With his strong political criticisms of governments, unfair systems and police harassment, the legendary reggae star, Alpha Blondy, has been considered by many, to be the voice for the voiceless. Born in Côte d’Ivoire in 1953, he is one of the most renowned artists in Africa. He sings in Doula, his mother tongue, English and French, and has often been called “the messenger”.
Alpha Blondy coined a term, democrature (democratatorship) showing the fusion of democracy and dictatorship in Africa. For more than three decades he sang about peace in Liberia, about police harassment, bloodshed in Africa, using music as a weapon for his struggles. Blondy was also involved in student movements at a young age. As a musician he also created a new sound, a sound that is a blend of his Côte d’Ivoire roots and reggae music. He has managed to become a musical and political figure, passing his message along to the world and preaching about peace. Alpha Blondy has also had the pleasure of collaborating with the Wailers, Bob Marley’s band. He is also well known for his strong religious views, often singing about God, preaching unity between all religions. Internationally, he has won numerous awards and was nominated for the prestigious Grammy Awards in 2003. In Ethiopia, many know him for his single Jerusalem. Alpha Blondy recently came to Addis Ababa to participate in a festival held yearly called Selam Festival. The concert was held at the Ghion Hotel on December 8 and 9, Blondy performed on the 9th. During his stay in Addis Ababa, he met with local and foreign journalists for a press conference where he talked about music, politics and his contributions to Africa. Tibebeselassie Tigabu of The Reporter attended the press conference. Excerpts:
Question: Would you consider your presence in Ethiopia historic?
Alpha Blondy: I was longing to come to Ethiopia and last time I was transiting here when I was going to Israel. This concert is very special. It is my first time in Addis Ababa. This city is the seat of the African Union and, for me, as a reggae singer, coming to Ethiopia is a fulfillment of my passion. So, I am very excited to be here. My band and me are going to give the very best of us to please the Ethiopian people; my brothers and sisters.
Your songs mainly focus on politics and religious issues, starting from the famous song Jerusalem, to the song that was dedicated to Yitzhak Rabin (the former Prime Minister of Israel). Why do you focus on these issues?
First of all, I am not a politician. When I sing about our living conditions in the ghetto the journalists started calling my style of music engaging music. Talking about the poor living conditions, unemployment and how we don’t get jobs in the ghetto, so they labeled me a politician.
I talk about how wrong it is for a country to have only one party and one candidate and say it is a “democratic election.” When you are the only student in a classroom you can’t be number two. Talking about elections, if you are the only candidate and the only party, you are bound to be elected; that’s what we call threat elections back home. When we say democracy, it has to be at least two parties or more. Reggae is revolutionary music, but what did we do? We just talked about what was obvious.
I am not a politician, I was forced into politics and I am an anti-war activist. When I was in school in the northern part of my country we had confrontations with the Republic of Guinea. I used to see soldiers, tanks and helicopters while being in a classroom. It was a traumatizing experience.
African countries cannot afford war and military coups, if we want good development political stability is a must. When you ask the United Nations not to legalize any military coup, you are not a politician. I have met with many presidents and politicians and I try to record and analyze things but I don’t believe that makes me a politician.
For example, my song Yitzhak Rabin is about a guy who gave up his life for peace, and it is a tribute. He deserves to be respected for the sacrifice he paid, to have peace in the Middle East, for what he was trying to accomplish and his achievement. When you are poor and powerless, the power that you have or that you can have is God. I strongly believe in God and my love for God took me to Israel. When I was in Jerusalem I visited the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and other holy places. I am very afraid of politics. Politics is very frightening for me, that is why I say I am not a politician – I am a singer.
Did you bring any positive results to the issues that you are talking about like the Israeli-Palestinian issue and your country, which is also in crisis? Do you feel you brought any change to the matter?
Oh yeah! My career has been going on for thirty years and some politicians today were students when I was singing Jerusalem, or Apartheid is Nazism. So today those politicians, I think, might remember things Alpha Blondy was saying in his songs.
For instance, in my country when there was that stupid civil war, I think people remember my warning. I told them that when one tribe is in power for too long, eventually all the other tribes feel frustrated, and that will lead to military coups and wars. Even here, at the African Union, most of the leaders came to power by coup. They can’t talk about democracy, they don’t know about democracy, and some are against democracy. Africa has too much value. People talk about how China is rising. What about the rise of Africa? Africa will rise. Africa shall rise.
You sing in different languages: French, English, Arabic and your native tongue as opposed to singers who only use one language. What is the benefit and what is your contribution as a musician and what do you think you will contribute in the future?
I am lucky to speak French and English but I don’t speak Arabic or Hebrew. I know a few words in Arabic and in Hebrew.
I have been to Qur’anic School because my mother is a Muslim and my father is a Christian. Though we didn’t learn Arabic, they teach you to repeat prayers. It is a brainwashing thing. I do not speak Arabic but I have been singing in Arabic. I ask a few words and they taught me how to pronounce it. There was also a lady – may her soul rest in peace – who was like my mother and she taught me to write the verses in Hebrew.
