Napoleon Maddox has kept his mother’s maxim as a lifelong guiding light and traveler’s code of the road: “No matter where you go, you always have to take yourself with you.” The singer, beatboxer, DJ, playwright, and composer who first rose to prominence playing grimy rock clubs like the beloved Sudsy Malone’s in the 1990s—often with his jazz/hip-hop ensemble ISWHAT?!—has had plenty of experience testing that wise adage in recent years.
He’s tattooed it on his brain and in his heart since 2019, when he received his “carte de sejour” (the equivalent of a green card) and moved to Besançon, France, a city of 110,000 near the border with Switzerland. There, he’s an unofficial ambassador for both his hometown and the experimental fringe of hip-hop exploration.
“Without realizing it, I think I really internalized that phrase so I’m like, OK, wherever I am it’s me that’s going to make this place, and the relationships I build here mean something,” says Maddox, 51, when we meet at the Music Resource Center in Walnut Hills during one of his frequent visits home. “It’s not because I go to New York or London or Paris or Japan that something is going to happen for me. I focus on what I do where I am.”
“Where I am” is a rule of the road that came in handy when the Northside native—he graduated from Spring Valley Academy, a Seventh-Day Adventist school in Centerville, because of course you were wondering—decamped to Besançon just months before the pandemic locked everything down. Suddenly confined to his apartment in a country he’d grown to love after years of touring Europe with ISWHAT?! and his other music collaborators, Maddox spent three years painting and hosting an online radio show, Bestown State of Mind.
The program, whose title pays homage to rap icon Nas’s 1994 “N.Y. State of Mind,” featured Maddox interviewing guests from both his hometowns as well as spinning African music, jazz, and hip-hop while sharing thoughts on the state of the world and pop culture.
He was locked down for the better part of 10 months in the country, where citizens were allowed to leave their homes for just short periods of time every day in the face of stiff fines, so he wrote, filled oversized canvases, and pondered his next projects. Like so many of us, Maddox also binge-watched TV—in his case the espionage series Homeland, which follows the adventures of a globe-hopping CIA officer played by Claire Danes.
Most importantly, though, he began sketching out a tribute to revolutionary 18th century Haitian general Toussaint Louverture, known as the Father of Haiti. Maddox and his longtime French collaborator/producer Sorg (born Léo Duf) recorded an album and then, in August 2021, presented a musical show, L’Ouverture de Toussaint, at the Château de Joux in Franche-Comté, a French prison that was Louverture’s final home. It’s emblematic of Maddox’s fascination with finding the crossroads of jazz, hip-hop, historical tales of struggle, and the fight for freedom and recognition.
Maddox is well aware, he says, smiling, of the back-of-the-envelope math of a Black man from Cincinnati named Napoleon telling the story of the former slave who wrote Haiti’s first Constitution against the wishes of that other Napoleon. To a French audience. In French. And English. While rapping and beatboxing.
“I was looking for something that wouldn’t be just, Oh, I’m here, I’m gonna write some songs and say some stuff,” Maddox says of the inspiration he took from a visit to the chateau where Louverture was imprisoned in 1802, a year before his death in custody. “I wanted something that was going to relate to the region and relate to the different historical social movements there.”
The visit came before lockdown, which gave Maddox time to do his research and write an arresting piece that mixes pensive English and French rapping and singing over smoky jazz saxophone and subtle drumming: “Make sure Bonaparte / Know this part / Them souls with skin dark / Got big hearts / We see you slicing the Tarte / And we claim our part.”
Sorg, who first met Maddox more than a decade ago on one of the American’s frequent tours of France, says the language barrier both is and isn’t a major factor when they perform live. If they’re in Paris, for instance, where audiences are more accustomed to Americans and English speakers, fans might understand more than half of Maddox’s funky bilingual lyrics. “But when we are in the countryside, where people are clearly not getting some of the lyrics, his energy, his movement on stage, and the way he tries to speak between tracks to explain the text and ask the audience if they understand him help get his message across,” says Sorg, 34, during a WhatsApp call from Besançon, his hometown.
Often, while signing autographs after those French shows, Maddox says he gently explains to his new fans that, no, Napoleon isn’t a stage name and, yes, he knows it’s wild. In the back of his mind, though, he says he’s thinking, Just wait until you hear what I’m rapping about!
