“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.
By now, Fakoly has found a wide reception for his message, though the market for his music has been skewed, in the frustrating way that is familiar to many African artists, by the colonial legacy. In France and the countries of French-speakingAfrica, he’s a star who fills arenas and is asked to headline festivals and contribute to movie soundtracks. In the English-speaking world, not so much.
“Even Bob Marley, the prophet, had trouble conquering America,” Fakoly says. “It’s really only after his death that he became known by the general public.”
It’s just hours before his first United States concert in over a decade, and Fakoly is sitting in his hotel room in midtown Manhattan, fretting about the air conditioning, which is going full blast to the point that he’s worried it will harm his voice. He looks sharp in jeans and a tight t-shirt that shows off his lean frame; the gray in his beard adds distinction. A French camera crew has just come through for a photo shoot. On the bedside table sits a paperback by Lilian Thuram, the Caribbean-born defender for France’s 1998 World Cup-winning soccer team, who has become a public intellectual and conscious voice on race and injustice in France and the world.
This long-delayed New York visit, featuring a show at the hallowed downtown club S.O.B.’s and a daytime outdoor performance at Central Park’s Summerstage, is a sharp contrast to Fakoly’s previous visit 11 years ago, when he was completely anonymous on the American scene.
“That time, I didn’t deal with a single journalist,” Fakoly says. “I came and played for the Ivorian community. I did a concert in Harlem, and another in Philadelphia. Everyone who came was from the Ivorian community, or Burkina FasoorMali…”
This time, Fakoly has of course gone up to Harlem to greet his compatriots—he stopped in, and was mobbed, at the Masjid Aqsa mosque on Frederick Douglass Boulevard—but the purpose of his visit is greater.
“If I come to America, I need Americans to see me,” he says. “I have a message that I’m carrying and it’s important that even if there are just two or three Americans in the room, that they be there and hear it.”
“It’s a message of consciousness, a message about African history. I know the way they tell the history of Africa here, as if it began with slavery and colonization. It’s important to explain that before slavery, we had societies that functioned. We had kingdoms, empires. Our ancestors had remedies for diseases. When you had a headache you knew exactly which leaf to cut to heal it.”
“It’s also a message of information about Africa today. Reaffirming my pride in being African. And also to say to my Black American brothers that we never sold them. The same system that exploits the human and material wealth ofAfrica—that system that existed centuries ago is the same that exists now.”
The next day Fakoly takes his message to the people in Central Park. Backed by a crisp band with a horn section and a Malian kora player, he strides in a regal mudcloth cape, performing mostly songs from his new album African Revolution, including the title track, which is in English instead of his regular French and Dioula.
In the crowd is a large contingent of young African fans who know every line in all three languages, and who form a conga line and dance up a storm despite the August afternoon heat. Around them is a more typical American reggae audience, a bit hippyish and white. There’s weed smoke in the air. In broken English, Fakoly does his best to develop his themes as he addresses the crowd between songs.
The audience seems distracted. But at least the music is sharp. Fakoly favors a deep roots reggae sound in the pure lineage of Marley, Peter Tosh or Burning Spear. The tracks onAfrican Revolution were laid down at Marley’s Tuff Gong studios in Kingston with top Jamaican session players. Then—in an innovation that comes off triumphantly on the record—Fakoly brought the tracks to Bamako, Mali, where he added local players on traditional instruments: the kora and ngoni lutes, soku fiddle and others.
Fakoly might be a reggae traditionalist—he credits Marley, whom he calls a prophet on par with Muhammad and Jesus, for his spiritual awakening—but he’s not an antiquarian.
“We will never make reggae better than the Jamaicans,” he says. “But we can add elements that will help us discover a sound that is typical of African reggae. We’ll put in the salt, the spice. When we brought the songs to Bamako and started to add the kora, it started to change color. It wasn’t Jamaica anymore. I was happy.”
“It confirms the prophesy of Bob Marley,” he adds. “Bob said reggae would go back to its African roots. And when you see the new generation of reggae now, the girls in their underwear by the pool—nowadays, real reggae, you have to find it in Africa.”
Talk to Fakoly and you’re reminded that reggae is ultimately always about struggle. And if reggae’s appeal has spread so long and so far from its small island origins, it’s not just because of the basslines and syncopation, but because struggle itself is universal.
As a child, Fakoly says, he first heard reggae in Gbeleban, a tiny town where his father sent him to stay with a relative and learn life the hard way, because of his poor grades. There was no electricity, and he had to work in the fields in the early morning before school. But on weekends there were parties with music on battery-powered radios, and that’s how he heard Marley, Burning Spear and others.
“I remember when Bob died I wept as if I knew him personally,” he says. And every time he met someone who knew some English, he had them explain the lyrics of these reggae greats. “And that’s how I discovered the combat of reggae, against injustice. And then I looked around and I saw cases of injustice in the society in which I lived.”
His own first song, years later, after he weathered his family’s disapproval and gave up on the career they wanted for him as a shopkeeper, was called “Djeli.” It denounced the caste system in Mandingo society, the kind that prevents intermarriage between social groups or locks people to specific professions.
Over the years, Tiken Jah Fakoly has had no shortage of injustices to decry. One whole album, Françafrique, takes its title from the term that is used to describe the mingling of French and African political and business interests that exploits resources and keeps dictators in power.
The perils and unfairness of immigration are another big theme. “Immigration is the most blatant injustice today,” Fakoly says. “It’s visible to the naked eye and should be denounced from the United Nations, the White House, everywhere. Westerners can come to our countries anytime and do whatever they want. But we can’t do the same. My kids aren’t able to come on vacation in France, because they can’t get a visa.”
He pauses, then pivots: “But I won’t cry about that. Because the future is in Africa. In Africa, everything is there to be done.”
For the last five years, Fakoly has made his base in Bamako, the capital ofMali. That is because political conflict laced with ethnic tension in Ivory Coast made him feel unsafe back home. Earlier this year, however, a complicated electoral and military standoff in Ivory Coast was finally resolved, and a new president, Alassane Ouattara, took office.
In the middle of the crisis, Fakoly had released a hit song called “Le Pays Va Mal”—the country is doing poorly. It was a frank lament about a onetime promising African country torn apart by political greed. Fakoly says the situation has improved a little now, but just a little. And real progress, he says, can’t happen at the small scale of just one nation.
“My time in Mali has reinforced my Pan-Africanism,” he says. “Since I set up in Mali, I’m feeling more African than Ivorian. And as a Pan-Africanist militant, I am aware that no African country will find its way alone.”
Now, Fakoly says, he’s asking young Africans overseas—like the joyous group hanging onto his every word out in Central Park, or the thousands of African emigrants who pack his concerts in Paris or Marseille—to bring their experience home.
“Their place isn’t here,” he says, waving out the window at New York City. “That gets shown to them everyday. They need to come home and share the democratic experiences they’ve had here. They should help push African leaders toward change. They shouldn’t just wait for us to get beaten up and then only turn up when everything has fallen apart.”
“Their place is in Africa,” Fakoly says. “We’re waiting for them—but we won’t wait forever.”