Tiken, you've been living in exile in Mali now for quite some time. What exactly drove you out of your native Ivory Coast?
Tiken Jah Fakoly: "As an artist, I feel I have the right to express my thoughts freely. In consequence I sometimes say things some people would rather not hear me say, especially the ones in political circles. When the civil war erupted in Ivory Coast, I had to leave the country for my own safety. Because I'm a person who does not walk away from a fight before it's finished, I could have gotten completely isolated and they easily could have found a way to silence me forever."
Did the situation leave you angered or frustrated or even saddened?
Tiken Jah Fakoly: "No, not at all, because I was prepared for this eventuality. When you're an artist like me, speaking up, you quickly become seen as a dissident. Being away from my home country hurts, yes, and I'd love nothing more than to go back, but at the same time I've been really welcomed by the Malian people. I live in Bamako now and I have nothing to complain about really. If this is the price I have to pay for stating what's on my mind, I'm glad to do it."
Do you find it important to stay rooted in Africa, because you might as well have chosen to head for Europe, like so many Africans do?
Tiken Jah Fakoly: "Yes, staying in Africa is quite important to me. I made a conscious choice not to come to Belgium or France, because all too often the impression is given that there's not even one stable nation to be found in Africa and that's not true. Mali is one of the best examples of a well-balanced African country and I wanted to show the world that, contrary to the impression that is given in the media, there actually are places in Africa that are free of war and strife and more importantly still, where one is free to express oneself. Of course I'm often to be found in Paris as well, as I own an apartment there."
As an African artist, what exactly drew you to reggae music?
Tiken Jah Fakoly: "After listening to the messages of Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, who both spoke of slavery, colonization, the history of Africa and the way they were stolen and taken away from the African continent, I came to the conclusion that a lot of the things they talked about were still true and ongoing today. That kind of warranted further exploration. There are other musical genres that I like as well, but I can't really see myself perform anything but reggae music."
You're a Muslim, but at the same time you're a roots reggae artist, so is there part of you that identifies with the Rastafarian doctrine as well?
Tiken Jah Fakoly: "That depends on how one would define being a Rastafarian. I consider myself to be a Rasta because I fight for justice, for human rights and equality among men. I'm also a Muslim, but I don't think a Rasta is someone who would go to church or attend the Mosque. A Rastafarian can be black, yellow or white, your skin color shouldn't really matter and it's what's in your heart that counts. The Rastaman loves his fellow men; that's the true message of Bob Marley and what made him a worldwide star: unity and equality for all mankind! Yes I'm a Muslim and yes I'm a Rastaman!"
Which brings me to my next point: In Senegal you've got the "original dreads", the Baye Fall (The Mouride brotherhood was founded in 1883 in Senegal by Shaykh Ahmadu Bàmba Mbàkke, commonly known as Amadou Bamba (1850-1927). In the Wolof language he is called Sëriñ Tuubaa, "Holy Man of Touba". Amadou Bamba was a Muslim mystic and ascetic marabout, a spiritual leader who wrote tracts on meditation, rituals, work, and Qur'anic study. He is perhaps best known for his emphasis on labor, and his disciples are known for their industriousness. One famous disciple of Bamba, Ibra Fall, was known for his dedication to God, and considered work as a form of adoration. Amadou Bamba finally decided that Ibra Fall should show his dedication to God purely through manual labor. Ibra Fall founded a sub-group of the Mouride brotherhood called the Baye Fall or Baay Faal in Wolof, many of whom substitute hard labor and dedication to their marabout for the usual Muslim pieties like prayer and fasting. The members of the Baye Fall dress in colorful ragged clothes, wear their hair in dreadlocks which are called ndiange or "strong hair" , carry clubs, and act as security guards in the annual Grand Magal pilgrimages to Touba. Baye Fall are unusual in that some of them freely drink alcohol and smoke cannabis, things forbidden by orthodox Islam and in the city of Touba as well. In modern times, the hard labor is often replaced by members roaming the streets asking for financial donations for their marabout. Several Baye Fall are talented musicians. A prominent member of the Baye Fall is the Senegalese Musician Cheikh Lo, red.). Do you feel any affiliation with them at all?
Tiken Jah Fakoly: "I don't really know all that much about the history of the Baye Fall cult, but I know their philosophy is in a way similar to that of the Rastafarians. Rastafarianism should be a movement that unites all different and nationalities in the world."
For your two latest albums, 'Francafrique' and 'Coup De Gueulle', you collaborated with Sly & Robbie. Was that a dream come true or just the ideal opportunity at the right time?
Tiken Jah Fakoly: "It was like the fulfillment of Bob Marley's prophecy. Bob said that one day reggae would return to its source and when Jamaicans say that, they're usually talking about Africa. As an African reggae artist, I wanted to bridge the musical gap between Africa and Jamaica and in my opinion that's also where the future of reggae music will lie. Apparently I'm not the only one thinking that, because my music is becoming more and more popular. At the same time, on a more personal level, it was a dream come true, yes. Working with Sly & Robbie, singing in the same studio as U Roy... I was very honored to be allowed to do that. When I listened to Sly & Robbie I must have been about twelve or thirteen years old. At that moment I would never have imagined ever working side by side with them. On 'Francafrique' I chose to do these collaborations to illustrate the bridge I wanted to create between Jamaica and Africa. I was convinced the combination of Jamaican elements with the voice of an African singer would turn out to be a certified hit. Admittedly, artists like Lucky Dube and Alpha Blondy already preceded me, but nonetheless, I wanted to experience the musical feeling of the island myself."
In your opinion, are there obvious differences between Jamaican and African reggae music?
Tiken Jah Fakoly: "Reggae music is reggae music. The only difference is that I also sing in my native African tongue. Apart from that it's the same beat, the same struggle. I don't like segregating things too much, because that usually weakens the whole. Reggae music should be one united front!"
To end the interview, I would like to give you some names and words and you can just explain what they mean to you.
Tiken Jah Fakoly: "Let's give it a try. (laughs)"
Let's start with: Ivory Coast?
Tiken Jah Fakoly: "My beautiful homeland, which worries me at the moment. Because what Belgium and France have been trying to prevent for years, has now happened over there: nationalists have taken power. We have a racist, nationalist party in power now and we've already had to face the consequences. I hope the coming elections will change things for the better!"
Tiken Jah Fakoly: "Music is life; it's the reason to get out of bed in the morning. In today's world, music has easily become as important as food. Imagine a world without music! It would be horrible! (laughs) Music is very very important."
Jah or God?
Tiken Jah Fakoly: "God holds a very important place in my life, because when I think back on my humble beginnings and look at where I'm at today, I'm convinced there must have been some divine intervention along the way. Yes, I worked hard and did the things that had to be done, but that still does not mean I'd necessarily end up a successful artist, so there must be a God watching over me somewhere."
Tiken Jah Fakoly: "The future is disturbing, but we have to stay positive and do whatever is in our might to make it brighter. The world is in bad shape at the moment. The strong keep attacking the weak, trying to steal the few remaining riches they have. I hope that one day we will have politicians with enough courage and strength to fight for human rights, unity and equality. La luta continua! The struggle continues!"