Sorg says most of the time those audiences get the “spirit” of Maddox’s lyrics about topics such as human rights, “but of course they don’t understand it like Americans.” Frankly, he says, it’s the same for him when he sees other American rappers in France: He can catch some of what they’re saying, but when the beats come quickly even he has trouble catching it all. “When I see someone like Nas, even I don’t get everything,” he says. “But they always say that Napoleon’s energy is so incredible and dope that they are happy.”
It helps, he says, that Maddox’s French has gotten better and better since he began touring the country in 2005. And while his pronunciation can occasionally go sideways, Sorg says the rapper has been using more and more French in their performances, honing his skills in a live setting.
As for his unusual name, Maddox says his parents presciently chose his big stature moniker because they wanted their nine children—eight daughters and lone son Napoleon—to have impactful names. His youngest sister, naturally, is named Omega. “She’s the last, and she is really strong,” he says, dressed in his signature off-stage look: a newsboy cap covering his bald head, jeans, not-too-flashy sneakers, and, on the day we meet, a T-shirt repping the Cincinnati clothing brand Misfit Genius, with one of his countless pairs of sunglasses hooked on the collar.
Omega Isabelle, 34, born as her brother was graduating from high school, recalls a dinner she had with Napoleon the night before he left for France in late 2019. At the time she and one of their other sisters were planning a trip to visit him, never imagining that within months the entire world would shut down and that she and her brother would be separated for the longest time in their lives. “I was happy that he was going to do his thing, representing our family,” says Isabelle, who keeps a picture of the family on her desk at work. “I’m never not proud of him.” She describes the photo as all eight sisters leaning out, naturally drawing the eye toward their brother, who stands smiling in the middle. “I’m grateful that he is there, but I really wish he was here.”
Isabelle describes her brother’s hugs as practically rib-snapping and says that she sometimes has to remind herself that “as much as he goes away, he always comes back.” In between—sometimes several times a month—she and as many of her sisters as are available hop onto hours-long Zoom calls where they laugh, joke, reminisce, and make fresh memories as they share the new things they’ve learned.
The emphasis on evolving, changing, and acquiring knowledge helps explain the unexpected path taken by self-described teenage “oddball” Maddox, whose parents, his sister says, drilled into their children the importance of “education, education, education.”
In addition to having to live up to his imperial name, Maddox says he spent much of his youth trying to convince his late father, Nathaniel, that hip-hop was a vocation rather than a distraction from a more righteous path. “My mother is very proud of me, my whole family is, but she used to be more worried about me being around unsavory hip-hop types, especially when I was much younger, and it may not have been clear for her how I was going to make a living,” he says of family matriarch Ruth Maddox, who also frequently quoted an Old Testament passage to her son to remind him about traveling a virtuous path. “Train a child up in the way he should go: And when he is old he will not depart from it,” he recalls of the citation from Proverbs 22:6.
In a house where Gospel music was on the turntable and the only TV allowed other than his father’s nightly news fix was The Cosby Show on Thursdays—decades before the allegations of sexual assault against the once-beloved comedian—Nathaniel Maddox’s disdain for secular music was clear and present. So, while his son was collecting CDs by A Tribe Called Quest and Gang Starr and hosting a hip-hop show on community radio station WAIF, the Maddox patriarch kept insisting that his son needed to let that frivolous hobby go. “You need to get serious about your life,” Maddox says his dad would counsel. “You know nothing about that world out there!”
As it turns out, though, his father’s wariness about hip-hop would help push Maddox further into that outside world, landing him in genre-blending collaborations with everyone from avant-garde jazz composer/saxophonist Archie Shepp and acclaimed jazz drummer Hamid Drake to the Burnt Sugar Arkestra and longtime French musical right-hand man, electronic producer Sorg. “The irony is that I grew up feeling like ‘the other,’ and for a very long time that made me angry,” says Maddox, ticking off a list of perceived teenage deficits that included not being good at sports, having an interest in art and fashion, and standing out in just about every way you could imagine. “But in time I would say this was actually a blessing, because I can relate to a lot of different people. I’ve felt many times like a foreigner at home.”
