RFI/Musique: It's been twenty years since your first album, Jah Glory, was released in Africa. Is the title of your new album - Merci ("Thankyou") - intended as some sort of epilogue or farewell?
Alpha Blondy: No, absolutely not. The fight's far from over - in fact, it feels like it's just begun! The title's more a way of saying thanks to everyone who's been involved, from near or afar, in helping me build my career. Thanks go to my detractors as well because bad reviews and harsh critics have helped me along the way too. They've helped me correct faults in my work and hone my style. And, last but not least, this is my way of saying thankyou to God too, because without Him none of this would have happened.
Your songs and the remarks you make off record always seem to revolve around the idea of fighting and struggle… Why is that?
Life's a struggle - and it's one that's never over! The way I see it, you have to keep up an on going struggle with yourself in order to move forwards and improve all the time. I don't think the business of learning and growing ever really ends! But there's another important fight going on in my life too, of course, and that's the fight against poverty, injustice and dictatorship. And, believe me, that's a fight where there's absolutely no let-up! Take one of my new songs, Politruc, for example, that's a song which is very much about keeping up the fight. It's a song where I send out a message to all my 'brothers' facing social injustice in their lives. It's a song about telling people not to give up hope, not to give in when they come across obstacles on their route. Let's face it, entire generations have been sacrificed in these economic times - parents are out of work, kids have no future and the education system is in no state to help them. On Politruc I urge people to stand up and fight because what's happening is they're being refused an essential right - the right to lead a decent life!
There's another song on the new album too - a song called Le Feu ("Fire") - which is intended as a public warning against politicians, all politicians in Ivory Coast across the board. I'm sick of the political classes putting their personal quarrels before the people who are suffering grinding poverty and misery. It's awful - the people who are supposed to be in charge of finding solutions to national problems are caught up in personal ego problems that have nothing to do with anyone but themselves!
French rap group Saïan Supa Crew guest on another track on your new album called Wari (Money). What message were you trying to get across on this particular track?
Well, contrary to the famous saying, I believe that money can buy happiness - but the sort of happiness money buys is an ephemeral one. Real happiness in life doesn't come from money; it comes from love. Money will end up slipping through your fingers one day, but I believe the love people hold in their hearts for you can be eternal. What I was trying to do with Wari really was span a certain generation gap. I spoke to my record company about (getting a group who would appeal to younger music fans involved) and they suggested a bunch of British and American artists. But I decided I preferred to have a bit of French-speaking input and I ended up inviting Saïan Supa Crew on board. The group really impressed me with their spirit, their energy and the speed with which they adapted to my music.
There's another French guest star on your new album too: Ophélie Winter. How did that collaboration come about?
I had a song - Who Are You? - where I wanted to call on the United Nations and make a statement about landmines. I knew Princess Diana had been involved in the anti-landmine fight before her death so I wanted to use a female voice. Ophélie Winter accepted my invitation to join me in the studio and help get the message across.
Alongside the hard-hitting, thought-provoking songs on your new album, there are a number of other tracks which are much lighter and upbeat in spirit - such as Zoukefiez-moi, for instance.
Well, I don't think music is just about putting messages across - our job is to spread a little joy and happiness and give people something to dream about as well! I knew I wanted to include a really danceable song on the new album. It was like my mission was 'how do I go about getting reggae onto club dancefloors?' Zoukefiez-moi was also a way of acknowledging my 'brothers' in the Antilles, as well. I got such a warm reception when I went and played out there that I really wanted to pay tribute to my Antillais fans somewhere down the line. That's why I included a line in Lingala in the song - it was the Congolese singer Bibi Den’s who helped me with that.
What do you think about the recent collapse of Air Afrique, an airline which for many people was a living symbol of 'Panafricanism' on an economic level?
I think anyone could have seen that coming really! When you have a situation where governments take out loans and don't pay them back, where people don't pay their contributions - and when the people who were in power Monday are chucked out on Tuesday! - I don't think anyone can claim they're surprised when things get into a mess like that.
The Forum for National Reconciliation in Côte d'Ivoire recently called for Allassane Dramane Ouattara (the former prime minister) to be officially recognised as Ivorian. Where do you stand on this issue?
