He has 999 wives. He hails from an unnamed region of central Africa (“a thin layer of impenetrable rainforest,” he tells interviewers) known only as d’bush. His name is Prince Zimboo Abakunamabooba, and if he sounds fishy to you, he should. Outlandish back stories are common in hip-hop—a genre perched on the fault line between tell-it-like-it-is verité and winking artifice—but Zimboo’s mythology is patently unbelievable, 100 percent wink. Is he a loon? A comedian? A walking 419 scam, claiming African royalty as part of some elaborate performance-art hoax?
It’s worth caring about Zimboo’s knotty identity play not just for the novelty of his persona but because of his deliriously funny music. Zimboo has been performing since at least 2007, and his renown has grown of late, thanks to his association with Diplo, the DJ and producer best known for his work with MIA. Diplo is preparing a reggae project called Major Lazer, and Zimboo, based in Jamaica, has been announced as one of the album’s featured guests. This week, Zimboo released a daffy video in which he freestyles over Major Lazer’s first single, “Hold the Line.” The video showcases Zimboo’s idiosyncratic charm—he wears a permanent grin and inexplicably holds a small plastic alligator as he raps—and it captures several of his central, if contradictory, leitmotifs: the virtues of clean living, the pleasures of polygamy, the piteousness of those who masturbate.
On his “Hold the Line” freestyle and elsewhere, Zimboo raps in deliberately stilted cadences and overly enunciated couplets. If his style is cribbed from anyone, it’s Prince Akeem in Coming to America. But while he lacks the formal dexterity of an Eminem or a Lil Wayne, he shares with both a talent for left-field brags (“I get laid like the lawn have grass blades”), inspired non sequiturs (“Practice safe sex, don’t exceed the sex limits—/ Zimboo don’t drink water ‘cause fish have sex in it”), and rhymes that swirl with pop-culture flotsam ("In my presence, you scream with joy of Herbal Essence;/ when I leave, you so sad, depressed like Evanescence”). Zimboo pulls off a difficult trick: He’s both very funny and very sweet. He’s sex-obsessed, but he raps about his harem-building not as a boorish stat game so much as a Zohan-esque campaign to offer ladies everywhere—beautiful and ugly, young and old—his “punani MacGyver” skills. His song “Love Diarrhea,” about a sloppy, uncontrollable deluge of warm feeling, demonstrates that there’s something overridingly good-natured about him, even at his most puerile.
So who is he? In all likelihood, Prince Zimboo is the alter ego of Jamaican dance-hall producer Asanney “Asani” Morris. An embedded video on Zimboo’s MySpace page reveals this in passing, although the video was made by documentarians visiting Jamaica who might have gotten it wrong—in interviews and raps, Zimboo refers to Asani as his friend. (In a twist that adds to the artsy intrigue, one of Zimboo’s champions is the Jamaican photographer Peter Dean Rickards, who published pictures that purported to unmask definitively the elusive British street artist Banksy).
Assuming Morris is the man behind the dashiki, it’s hard to say precisely what he’s up to. But maybe Prince Zimboo is something like the African Borat, a character who exemplifies and satirizes stereotypes of Otherness for laughs. From his purposely vague biography (one moment he says he lives in a cave; the next, a palace) to his raps about zebras to his Twitter posts about luxurious camel hides, Zimboo offers a milewide caricature of primitivism. And like Borat, with his “sexy time!” and “jagshemash!,” Prince Zimboo has an arsenal of catchphrases that are a delight to imitate: His mantra (“I am looking for wife 1,000”), his courtship advice (“Man have to know how to dress!”), and his truncated cackle ("Heh”) could all make for hit T-shirt slogans, given the right marketing strategy. Of course, Sacha Baron Cohen’s agenda is more pointed. Borat needs rubes whose ignorance he exposes and exploits; with Prince Zimboo, the ruse is much gentler.
Zimboo is a strange player in the genre you might call hipster world music. In this cosmopolitan dance scene, Zimboo’s U.S. booster, Diplo, is a Cousteau-like figure, scouring the nonwhite world in search of thumping, exotic sounds (he’s released several mixes of Brazilian baile funk, a slum-born hybrid of booty bass and ‘80s pop, and has also praised Angolan-Portuguese kuduro and South African kwaito), and then hauling back his findings for stateside cognoscenti to enjoy. The end-user encounter doesn’t have to take on a condescending dimension, but it often does, as the social and cultural specificities behind a certain music are flattened into a general aura of impoverished authenticity, or ignored altogether—who cares what they’re talking about, the beat is hot! With Zimboo, the alien object of scrutiny gazes back at us; he knows something we don’t, and he’s grinning widely about it.