When was the first time that you realised that your music could be dangerous to the policy makers?
I think it was in 1999. I did an album which title was ‘Cours d’histoire’. I was talking about how people came to live in the Ivory Coast. Because our old president who was in power during 33 years, it was Felix Houphouet-Boigny, and his people was Baoulé, and everybody in Ivory Coast were made to believe that they were the ‘first people’ there. That was what they taught us in school. But I had talked with some old people, some teachers in Burkina Faso… I don’t know if you know Kisabo — he was a big history teacher … I met him and talked with him, and he said: “It is not true. The first people who came to the Ivory Coast were the Kru people, and after the Kru, the Mandingo came” — my people. And after the Mandingo, the Baoulé came. I talked about that in my song, and the Baoulé who were in power, they didn’t like it. They said I am a liar because I want to change the history. I said: “No, I don’t want to change history. You wanted to change the history, and I’ve come to tell the truth.” This was the first time I realised my music is doing something.
The Berber musician Lounes Matoub once said: ‘Those who knows and shut up are crooks.’ — that if you know something you should speak up…
I think it is very important for the musician to say what is true because sometimes the politicians would want to change the history because of their own thing — because they want to stay in power, or something else… I think today we cannot even trust the opposition, because everybody wants to be friends with France or the US. The opposition wont say the truth, because if they do, they will never come in power. So I really think the musician is the hope for the people. They are the only ones speaking the truth.
One time I met the president of Senegal, it was in 2004. The United Nations had invited os for a meeting in Dakar. We were talking about AIDS, together with the president from Senegal, Abdoulaye Wade. I was there together with Baaba Maal, and one singer from Mauritania, Malouma. And one artist from Congo. And Momodou Konté. Then the president from Senegal told us: ‘You, musicians, you have to change Africa. You have to say the truth. Because I am a politician, I cannot say the truth. If I say everytime the truth, nobody will vote for me. But you don’t need anybody to give you a job. You have your job, and people support you, and people listen to you.’
This is why, last time when I went to Senegal, I said what I wanted to say, because the president had told me this. When I came to Senegal I had heard that people were talking about how the president wanted to pass the power on to his own child. And I said: ‘No, our countries are not kingdoms. We are democracies. So, if somebody wants to be a president he has to be elected by the people, not by his father.’
I took my airplane to go to the Ivory Coast, and then I heard in Radio France International that I was a wanted man in Senegal. That I could never come back in Senegal again. Crazy things! I was very surprised, because I remembered what the president from Senegal had told me. And I had even been so proud of him since that day because.. an African leader talking like that to the musicians. I was very surprised. And I said: ‘Okay, I can see that we musicians are very important in Africa today!’ Africa must change! There is a lot of suffering around us, so we cannot see all that and not say anything, and just be quiet. I hope one day they will try and find a solution so that I can come back to Senegal again.
You have experienced censorship and exile. Self-censorship is another issue. Do you find that many artists in Africa are self-censoring themselves, being afraid of what could happen to them, avoiding singing about issues like you sing about?
I think we are not many because [Video clip begins] most of the artists like to sing something where people can dance and laugh. But I am doing reggae music. I think reggae music is different. Reggae is the music which Bob Marley promoted and made famous all over the world. The voice from the people. If the people want to say something, and they don’t have the right to say it. I am just following the road from Bob Marley. I can sing a love song, but I think the very important is to sing the message from the people.
It is a pity because today the opposition in Africa… because everybody wants to be a friend with the French, or the American, or the Chinese. Everybody want to… you know… So nobody talk for the people. They try to give a dream to the people, but they don’t want to talk about the real situation. We are the friend of the people. It is the people who buy our CDs and come when we have shows, and people support us. So we have to talk for them. That is why I am taking risks all the time. But I think it is important. I want to do that because I want to be in the same way like what I am saying in the songs. I don’t want to say something and then to be doing something else myself.
