The Arts

Stand Up, Africa!

Tiken Jah Fakoly Côte d’Ivoire’s “quiet rebel,” who is spearheading a revival of African reggae, is a leading spokesperson for West African youth (Photo: AFP).

“Music is the weapon of the future,” said Fela (Anikulapo-Kuti), the Nigerian singer who died of AIDS in 1997, a leading opponent of Nigeria’s military dictatorship and creator of Afrobeat, an ethnic jazz style that gave new life to African musical culture.

Fela, whose music today is sampled by DJs around the world, took part in the political awakening of Africa. At a time when Zimbabwe, Madagascar, and Nigeria are front-page news, a new generation is taking its turn at political militancy—Femi Kuti, son of Fela and of Afrobeat; Tiken Jah Fakoly, the fresh prince of Ivorian reggae; Angélique Kidjo, the Afro-funk star from Benin. Meantime their elders, Salif Keita, Alpha Blondy, and Mory Kanté, join their voices for an Africa reaching out for democracy. “But not demo-crazy!” stresses Femi Kuti—his editorials in the form of songs are always censored in Nigeria. The song “Y en a marre” (We’ve Had It) by Tiken Jah Fakoly has been taken up by angry young Malgaches and “Le pays va mal” (The Country’s in Trouble), also by Fakoly, became the anthem—the banned anthem—of the opposition during Chad’s last electoral campaign, in 2000.

Back when Alpha Blondy was all the rage, hits like “Brigadier Sabari,” in which he denounced police violence, were already rocking West Africa.

In the late 1990s, the passion of Dakar’s rappers shook things up on the streets of Senegal.

“Music is all-powerful; it helped free Nelson Mandela,” recalls Angélique Kidjo. “But you have to know how to use bold, brassy rhythms to make light of serious subjects.”

“Music will put Africa back on the map,” says Femi Kuti, 39, whose concerts usually turn into political rallies. Kuti is one of Africa’s most active spokesmen. AIDS, civil war, famine, corruption, ethnic conflict are at the heart of his new album, Fight to Win.

Taking the bit firmly in his teeth, he mounts a frontal attack on certain Nigerian dignitaries in “Traitors of Africa.” “If Africa weren’t supported by the strength of its music, it would be cut off from the West,” he declares firmly. “Nobody would understand the depth of its suffering or the seriousness of the situation.”

Although he speaks French and works with French producers, Kuti sings in English, because “the message gets across better in Nigeria,” which has 256 ethnic groups among its 120 million inhabitants.

His father, who was nicknamed “Black President” by his fans, in
1974 founded the imaginary Republic of Kalakuta, a Lagos neighborhood that was open to all ethnic and religious communities.

Kuti founded the Movement Against Second Slavery, referring to corruption, “a cancer that is eating away at the system.” “No man is an island,” he adds. “Together, we can build a nation, because Africa has brains, youth, knowledge.”

“My party is named the anti-power party,” says Tiken Jah Fakoly, 32, Côte d’Ivoire’s “quiet rebel.” His last CD, Françafrique, is an explicit reference to a book by the Frenchman François-Xavier Verschave, La Françafrique: Le plus long scandale de la République (Francafrica: The Republic’s Longest Scandal), published by Stock, which analyzes the links between French and African elites. In the song “Mangercratie” (Eat-ocracy), Fakoly, who is a supporter of the Attac anti-globalization movement, demands “bread, health care, and justice for all.”

Inspired by street-corner conversation in Côte d’Ivoire as well as by the news shows on Radio France Internationale, France Info, or TV5, Françafrique gives the listener a radical press review on xenophobia, the cancellation of veterans’ pensions, arranged marriages, corruption, the power of the military, human rights, et cetera.

And it shakes a finger at Robert Gueï, the general who held power in Côte d’Ivoire for a few months after a military coup, saying Gueï “arrived like a savior and left like a thief” (from the song “Le Balayeur” [The Street Sweeper]).

With the current president, Laurent Gbagbo, “Côte d’Ivoire seems calm,” Fakoly says. “But we have to remain vigilant. As a reggae artist, I’m first and foremost a fighter.”

Femi Kuti has used influences from American hip-hop and R&B (backed up by Mos Def and Jaguar). Tiken Jah Fakoly recorded his last CD with top Jamaican musicians like U Roy.

Angélique Kidjo, 41, immersed herself in Brazil to write Black Ivory Soul in collaboration with Carlinhos Brown, an album whose music travels back and forth across the Atlantic. It’s the second volume of a trilogy on the countries of the Americas with important populations of African origin—the United States, Brazil, Haiti, and Cuba.

“Back in school, our history books never talked about slavery,” she recalls. “I discovered the tragedy of black people through music.” For Kidjo, “Africa’s greatest hopes lie in education and work.” “Don’t stand by with your arms folded,” she advises in the song “Afirika.”
A few years ago, Kidjo’s name headed a public opinion poll that had asked who the people of Benin would prefer as president. But she’s not interested in politics.

“I can’t tell a lie,” Kidjo says. “And the person who tells the truth always ends up alone....For me, music is a perfect way to remain as honest and true as possible.”