Fort Wayne’s growth has made it a prominent location for budding artists. One of those artists is Stephen Eric Bryden, better known as “Sankofa,” an Australian-born rapper whose styles range from Boom-Bap to hyper lyrical, to more melodic slower-paced songs.
In recent years, Sankofa has released a steady stream of acclaimed albums, collaborating with artists and labels around the world and garnering a following of more than 2,500 fans online across social media and streaming platforms.
His 2020 album, Glyde Drexler
, was named one of the best Hip Hop albums of 2020
by Hip Hop Golden Age. But what you might be surprised to learn is that Sankofa has done all of this while maintaining two other passionate pursuits: Being a father and a Kindergarten teacher at Whitney Young Early Childhood Center
in Fort Wayne, which he calls the #bestschoolofever.
“Collaboratively, my aim is to make dope things with talented and down-to-earth people,” Sankofa says. “Rap is something I do in my downtime, and thus, requires my carving time between being with my sons, doing the laundry, unloading/loading the dishwasher, cleaning up after dinner, doing my job (pre-K teacher), and so much more.”
Rather than seeing his art as a money-making side hustle, Sankofa sees it as a vital outlet for creative expression in a world of routine chores.
“To me and the many people I’m fortunate enough to collaborate with, it’s about going past that point of complacency, fueled by the belief there is more to life than simply working and preparing to work again,” he says. “Ultimately, corny as it sounds, I want to be better than myself and being humble enough and truthful enough with myself to recognize areas of potential improvement is key.”
Sankofa's work touches on social issues, both in his albums and in a series of freestyles he releases regularly on his Instagram.
As a father, Sankofa refers to himself as “Mr. Mom.” While this means that his music comes secondary to his role as a father and caregiver, he feels that not trying to make a living on his rap hobby has freed him from the constraints of the music industry in many ways, allowing his art to take on a life of its own.
“I don’t navigate the industry because I have the luxury of having my dream job (teaching pre-K), and rap can be what is best for me—a hobby,” he says. “With rap as a hobby, the only person telling me something may not be the right way is a collaborator. I approach pieces from my own perspective, without concern for potential fiscal ramifications and reap the benefits of complete artistic freedom and control. I am only good at being me, and I rap for fun.”
While the Covid-19 pandemic has heavily affected the music and entertainment industry in Fort Wayne and globally, maintaining this approach to rap as a hobby instead of a career has meant that the pandemic didn’t affect Sankofa’s work to the degree it did others. He only had one show at the Brass Rail get canceled in early 2020, and he’s been “finding new people to work with and making dope stuff” despite the challenges.
In the past year, he’s collaborated with his hometown favorite restaurant, Bravas, for a song titled Freezer Pizza,
and most recently, he performed his first show of 2021 at the Embassy Theatre in Fort Wayne.
“I like to view my process as water,” he says. “There may be something in the way of an initial plan, but then I shift and move forth in a different way; thus, maintaining my momentum.”
Sankofa performs his first post-pandemic live show at the Embassy Theatre in Fort Wayne.
In his work from the pandemic-era, Sankofa touches on social issues, too, both in his albums and in a series of freestyles he releases regularly on Instagram
. Following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and two protests in Fort Wayne that ended in tear gas almost one year ago in May 2020, he’s written songs about police violence.
Sankofa says his lyrics are a product of what he is thinking at the time, and that encompasses a variety of topics, but always remains true to what he believes himself.
“I rap about what is on my mind,” he says. “I was raised to speak my mind (after thinking) and hold my values strongly enough that they’re bound to come out in some form or another via my art."
So how did his rap hobby develop and grow in Fort Wayne, of all places?
Born in Australia as the son of two southern California transplants, Sankofa moved to Minnesota with his family at the age of 14. After graduating college, he taught English in China to college students at the Jilin University of Technology for a year, where he first connected with rap artists on the internet and became interested in writing rap lyrics.
