batakari, a colorful pullover from his native country of Ghana, and sports a red, green, and yellow cap, the colors of Ghana's flag. "It feels like another extension of my personality," Tsikata (pronounced Chuh-Kah-Tuh) says from his cell phone in Minneapolis.

The 25-year-old uses his clothing as one of the many ways to set himself apart in the vibrant Twin Cities' independent hip-hop scene, home of the nationally-known group Atmosphere and the Rhymesayers Entertainment record label. Funding for his first independent album came from an unlikely source: Pepsi. Tsikata chuckles as he describes his collaboration with the soft drink giant. In 2006, Pepsi hired a Minneapolis marketing company for one of their campaigns. Desdamona, a fellow Minneapolis-based rapper who also appears on his album, Manifestations, heard about the campaign. She told the company to check out M.anifest. "They liked it," Tsikata says. He recorded the ad in January 2007, and by May, it began playing on Pepsi's web site and the radio. "I had friends calling me from Los Angeles and Colorado saying, 'Oh, I heard you like three times today when I was sitting in traffic,'" he says.

Along with many other African-born emcees, Tsikata brings a fresh sound to the American hip-hop scene. As a top-40 success, Senegalese-American rapper Akon represents Africans rapping in cities across America. Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of black popular culture at Duke University, says the trend of hip-hop as a global export leaves him unsurprised. "They took a vibrant and accessible product and applied it to their own lives. I think if it's a rapper who is cognizant of maintaining their identity, it expands what American hip-hop is," Neal says.

And Tsikata has done just that. Soon after Manifestations was released, praise started streaming in. Minneapolis' daily newspaper, The Star-Tribune, and the Twin Cities' alternative news weekly, City Pages, voted Manifestations one of the best local albums of 2007. The Star-Tribune described the album as "offering a surprisingly worldly and encyclopedic cross-section of hip-hop on his debut." Both publications compared Tsikata's music to De La Soul, a late 1980s hip-hop group that was part of the Native Tongues movement. The movement's positive message rejected violent and sexually explicit messages in its attempt to portray the hard realities of urban life.

Tsikata spent the majority of his life several thousand miles away from American metropolitan streets. Raised by a single mother in the southern coastal town of Accra, Ghana, Tsikata spent his youth surrounded by African music. "Music plays a big part in every aspect of Ghana's culture. It's 80 to 90 percent of big events [weddings, funerals, births], and a lot of communication is done through that. You can walk down the street in my neighborhood and music is everywhere, from the seamstress to the fisherman with his little radio," he says.

His grandfather, J.H. Kwabena Nketia, an ethnomusicologist who taught at the University of Pittsburgh and UCLA, served as his first musical influence. He credits his grandfather's extensive collection of tapes and vinyl for his interest in music. "I think it influenced me in the sense that I had an early ear to a lot of different kinds of music, especially from the point of view of African music," Tsikata says.

Tsikata moved to the Twin Cities in 2001 to study economics at Macalester College in St. Paul. He struggled to make a permanent transition from Africa's warm climate to Minnesota's frigid winters. "I don't think one can prepare themselves mentally for it, until you come into it," Tsikata says. These days he works full time in Minneapolis at the Progressive Technology Project, a non-profit that helps grassroots community organizations use technology. "It's nice to have some other work that intersects meeting people and thinking progressively," he says. "It keeps me grounded in a way, because it's challenging to do both."

As for the name M.anifest, (or M. to his peers), it references his skills as an artist. "I was writing and rhyming and explaining what 'to manifest' means to me. I actively believe in the power of words," he says. "Manifest denotes a certain spirituality and bringing things from within, and then making it happen. It captured the essence of what I was trying to do."

The money from Pepsi helped him release his first album independently, and he intends to keep releasing independent records. His advice for others pursuing a creative passion is straightforward: "Walk the talk. Or better yet, do a little talking, and do a lot more walking. That's the only way to get confidence for yourself and from the people around you," he says.

European label Jakarta Records just re-released Manifestations, and Tsikata constantly writes new songs. "Sometimes it's hard to perform old songs, because I've done so much new stuff," he says. He's also collaborating with I Self Divine, another respected Minneapolis hip-hop artist. His next solo release is Coming to America, an album addressing the general immigrant experience. "And I always loved the movie Coming to America," he says.

In past live shows, he incorporated African drums, backup female vocals, and even replaced his microphone with a megaphone. "It worked pretty well, but I got tired of it pretty quickly," he says. "I think there's a big misconception that when you have something relevant to say, people need to sit down and meditate and listen to it. I come from a culture where you can talk about life and death and still dance to it. My shows definitely try and capture that energy."


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