Every MC wants to be different from every other MC. Luckily for Kwame Tsikata, he's got plenty of things to set him apart. The most obvious one is his nationality: Although he's resided in the Twin Cities for the past eight years, Tsikata was born in Ghana. Performing under the name M.anifest, he champions an Afrocentrism that's first-generation and direct from the source. This identity runs strong through his debut album, Manifestations.
While M.anifest fell in love with rap same as any other youth growing up in the '90s, living in Ghana meant he consumed it without a real identity-borne stake in the Cali-NYC coastal wars, and without the notion of a dichotomy between rapping for the charts and rapping for the streets—out there, all hip hop was underground.
"In Ghana there's no Tower Records, there's no HMV, there's no mom-and-pop stores selling hip hop," he explains during a sit-down interview. "It's all a matter of, okay, somebody has an auntie who goes to the States or to Canada or somewhere in North America, they bring back a tape and everybody goes crazy and dubs it all around the neighborhood. It was hard to get. You had to be a hip-hop head in Ghana, you had to pursue it. The only thing you could hear on the radio was that one LL Cool J song ['I Need Love']."
Some of those trans-Atlantic rap-tape deliveries caught on for reasons of familiarity: "Boogie Down [Productions] was doing stuff with [Jamaican-raised rapper] Mad Lion and so they had the reggae feel to it. KRS-One does that kind of thing, and reggae is pretty big in Ghana, y'know?" (Manifestations' second track, "Babylon Breakdown," uses the same type of genre cross-pollination to full effect.)
But the more important thing that sets M.anifest apart from his peers is his polished, commercial appeal—at least, commercial in a way that rap might be if everyone in the East Coast bohemian Native Tongues movement had all gone triple platinum in '96 and Rawkus had Roc-A-Fella chart presence. "We didn't know who was big in the U.S.," he says of his Ghanaian rap education. "If it just sounded good, I liked it. Das-EFX and Busta Rhymes were the same things to me." And with an outlook that left pop vs. hardcore concerns out of the equation, he eventually developed a style that could straddle both: Even inflected with the hint of a West African accent, M.anifest has the kind of assured, joyful, ruminative voice that made Mos Def into Hollywood's favorite conscious-rap star.
The track "Africa Represent" might be the most characteristic of everything that makes him who he is, both skills-wise (lines don't get much more tightly constructed than "Represent Africa with a spectacular street vernacular") and culturally ("Mandela, Masekela, Makeba/Oral traditions and a flavor you can savor").
His first appearance on a Picked to Click ballot came last year, when he made the list of Black Blondie's Tasha Baron, as well as veteran b-girl Desdamona, who shows up on Manifestations to sing a Joyo Velarde-caliber hook on "Change Gon Come." The album features an international cast of producers, including Paris's Sebmaestria, Detroit-reared B-Live, and fellow Ghanaian-born Coptic (who also has co-production credits for Goodie Mob, one of M.anifest's personal favorite groups).
But he's also made himself part of a Minneapolis crowd that keeps things local, and it's the other three members of his 4Shadez crew—G MoBeatz, O-D, and Katrah-Quey—that round out the record's sonic personality with polished soul-jazz breaks.
For most people, it'd be hard not to feel like an outsider after moving from Africa to one of the coldest (and, to invoke Ye Olde Chris Rock Routine, whitest) cities in the United States, but it's taken very little time for M.anifest to make himself an integral part of the local rap scene. "I've been fortunate to have met people who're willing to embrace what I'm bringing," he says. "The music is like a movement—what's a movement without people or people without a movement?"