Freedom, or at least the pursuit of it, lies at the heart of every creature’s existence. There’s the monetary freedom that many of us struggle to attain, due to daily living expenses, mounting debt and other financial obligations we accrue. Then there is the artistic freedom that eludes many signed entertainers, who are often forced to kowtow to the crippling whims of commanding record label executives and the listening public. Kwaku Darko-Mensah — Kae Sun for short — is an activist in search of a deep and everlasting freedom, if his debut album Lion On A Leash is an indication of his ideals. For 43 minutes, the Ghana native sings, raps and downright pleads for the long overdue liberation of the Dark Continent, while also imploring Earth’s inhabitants to find their own piece of heaven. What results is a mature album that is as much Fela as it is Nas, coherently leapfrogging from traditional Afrobeat to conscious hip-hop, from Western soul to progressive spoken word poetry.
The quest for freedom through song is often attempted with mixed results, so Lion On A Leash doesn’t blaze a trail in that regard. On U.S. soil, however, it seems as if most artists have shied away from that topic, possibly because there isn’t much for which to fight, especially when compared with activists from previous generations who clawed for the basic civil rights we sometimes take for granted. As for Africa, many of its musicians have also fought for equality, perhaps none more famously than the aforementioned Fela — the godfather of Afrobeat — whose music decried political corruption and covert surveillance tactics in his native Nigeria. But, while Fela’s messages were sometimes hidden beneath rousing horns and Tony Allen’s stellar percussion, Kae Sun’s pleas are more direct, especially on the primal title track, which condemns “sleepwalkers” and praises dream chasers. “Don’t let ‘em mold your mind, because they can’t hold a lion on a leash,” Kae sings over a melodic acoustic guitar.
Keeping with the animalistic theme, Kae himself seemed much more predatory on his previous project — the six-song Ghost Town Prophecy EP released in 2007. While Lion is polished and organized, Prophecy was distinctively raw and visceral, which puts the sensibility of his new album in greater context. For instance, a song like “Angels By Day”, the centerpiece of his previous project, captivates musically, even if Kae misses the mark due to uneven pitch and irregular tone. On Lion, however, the artist has substituted coarse rhythms with smoother compositions and calmer vocal reflections. “How Long”, which showcases Kae’s fluid guitar work, finds him questioning the time-line for justice and stating that society isn’t far removed from slavery. Here, Kae sings: “Four hundred years, and it’s the same philosophy/Blood, sweat and tears, and my people can’t be free.” On the subdued “Black Candles”, with its somber percussion and strings, the artist takes a somber look at how one’s decisions can shape life’s course. Lion is not entirely revolutionary though, as the methodical, reggae-tinged “Going The Distance” reflects upon loneliness and a relationship gone sour.
In a perfect world, nirvana would be within everyone’s grasp, but unfortunately, certain nationalities and countries will always have to fight harder than their peers for spiritual and fiscal liberation. If nothing else, Kae Sun does his best to emancipate the human race and influence his contemporaries to strive for higher purposes. In some ways, Lion On A Leash acts as a personal diary for the artist, for which he tells the world about his personal growth over the last three years. On his last project, it felt as if Kae was trying to find his place amongst his fellow music visionaries. Ultimately, Lion helps him take another step toward his own independence, even if it doesn’t catapult him to prominence.