When he returned to the states and moved to California, Sankofa took trips to learn from rap mentors, like JON DOE in San Luis Obispo, California, and Kashal-Tee
in Sweden. It was while visiting the Sweden-born rapper and poet Kashal-Tee
around 1999 that he started putting his lyrics to music.
Originally, he was using the moniker “Sankofa” in online message boards where he began writing the early stages of his lyrics as posts.
“As all I was doing back in late ‘95 was posting raps to message boards, minus any ability to deliver my thoughts over beats in actual rap form,” he says. “Sankofa, in turn, became my actual rap name once music was made.”
Sankofa's album Glyde Drexler was named one of the best Hip Hop albums of 2020 by Hip Hop Golden Age.
Sankofa says his moniker is an Akan term meaning “learning from the past and building for the future.” It speaks to the nature of his work as an artist and his outlook as a person. He points out that hip-hop is, at its core, is a collaborative form of expression, so he draws influence from a variety of the genre’s establishers.
“My influence as a rapper is based on my aesthetic forefathers,” Sankofa says. He lists them off: “DOC, Ice-T, Big L, Big Pun, Big Daddy Kane, Lord Finesse, Son Doobie, Casual, Black Thought, Ras Kass, Redman, Rakim, AG, RUN DMC, Dres (from Black Sheep), Chino XL, Nine, MC Ren.”
Sankofa not only takes cues from these artists’ work, but also uses their legacies to fuel his own creative expression and respect for the craft.
“I approach rap from the standpoint that it is my duty to take my craft with utmost seriousness and be mindful that I am not blazing a new path, merely wandering along a journey whose steps were set well before my time,” he says.
After moving around California for several years and hiking 662 miles of the Appalachian Trail, Sankofa arrived in Fort Wayne after “way too many long Greyhound bus trips.”
Sankofa says he’s chosen to stay in Fort Wayne because after traveling far and wide, he needed a home, and Fort Wayne’s community has accepted him.
“Fort Wayne is where I found the woman I love,” he says. “Fort Wayne's creative community adopted me and gave me the space and support to be exactly myself. Fort Wayne is where I have my dream job with the best coworker I've ever had. Fort Wayne has so many places I can do things with my family. I seek to rep Fort Wayne as much as I can through my music. Fort Wayne is not some stepping stone; Fort Wayne is home.”
So what does the future hold for Sankofa’s work?
Recently, he finished laying vocals for two upcoming projects: An EP called The Floodgates with Chicago-based producer DJ Matty Lite
, and a 10-song release called BLKTCHP with San Diego-based producer PhDbeats.
Overall, the rapper has three projects in the works with a variety of songs or verses for others already completed.
His latest album, The Most Delicious Gold (produced by “master of the jangly funk” Burnt Bakarak
and featuring scratches from the Turntable Tesla DJ Navin Johnson), can be found at the artist-friendly website Burnt Up Records
as well as on Spotify and other major digital outlets.
While Sankofa is looking forward to performing for live audiences again, he’s also conscious not to upset the careful balance of what it takes to nurture his creativity.
“I like getting to my bed plenty early, as there is an energy and vitality so powerful within those moments,” he says.
While he will continue to rap when he finds time and speak his mind, Sankofa hopes Fort Wayne continues its growth in positive ways. He hopes its residents appreciate the diversity of creativity in the city and that those in power look out for the community they serve.
“My hope is that people in our city overcome what I perceive to be a sense of insecurity about us; we and, by extension, our city, contains just as much talent and possibility as any other city,” he says. “There are so many people doing such amazing things in our city, and it feels like unless someone ‘big’ or ‘important’ from somewhere else cosigns it, it goes unrecognized. On a local political level, I would hope for leadership more interested in serving its citizens than maintaining (be it with hollow platitudes or tear gas and rubber bullets) the status quo.”
Sankofa’s prior releases can be found on sankofa.bandcamp.com
. He is also currently working on a box set with 4 CDs, 1 tape, two 7 inch vinyls, and what he says is a load of other goodies.
For more information and to follow the music day to day, love of sneakers, and future releases of Sankofa, follow the rapper on Instagram at @sankofafw