From backstage at Africa Oye 2018, Manchester-based broadcaster (and good friend) Geli Berg and I got to interview the Ghanaian reggae singer and activist Rocky Dawuni. Here’s the interview, with tracks from Rocky’s 2015 album, Branches of the Same Tree – the album that won him the accolade of being the first Ghanaian artist to be nominated for a Grammy Award.
The weather may not have been as pleasant as it could have (I should’ve known the heatwave wouldn’t last; this is England, after all), but that didn’t stop Africa Oyé 2018 from being one of the best ones I’ve attended – either as a reviewer or as a guest DJ.
I do enjoy wandering about Sefton Park (especially when the weather’s good – but we’ll say no more about that), and the opportunity to spin a few tunes for the assembled masses is always welcome. I had a great time on Saturday interviewing the Ghanaian singer and activist Rocky Dawuni and the Senegalese singer Marema.
My DJ set on the Sunday afternoon was one of the most personal sets I’ve ever played. Having realised a few weeks earlier that I would be DJing on Father’s Day (my first Father’s Day without a father), I’d decided to turn my DJ set into a tribute to my dad.
I kicked off the set with an old favourite of Dad’s: ‘Joromi’ by the legendary Nigerian guitarist Sir Victor Uwaifo. Later on, I played a track called ‘Harmony’ by rapper/beatboxer/playwright Homecut (aka Testament), taken from his album No Freedom Without Sacrifice. Over a nice Highlife rhythm (the kind Dad really liked back in the day), Testament tells the story of his life growing up with a Ghanaian mother and an English father. His parents never categorised their offspring as ‘mixed race’; instead they described them as being ‘harmony’. Being in an interracial marriage myself, whenever I hear this song, I like to think that one day, it’ll be my kids writing poetry about their upbringing and sharing it with the world. Also, the song namechecks ET Mensah, who was one of Dad’s favourite artists. I think he would have liked that. With ‘Joromi’ representing the past and ‘Harmony’ the future, we had a little ‘circle of life’ thing going.
Next on the DJ stage was my good friend Geli Berg, aka DJ Mayeva. She turned the “awww” factor up to 11 during her set by introducing my wife Karen and I as “a lovely couple whose wedding I played at last year” and dedicated a song to us. Suddenly it felt really sunny.
In between doing interviews, taking pictures and, of course, DJing, I did manage to catch a few of the live sets. Orchestre Poly Rhythmo were brilliant, all dressed in red and white, they crossed genres seamlessly and vibed really well with each other. Sona Jobarteh on Saturday was cool too, wielding her massive kora like Thor’s hammer. Kasai Masai’s soukous grooves got everyone dancing. And Sunday’s headliners, Inner Circle, were out of this world. I can’t think of a single reggae song that was popular in the 90s which didn’t find its way into their set in some form. An awesome live act – but then they have been doing this for 50 years.
And that was my Africa Oyé 2018. See you in Liverpool next year…
A few days ago, I made my second appearance at Paris Lit Up: a cool, slightly anarchic, gathering of poets, writers and assorted other creative types (mostly English-speaking ones) who spend Thursday evenings reading – or otherwise performing – to each other in a bar called Culture Rapide.
The first time I went, I read War, Blood Diamonds, and Now the Ebola Virus – a piece I wrote for the Greenbelt Festival’s website in 2014. This time round, I decided to share some more thoughts on the experiences of a Sierra Leonean living overseas. And so I wrote a piece specially for Paris Lit Up, which I titled the Trials of the JC. Here it is:
Weird things happen to a Sierra Leonean on re-entry after spending any amount of time in the First World. For starters, nobody seems to want to converse with you in the native languages any more. The number of times I’ve gone into a shop in Freetown, and ended up yelling at the shopkeeper – “Man, ah beg – talk Krio to me! PLEASE – NO MORE ENGLISH!!”
You walk along the street, minding your business, enjoying the heat, and you notice someone giving you a friendly smile. You smile back – I mean, it would be rude not to. So he says hello. “Yay! I’ve made a new friend!” you think to yourself. So you say hello back… and then he replies with: “Dollar or pounds?” They never say “Euro”. Missing a trick there, if you ask me…
Encounters like this happen every time you set foot out of your door. Eventually you realise what’s happened: You, my friend, have become a JC.
