YOUNG GREEKS: Kareem Kalokoh introduces ATH Kids
Following more than a decade of economic crises, police crackdowns, social demonstrations, and a historic influx of refugees, the sense of bipolarity that has long-defined Greece – a country suspended between antiquity and modernity, East and West, left and right – has taken on new valences, producing a generation of young people eager for representations that reflect the specificities of their experience. Emerging from this sociopolitical uncertainty are ATH Kids, an Athens-based collective of rappers, DJs, photographers, and filmmakers, actively looking to expand the world’s perception of their hometown.
Founded in 2015 by now-26-year-old rapper Kareem Kalokoh alongside creative director Valentin Rivera, ATH Kids have found success throughout Europe with their various solo projects and collaborative efforts. The video that launched the group, produced for Kalokoh’s single “New Flame” from his first mixtape ATH2090s, images a lethargy likely familiar to anyone who has ever been young in a big city. Six young men led by Kalokoh – who raps in English over the song’s undulating, synth-guided trap beat – kick it in a laundromat, in a convenience store, outside the convenience store, in the train station. If the visuals seem trite, even rote for an emerging artist, remember that Greece – as Kalokoh reminds me when we speak over Skype – “is not an English-speaking country.” The novelty and unlikeliness of this crew of Athenian ambassadors – many of them black, second-generation immigrants or both – was not lost on the nation’s youth, and word spread quickly across its borders.
Though their style has refined in the years since “New Flame,” continuities in their vocabulary of visual references such as cars, homies, and omnipresent fluorescents – gel filtered or otherwise – underscore the historic grit and modern transience of their surroundings, while also facilitating cross-cultural translation for a fanbase just as shaped by globalization and its consequences. Kalokoh’s 2019 release “Figgaz” uses the same Ann Peebles sample as Missy Elliot’s iconic 1997 hit “The Rain [Supa Dupa Fly]” with a bass-heavy spin on production that gestures to his longtime inspiration, 50 Cent. The accompanying video drips with nostalgia for the visual culture of his childhood, featuring Kalokoh and friends dressed in oversized white tees and baggy jeans, shooting dice – notably with Euros, not dollars – while girls in low cut jeans and fur vests sashay on a platformed stage.
As members of ATH Kids prepare for a blitz of new releases, which they hope will solidify their placement on hip-hop’s global radar, Kalokoh and I spoke about the give-and-take between American and European hip-hop scenes, and what the future may hold for the cities that house and shape them.
Octavia Bürgel: Would you say that Greece’s recent political turbulence has influenced your upbringing? Your music?
Kareem Kalokoh: Growing up in Athens, we didn’t have a lot of tools to create what we had in mind. It was hard. We’ve always wanted to do something really dope and new for the city, because we need that here. We need a scene, like, a solid scene that can compete with the French or German hip-hop scenes. Not having a lot in the city, we always knew that we had to work ten times harder.
You position yourselves as representatives of Athens, a gesture that seems quite political considering that many of you are people of color and the children of immigrants. Are you trying to make a political statement? Or are the political implications just a side-effect of attempts to gain exposure?
It’s a political statement by itself. We wanted something to represent us. We’re a collective where each one of us has different origins, but we all relate mentally, you know? So, it was very important for us to represent our differences, but also to represent that we all come from the same city and share a mentality. That’s what forms us.
I have been listening to your latest release, Kompilation, which was a collaboration with fellow Greek rapper Negros Tou Moria. Can you talk about the decision for you to rap in English and for him to rap in Greek? How did the project come about?
We started working two years ago when Red Bull approached us and was like, “We like you guys’ vibe.” I’ve known [Negros Tou Moria] since primary school, and I knew he was making music, but we never had the chance to work together, so it was a good opportunity. He has a different universe, a different approach to music. He raps in Greek, I rap in English. He has his own crew, and I have my own crew. But I think it was the right time to do something for the city.
What was the creative process like for Kompilation?
