Moken guides you through An African Island In An American City on his uniquely unforgettable new album — showcasing today on Tinnitist.
“I have always lived on an island of my own dreams, even back in Africa,” the Cameroonian, avant-garde, Afro-pop artist and balladeer shares. “Today, I am experiencing island life in America, as I’ve been abandoned by many members of my family. If you can stay optimistic in adversity such as this, you can produce your best work. Out of isolation came the best songs of my career.”
The Atlanta-based artist is referring to his finely crafted third album, An African Island In An American City. The 15-song record is an imaginative and purposeful collection of songs with a freewheeling melting-pot aesthetic that cements Moken’s artistic identity while it also showcases his versatility.
Moken might be one of the most singular voices in modern music. His stunning vocal lines dramatically vacillate between mournful falsetto tones and rich baritone singing all set against a musical bed of balmy acoustic-based Afro-pop, slinky grooves, and, sometimes, dissonant musical thematic overlay. His genre-defying songwriting pulls from Afrobeat, Makossa, West African palm-wine music, blues, jazz, rock ’n’ roll, American folk, EDM, and beyond. He’s influenced by Francis Bebey, Miriam Makeba, Nina Simone, Fela Kuti, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, James Brown and Nat “King” Cole.
He is a polymath creative, and in addition to being a singer-songwriter, Moken is an accomplished visual artist, dancer, writer, fashion designer, and poet. As a talented teen, he had his own art studio, and he fell into playing music naturally, sitting in with nearby street musicians playing Bob Marley. “I would join them, making funny noises and mimicking Bob Marley. They encouraged me to keep going and explore music,” Moken recalls. Eventually, he did just that; he bought his own guitar and began figuring out how to play.
What eluded him was writing songs — he was baffled by the process — until something of magical turn events showed him the way. Every Sunday Moken would dress up nicely and visit the beach to feel the energy of the ocean. One time, in the sound of the waves crashing, he heard music coming back at him, and he rushed back home to see if he could capture the sounds on his guitar. Instinctually, he pulled out a poem he had written and started singing the words against the chords he heard inspired by the crashing sea. It was then that he discovered how to write a song.
Moken’s story took a life-changing turn when he won a green card lottery, and suddenly could migrate to America. He first settled in Detroit, where he worked full-time, went to school full-time, and saved money by living in his car. Moken wrote many of his beloved songs in that car. In time, he left school to free up his schedule to pursue his music career, and moved to Atlanta. Today he is three albums into a successful career, and An African Island In An American City is a high watermark.
An African Island In An American City is personal, political, abstractly poetic, and, at times, playful. The haunting Blood River is a sparse and searing ballad with Moken’s flickering vocals delicately supported by a moody piano track. The song courageously and directly addresses the desertion of his family:
“Now I am free, now I am safe
Singing this song, for you to know
Blood river, blood river, blood river
I have been swimming in you for 50 years
Blood river, river of my blood, river of my blood
I have been swimming in you for 50 years.”
Elsewhere, the majestic New Hope Of The Morning features an overlay of Moken’s vocals with his crying melodies weaving in and out of his commanding low-register vocals. It’s a stinging political song in the style of Bob Dylan and Van Morrison. The frisky Worldmanizer features some irresistible dance grooves and a sizzling electric guitar solo. An African Island In An American City concludes with the ethereal beat-driven Hold On To Your Dream, an uplifting track that showcases Moken’s nimble vocal moves. Here, he slides in and out of the octave with silken grace.