“He said, ‘Daddy, people are rushing me. What should I do?’ ” Itadi Bonney recalls. “It looked like he was scared of the attention. I told him, ‘Relax. Listen to them.’ ”
That cool, fatherly counsel also came from one of the biggest music stars in Togo, where Tabi was born in 1977. Before moving to Washington, the rapper spent his early childhood watching his dad pack dance floors on tours of France and across West Africa where armed Togolese soldiers waved the Bonneys back and forth across the border like royalty.
It wasn’t your average hip-hop childhood, but not much about Tabi is. He’s a cool-headed MC whose breezy disposition has always felt refreshingly out of step with rap’s tempestuous currents. And while the greater hip-hop songbook is thick with laments for disappeared dads, Tabi sees his almost every day. Certainly every Father’s Day.
“We hug,” Tabi says. “Some people think that’s weird when they see that. I think [it’s] because they don’t have love in their house.”
He’s thrived in blogland and landed videos on MTV, but Tabi is still plotting ways to break his music to a larger audience. Across town in the house where Tabi grew up, Itadi, 64, is trying to reboot a career that came unspooled when political strife forced him to flee Togo in the early ’90s.
He was one of the country’s most celebrated musicians, playing guitar and singing a style of Afro-funk that combined the sparkle of soukous and highlife with the soft lilt of reggae. After one gig in the capital city of Lomé, he met a teacher from Washington stationed there through the Peace Corps. Her name was Jo. He married her. They started a family. Soon, they all began traveling back and forth between Togo and Washington.
But that changed after Itadi wrote a song called “Mayi Africa,” a call for social unity that criticized then-Togolese President Gnassingbe Eyadema, who, at the time, was responding to the nation’s push for democracy with lethal crackdowns.
“The political situation got too extreme,” says Itadi. So the Bonneys fled east to Benin, then to France, and finally to Washington, where Itadi took a gig in the house band at the now-shuttered Kilamanjaro nightclub in Adams Morgan.
As a teen, Tabi would often venture down the basement stairs of their home to listen to Itadi rehearse, but he never considered making music of his own. His parents’ expectations loomed large. Going to college was “the only option,” he says. So he kept his grades up while keeping his growing love of hip-hop quiet. He was a shy kid who stayed out of trouble. Itadi and Jo never even had to ask him to turn the stereo down. “I’m the one making noise in this house,” Itadi says.