Yes – a JC. That’s the special name the locals in Sierra Leone have for me and my kind.
JC. Just Come. Just two letters, but they carry a lot of weight. To be fair, everyone from overseas who comes to Sierra Leone is a JC. But the word takes on a whole extra level of meaning when it’s applied to people like me. People who have Sierra Leone in our blood, but clearly haven’t lived here for a very long time – or maybe never lived here at all. Your JC status becomes apparent the moment you step off the plane at Lungi Airport. Now that I have a nice green passport – dual citizenship rocks – I don’t get the dirty looks at immigration any more. But I’m still expected to tip folks for smiling at me.
But the real fun begins when you hit the mainland and start to mingle. There was this one time my two uncles took me to a nightclub. They waited until we were seated round a table, a thousand watts of Afrobeats blasting in our ears, and then one of them pulled me to one side and said: “Oh, George – the rule here is that the JCs buy the drinks for the homebased.”
Ah, lovely. If your ‘homebased’ ass came to London, I’d consider you a guest and I’d buy drinks for you. Now you’re telling me that I’M the guest and I have to buy drinks for the host?!?
It always amazes me how quickly people can tell that you’re a JC. Alright, maybe we do give ourselves away when we get into a taxi and put the seatbelt on. And walking about supping from a bottle of Evian you just bought from a supermarket; nobody else does that. I can see that now. But even when you don’t do any of those things, the locals can still pick you out from a mile away. Them’s some mad skills there.
To be fair, those skills aren’t restricted to Sierra Leoneans. I can recall sitting on a beach in Gambia once, and having an unsolicited conversation with one of those fly guys who comb Gambia’s beaches looking for tourists to hook up with:
“So, you’re from England, yeah?”
“No, I’m from Sierra Leone.”
“Yes, but what part of England are you from?”
HOW THE HELL DOES HE KNOW – AND WHY WON’T HE GIVE UP!!
At first, I resented being called a JC. “How dare you!” I used to think. “How dare you belittle a huge, formative chunk of my life? I may not have been born here, but I came here as a child and left here as a man. I haven’t ‘just come’; this is my home too!”
I’m not sure I went through all seven stages of grief, but I can definitely say that I’ve moved on from anger and have arrived at acceptance. I now hold my head up and say my name is George, and I’m a JC. JC and proud.
But even though I accept that I’m a JC, I’m not buying the drinks when we go to a club. It’s the principle. I’m your guest, for God’s sake…
“Cancer shouldn’t be a death sentence. It isn’t a death sentence in the West; why should it be one in Sierra Leone?”
Who’s asking? Her name’s Cremelda Pratt, and she’s the founder of Thinking Pink: an NGO dedicated to fighting breast cancer in Sierra Leone.
A Business Administration graduate with a major in Marketing, Cremelda lived in the USA and worked for the Federal National Mortgage Association (‘Fannie Mae’) until a trip home for a holiday in 2008 set her on a new path.
“I’d travelled via Accra,” she recalls. “I noticed that there was a lot of breast cancer awareness in Ghana, just as there was back in the US. But when I arrived in Sierra Leone, there was nothing. And yet I knew that friends of mine had died from breast cancer.”
In 2012, Thinking Pink’s office opened in Freetown’s city centre. In its first two years, some 3,000 women (and a handful of men) walked through their doors. More than half of them had some form of breast cancer.
“We saw girls as young as 12 and 13 with lumps,” Cremelda says. “A 21-year-old had a mastectomy with no reconstructive surgery. Losing a breast is a big deal. And dealing with that with no reconstructive surgery or even a mastectomy bra is devastating. I’d see the tears every day, and I’d cry with them.”
And then Ebola hit. “Breast cancer basically got ignored during the Ebola outbreak,” Cremelda says. “Early detection became late detection; late detection became death. Since the outbreak ended, we’ve been seeing three to five people a day. We’ve noticed a surge amongst younger women; we’re seeing a lot of college students. A lot of teenagers too.
“I want to see a day when we have a dedicated cancer hospital, rather than the current situation where we only have one mammogram in the whole country, no oncologists, and cancer patients are in general wards in our main hospitals. We want to see palliative care happen too. Why should women suffer and die worthlessly? If we had a palliative care centre, at least people would have their dignity up until death.”