One time I had some problem, too, when the military came to power in Ivory Coast, it was in 1999. And the first speach was: “We are here to fight against corruption. We are here to tell the politicians to do the real politic.” This was the first speech. Then they stayed six months, one year. And then we could feel it changing, the leader holding on to power indefinitely. And I recorded this speech on CD and kept it. And when it began changing I went to the studio, and I did an album we called ‘The Chameleon’ — the animal that changes colour. I put this album in the market, and everybody thought they would kill me because everybody was afraid of the military. It was in a small night club, and we invited some journalists, and we did a press meeting about this album.
The day when we put the album in the market, in two days we sold 35,000 albums. I remember when I went to my music label to take some CDs, the CD traders said: ‘Oh Tiken, we don’t have enough, you will not come to take away our last CDs, because everybody want to have it!’ This was a big day for me. Because I realised that my music is doing something real for my country. Yes. [End of video clip] The Freemuse Award — does it make any difference to have yet another award? Does it give meaning to have a ‘Freedom of expression award’ to musicians?
I think this award is different compared to all other awards I got before. Something special because it concerns the freedom of expression. And my music is music to fight for the people. I think Freemuse has not given me this award because I sell a lot of album. It is because of my fight. And I am very happy, because that means that it is not only in West Africa that people will know what I am doing. You know, it is a project for me. And I am very happy to be the first artist who get this award.
About the artist Tiken Jah Fakoly (real name: Doumbia Moussa Fakoly) was born in Odienné in the North-West of the Ivory Coast (Côte d’Ivoire) in 1968 — into a griot family of the Malinké ethnic group. The following biography was written by Lydia Martin in September 2005:
Tiken Jah Fakoly discovered reggae in his late teens and has been releasing tracks since his 20s. He and his group Djelys were well known in the Ivory Coast with regular performances and successful album releases. But it didn’t take them long before they were rocking the political boat at home with their lyrics.
In 1994, the group released their second album ‘Missiri’ during a time of violent upheavals in Ivory Coast. The tracks on ‘Missiri’ were openly critical of the political elite which went down well with the youth but provoked those in power. The album opened the doors for Fakoly as a solo artist and he soon found himself invited to political meetings and playing to stadiums of 20,000.
A new solo album released in 1997 ‘Mangercratie’ went over the 500,000 sales mark on the continent and two years later saw its European release, international tours and Fakoly working with Jamaican reggae maestros.
Outside West Africa, France has become Fakoly’s second fan-base, where he won the 2000 RFI Découverte Afrique award with over 100,000 albums sold and in France he now wears the mantle of the best selling African reggae artist.
In 2002, he was getting recognition in America and was rubbing shoulders with Sly and Robbie, Earl Smith, Tyrone Downie, all working in Jamaica on Fakoly’s new album: Françafrique. And they have all come together again for his 2004 album ‘Coup de Geule’, produced by Tyrone Downie, with Sly and Robbie providing the reggae rhythm section.
As a collection of tracks Coup de Geule is provocative with Fakoly speaking out as he always has. He sings about corruption:
“Go and tell the illusion-sellers that our consciences are not for sale” (‘On a Tout Compris’).
About Côte d’Ivoire More than 60 different ethnic groups live in Côte d’Ivoire, but most Ivorians belong to either the Baoulé (23 percent of the population) or the Mandingo. The Mandingo people are primarily Muslim and from the northern part of the country. They own many of the businesses in the capital city Abidjan. The Baoulé people are mostly Christian and hold many positions within the government.
When the head of the country, Henry Konan Bedie, told the nation in 2001 that Baoulé Christians were the first people to arrive in the Ivory Coast, and that the Muslim Mandingo people were outsiders, young Mandingo men started protesting against the government, which fought back violently by sending soldiers to target and kill them. The capital Abidjan which at that time was a tourist attraction known as the ‘Paris of Africa’ for its beauty and economic stability, became a war-zone.
This interview with the West African reggae singer Tiken Jah Fakoly was recorded in Dublin on Saturday 23 August 2008 in connection with handing over to him the Freemuse Award 2008.
Click on photo to see video from the event