First we went to Amsterdam earlier this year, to the Red Bull Studios, and we were locked in for three days in the studio, just working on music. That was the first time we worked, and we figured out how Moria works and how I work, as well. When we came back to Athens, we also met with Moose, an artist from Athens. He’s blowing up right now—he just released his tape. So, we decided to do something for all of us, not just me and Morris. We decided to do a whole thing that would have everybody involved.
What does Europe bring to the table in terms of hip-hop?
I think that right now Europe has a very different sound. Most artists coming out of Europe—I mean, yeah, they’re influenced by Travis Scott, but they’re channeling it their own way. You understand that their [local] culture played a role in the sound. There’s big experiments with the sound. But there’s always that influence from America.
Do you feel like rapping in English allows you to reach a wider audience? Or is there something more subversive to it?
That’s the main reason. We want our music to go globally. Global all around.
I read online that “ATH” was loosely—or maybe not so loosely—inspired by Atlanta’s nickname, “ATL.”
Yeah, it was.
And you’re all making trap music, which is one of Atlanta’s greatest global exports. Do you see any additional resonance between Athens and Atlanta? Is there a relationship that you are trying to draw between the two cities?
We grew up listening to trap, Southern hip-hop, the South Coast sound—we’re very inspired by what’s come out of the ATL, but we’re really trying to build our own sound. We didn’t want to be the “Athens kids,” we wanted to be “A-T-H”—and now everybody says it in the city. It’s like what Drake did with “the 6” in Toronto; on a smaller scale, that’s what we did for our city as well.
On the one hand your moniker clearly refers to Athens, but the acronym also gives it a sense of anonymity, like it could be anywhere in the world.
Exactly. And it’s also a code, like in an airport when you see people with the ticket that says “ATH.”
Who would you cite as your greatest musical influences?
I would say I’ve studied a lot of early Kanye West. Growing up, I used to skate, so I had a phase where I was listening to mostly, like, Slipknot. Weird stuff. I used to listen to a lot of Michael Jackson when I was younger because that was the only thing my mother was playing in the house. South music, as well. In high school, I used to listen to a lot of Lil Jon. 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin' was the first album I got in my hands and the reason I fell in love with hip-hop. He definitely played a big part. Lil Wayne too.
Can you speak more to that, why 50 Cent?
His whole persona, the story behind his music—he translated to me. Growing up as foreigners, we always had that mindset of “get rich or die trying” because Greece is—I wouldn’t say it’s a racist country, but they’re definitely not used to having a lot of foreigners. In our neighborhood Patisia, there are a lot of African people as well as people from Albania. There’s a lot of foreigners that live there, and they always told us you couldn’t make it out of Greece because it’s a really small country and there’s not a lot of chances. Even for the Greek people, there’s not a lot of chances here. So, we always had that motive: the grind. I saw 50 Cent’s grind and how he became a huge superstar—I always wanted that.
What are some of the issues that young people of color and second-generation immigrants face in Greece?
The biggest hardship, I would say, is becoming a Greek citizen. I just got my citizenship in 2017.
Even though you’ve lived in Greece your whole life?
Yeah, I was born and raised here. I know a lot of people that were born here, who are in their thirties now, and have never traveled outside of the country because they do not have citizenship. It’s a very big setback. But, for me, everything worked out. Right around when I started having a buzz, let’s say, my citizenship papers arrived, and I had the chance to travel to London, New York, Paris. It was the perfect timing, you know? Besides that, I think the financial crisis was the first major setback that we had to deal with growing up as foreigners in Athens.
Is not being recognized as a Greek citizen something that many of the other members of the ATH Kids have also struggled with? Is yours a common narrative?
I think everyone is good now, because there was a law that came out two or three years ago, which granted everyone citizenship. So that’s settled.
That’s great. Out of curiosity, can you remember what the law states, off the top of your head?
It says that children who were born and raised here, and who went to school for like, nine years, would get [citizenship] automatically. They would have to go through some process, but then they would get it.
