Meta, you started your music career as a member of a band called Yalla Suuren, back when you were still living in Senegal.
Meta Dia: "When we started that band, I was still in school. It was just my cousin, me and some of my friends from the neighborhood where I grew up. Things like hip-hop and MTV were starting to become more and more popular in Senegal. To me that music embodied rebelliousness and freedom of speech and expression. At first we weren't too serious - you had hip-hop bands sprouting up all over the place and we were just going with the flow - but then we were discovered by the Centre Culturel Français and won the Espoirs Du Rap Senegalais award. Everything really changed when I moved to the US."
Let's get into that in a moment, but could you first tell me which hip-hop artists you were listening to yourself back then?
Meta Dia: "I really used to dig Eminem's flow and Nas's as well, and I loved Tupac's vibe as well, but it certainly wasn't strictly hip-hop as at home I was exposed to reggae artists like Gregory Isaacs and Bob Marley as my mother was a big fan of reggae music. And of course there was also the influence of Senegalese bands like Africando or Orchestra Baobab."
What drove you to migrate to the US?
Meta Dia: "That was more or less the realization of the dream to travel there and build a music career."
A story that reminds me of Alpha Blondy's…
Meta Dia: "Yeah, it was pretty much in the same vein. My dad already resided in the US, so that made things easier for me. I decided to follow my idol Eminem, so I moved to Detroit where, like him, I started attending open mic sessions in the 7 Mile area. That's where I also met Sean Blackman, a jazz and world music musician, who invited me to come and rap and sing with his band. As my English was improving and I started listening to reggae more and more, one day I was really struck when hearing Bob Marley's 'Coming In From The Cold'. As an African immigrant living in Detroit I could really relate to the words in the song. Now my English started improving, I started focusing more on the lyrics in the music I listened to and I felt I was connecting much more with the message I was hearing in reggae music then with the violent and sexually explicit lyrics common in American hip-hop."
For the recording of 'Ancient Power', your second album, you travelled to Jamaica.
Meta Dia: "We'd recorded 'Forward Music', my debut album, in New York, but looking back on it I think on that album I was still searching the musical direction I wanted to pursue. Even though it clearly was a reggae album, it was still quite eclectic, also incorporating influences from various other genres. After 'Forward Music' was released I started experimenting with Pro Tools. One day I was doing a jam session in the streets and I met Larry McDonald, who used to be the percussionist for Gil Scott-Heron. It was Larry who eventually introduced me to Sydney Mills (keyboard player for Steel Pulse since 1988, red.). He asked what I really wanted to do next and I told him I wanted to go to Jamaica to experience the reggae vibration first hand and record at Tuff Gong where Bob also recorded."
Did your trip to Jamaica live up to your expectations?
Meta Dia: "Most definitely! For me music means building bridges and working with Jamaican artists like Damian Marley or Capleton, I think that's exactly what we did with 'Ancient Power'. But the album reflects more than just my Jamaican influences; songs like 'Bahia' or 'Mayan River' reflect my trips to Mexico and Peru, and 'Tijahni' and 'Beloved Africa' of course show my African roots."
What can you already tell us about your upcoming album 'Hira'?
Meta Dia: "I think I can honestly say that 'Hira' will be my most serious album to date. I've grown as a person and as an artist, so I think it's only natural that that's also reflected in my music. In my view religion is getting a bit of a bad rap at the moment. The true essence of most religions is pure and beautiful and Muslims, Jews and Christians share a lot of common heritage. The problem is that now you have different sectarian movements that have started to interpret religion in a very fundamentalist and vengeful way. I'm very sure that if Jesus were here today, he certainly wouldn't agree with their point of view and neither would Moses or Mohammed! That's definitely one of the points I want to try and get across with this album. That's also why I opted to call it 'Hira', as Hira is the name of a cave where the prophet Mohammed received the revelation of the Quran from the angel Jebril or Gabriel. Zabur, Bible, Thora, Quran… they're all connected and come from the same family tree if you want. I've used these four books, combined with my own perspective on life, as the inspiration for the songs on 'Hira'. Musically I've tried to broaden my horizons as well, incorporating influences from genres like flamenco, bossa nova, jazz and even classical music. So there will definitely be a bit of a world music vibe going on, and that's also reflected in the guest musicians I invited, like Concha Buika for example who's a flamenco singer."
To record 'Hira' this time you opted for Peter Gabriel's Real World Studio, which is of course a bit of a legendary place where world music is concerned.
Meta Dia: "That was definitely one of the reasons why I went for the Real World Studio, yes, but as an artist I also try to keep expanding my horizons. If I had opted for a reggae studio like Tuff Gong, then during the recording sessions I probably would have been in a reggae vibe, and as I felt this album needed a more eclectic vibe, I decided to step out of my comfort zone."
As a Senegalese Muslim, what's your take on Rastafarianism?
Meta Dia: "To me Rastafarianism primarily means "one love", but the same goes for Buddhism, Christianity and Islam. You have to know that even though the majority of the people in Senegal are Muslims, Christian holidays like Christmas are also observed as Senegalese culture teaches respect for others. When people see my dreads they almost automatically assume I'm a Rastafarian, but personally I'm not about labeling things, I'm about spirituality and tolerance. At least in part, my music is about convincing my Muslim brethren to opt for the pen rather than the gun. As human beings we have to try to be like a drop of water that nourishes the plants and makes them grow."