Mark Otim, known by his stage name African Dundada is a South Sudanese-American hip-hop and reggae dancehall artist, whose goal is to use performance as a tool to advance a very utopian, “one love” sort of message. He also works with immigrant youth in Portland, many of whom, he says, consider him a mentor. African Dundada makes his Geno’s Rock Club debut on Friday May 4 for “Sounds of the City 2” alongside Akela Moon, and the Desperate Man’s Blues Explosion. The following interview has been lightly edited for grammar and clarity.
Tell me about your upbringing and how it influenced your interest in music and performance.
My passion for making music started back in Africa, where we’d listen closely to the radio Americans would bring to my village and sing songs around the fire. My father would tell me that I’d grow up to be a performer. I was born in South Sudan and there are not a lot of opportunities there. I didn’t live there long; I grew up in a refugee camp in Uganda. I was always an outcast. When I came to America in 1999, I didn’t speak English and was still an outcast, but I taught myself how to read and write from music.
What was it like when you first started making music in Maine?
I started in 2007 and back then there were hardly any opportunities, especially for people like me. I remember going to the bars to perform and it was rough. I’ve been an underdog my whole life. I still have anxiety from those days. I would get very nervous. I avoided being around too many people and making eye contact and catching people looking at me weird. I had to be relentless to succeed and continue to grind.
I would listen to Tupac Shakur’s “Hit Em Up” on repeat, which really got me into freestyling.
It all started when I freestyled in Peppermint Park and people loved it. The energy was there. It was the first time I saw that people came to see me, and I started to feed off of that.
What does your work with immigrant youth look like?
For the kids who grow up in Kennedy Park like I did, they don’t really see a lot of opportunities. It’s very tough. Kids come up to me daily to help them out with things. There’s a lot of talented people in my community that don’t get seen. I want to break that and I want to be the face that represents those people. That’s why I changed my name to African Dundada because I want to represent the underdogs — the people that have nothing.
What does Dundada mean?
Big deal. Originator of thoughts.
What forces do you think contribute to that struggle to be seen?
There’s not enough opportunities. You can’t be a dreamer anymore. There are gatekeepers, people who only support certain people.
What are your frustrations with the local music scene?
For anybody to make it they’ve got to do a lot of sucking up. I want people to be more original.
What do you say to the people that might think that’s naive? Or to the people who say they have a hard time because of systemic or environmental barriers?
I didn’t give up because someone said I wouldn't make it. For years I was homeless. But eventually, I said enough was enough and I booked my first show at Mayo Street Arts. That’s where it all started. From there I started doing my own shows. I want to be more than a performer, I want to be an idea — an idea that anything’s possible. I want people to be able to see my rise and be able to either say ‘this guy did it,” or ‘at least he tried.’
But you’re not discounting the problems that disenfranchised people face?
No, I’m not. Those problems exist. The worst thing you can to do to a person is make them feel lesser than you, shame them — and that happens a lot. But a change in mindset could help. If I know I’m good enough, if I know my talent, why the fuck would I let somebody else stop me? Why waste time fighting when you could be working?
How does your South Sudanese identity emerge in your music?
That’s one of my favorite parts about making music. I get to dip my hand in so many different genres. I can rap. I make reggae-dancehall music. I make African music too for my community.
I’m actually working on this thing called the “United States of Africa” because Africa is very powerful. There’s so much money being made in Africa, but that money doesn’t stay in Africa. I want Africa to keep its wealth.
Is the Portland hip hop scene fully inclusive?
To some extent, there are divisions. I do choose to stay away from some hip hop here. But Monday of the Minds is brilliant. To perform there, you’ve got to be able to spit. It’s for top dogs. I want as much people to hear about my culture as possible. We need a world that’s very diverse; that’s how you get the best ideas. At the end of the day we’re all on this big fuckin’ rock together.
Pearls of Portland is a series that focuses on artists, activists, and cultural agents in Maine. Wanna nominate a Pearl? Email email@example.com
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