(Rotterdam, The Netherlands)
It was a complete coincidence. Maybe. I was in Amsterdam on my way to Nairobi, and I had gotten a hotel room for few hours to sleep off a cold since the layover was so ridiculously long. My eyes were still puffy and irritated when I saw him come bouncing down the stairs at the airport. His name came to me immediately, and I smiled.
“Gery Mendes,” I said.
“Yes,” he said, smiling back.
I told him that I knew of him from the Diversidad project, and that I had reviewed the music for Okayplayer. I also wondered out loud what the odds were that I’d meet him there at the airport years later. He told me that he was in Amsterdam for a quick meeting, but that he actually lived in Rotterdam. Funny.
Fast forward to over a year later. I thought about Gery as Global Narrative was coming together, and I asked if we could chat. He was kind enough to carve out some time, despite not knowing exactly why I was making the request. We ended up chatting about growing up Cape Verdean in Rotterdam, making music, and destiny.
What was it like growing up in Rotterdam?
Photo by Rui Noir
Rotterdam was great. There couldn’t have been a better city in Holland to grow up in. It’s multicultural; and actually “the minorities” in the neighbourhoods where I used to hang out were Dutch people. So in a way I never really knew about racism or discrimination until I was an adolescent.
The neighbourhood I grew up in was a bit rough, but good. It’s changing a lot. They’re breaking down houses and rebuilding so that’s a bit painful to see. In the last few years, we’ve really been confronted with the White side of Holland versus the Black side of Holland. We are Dutch too – I’m Dutch, I was born here — but in a way people do not consider us Dutch. And I do consider myself Cape Verdean, although when I’m in Cape Verde I’m Dutch to them.
It’s interesting to me that you say Rotterdam was probably the best city to grow up in in Holland because for a lot of people, all we know of the Netherlands is Amsterdam.
If my parents had gone to Amsterdam then I would have been a lonely Cape Verdean growing up without any Cape Verdeans around me. Most Cape Verdeans are in Rotterdam. This is the place where our fathers came.
Being that you were born in the Netherlands, where do you think this strong sense of Cape Verdean identity comes from?
Just seeing my parents and people around us struggle to make ends meet. It puts things into perspective. They came here to at first chase a better life. But then we came and it became about grinding for us to have dreams, and they put their dreams aside.
I first heard of you through Diversidad, so my introduction to you was hearing you rap. How would you describe your music these days?
This is a difficult question because I love to do it all. I rap, play the guitar, write a song in which I’m singing, write a song in which I’m emceeing. I make a beat, I jump on stage, etc. I think it’s world music mixed with hip-hop now. I could say the roots are hip-hop and the branches are a bit of reggae, rock and jazz.
I’ve only heard your to music in English and Portuguese. Why don’t you write in Dutch? I was wondering, is it that the language doesn’t lend itself well to the music?
No, the language is fine. Up until recently I would have stuck to what I was going but now I feel like I’ll just do whatever I feel. Have you heard Dutch before?
Photo by Wijnand Schouten
And do you like the language?
Not particularly. [laughing]
Yeah so, there’s your answer, I guess.
So it wasn’t a conscious decision?
No. When I started everyone was writing in English over here because that’s all we heard. And then people years later switched up. I have a few examples of people switching and it was like the same thing – it didn’t make it any better. But I’d rather do a whole album in Cape Verdean than Dutch.
Tell me about Wonder.
Ok, yeah [laughter]. That was a song I wrote with my bass player around 2012. He was going through a hard break up. I had the same thing about two or three years before and I was still healing. He was doing something on the piano at my place and I went to my parents’. When I came back, the beat was done, and I was like, “this is nice.” I wrote some words, switched up some melodies, and recorded the next day.
Years later we were with Bouba Dola, this filmmaker from Congo who lives here, at a café. It started raining and he went outside and took some footage. And we were like, hey this could be some nice footage for that song. We kept that in mind, and eventually came up with this concept of me going to the same café every day or every few days and waiting for my love, and she never shows up. But Bouba suggested we break the scenes up with something else, so I showed him some pictures of this dancer who lived in Austria. I approached her and she sent us some footage of Austria. We did some research and went. We just knew the vibe was good the landscape was nice so we went there for six days and shot. We came back and started editing and it took some time because it was not just a simple three minute video. It was a nice learning experience and a good foundation for more of those types of videos.
And how do you feel about it now that is done and out there in the world?
I’m happy about it. It hasn’t had super success or 100,000 views, but the people who see it react to it. It touches people, so it makes you realize that that’s what counts. A few years ago I was like, I need to get more views and shows and whatnot. But now, especially since I’m doing my theatre and making a living, the art just has to be pure and touch people.
To take a question from Wonder: is anything meant to be or is it all just a series of coincidences?
Uhhhh… [Laughter] I think the second one. But some days I think it’s meant to be. I think the airport incident is the first one. Or was it a coincidence? No. I think that was meant to be.
It depends on the day I guess?
It depends on the day and experience. Like with that day at the airport — if I hadn’t taken the stairs down, we wouldn’t have met. That’s it. You go left and your whole life changes.
Do you have a wish list of artists you’d like to work with?
No. But I should, because I’ve always been a bit of a loner. People think I’m not open to doing things with people here. A few years ago I would have loved to work with k-os and K’naan. I really love west African artists; Mali Blues. Bassekou Kouyate or his son. Sara Tavares…other Cape Verdean artists.
Is there anything else you’re working on that you would like to tell us about?
My baby is going to be a play about war veterans. The inspiration for the play is my father because he fought for the Portuguese in Angola back in the day. That war really had an impact we can sometimes still feel up till this day. I feel like this is the moment to get to know him better and to get to know myself better.