African Dundada is not his given name, but it is the name that gave him purpose and redefined him as an artist. Born, Mark Otin, and known by his initials, M.O., he started to build a name as a rapper, but struggled to find a deeper purpose to his music. Something shifted when he changed his name and focused on inspiring others. Dundada means “Big Deal,” and he doesn’t bear the name lightly. He feels like “one of the luckiest people alive” because he came to America as a child. “Where I came from, there’s kids who don’t go to school because they can’t afford it or school is too far. To get there they have to walk from night to day.” He wants to give voice to those who didn’t make it out.
African was born in South Sudan mere days before the country erupted in civil war. He spent the first 10 years of his life in Uganda, first in a refugee camp, and then in a remote village. He remembers fields full of deadly snakes, and how he and his siblings would tie plastic bags on their bare feet in the heavy rains. He can still smell the air and the food cooking. It was the smell of survival. “We used to shoot a bird, make a fire, fry it up. Your parents could disappear for a week and you knew how to survive. We eat to make it to the next day”
His family never decided to leave Sudan. “We just had to get up and go. I remember hearing stories from my parents. They saw people falling, just getting shot like animals.” African didn’t witness those atrocities but he feels the acute loss of his South Sudanese identity. “I’m like a ghost in this world. We didn’t have birth certificates, photos. It’s like what happened to us never happened.” He exudes such reverence for his family’s plight, it is as though he could develop the negatives of his ancestors’ memories. Through music, African can document life. He wants to see more traditional African rhythms represented in today’s music and he brings that to his craft. He has never recorded in a professional studio: everything about African is self-made.
African was ten years-old when he moved to Maine with his parents and siblings. Of Portland he says, “It’s small enough you can get a piece of it, and at the same time you can build something from scratch.” This viewpoint is retrospective. African left for five years to chase success and spent two years homeless. Now, he is back on his feet and feels focused. “Maine is where I started. If I can’t make it here. where am I going to make it.?” He says Portland “is the most diverse place I’ve ever been. It’s the only place that accepts me for the immigrant I am.”
African is shaken by the rash of school shootings in America. He hopes “Maine’s diverse little bubble” will provide a safeguard against similar tragedies. Mostly he wants people to know that he’s approachable. “I care about the world; I care about people.” His father, a lifelong diabetic, is unwell. With his grandparents ailing too, African’s support system is fragile. He feels a sense of urgency to succeed. “I can’t just say I’m a musician. My music has to be more powerful.” When African performs, he wears a shirt made from traditional African fabric so his grandmother will recognize it in his videos. Of embracing culture, African says, “This world is a beautiful place, but with so much misunderstanding, we lose the most important parts of ourselves. I’m just happy I get to wear this shirt, and that I get to say I’m African Dundada.”