(Editor’s note: Hadim Sylla contributed to this post.)
African reggae star Tiken Jah Fakoly headlined Central Park’s SummerStage on August 20. The performance coincided with the launch of his new album, African Revolution, and came just months after abatement of conflict in his home of Cote d’Ivoire. Holding its first national election in 10 years, the country was locked in a political and military standoff when incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo refused to step down to internationally endorsed winner Alassane Ouattara. After nearly five months of confrontation and violence, a military intervention detained Gbagbo and instated Ouattara.
Long a champion of political empowerment of African people, Fakoly has been exiled from his country, barred from Senegal for criticism of President Wade, and his track “Le Pays Va Mal” (the country’s in trouble) banned during elections in Chad. Through the recent crisis his
songs became reflective hymns for many Ivoirians globally. The author witnessed the range of emotion his music evokes late last year while frequenting Harlem’s Francophone African locale, Shrine. During “Le Pays Va Mal” an argument and confrontation broke out among the Ivoirians. The DJ quickly switched to Fakoly’s upbeat immigrant anthem, “Africain a Paris” (African in Paris).
Almost every African in the club broke out singing in harmony, changing New York for Paris in the chorus: Oh-oh, un peu en exil (slightly in exile), etranger dans votre ville (foreigner in your city), je suis Africain a New York (I’m an African in New York). We caught up with Mr. Fakoly at his hotel to discuss his new album, African music, and planned return to Cote d’Ivoire this fall.
JB: What’s different with the new album compared to things you’ve done before?
TJF: Reggae music comes from Jamaica. I was trying to find a [more] original African reggae sound. Which is why we used…a lot African instruments: the kora, the soku, the balafon, and African percussion.
JB: African reggae has its own style, icons and stars: you, Alpha Blondy, Lucky Dube. How is African reggae unique?
TJF: I think the first difference is we are multi-lingual. We African reggae [musicians] sing in French, our mother languages, and English. The difference is also our fight. We are fighting for Africa. We are fighting to wake up our countries and our people. To raise the consciousness of our people. We are not talking as much about rastafari or Haile Selassie. Our fight is not only around ganja or dread locks. Our fight is more of a political fight. Jamaican reggae talks about politics too, but different subjects and problems. Our problems are unique and bigger.
JB: African music and artists, especially hiphop artists, have gained tremendous exposure in the last several years. How do you think African artists can maintain something uniquely African in their music as it becomes more global?
TJF: I think they must use African beats and work with African instruments. Because young Africans don’t know rap music or hip hop the way American artists do. If they do rap music and hip hop they should bring something original from Africa. I think that can be interesting for American people. That’s what I say when I meet young African artists. If they want to be known in America or all over the world they have to bring something originally African. Otherwise, you are doing the promotion of American artists more than you are Africa.
(The crowd at Tiken Fakoly’s concert in Central Park, at right)
JB: Who are your favorite African musicians, including long established and newer artists?
TJF: I am always trying to support the younger musicians, especially the reggae artists. I am getting older and I want to young people to continue the fight. We have Jah Verity in Burkina Faso, Elie Kamano in Guinea Conakry, Askia Modibo in Mali, Dread Maxim in Senegal. For the old guard, I like Amy Koita and Salif Keita. My favorite is Fela Kuti. I like his music and his spirit. He was one of the first African musicians who spoke to the politicians.
JB: You’ve had roots driving youth political activism in Africa. Do you see Sub-Saharan Africa finding its own Arab Spring?
TJF: I think it’s a good example for us because we need to challenge our leaders more. Education will change this. If you look at the movement and youth in Egypt, you can see that education played a greater role in empowering them than young Africans. And today you have a new kind of change with social media. For 50 years the Presidents of Africa controlled our information by TV and radio. Like Egypt, I think the young people in Africa, when more of them go to school and become educated, they will know they have the same problems and they will fight for the same things. I think more education will wake up the people and they will begin asking more and more why our continent is so rich, but so many poor.
JB: What role do you see African music playing in that?
TJF: I think we will have a big influence because people look to empowerment of youth and you have more young artists who are starting to say something, like the Y’en marre (enough is enough) movement in Senegal. In the future the musicians will have a big influence on the political situation. I recorded the first song on my new album “African Revolution” before the Arab Spring, but it’s still about empowering the youth.
JB: On to your own country. What are your hopes and concerns for Cote D’Ivoire after the recent crisis?
TJF: We need time to improve the security and stability. From Gbagbo to Ouattara was very hard. There was a divide before and this situation made it even worse. And we have a spiritual problem. We need a lot of healing. In Cote d’Ivoire we’ve been fighting for things since Houphouet Boigny died in 1993. And you know we are the number one cocoa producer in the world. We have coffee. We have timber. We have culture. Nobody in Cote d’Ivoire should be suffering. Cote d’Ivoire was a paradise before. In the 1970s Cote d’Ivoire was more appealing to young people from Senegal, Guinea or Mali than France or America. The political situation created a lot of trouble in our country. But I am happy because we had the first democratic election in Ivory Coast. I know Alassane Ouattara won. Laurent Gbagbo was in power for 10 years and he did not do anything. No cultural progress, no spiritual progress, no economic progress, no educational progress. Nothing. Ivoirians wanted change and this is why they chose Ouattara. We now need to open the way for reconciliation. It’s very important that Gbagbo pay for what he did to show the Ivoirians there is justice.
JB: We’ve heard Alpha Blondy is organizing a reconciliation tour with other Ivorian artists. Are you participating?
TJF: I will do the tour, but I don’t want to go just to sing and take money of the people and go. I know that will not work. We can help reconciliation, but not just with songs. We have to go to the villages, to the towns, to the suburbs and talk to young people. I told them we can do a tour of cities, but it’s important that every morning when we arrive, I go to the West of the town, Alpha Blondy should go to the East. Meiway and other artists should go to the North. Everyone [should] talk to young people and get them to come together. I think if we do that we can help build the future of Cote d’Ivoire. Africans are writing their history. This is part of it.