Does Bob Marley still inspire African artists?

By Léo Pajon
Posted on Monday, 17 May 2021 06:48

Guineans celebrate the 20th anniversary of Bob Marley's death on 11 May 2001. Chip HIRES/Gamma-Rapho via Getty

Alpha Blondy and Tiken Jah Fakoly are just two of the many African artists that have been inspired by late Jamaican reggae star Bob Marley’s music.

Does Bob Marley still inspire African artists? It seems a strange question to ask if you’ve been listening to the hits that are played over and over again on the TV station Trace Africa. Reggae music is hardly ever played on the radio, as it seems that people now prefer to listen to other genres such as hip-hop, Afrobeats, coupé-décalé and RnB.

From Côte d’Ivoire…

Alpha Blondy is one of Côte d’Ivoire’s most prominent reggae singers. In an interview, during which he spoke about himself in the third person, Blondy said that “Alpha Blondy was able to do his job as a singer because Bob Marley had existed. Bob Marley is the sun, whereas Alpha Blondy is just a little star in the reggae sky.

The Ivorian star did covers of some of Marley’s most famous songs, such as J’ai Tué le Commissaire, which was a slightly lazy adaptation of I Shot the Sheriff. He even recorded a version of Yitshak Rabin with the Wailers at the original Tuff Gong studio in Kingston.

By doing so, Blondy felt that he was showing his love for the king of reggae and spreading his message of anti-racist hope. The singer and UN ambassador also launched a radio station called Alpha Blondy FM in 2015 that plays music by both seasoned and young reggae artists.

Tiken Jah Fakoly is another reggae star from Côte d’Ivoire and one of Blondy’s former rivals. However, after receiving death threats, he was forced to move and has been living in exile in Mali since 2003.

Muslims think of Mohammed every day, we think of Bob Marley,” he said in an interview with HuffPost. He says that it was an English-speaking man from Ghana who explained the Jamaican’s message to him, one which he full heartedly agreed with. From then onwards, he launched his singing career.

He covered several of his idol’s songs, namely War and Get up, Stand up, and also copied his stage manner. For instance, when he performs he often does little jumps, feet together, which contrast with his large build.

But most importantly, he has adopted Marley’s mission of raising awareness. He has also created a radio station called Radio Libre Fakoly, which plays Jamaican-influenced music.

Other Ivorians who have taken up Marley’s legacy include Ismaël Isaac, Beta Simon, Serge Kassi and Kajeem, who were all born in the 1960s.

…to Senegal and Guinea

Reggae still has a few holdouts outside of Côte d’Ivoire. For example, Meta Dia, who is based in Senegal and began his musical career rapping, decided to try his hand at reggae during a visit to New York. He is still touring with his band The Cornerstones and collaborated with Damian Marley, one of Marley’s most talented sons.

Puppa Lëk Sèn has also moved from hardcore rap to a more reggae-like style. He says that his major musical influences are Marcus Garvey, who is considered somewhat of a prophet by the Rastafarians, and Marely, of course. His style, which is called “kanasou”, is a mixture of reggae, dancehall reggae and Afrobeat.

There is also Mohamed Mouctar Soumah (aka Takana Zion). He is due to release a new album on 4 June called Human Supremacy. He featured Bunny Wailer, a founding member of the Wailers who died on 2 March, on his previous album Good Life.

Ageing reggae

This line-up of names proves that reggae is still alive in Africa… but also ageing. In 10 years of interviewing musicians from the continent, this author has never met one under 30 who spontaneously quotes Marley.

This is in contrast to Fela, who is often copied by Nigerian singers, notably Burna Boy. The cool, non-violent image of the Rasta icon, which is less suited to the current period, is probably a factor. It is also a question of people’s evolving tastes, as roots reggae has been replaced in Jamaica by more muscular genres, from ragga to hip-hop.

Yet reggae culture continues to permeate African societies. Firstly, because Marley’s albums were generally listened to by the parents of today’s young artists, even the most unexpected ones. For instance, the hardcore rapper of Congolese origin Kalash Criminel heard the singer’s hits when he was a child.

Secondly, because the Rastafari movement is still valid in today’s world. Babylon can be likened to the corrupt African state, to capitalism, or to the predatory West. It is therefore not entirely surprising that the Balai Citoyen movement in Burkina Faso was founded by Smockey, a rapper, and Sams’K Le Jah, a reggae singer.

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