I love to communicate in different languages because I want to touch people. As a musician the only power that we have is God. But we cannot be pretentious and say we are going to change the world. Are we going to do that? The answer is no. However, our fans have the power to change the world tomorrow. All we can do is give them hope, love and reason to live. We have to give the fuel to our fans since they are the source of our energy.
There is a Tafari Genesis Camp that you established to help children who are in need. The name sounds like Tafari Mekonnen. Is it named after him? What is your religious connection and how do you perceive Emperor Haile-Selassie?
I have some fan clubs around the world, sometimes they keep informing me what they are doing and sometimes they don’t. Maybe it is one of those fan clubs but I do not know about it.
I have respect for Ras Tafari, and then I went deep inside to find really why my brothers from Jamaica say that Haile-Selassie I is a living God. I was wondering why Jamaicans have been taken to be slaves from Africa. There was an assumption that the black people were doomed. Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican freedom fighter at that time who was living in England, Told them about the crowning of Haile-Selassie I as emperor of Ethiopia.
King Solomon is in the Bible, the Quran and the Torah and that was a spiritual hope, a spiritual salvation for the Rastafarians.
It made them say that black people are not doomed. One of us is the descendent of King Solomon and that gave them strength and that become an identity; a new one as we are not lost and we belong somewhere.
We all belong to the twelve tribes of Israel because they needed to belong to something; to hang on to something. That’s why even when Emperor Haile-Selassie I said that he was not God they said ‘Oh yeah he is very humble, he got to be God.’ Eventually, he became a source of hope for them.
I heard that the Emperor gave the Rastafarians land in Shashemene. You cannot imagine what that means for them. It is a known fact that many Africans were taken away from their homeland and spent 400 years in bondage and 100 years being colonization.
I know that we were bound to live together and work together. So Rastafarians talk about Africa and there is something that I did not accept and I was very frustrated. When there was famine in Ethiopia when Bob Geldof did “We are the world,” I did not see any reggae movement to collect money. I personally am afraid of religion when they ask me ‘Alpha you talk about Adonay, Jesus, Allah but what religion do you follow?” I am afraid to answer that because religions have a tendency to divide us but God brings us together, and I chose that.
The common denominator of all those religions is God. So I took God since I don’t like spiritual quarrels. I don’t want my faith to be divided. So when I go to a church it’s not because I am Catholic, it is because that is a house of God. I also feel the same way about mosques and synagogues.
Wherever God is mentioned I want to be there. The danger is not with the prophets, the danger is with the disciples. Some people today use the name of God to go and kill but the Bible, the Quran and The Torah all tell us not to kill. It is not us who decide whether someone has the right to live or to die. Did I answer your question?
More or less, but how do you perceive Emperor Haile-Selassie?
I see Emperor Haile-Selassie I in a respectful way. He is a great man. He was the man behind the Organization of African Unity. So I have deep respect for him. I think that the AU should follow the teachings of the old people who built that institution. They should not wait for the UN to intervene in conflicts. In Congo, six million people have been killed. What is the AU doing about that? They are having a “big” meeting to find the date for the next meeting while there is war.
A couple of months ago we witnessed what happened in Ivory Coast. What was your opinion regarding what happened and how Laurent Gbagbo left and how the current president, Alassane Outtara, came to power?
In the beginning I warned them. I know Laurent Gbagbo very well, he came to my house, I know Alassane Outtara very well too since we come from the same village. Before going to the elections, I told them to deal with the concept of Ivority; the concept that started the political crisis. The concept is about one being more Ivorian than the other.
The politicians use the ethnic superiority by saying this tribe is superior than the other. Secondly, the northern part of Ivory Coast was in rebellion because of the Ivority business.
So you can’t go to the election when the peace agreement of Ouagadougou is not completed. For that peace agreement to be completed the two armies have to be unified.
In Africa, democracy is very new and that will be a danger. Before the elections I was asking a hypothetical question like what if Outtara turns out to be a winner and all are in favor of Gbagbo and say Outtara cannot be the winner and vice versa.
Outtara went deep into the country, talked to the people, gave them a program and then he won the election. The question was who had the courage and the guts to tell Gbagbo that he did not win. I don’t understand why he didn’t accept this proposition from France and the US to go there. His decision led the country into a stupid civil war. They said three thousand people died but it is a lie. Only in Abidjan, one hundred thousand people were killed. So I did what I could to avoid that but they don’t listen. Power is like a hard drug. It is more than cocaine and heroin. When they want power they sacrifice everybody; the militants, friends and family. Today this government is working hard to rebuild the country. When two things are broken mending is not easy. Whether you are a politician or not, when a country is in danger you have to point that out.
You have been passionately singing about Jerusalem, so much impact on many people. What would be your response if somebody tells you Jerusalem belongs to both Palestine and Israel, would you be an activist for this cause?
Coming to the Palestine Israel issue that issue is too big for me. My contribution is to encourage peace.
Would you agree if Jerusalem could be divided between the two countries?
I don’t know.
What is your personal opinion?
I can’t give you my personal opinion about Jerusalem. I love Jerusalem; that’s what I know. Should Jerusalem be divided or not? My mouth is too small for that and I do not want to get into that. But all I can say is that I have hope that one day there will be peace between Israel and Palestine.