Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified the title of an Itadi Bonney song. The song is titled “Mayi Africa.” This version has been corrected.
Tabi Bonney remembers hearing his music on the radio. First came the elation. Then a crush of attention from fans and industry types. Then a tiny panic.
He called more-seasoned rappers and singers for advice. They weren’t much help. He needed to talk to someone who understood the shyness that he still wrestles with today. So he called his dad.
“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.
But Tabi started making his own noise as a pre-med student at Florida A&M, where he spent his nights rapping with a group called Organized Rhyme. His shift in career plans didn’t go over so well back home.
“I never wanted him to be a musician,” says Itadi. “He was always very cool and always thinking. I thought he was going to be a scientist. And he said he wanted to be a dentist! I was in shock when he said he was a rapper.”
But Itadi remembers being just as defiant against his mother’s wishes when he took up his uncle’s guitar as a young man in rural Togo. “I knew I couldn’t stop him,” Itadi says.
After college, Tabi tried the 9-to-5 life as a science teacher at Roosevelt High School in Petworth but hung it up after two years. Jo would clip classified ads from the newspaper and spread them out on the living room coffee table, hoping her son might change his mind.
In 2006, Tabi changed his parents’ minds when his breakout single, “The Pocket,” popped up on local radio stations. “I’m from Langdon Park,” he announced in the song’s intro, proudly referencing the leafy Northeast neighborhood where his folks still reside.
Today, Itadi sounds like the proud one. “When he’s onstage, he’s a different person. He’s a performer,” he says of his son. “All I wish for him right now is for him to get a label.”
“I hear that every day!” Tabi says. “I’m trying. He thinks I can just call Puffy or tell Jay-Z [to sign me]. I’m trying to explain to him that it doesn’t happen like that.”
Itadi hasn’t performed much in recent years, but he hopes he and Tabi can collaborate on an original song someday soon. For now, there’s “On Jupiter,” the first track on Tabi’s latest album, “The Summer Years.” It samples “Dodzi,” a shimmering song Itadi recorded in the late ’70s.
In the music video, the pair sit side by side, Itadi mouthing along to lyrics he came up with when he was about Tabi’s age. Tabi raps, “You ain’t gon’ ever find me in the party faking like they ballin’ like they Paul McCartney / But you can catch me ’round my neighborhood with paper goods. . . . on Capitol Hill with gorgeous girls and daffodils.”
He may be rolling his eyes at hip-hop’s superficial glamour, but he still has his sights on bigger things — even if it takes him away from Washington. He grew up touring with his dad. No reason it couldn’t work the other way around.
“Where everybody can come,” says Tabi. “I want to be that successful. Make it a family business. For sure.”