The day before a huge, outdoor concert at NYC’s SummerStage, I sat down with African reggae legend Tiken Jah Fakoly in an air-conditioned hotel room in Midtown. The towering figure was humble and soft spoken despite the highly-charged political lyrics of his music. During the conversation we discussed his latest album African Revolution, the meaning of Rastafari, reggae music and the necessary burden of being a voice for the people.
Advertisements for your show in New York called you the “Bob Marley of Africa.” How do you feel about that?
Well, first off that wasn’t me who decided that. However, it’s a big honor to be called that because he’s the prophet of reggae music . I am just following Bob Marley. I’m on the same road, fighting for justice and talking about the situation of African people. I’m doing good reggae music. And good reggae music is a music with a message. I think this is the same type of reggae that Bob Marley was playing.
What would not be good reggae?
Reggae roots is good reggae. It is more original. It’s from Africa. We have similarities, for example with the drum and the bass, as Bob Marley or Burning Spear. The difference is that we add kora and other instruments.
You recorded this most recent album in Bamako and in Kingston?
Yeah we recorded a bit in France, then came back to Bamako. Then to Kingston. We wanted to travel a lot for this record (laughs).
You’ve recorded in Jamaica before, correct?
Yes, I went to Jamaica the first time in 1999. Then, I came back in 2001 to record my first international album with Universal Music. Then I went back to Jamaica in 2003 and again for this one.
Have you ever performed in Jamaica?
I heard the Jamaican audience is tough.
No, it’s not because of that. Normally, I should perform in Jamaica. We planned 3 years ago, a tour where we would play Kingston, Haiti, Martinique, Guadelupe and some other countries in the area. When we were ready to go but about two weeks before, the political situations in those countries were a bit unstable so we had to cancel.
You’re not Rastafarian, right?
I am. I can say I am because Rastafari is just people who fight for justice. You don’t need to have dreadlocks or smoke ganja or to wear something that says “Rastafarian” on it. You know I am fighting for justice and talking about political struggles. I am talking about my country and my continent and my people’s situation. This is why I am Rastafarian.
What do you mean by “African Revolution?”
I am just talk about revolution in Africa. See all the countries that are established today, they did some sort of revolution. America did a revolution, France, some South American countries like Venezuela. Everybody had a revolution. We in Africa were free just fifty years ago. They give us our independence in 1960’s. So we are young. We need to go to school, to learn how our government works and are corrupt. I’m talking about African revolution the same way Americans did the revolution in order to give the power back to the people. I think if we want to be a stable continent or a stable country then we need to show to our leaders that we are the power. We as a people are the power. This revolution has already begun in Tunisia and then Egypt and I think it will come to “black Africa” in about 15 years or so. See, we have internet today but before that we only got information from the nationally owned television stations and they give us this story about how the president is this big God like figure or something. Today we have the ability to go on the internet and see the real truth. This is why I am waiting for this revolution to happen in roughly 15 years because it’s coming, slowly, to African countries. People are also going to school and when they do, I think they will ask questions like , “Why is Africa an rich continent but African people are poor?” So, I am optimistic that a revolution will happen in about 15 years. We are living in the same planet and everything takes time. We just need to go to school to change our destiny.
So, do you feel like the Arab revolutions will have a big influence on the rest of Africa?
Yeah man! The world changed so quickly. I believe these revolutions were rooted in the education of Tunisians and Egyptians and it will surely end up influencing the rest of Africa. I am sure that in 15 years we will see revolutions. People have begun to see that education is very important so they are all putting their children in schools to learn.
Were you exiled from Côte d’Ivoire ?
I was exiled when Gbagbo was president during his 10 years. I was in exile for about 5 years. When the country was split in two between the government and the rebels, I was living in Abdijan, which was on the government side. And, of course, the government didn’t like me because I didn’t clap my hands for them and support them in any way. So I went to Mali in 2002 until 2007 when they stopped the war and the leader of the rebellion signed the end of the war. So I came back to Abdijan but not permanently. I just came back to do a show and to give my contribution to reconciliation. I wanted to wait and come back after the election. And the election was difficult so I stayed in Mali.
