DJ Arafat: the enfant terrible from Abidjan who revolutionised coupé-décalé
The death of DJ Arafat on 12 August left Côte d'Ivoire in a state of shock. With his inimitable style, his inexhaustible energy and constant questioning, DJ Arafat broke the boundaries of coupé-décalé.
Journalist Mory Touré seems to be talking about a hard-drug courier when referring to him. “He knew how to break down the borders of a genre that was Ivorian,” he says. “He was everywhere, no one could do without him. I met him in Bamako, Burkina Faso… You could hear him even in a maquis in Lagos. On my web radio [Radio Afrika], it’s impossible not to include him in our playlists!”
In 2016 and 2017, DJ Arafat (33), real name Ange Didier Huon was named “Best Artist of the Year” at the Ivorian Coupé-Décalé Awards. He died in a road accident in Abidjan.
Moussa Soumbounou, Director General of Universal Music Africa, points out that the artist was fully aware of his international popularity. “If he joined Universal, it was also because it allowed him to reach several markets simultaneously. He was one of the biggest influencers on the continent, if only because of his millions of subscribers on the networks. A lot of people approached us to try to take advantage of this fan base. But he also wanted to exist outside Africa – he was returning from a 20-stop tour of Europe when he died.” This bid to establish himself in the West was on the way to being realized, thanks to a bold policy of appearing with musicians such as Dadju and the Congolese-French rapper Naza.
Soumbounou says that Arafat had an inimitable style and inexhaustible energy for change. “After titles like ‘Jonathan’, he changed the rhythm of coupé-décalé, merged it with electronic sounds, changed the way he sang, created a more raped phrasing, and rhythmic language.”
Not to mention his way of dancing, which was far from that of fellow Ivoirians Molare or Douk Saga, and closer to a form of acrobatics, and with new concepts constantly being added. “Drummer, keyboardist, composer, arranger, Arafat was able to sing in very different registers. For example, reggae, with ‘Je gain temps’,” says Soumbounou. “He was constantly working in the studio he had at home. He could go very fast! The first album he made for us was released in four months!”
His fiery temperament sometimes worked against him. “Working relationships could be complicated because he was sensitive, but things were always getting better,” recalls his international manager, Charles Tabu. “I remember that in 2014, when we arrived in New York to shoot a video with Davido, we almost got into a fight over a really stupid story: Davido had taken the hotels for us, and Didier [DJ Arafat’s real name] was too proud to [have his hotel] paid for by him. He went left, I went right. And the next day, we worked together as if nothing had happened. We must not forget that Didier grew up on the street; he needed a lot of love. Every day, I had him on the phone, I had to scold him, advise him. His relatives became his family, and it was often just a matter of saying, ‘I love you too’.”
An indisputable flair
Some disputes, however, have lasted longer. “When he got into trouble with A’salfo, doors closed,” claims one event personality. “Subsequently, there were attempts at conciliation, and A’salfo even reached out to him several times, but Arafat, when he was wounded, preferred to take care of himself.” Contracts were also not honoured, such as the Masa 2014 contract, which made promoters – and others – wary.
“We were boycotted by everyone: sponsors, radio stations… The last tour, Moto Moto, was on our funds,” says DJ Arafat’s communication manager, Yves Roland Jay Jay.
So, what saved the artist? Many say it was the unconditional support of his fans and his unquestionable genius.
“He never sent me a song asking me, ‘What do you think?’” notes Soumbounou. “He would say to me, ‘It’s my last hit, it’s the last concept… Don’t worry, you have to release it on such and such a date’.”
The head of Universal Music Africa believes that the star, for the moment, has no heir in coupé-décalé. “I wish for the movement to renew itself, and find a new artist of DJ Arafat’s stature, but such a person may not yet have been born.”
This article first appeared in Jeune Afrique.