“It used to be that when people saw you with hair like this, you were considered a lunatic,” says Tiken Jah Fakoly, the reggae artist from Ivory Coast.
Fakoly’s dreads are short and orderly, the kind of look that would pass unnoticed on a Brooklyn street. But he is right: for many years in much of Africa, the figure of the Rastaman—dreadlocked, likely unkempt, possibly high—was assimilated, at least by middle-class society, to that of the sad deranged men you’d see pacing the roadside or darting in traffic in the bustling business districts of cities like Abidjan, Lagos or Accra.
But like his predecessors Alpha Blondy, also from Ivory Coast, or the late Lucky Dube, from South Africa, Fakoly, now 43 and perhaps the leading figure in African reggae today, stuck to his guns. He followed the path inspired by the Rasta revelation he had as a teenager in dusty Odienné, his home town, and made a career, now 10 albums deep, telling truths about corrupt politicians, pointless civil wars, Western economic manipulation, the false promises of immigration and the sadness of exile.
It’s in the vocation of the Rastaman, after all, to shrug off contempt or ignorance by polite society in favor of telling the truth.