There are still issues though. For example, when I went to New York, we had the chance to meet with Def Jam at Universal [Records], and I was supposed to travel with my very close friend Valentin. He and I started this together. But because of his passport—he has an Argentinian passport—he couldn’t get the visa and I had to travel alone. That was fucked up. We always used to say we’re gonna make this music thing happen and go to America—America is our final goal. It’s where we want to make it. So, that happened because of a citizenship issue.
I wanted to ask you more about America and its significance for your music. Do you see America’s cultural output as something you want to surpass? Or is America the “Holy Grail” of the rap game, so to speak?
It’s kind of the Holy Grail. But, right now, I’m more fascinated with what’s coming out of Europe. The French scene is really powerful. I think Europe is the future, you know? But yeah, everybody wants the American Dream. Even as kids, that’s what we wanted.
What do you think about when you think about Athens?
In Athens there is a type of freedom that I don’t get in other cities. I don’t know, I’ve been to a lot of cities, but in Athens we can go anywhere. The nightlife is really good. You can find real street culture. There’s a lot of depth to the city as well. You can also get the ancient Athens vibe.
The Parthenon and shit–
Yeah, the Parthenon and shit. And then you can also get the street culture and the more posh places. I mean, it’s easier for me to move around here. We know how to move here.
I think lately Athens has been garnering a lot of comparisons to Berlin recently–
Yeah, exactly. It’s like Berlin.
Do you think that’s a good thing?
I would say that, in a way, it’s good. I think it’s getting better. In the last two years, I’ve been seeing a lot of people coming to Athens just to check it out. It’s kind of becoming a hot spot in Europe, and I like that.
I’m from New York, where rapid overdevelopment has caused the whole landscape and urban identity to change drastically. That’s also the case in London and, more and more, in Berlin as well. Do you see that happening in Athens?
No, no, no, no. It’s not happening. What do they call that again? I’ve heard about it, all these changing neighborhoods in America. You guys have a word for it–
Yeah. Is that what you mean?
Yeah. Honestly, it’s heartening to hear that it has not taken hold so much in Athens–
No, it’s not happening. Where is it happening in New York?
All over the place. I’d say the worst of it has been in Brooklyn and Harlem. Historical communities of color are where the problem tends to land first, but it’s everywhere.
So they have companies coming over there and stuff?
Yeah, and massive new high rises are being built. A lot of foreign investment is involved, too. These new buildings are so expensive nobody can afford to live there besides millionaires from other countries.
So, where do you go? Like, if you live in a neighborhood, and they’re kicking you out, where do you go? Do they give you an option or something?
No, they don’t give you an option. That’s what’s so upsetting about it, people are being forced out of the only homes they’ve ever known—
That’s fucked up. That’s really fucked up. That’s not happening over here because, like, they don’t have the money. There’s a lot of new things that are happening, but not to that extent.
What are your dreams for Athens? What do you hope happens in the next 20 years?
I just hope more artists pop out of the city. It’s already happening. It’s what we did. We influenced a lot of young people to chase their dreams, to do what they want. And they’re really talented. I just hope the market grows. There isn’t any market here. I would have been signed if I were somewhere else, but we still don’t have a market to like, do stuff, you know? That’s what I want for the city.
Do you feel that you have a responsibility towards those younger acts coming out of Athens now? To help put them on the map?
Yeah, definitely. That was the main reason for Kompilation, which was more for a Greek audience because we mixed Greek with English—that had never happened before. It was mostly done for the city, and we paired up with great artists that I really respect. But yeah, I feel like it’s a responsibility, because that’s how you’re going to get further. You can’t do it alone, you have to collaborate.
What does “home” mean to you?
Athens is definitely, definitely home. Even if I “make it” or something, I would love to be based here. The energy that we get here, we can’t get anywhere else. The love we get here is different too. And, as I said, we know how to move around here. It’s our city, you know?