Uman has already been a frontrunner in the Belgian dancehall and hip hop scene for years and has now also finally released his debut album ‘L'Aventure C'est L'Aventure' (the adventure is adventure, red.); an excellent opportunity to have a serious conversation with the man. We met up with Uman at Café Belga on the Flagey square in Brussels and questioned him on music, religion and - it being the appropriate location for it - the future of Belgium.
Uman, your debut album is finally in the stores. You've been at it a long time already, why did it take until now for you to release an album?
Uman: "A lot of the music labels in Belgium don't really invest in the kind of music I do, because it's not an easy market for them. I don't really regret having had to wait until now though, because I did a lot of different things in that time span: I performed with soundsystems, released some mix tapes and even a couple of singles. It was a long but beneficial road and at least now I can say I did an album that I'm totally happy with, an album that befits a thirty-year-old man like me."
It's not really a reggae album, neither a true hip hop one, but rather an eclectic mix of styles. Was that a conscious choice?
Uman: "Yes, I wanted it to turn out like that. When I was still in my teens, rap or hip hop were still hard to find in Belgium. I can still clearly remember the first hip hop artists emerging. I listened to a lot of different music styles in those days, ranging from The Clash over David Bowie and AC/DC to African music. For this album I had the right musicians at my disposal and I had already decided only to use my own compositions. I think my style as an artist has evolved over the years, from dancehall and rap more towards real singing. All that being said, I still think the album has a reggae feel to it."
You recorded the album entirely in French. Won't that make it more difficult to sell in the Flemish part of Belgium?
Uman: "I have a loyal following in Flanders. The sound systems I work with in Antwerp, Ghent and Kortrijk are all Flemish. Civalizee, for example, the Belgian champions, have always played my tunes in their sets. I don't think the language aspect will make a great difference. I chose to do the album in French because it's my mother tongue and the language I can express myself most fluently in. Who knows, maybe one day I'll release an album in English. I'm not perfectly bilingual, but when I'm on stage I'm not afraid to say a couple of words in Flemish."
You live in Brussels and are a member of the French speaking community. With all the tension between the different communities...
Uman: "(In Flemish) Ik snap er niets van! (I don't understand what is going on, red.)"
Do you sense there are structural cultural differences between the Flemish and the Walloons?
Uman: "I think underground culture is more vibrant in Flanders. It's just economical reality I guess, resulting in there being more music shops, dances and locations in Flanders than in Wallonia. I don't sense a real cultural divide though, maybe because Belgians don't have a huge sense of nationality. I certainly don't believe Flemish youths have negative feelings towards French culture, because I've given some of my best concerts in Flanders."
I've always known you as Original Uman, but the album just states Uman. What happened to the "Original" bit?
Uman: "Uman was just simpler. I've registered the name now, so I'll stick with it in the future."
In an old quote of yours you state: "Reggae ok, but Jah has nothing to do with it!" The Rastafarian part of reggae music never appealed to you?
Uman: "That sentence was really thought up by a journalist, but there's some truth to it in the fact that I'm an atheist. I don't worship a god. I'm a positive person and I believe in "one love", but I have a dislike of priests, reverends or imams. I don't believe in religion; yes, there are mystical things, but the explanation you give to them is a personal thing. I'm not here to promote a culture or a faith."
The past few years, numerous smaller music labels were forced to close their doors. With the evolution of mp3 downloading, do you think there's still a future for the album in its classic form?
Uman: "I rather think music will have to find its future on the internet and on stage. And artists will always need someone to take care of their promotion and marketing. Music will always have a future because people need music. It has become clear, however, that the album in its classic form has lost its leading role as a distribution medium. This is my debut album, but I've been living off my music for the past fifteen years now, so I think I'm living proof that there is a way. I think there must be about fifty songs of mine on the internet downloadable for free. That just adds to the promotion of my music. I don't particularly feel nostalgia for records or albums as a medium. Don't get me wrong, I love vinyl, but its disappearance doesn't really worry me as I'm convinced music, artists and concerts will always be there."
There's a song on the album called 'Grandes Ambitions' ("great ambitions", red.). Now that you've released your debut album, what other great ambitions still remain for Uman?
Uman: "'Grandes Ambitions' also talks about life, love, equilibrium, well-being and the road ahead. I'm full of great ambitions, because there's still plenty to be done. At this moment my focus lies mainly on the promotion of this album and trying to bring it to life in front of a live audience."
You're sometimes referred to as the "Belgian Gentleman". What do you think of that comparison?
Uman: "It's flattering, but I think we're quite different. Gentleman's music is 100% Jamaican, whilst mine is Belgian. My songs are written from the perspective of a Belgian urbanite living in Brussels. They talk about my age, my strengths and weaknesses and about my love life. I'm flattered, because there's a lot of emotion in Gentleman's music, a lot of power and positive energy as well and we're both great fans of reggae music, of course."
I would like to end the interview by confronting you to a couple of words. Let's start with: Matonge?
Uman: "Apart from being a district of the city of Kinshasa in Congo, for me it's the place where I went to school when I was little. It's the African district of Brussels, an area filled with specialized shops selling fruit and vegetables you won't find anywhere else in Belgium. It's a very colorful and musical area and for me it's also a place that represents opportunity."
Uman: "It's the only style of music that can make me cry and at the same time it brightens up my life."
In conclusion: Uman?
Uman: "(In Jamaican patois) A me that! (laughs)"