The challenges Thinking Pink faces are enormous. When I first met Cremelda (in 2014, in the very early days of the Ebola outbreak), Thinking Pink had a staff of five – including a patient liaison officer who was a breast cancer survivor herself. They’re now down to three. “I’ve had to drop people because there aren’t enough funds to pay wages,” she says, “and I’ve dipped too deeply into my widow’s mite. Without help to sustain the foundation, we might have to close doors. I could go back to the US, but where would these women go? We trust that things will turn around – but it’s on all of us. In Sierra Leone, women make up 51 percent of the population. We’ll keep knocking on doors, and hope that someday soon, somebody will hear us.”
Last night I went to see Emmanuel Jal performing at the Forge arts centre in Camden. As gigs go, it was an exciting performance in a space which at times seemed too small to contain all the energy that was raring to burst out. Support came from members of his backing band who have their own solo careers: vocalists Tanika Charles and Clinton ‘Roachie’ Outten, and Afrobeats artist and multi-instrumentalist Silvastone. Emmanuel’s own set consisted mostly of songs from his latest album, the Key.
I’ve known Emmanuel for quite some time; over 10 years, now I think of it. I was one of the first journalists here to help relay the heartbreaking yet uplifting account of his escape from life as a child soldier to the world (that would be in 2003, if my memory serves me well). I was at Westminster with my notebook and camera when he and several other Sudanese people and their supporters staged a ‘die-in’ as a protest against the war in Sudan. We bumped into each other again the first time he played Greenbelt, and at an African music festival in Trafalgar Square. But all that was a long time ago, so it was good to catch up with him again.
Before Emmanuel took to the stage, he and I retreated to a nearby restaurant where I threw a few questions at him…
So much has happened in your life since we last met up. Give us a rundown, please…
Yes, a lot of things have happened. The We Want Peace movement is still going, where I go to schools and share my experiences. I believe that when you share your experiences and stories, it’s like putting on a spotlight in a dark place. When you put a light on in a dark place, evil will perform less.
I’m also still doing charity work with Gua Africa – the charity that I founded, helping families and individuals overcome the effects of war and poverty. I’ve just been in a film called the Good Lie with Reese Witherspoon. And I now have five albums out; the latest one is called the Key.
The Key isn’t just an album. What else is there to the concept?
It all came about when I met Paul Lindley in South Africa. Paul’s the founder of Ella’s Kitchen, a company that makes baby food here in the UK. We started talking about food – but from that I came to realise that Paul cared about children, as I do. And so he suggested an idea: Why couldn’t we make an album about children’s rights? And so we started brainstorming ideas.
Later on, these ideas gave birth to an enterprise. And that was when we formed The Key is E. It’s going to fund small business owners who have a direct impact on children’s lives. It’s going to focus mostly on Africa. The Key is E will be a platform to connect people who want to invest in Africa; connecting the diaspora to local people with ideas, or any other investors who want to go to Africa.
I’ve been doing tours where all the proceeds from the tickets at the door go to the enterprise. All the proceeds from the album go to it too. As for the album, we had lots of people involved. Nile Rodgers did a song called ‘My Power’. Nelly Furtado’s on two songs, and then we have two songs from the album featured on a film soundtrack.
You’ve also started your own record label. What acts have you signed so far?
The label’s called Gatwich Records and it’s based in Canada. In terms of artists, at the moment there’s just me and my sister Nyaruach. But we’re looking to sign others. What we’re going to try to do is focus more on management. It’s not easy to make money from CD sales, so we’re trying to bring 360 deals in.
How did you find the writing process when you did your autobiography War Child?
It was a difficult thing to come out and tell the story. One of the most difficult things is, when you tell the story, who’s going to believe you? And because there’s a political side to it, you could get attacked. People will accuse you of lying.
The main questions are: who’s going to believe you, why are you doing it, what’s going to happen and will it create change? Those four Ws all have to be answered first. After I’d answered them, I just took the risk and wrote the book. But yes – telling it personally was difficult.
What’s this new film you’re in, and how are you finding the acting experience now that you have two films under your belt? The Good Lie is about the ‘lost boys’ of South Sudan who escaped, and how they survived. Some became child soldiers, and they finally made their way to the US. Reese Witherspoon’s in it, and I brought the musical and cultural aspect to it, together with other South Sudanese, we helped make it accurate. The writers did a fantastic job; the director was awesome. It’s an amazing project – and it was fantastic to have Reese Witherspoon humble herself and help put the message out.