I think the concept of "Ivoirité" (being a native-born Ivorian) has become the political equivalent of AIDS in Côte d’Ivoire. These days everyone's terrified of the word "Ivoirité"! I think one of the good things about the Forum was that it enabled Ivorians to vomit up everything that had been sticking in their guts and spit out all their venom once and for all. It was a bit like undergoing collective therapy really! One thing's for sure, the Forum helped politicians get a real insight into the "Ivoirité" malaise that's currently undermining our nation. One of the results of the Forum for National Reconciliation is that normally Mr Ouattara should be able to stand as a candidate in the next presidential elections (in 2005) just like everyone else.
Do you think that, generally speaking, the situation in Côte d’Ivoire has improved?
Well, now that we've had the Forum, I think there's a light at the end of the tunnel and a certain optimism in the air. If we manage to solve the current political crisis – which, in my opinion, all boils down to the Ouattara affair – I believe Côte d’Ivoire could find its way back to economic success. The President of Côte d'Ivoire would certainly do well to apply the resolutions the Forum came up with to combat tribalism. Anyone – and by that I mean anyone, policeman, civil servant, whatever – found guilty of an act of tribalism should be brought before the justice system. I believe the social fabric, the unifying thread that holds the whole country together, is threatened by the small number of dangerous xenophobes who make their presence felt in our society.
Have you seen Eliane de Latour's film Bronx Barbès - a thought-provokingly lucid fiction about Abidjan's ghettos?
No, I've only seen extracts from it. I've met Eliane de Latour, though, and I think what she's trying to do is brilliant. For once someone's interested in showing something other than a cliché folk version of "l'Afrique calebasses". Latour's film shows what Africa's big urban agglomerations are like and gets to the heart of what's really happening in Africa right now.
You recently became involved with "Reporters Sans Frontières" (an organisation defending the freedom of the press). And you took a very public stance over the death of Norbert Zongo, the Burkinabé journalist and editor of L'Indépendant, who was murdered in Burkina Faso on 13 December 1998 while investigating the disappearance of a driver who worked for the President's brother. Have you been approached by other organisations since then?
Yes, I have. Pascal Obispo is involved with a fund-raising organisation for handicapped children and they recently sent me a letter about kids affected by Down syndrome. My manager and I are looking at how we can get involved with the project and see what we can do to help. I've also heard that "Handicap International" are interested in getting in touch with me because of the song Who Are You?
What subject do you currently feel most concerned about in the international news?
The Israel/Palestine conflict. Sometimes I really feel like politicians in Europe and the United States are just sitting back and watching the conflict as if it were a boxing match. When one of the fighters gets a really bad knock, they stop the match, clean him up a bit, throw him back in the ring and sound the bell for the next round! I believe European politicians should take a much firmer stand. They should use their influence to demand that Israeli forces pull out of the occupied territories and put pressure on Arafat to stop the suicide bombers. After that they should demand the United Nations bring in peace-keeping forces while moderate leaders engage in negotiations. As things stand at the moment no-one's listening to the moderates, it's the extremists who rule the roost. I believe Israel has a right to security and Palestine has the right to exist.
Doesn't Alpha, the reggae warrior and eternal fighter, ever feel like stopping and laying down his arms for a while?
I never get depressed or discouraged if that's what you mean - it's not in my temperament! I grew up as the eldest of seven kids in my family and, believe me, I was never allowed to give in and give up!
Is there any chance of you teaming up for a duo with Tiken Jah Fakoly at some point?
Our paths don't ever cross really. It's more a case of travelling along parallel roads, you know… One thing's for sure, though, I'm currently involved in launching a whole bunch of young Ivorian musicians onto the scene and believe me, these guys play some very, very good reggae. I'm involved with helping new musicians like Hamed Farras, Ismaël Isaac and Fadaldey. Their albums are distributed by my record company (Nouvelle Jat Music) and I'm currently trying to find major labels in Europe interested in trying to help these young talents break through.
You're playing a major concert at the Olympia in Paris on 15 May. Are there any plans to have special guest stars appear on stage with you like they did at Bercy Stadium (in October 2000)?
If his hectic schedule allows it, I'd really like to invite my 'brother' Lokua Kanza along. Lokua is a really great musician. I really respect what he does - and I love his voice! He's Congolese, Rwandan - and Ivorian too, in fact, because he actually spent part of his life growing up in Côte d'Ivoire!
Interview: Patrick Labesse.
Translation: Julie Street
Homepage Picture: A.Canus/EMI
Alpha Blondy Merci /EMI Music France
Translation : Julie Street