For the record, Isabelle says in her head Napoleon “was always cool, so traveled, so eclectic…not so cookie-cutter.” In other words, not the oddball he perceived himself to be but rather the stand-out big brother whose vibe she wanted to soak in at every opportunity.
That sentiment is seconded by drummer Drake, who appeared on several ISWHAT?! albums and toured with the group in the early 2000s, as well as in a side project called Phat Jam. When they first met during one of Drake’s shows in Covington with a jazz ensemble in the early 2000s, the percussionist says he was impressed with Maddox’s unique blending of jazz, hip-hop, and “profound” lyrics. But he was more taken by another obvious, though not always universal, quality that’s most essential to jazz: the ability to listen deeply.
Growing up in a region that represents the old North/South tension between freedom and enslavement—or, as Maddox describes Cincinnati, “the bottom of the North and the top of the South”—Drake says when they toured France and other parts of Europe Maddox brought a unique set of skills to the table. “He had this great knowledge of hip-hop from being part of it in the U.S. and having that dual viewpoint from where he grew up,” he says on a Zoom call from Milan, Italy.
Drake puts Maddox in the great lineage of Black artists who made their homes in France from the 1940s to today, from sculptors Harold Cousins and Nancy Elizabeth Prophet to singer and civil rights activist Nina Simone, about whom Maddox wrote a 2009 tribute show entitled A Riot Called Nina. “But he was also open to learning the traditions of France, and he didn’t go there thinking he knew more than they did.”
Drake says Maddox was always keen to learn about the development of hip-hop in France, the cultural roots that created French rappers’ takes on music imported from the U.S., and nuances of the French language that he could incorporate into his own flow. “That big heart open to sharing and wanting to expand and learn, it’s just like jazz: It comes from the United States, but every country it goes to puts its own stamp on it,” he says. “He’s never afraid to learn and never thought he knew more than anyone else.”
Nathaniel Maddox didn’t live to see how far his son’s nettlesome hobby would ultimately take him, but he’d surely be proud that Napoleon has found homes in a foreign place and in the familiar world of his childhood. “I’m at home at home,” he says. “I’m ‘the other,’ so what? That’s who I am. To accept that is to understand that at some point all of us are ‘the other’ whether we realize it or not, which is a very American story.”
Isabelle says her brother has done his family proud in other ways as well, including with his 2017 award-winning multimedia, multi-genre performance piece, Millie-Christine: Twice the First Time. It’s the real-life story of his great-grandaunts, Millie-Christine McKoy, conjoined twins who were born into slavery in North Carolina in 1851 and later became a sideshow circus act.
The wild tale of exploitation, enslavement, and liberation was one their mother, Ruth, used to tell her children often, the Maddox siblings recall. Isabelle would go on to research them further during one of her many trips to the library to work on reports for the customized home-school curriculum their mother created for her.
Twice the First Time traced the twins’ path as they traveled the world, learned multiple languages, and made enough money from their act to help support their family. The resulting piece had all the elements that have made Maddox a unique force: a reverence for the history of Black struggle and a serious approach to storytelling that melds an unexpected variety of media with a hip-hop flavor. Most crucially, it avoided dry pedantry via a sly sense of humor and the understanding (Maddox was a one-time early childhood education major) that learning a little something while enjoying a cocktail in a concert hall shouldn’t feel like homework.
During this summer visit to Cincinnati, Maddox is thinking about the fifth iteration of the Underworld Black Arts Festival, which he launched in 2018 with artistic director Kimberly Gory and help from members of ISWHAT?! The event, scheduled for October 19–21, explores African diasporic history through music, film, dance, photography, visual and spoken arts, and live performances in multiple spaces and features local, regional, and international artists.
Maddox launched the event as the Underworld Jazz Festival, but in 2022 he changed the title in order to expand beyond the stereotype of music that “swings and tuxedoes and champagne.” His goal was to blend the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance and Black intellectualism and tell Black stories that aren’t found in most books. Especially, he says with a wary look, at a time when there is a debate in some states over how history, especially Black history, is taught.
“I think the time is right for this kind of festival, where everybody is welcome and we’re sharing our culture and our stories,” he says. “And a French guy can come all the way from Besançon and share in that same story and meet people and discover something and take it back with him. Or someone can come from Haiti and share their story.”
