Raised in a culture without MTV, Ghanaian-born rapper M.anifest was introduced to hip-hop via a lost art -- the dubbed cassette. Trading black-market tapes with friends and relatives who had traveled overseas, M.anifest discovered rap without having to endure the marketing side so prevalent in the States.
"My granddad is an ethnomusicologist, and so he always had all sorts of records and tapes lying around. I'd use his tapes to dub my hip-hop shit," M.anifest admits with a laugh. "I ended up listening to each one for at least 30 minutes to decide if it was too important."
In an interview at a Minneapolis coffee shop, the emerging young artist, cowled in a purple hoodie that reads "Home of the Original Man," recalls his musical education in Ghana with nostalgia.
"I was always surrounded by music growing up," he says. "Music is all through my culture in terms of everything we do. People dance and sing and drum at funerals, things like that. Words are not enough, patting people on the back is not enough, something else needs to be created."
From an early age, M.anifest (born Kwame Tsikata) grabbed whatever hip-hop he could get his hands on. He quickly graduated from transcribing Naughty By Nature rhymes to writing his own. By age 14, he had his own crew and was making tracks with mainstream instrumentals from the United States.
But it wasn't until years after moving to Minnesota on a scholarship to Macalester College in St. Paul that M.anifest, now 25, finally put out a record. Released last fall, "Manifestations" made an immediate splash with a rich, polished aesthetic that sounds like no other record on the local radar. Featuring the soulful production of his own 4Shadez crew, the tracks complement M.anifest's well-educated, first-generation immigrant identity with up-tempo, head-rocking party tracks. As he grew up with no real concept of "mainstream" and "underground," his music sounds as comparable to Kanye West as it does to indie-rap legend Talib Kweli. Still, M.anifest comfortably owns his own identity.
Lyrically, M.anifest weaves themes of spiritual consciousness with pop-culture references. On the opening track, "Spell Check," he spits out lines about representing Africa and reveals his name to be an acronym for "Music Always Needing Illumination For Every Soul Today." He then launches into a chest-thumping verse that references Thomas Edison, David Letterman, Ludacris and "The Pelican Brief." He swerves effortlessly between serious spiritual statements and more casual and humorous sociological observations.
Having made his way onto a number of local 2007 best-of lists -- not to mention having his music used in a national ad campaign for Pepsi -- M.anifest is emerging as a significant personality in the Twin Cities' indie hip-hop scene. Yet as an artist thoroughly aware of who he is and where he comes from, the idea of success overwhelming his character seems unlikely.
Putting it all in a nutshell, the wise MC cracks a smile and concludes sprightly, "Hip-hop is about being yourself."