Sankofa isn’t really Stephen Eric Bryden’s alter ego, although it may seem that way at times.
“There is no alter ego, just a guy who enjoys being a book that is misjudged by its cover,” Bryden wrote in an email interview with Whatzup. “I’m always me. Sometimes that involves rapping, sometimes that’s doing laundry or loading the dishwasher. Other times, that’s taking my sons hiking.”
Sankofa is the name under which Bryden raps. It is also the name under which he uses rhymes to do good works.
From Rhymes to Rap
Sankofa is an African word meaning “learning from the past and building for the future,” Bryden said.
“Philosophically,” he said, “Sankofa felt like a natural fit and that’s what I then started using for a screen name on message boards and, eventually, the microphone.”
The message boards Bryden refers to are where he posted his rhymes before he’d learned how to rap.
This was in the days before social media and smart phones, when message boards and forums were how likeminded people communicated on the internet.
Two decades later, Sankofa is one of Fort Wayne’s best-known hip-hop artists.
He is not one of the best known in the city. But he is one of the best known outside of it.
His latest album, released Monday, is called The Most Delicious Gold. It was produced by Burnt Bakarak.
“The album is a reflection of my inspirations without my becoming a karaoke rapper content to ape someone else,” Bryden said. “There are chill tracks, social commentary tracks, rapping-better-than-you tracks, storytelling tracks, kick-back-and-vibe-to-the-smoothness tracks. It’s dope and, honestly, is good enough to let me step back the rest of the year and let this be my release. But I have too much fun making music to stop now.”
The Most Delicious Gold comes hot on the heels of two EPs and one full-length album that Sankofa released last year. Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor COVID-19 can stem Sankofa’s creative tide these days, it seems.
“I’ve essentially had a flash flood of inspiration for the past couple/few years,” he said. “If it happens to run dry, I’m not concerned. I can’t operate from a base of fear. Any time could be my last moment and I approach creation as such.”
Born in the Land Down Under
Bryden is not a Fort Wayne native. He was born in Australia, where his Californian parents went to seek employment.
He did not retain whatever Aussie accent he may have had, but he thinks there is a certain bluntness in his character that may have originated in the Land Down Under.
Bryden lived in Minnesota through his teenage years and taught in China after graduating college. It was in China that Bryden, bored and lonely, fully connected with rappers on the Internet.
What Bryden knew at that point was that he knew how to write rhymes. What he knew that he did not know was how to turn them into music.
So Bryden traveled to a country that may not be known by casual fans for its hip-hop scene, but which in fact has a vibrant one: Sweden.
Bryden studied under Swedish rapper Kashal-Tee and returned to the states ready to become the Sankofa we know and love.
Fort Wayne became Bryden’s home because of city natives that his family had befriended in Australia.
In his earliest days as a Fort Wayne resident, Bryden volunteered at Access Fort Wayne and started a show called Shoes and Movies. Local hip-hop aficionados connected him with area b-boys, b-girls, emcees, and the like. Jedi Glide and Pringlz were two of the most prominent names back then.
Sankofa swiftly made an indelible mark on the scene.
At Columbia Street West, Bryden met his future wife, Jenn Nickell. Fatherhood changed Bryden’s view of Sankofa’s métier. He decided to retire as a rapper.
“After the birth of our first son, I decided that fatherhood was demanding enough and I’d said as much as I felt like saying,” he said. “I sold my mic, pulled all my catalog off of digital outlets, and stepped away.”
A few years later, he was sitting in a restaurant (Bravas) owned by his friend (Bo Gonzales) and he was moved to pen a tribute to all the improbable wonderfulness around him.
“(I realized) how proud I was of Bo and his people and I got inspired to make a song about having that dream, being a good person, and plugging away,” he said. “Bravas brought me back to rap.”
The resulting song, “Planet Flavortron,” was widely enjoyed thanks to a video shot by Bambi Guthrie.
Bryden isn’t one of those musicians who works a drab day job and reserves all of his passion for his art.
He teaches pre-K at Whitney Young Early Childhood Center and he speaks about the school and the work he does there with as much enthusiasm and reverence as he displays when he talks about rap.
Bryden has made certain that his social media devotees understand his love for Whitney Young by using the hashtag: #bestschoolofever.
Boosting Fort Wayne
Bryden has applied Sankofa to philanthropic ends.
For example, he helped raise funds to repair Woody, the anthropomorphic tree at the Foellinger-Friemann Botanical Conservatory.
“My family has been going to the Botanical since before Arthur could walk,” he said. “We love that place. When I saw there was a fundraiser to help fix Woody and work on the worm tunnel, I asked Mr. Tom if it would be OK for me to arrange a benefit show. We put together a benefit show/silent auction at the Brass Rail and raised the final bit of money needed to repair Woody.”
Sankofa has earned some impressive accolades over the years. He was cited in URB magazine’s Next 100 list, he came in at number one on a list of rappers with the highest vocabularies, and his music has been reviewed by Pitchfork magazine. Bryden said he appreciates those honors, but he doesn’t make music to earn such honors.
“If that happens to pique peoples’ interest in hearing my material, great,” he said. “My motive remains being dope and staying humble. Each time I do something, I want to leave my mark. But I’m not going to be shouting about leaving my mark. I’m going to let it speak through the craft. Don’t get me wrong, affirmation has its place. But if I can’t get myself ready to do what I am capable of, then no plaudit is going to bring it forth.”
Sankofa is one of Fort Wayne’s most persuasive Fort Wayne boosters. Bryden came by his love of the city honestly. It has given him everything he cares about.
“I was born in another country, went to school in another state, taught in yet another country, crashed on couches after wandering where I so desired,” he said. “I reached the point where I was ready to have my own space, where I wouldn’t be relying upon the kindness and patience of others.
“There’s a line I’ve yet to include in one of my songs, ‘I just want a room with a door that closes,’ that sums up never wanting to be that person imposing upon another,” Bryden said. “I arrived in Fort Wayne at just the right time for me and it is where I found my dream job, was found by the woman I love, have been supported by an artistic community I will put up against any of the ‘big’ cities, raised a family, met amazing people, and (have found a place to call) home.”