By: Seamus Fay
When Caliph and I first talked about doing this interview, I immediately jumped on the idea of giving a platform to voice the perspective of an African immigrant, especially in a time of such confusion and conflict within communities and within the U.S. as a whole. For background, Caliph is a charismatic recording artist from New Bedford armed with incredible skills in lyricism, delivery, and especially hook-writing. I’ve been a big fan of the budding talent for some time now, and with success comes the importance of using his platform to promote understanding and positivity. That being said, I proudly present to you the following conversation I had with Caliph about immigration and his background.
Where are you originally from? And who were you at a young age amongst your peers? Where did you fit in?
I was born in West Africa, specifically Dakar, Senegal, but I’m also Guinean, Cape Verdean and Portuguese. Due to the lifestyle in Africa, we have to grow up fast enough to handle responsibilities, from buying cigarettes and scratch tickets for adults to walking distances like from Dorchester to Back Bay for water in response to water outages. Everyday adult errands are handed over to kids, which in turn makes us grow up faster. At the age of 5, I mentally had to be 15. That also came with things like throwing parties, playing soccer and going to school on my own. My peers and I were just regular kids from Sicap, and I being the youngest at 5, was doing things my 7, 8, 9-year-old friends were doing as 17, 18, 19-year-olds. I had to be a grown adult but still keep key elements of my childhood alive.
When did you move to the U.S. and why?
I moved to the U.S. in December 96. I was 7. My mother and I stopped in France for about 6 months and then came to the United States to join my father. He came here 4 years before I did when I was 3 to start a new life and make better opportunities happen for our family.
What was your opinion of the U.S. before you lived here? Were you excited to come to the country?
Yes! I was very excited, but more so to meet my father. I was a toddler when he left.
We would talk on the phone and he sent me everything I asked for but I didn’t know him so I was excited to meet him and build a relationship with him. As far as my opinion of America, it was the best place in the world but from a distance. It was like a promised land but I was oblivious as to what to expect, and just came here with my mother.
From a social standpoint, what was your transition like into the United States? How did others view you and did you find any difficulty in forming your spot in the U.S.?
It was really like a reset button. That teenage 5-year-old had to become a 7-year-old kid again and a big part of that was due to being an immigrant. We had to be careful. In my Dad’s eyes, I’m a 7-year-old in a new country with no knowledge of the language and culture, so he sheltered me at first and set guidelines to protect us. As far as my peers, they saw me as the new African kid in town but I quickly became a part of the neighborhood through sports. I fell in love with Basketball and back then if you were ballin at Monte’s Park you had to be nice. So I used that as my way to connect and communicate with the kids in the neighborhood. My only difficulties came from dealing with bullying. In Senegal, we were all friends looking out for each other. There were fights and disagreements but bullying and singling kids out was never our thing. I was also obviously the new immigrant to pick on so it was tough but it gave me character.
How do immigration and your personal background influence your music?
It is my music. I was always into music even back in Senegal. I was a huge fan of a rap group named Daara-J, that at the time was gaining a lot of recognition. Fun fact, my cousin was also a part of the biggest rap duo at the time called Positive Black Soul. So hip-hop was engraved in me since I was 3/4 years old. I didn’t really rap until high school because my focus was entirely geared towards my education. I won a scholarship to go to UMass Dartmouth in the 6th grade so my parents and I thought I was good until the time came to go to college. We got a call by the university to come in after I was accepted and everything and they told us I couldn’t attend the university due to my legal status. My parents did everything in their power to get me my papers but immigration was cracking down on things. And after 9/11 it was really hard for an immigrant to get an education in the U.S. That put us in a dark place as a family. All this hard work for what?? So I looked at my options… work under the table and accept life as such or work towards something bigger?
Hip Hop was always there. My parents thought it was just a fad but I joined a group, we dropped a tape in school and even performed at our prom. All that was fun but I started to feel different as all my friends were living normal American lives. I also noticed no one in hip-hop was speaking for me as an immigrant and what I was going through in life. So I decided to rap in hopes of getting signed and getting sponsored by a label to get my papers. But more importantly, I started rapping to be a voice for a community that by nature kept their lives under wraps… IMMIGRANTS.
How have the ideas about not welcoming immigrants, specifically Muslim immigrants, impacted you personally along with your peers? What was your reaction to initially hearing such unaccepting ideas and threats?
Well, it hit me the hardest in middle school on 9/12. After the attacks on 9/11, I went back to school and no one spoke to me. It was as if I had become an enemy to my peers and even my teachers. None of my friends spoke to me and my teachers never called on me to answer any questions. They were all seeing me as the immigrant Muslim kid in their class who could be in contact/relations with terrorists. Although it didn’t last longer than a month, it was a telling experience. I learned that I was different and people can and will see me as such. I was hurt at first but once again, it gave me more character as I worked my way out of that. Then Bush came along…and now Trump… to the average human being this is a hot topic now but our lives have been like this all along. None of this is new. It’s just now at the forefront of American media.
What is your general opinion on the climate of immigration right now? Where does the U.S. lack in understanding?
In my opinion, the U.S. understands what’s going on, but the country isn’t focused on helping us. They are more focused on money. That being the case, they’ll always go with the best financial decisions. All this Donald Trump hooplah is really nothing but just that to me, hooplah… politics to me is a glorified reality show.. i.e.Trump. The decision makers are the ones with the money, the ones who own banks, the people behind closed doors. If there was a plan that involved legalizing immigrants which helped the country financially and didn’t threaten its position as a world power, we’d all be legalized by now. This country was founded on migration and the people that come here made it what it is. There is no such thing as an American. We are all immigrants on Native American land. Some of us just got here first and want to maintain control and power. Legalizing immigrants means millions of new people, voices, perspectives, and ideas. The powers that be can’t afford another group to come here and outsmart them in their industries. We are the new “pilgrims”, but this time the “natives” have the “diseased blankets” and they’re using them against new immigrants to stop them from prospering. They’ll hire us to do the work for their corporations to either stay home and make their products for dirt cheap or they use our knowledge here and brand it as theirs. Either way the system is set to maintain a level of control that would be threatened by a young generation of immigrants who can and will change the country. And they’ve already seen the potential of what we can do within the little time we’ve had with the DACA program.
Looking back on your transition into the United States, what would you have hoped for in terms of how you were accepted into society?
Nothing. It made me the man I am today. I would never be able to speak for myself and others the way I do. I would have just been another super-smart IT guy giving all my ideas to a corporation that takes 10 to give me back 1. I don’t want that. I want change. I want a system that allows us as a people to prosper beyond limits in this country and truly make it great again. Trust me, it was immigrants that made it great in the first place, and we are the only ones who can make it great again.
After speaking to Caliph, I found it very interesting to reflect on the way he feels about today’s landscape in terms of immigration and how it pertains to his life. My goal with this interview is simply to provide a perspective from someone living through these struggles that come with being an immigrant, and I hope for nothing but positivity and understanding in doing so. Thank you to Caliph and his team for the interview – best of luck moving forward.
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