It’s difficult but I like Mali and I feel African before I am Ivoirian. Mali is an African country so I would like to stay there a little bit more.
Do you feel like you would be in endangered if you returned to Côte d’Ivoire?
Not today. The new government is not against me. You never know, though, where the danger lies when you are an artist like me, so yes, it can be dangerous. I think it’s better for me to wait, for now, until we have good security in Côte d’Ivoire and then I will come back. For now, though, I prefer to stay in Mali.
You’ve mentioned before that you feel like a “spokesperson” for oppressed Africans. You said that you “give them a voice.” Does that feel like an overwhelming burden for you? To know that so many people are looking towards you to speak for them?
Well I am not the only one doing this. See this is the rare mission of reggae music to come with a message. When I am driving around in Bamako or elsewhere, people come to tell me and they say, “Tiken, you are our voice. You have to speak for us. Our president is doing this or that and you need to sing about it.” This happens everywhere I go in Africa. We are the voice of these people because we don’t have freedom of expression in all of the countries. So sometimes we say what these people, who don’t have a voice, people who don’t have a camera or a microphone on them, want us to say. This is the real mission of reggae music. This is reason why reggae music is known all over the world. Bob Marley came from a small, poor village to the ghettos of Trenchtown and he sang about the situation of the people in these places. This is our real mission even today, to give African people a voice. See most people don’t know our history. For most people in the western world, our history begins with slavery or colonization. We have to tell people, “no, before slavery we had our civilization, and we had our kingdom and society. We were living good until some people come from the sea and made us slaves.” This is why we are living “late” today. So this is the reason for the message that I give today, why it is important and why I must tell the stories and give a voice for the people living in oppression today.
That must be hard for you.
Yes, it is very hard. It is not easy but I chose it. I chose to do reggae music so I have to do this. If I didn’t want to, then I should’ve chosen “coupé-décalé” or something (laughs). For me reggae music is a fight, it is a mission so it’s not easy but it is our mission.
Going back to Mali, I interviewed Amkoullel earlier this year, who told me that freedom of expression in Mali is much greater in that country. Have you encountered any issues with the government there?
Yes, I can say that. This is one of the reasons why I am living there. If you listen to the radio they say anything they want about the president but the government doesn’t do anything. This is why I call Mali a democratic country. They have a lot of things to work on, like most countries in Africa, but this is a good step. Anyone can say whatever they want in Mali. Having been there since 2002, I can say that in Mali, people have freedom of expression.
I am interested the various African styles you incorporated into the reggae on your latest album…
Yes, that was all intentional. In the first song we have kora and soukous style of guitar. It all comes naturally. See, I was trying to find a real African reggae sound. We will never do reggae more than Jamaican people. They created this music. However, we as Africans have a lot of traditional instruments that we just need to put into pop music and reggae music to create something original. This is what I was trying to do with this album and I think I did it well. It’s not because I was trying to find a greater audience throughout the world. It was simply because I wanted to find something original and from Africa.
Now, when we play festivals or concerts, Jamaican artists come to us and they want to find out how to incorporate the kora or soukous. Really, this is a prophecy fulfilled from Bob Marley. In one of his interviews, he said, “One day reggae music will go back to Africa.” And that is exactly what is happening today! When you understand real reggae music from Jamaica, like Burning Spear or Culture, you understand how it can easily connect with Africa.
Unfortunately, so many of the young people want to get a Grammy award in America. Ever since Beenie Man earned a Grammy award, everyone in Jamaica is doing music just to get that award and they forget the roots, their reggae roots. So now real, reggae roots is in Africa, it has come back like Bob Marley said.
So you see other, young reggae artist in Africa then who are following in your footsteps?
Yeah, we have a lot of young artists coming from Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso and everywhere else. I am sure that if I died today, the young people would continue to create real, reggae roots. I think that after this album, we will begin to see different African instrumentation in reggae because they will see that reggae is African as well.