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The Daily Tar Heel

Sankofa Overcomes Obstacles

But it's not always easy, nor is it always glamorous. Sankofa, the local hip-hop group that has been growing in popularity and in talent during the past five years, recently has seen the darker side of the rock 'n' roll lifestyle.

For the countless hours in which the band is not performing, its members struggle with the same issues that plague all people -- notwithstanding their flashy personas, such as Creem MC and Juice, that fill the stage with bouncing energy and hip-hop swagger.

"We are all normal people when we step off the stage and have to deal with the normal problems," said Matt Brandau, Sankofa's bassist. "Rent, money, personal problems. The people that you see up on stage are us, but not the people that you would meet on the street."

In the past two months, tensions within the band have come close to a boiling point several times. Stemming from issues as important as management choices and career goals to feuds as trivial as who gets to ride shotgun in the van, arguments have grown -- and compounded. It's not the tension that leads to a fiery Beatles breakup but rather the drama that comes from strong individuals with strong concepts and talents working toward a common goal.

"We all came together to found this band and all care deeply about it, so when something goes wrong or somebody has a problem we all have something to say," said Steven "The Apple Juice Kid" Levitan.

"But when you have five different people with five very different personalities working together every day, things get difficult."

After hearing the two singles recoded at Osceola Studios in early September, members of the band were disappointed. They thought the product that was made did not sound like Sankofa -- edgy, raw and drawing back to the roots of hip hop -- and began to debate the goals and direction of the band.

New problems rekindled old arguments, and the band soon began to fight over managerial decisions.

"I just felt like (the band's manager) wasn't doing anything," said Lem Butler, whose turntable work has earned him the name DJ Pez. "We all had these great ideas and goals, and shit just wasn't happening. That, on top of the whack work that came out of the studio, just kind of brought up a lot of problems."

And because the band is the result of five individuals' work and not one man's project, the band was left with no clearly defined leader to say what actions to take, leaving tempers flaring.

"Everyone has an idea of what is best for everyone else, which means that we all end up arguing on what is best for the band as a whole," said Dana Chell, the guitarist known as DNA. "Everyone in this band has a lot of passion for what they do, and I think that a lot of the tension stems from that passion.

"Everyone knows that as bad as it gets, it could get worse -- there could not be a band. At this point, with this much work and time and energy already invested, it's like quitting is no longer an option."

In the end, that is what keeps the band together -- the music. That is why the band says it survives and why its members keep working every day.

The music is the reason they drive 5 1/2 hours to play a show for a strange crowd in Maryland. It's why they performed a poorly attended concert at Hollins College in Roanoke, Va.

After all the trivial arguments, after they fight about who was supposed to pick up the van, who has the shortest temper or what guitar riff to go with in "Down By Law," they all join together to rap the newest Roots release.

Just when things look like they are getting out of control or people are getting too worked up, DJ Pez inadvertently drives away from the gas station without paying and everyone is able to laugh it off.

"This is really just the beginning. We are just getting started. We would be the world's biggest fools if we broke up before we even get a shot to show everyone what we are capable of," said Stefan "Creem MC" Greenlee, the group's lead vocalist. "This kind of thing happens to every band all of the time. It is just a matter of sucking it up, doing your job and staying optimistic ... enjoying what you are doing and the people you are doing it with."

So if the feuding and fighting, the bickering and bruised egos, come with the territory, then the music remains the central focus -- the glue that holds the band together.

As Butler put it, the music is "the meat and potatoes."

"That we are able to stick together and keep working -- knowing that when the whistle blows, all the little shit goes to the side -- shows that we are a tightly knit group," Greenlee said. "It's sort of like a family. No, it is a family -- you can't argue with strangers like that.

"We trust each other and are as close as any group of people can get. This band means a lot to us, and we mean a lot to each other."

The Arts & Entertainment Editor can be reached at

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