The festival, and Maddox’s musical raison d’être, is to help people who attend this year’s event discover what he calls “continuum music”—the thread of traditions that connect Black music. “Young rappers should be talking to their grandparents, who are blues fans, or listen to old spirituals, right?” he says, noting that the generation of fans and purveyors of the traditions that informed his career are aging at a time when many younger fans and artists are incurious at best about the past. “So we can sit around the table with Lil Whatever and listen to Louis Armstrong and they can say, Yeah, it’s not my thing, but now I can listen to that and work with it. There’s something restorative about that.”
Days after our first meeting, Maddox sits on the “Turn Table Talk” panel in the Contemporary Arts Center basement during the Cincinnati Music Festival weekend. Next to him is hip-hop icon Grandmaster Caz, one of the uncredited co-writers of the first true rap crossover hit single, the Sugarhill Gang’s 1979 classic “Rapper’s Delight.”
In front of an audience of several dozen smartly dressed hip-hop fans of a certain age—the genre turned 50 this year—as well as sister Isabelle, Maddox reiterates his mother’s travel mantra. He tells the majority Black audience that wherever their passports take them, “the most valuable thing that will be there is you and your relationships. It’s not the Eiffel Tower or the Colosseum in Rome, none of that stuff. The most valuable thing is you. That’s what I can bring back from Besançon, and that’s what I’m always trying to rediscover and reconnect with: Where are we showing up, how are we showing up, where is our ingenuity? Not so we can show up at their table, but so we can build our own table—and they can sit down at our table.”
It’s a heady thought for a Saturday morning, but it elicits claps and positive murmurs of acknowledgment from the crowd sipping on mimosas and nibbling brunch in the black box theater. In France, says Maddox, the reaction from his mostly white audiences is a sense that they’re seeing “the real deal.”
He recalls a festival in Bologna, Italy, just before his trip home for the summer. It was an early celebration of hip-hop’s 50th anniversary where he was one of several rappers on the bill and the only American rapping in English, freestyling lyrics and beats in the spur of the moment. Was he as comfortable in that situation as he was in the basement of the CAC? “Fully comfortable,” Maddox says later. “For the audience in Italy, it was this major experience, but for me I’m just doing what we do.”
What excites him when he’s in front of an American audience, he says, is that whether he’s rapping or telling a story he often gets goosebumps, “because suddenly I’m in front of people who understand emotionally and spiritually what I’m talking about. If I say ‘Timothy Thomas’ [in reference to the young Black man killed by Cincinnati police in 2001, leading to days of civil unrest and protests] people are really moved by it.”
Asked if he can sense a difference when Maddox is performing at home or in France or based on the audience makeup, Sorg says his musical partner is “always the same” whether it’s a crowd of 10 in a club or 1,000 in a theater. “He doesn’t think about who is in the venue, if they are white or Black. One thing I’ve learned from him is how to be during a performance. He has an ease and confidence with himself that you can see on stage, something few people have.”
In a testament to his ease in any venue, hours after the CAC event Maddox is hanging with a room full of Cincinnati Music Festival VIPs in a Paycor Stadium suite during a set by R&B legend Babyface. This time he isn’t performing or presenting, he’s just a fan. Babyface breaks into a series of covers of songs he helped produce and write, and for a few minutes it seems like Maddox is a kid again—the one his father feared would be led astray by focusing on beats instead of Beatitudes.
He’s rocking side-to-side, shimmying his shoulders and smiling along to Bobby Brown’s “Every Little Step” and Bell Biv DeVoe’s “Poison,” old school jams from his high school years. Sporting a Maradona soccer jersey, jeans, and one of his signature caps, Maddox isn’t worried about making connections or schmoozing. He’s just like the tens of thousands gathered below him, a certified fan of the culture moved by the music of his youth.
He’s that Cincinnati kid who’s traveled as far as his art could take him. One who’s never forgotten where he’s from, geeking out to hip-hop and R&B classics in his hometown stadium, dancing like nobody is watching. He’s lost in the music, comfortable where he is in that moment, but ready to pack his bags again soon and settle back in halfway across the world.
And, as always, when Maddox goes, as his mom instructed, he will bring himself (and his stories) with him.