The hardest acting experience for me was Africa United – the first film role I was ever given. It was hard because I was being told to act! But then, the role was that of a child soldier, so that made it easy. I was a soldier before, so I acted as if I was going to kill. Sometimes soldiers act when they’re threatening you.
One of your collaborators on this new album is Nile Rodgers. I’ve been a Chic fan for, like, forever; how did you get to link up with him?
When you’re walking your path and you keep on doing your work positively, you’ll meet a lot of positive people on the way. And that’s how I met Nile. I met him at a UN concert. From there, we kept in touch. He invited me to a We Are Family Foundation event; I supported him; he liked what I was doing – and so we ended up doing a song together.
Nile’s an amazing person. He’s like a mentor to many people. Whenever you meet Nile, he will always give you the support you need.
How are things in South Sudan at the moment?
Right now, South Sudan is in a difficult situation. I feel betrayed when I think about the situation, where the people we trusted – the people who fought for our freedom – pocketed our freedom. The war that’s happening in South Sudan now started as a disagreement between people in the same party. The president was questioned by some of the other party members, who said “we have corruption going on; we need to have accountability towards the people we’re leading and towards our party”. They said they needed to be transparent and put institutions in place that would protect all of us. Some of them also said they would like to be able to run for the presidency. That made the president angry – and he fired the entire cabinet.
When that happened, people started to speak out, and the president started putting them under house arrest. He broke the constitution and dissolved the electoral system. His biggest threat was his vice-president, so what he did was arm members of his own ethnic group within the city and made them the presidential guard. That was what led to the conflict. Later, he accused the cabinet that he’d fired of trying to stage a coup. His plan was to silence any opposition. When that failed, those who escaped discovered later that their families had been killed. A lot of young people got angry when this happened, and they thought it was a tribal war. Some of them attacked the government’s barracks; some carried out revenge attacks on people from the other tribes.
According to community research, about 20,000 Nuer people were killed in Juba. We’re talking innocent civilians here – women and children in their homes. My house was burnt down. Sixty people from my family got killed – including my brother and stepmother.
What saved the situation was the widow of Dr John Garang. She spoke on the radio and said, “Look – what happened in Juba is not good.” Her speech on the radio was what prevented the conflict from becoming a tribal one. I give her credit, because without her intervention, genocide could well have happened. A lot of innocent people would have died.
The situation is terrible. We have approximately two million displaced people; thousands killed… Our country spent a billion dollars on arms, while the UN is looking for 1.3 billion to fund the refugees that need food. But now I think both sides are beginning to come to their senses. I hope they find a peaceful solution, and that all those involved in these killings are held accountable.
I know I haven’t done one of these for a while. It’s not because I ran out of famous Sierra Leoneans to write about or anything like that; it’s just… [Save the explanations and get on with it, mate]
If you follow the UK charts, then you probably know that Duke Dumont‘s club hit ‘Need U (100%)’ unseated Ant & Dec’s ‘Let’s Get Ready to Rhumble’ from the Number One slot yesterday (7 April). Guest lead vocalist on the song is the rising singer songwriter Aminata “Amy” Kabba, aka A*M*E*. So, who exactly is this young lady who’s helped rescue the charts from the tyranny of PJ & Duncan, I hear you ask?
Well, she was born in Freetown in 1994 – three years after the Sierra Leone civil war started, and three years before it hit Freetown. Her mum was a hairdresser with her own salon; as the war intensified, the salon was burnt down and Amy (then only eight) moved to the safety of the UK.
In her new home, she joined her school choir. From there, she spread her creative wings, linking up with another singer-songwriter, MNEK. One of their collaborations (a song called City Lights) caught the attention of Gary Barlow, who ended up signing her to his label, Future Records.
Last November, the Congolese rapper Baloji paid London a flying visit for a gig at the Village Underground in Shoreditch.
It was a hip hop gig, all right; the swagger and all the other elements that make up a good hip hop act were all present and correct. But it was so much more besides. It was oldies night for African music fans of a certain age; it was a political rally… and it a good old party, with a charismatic host and a very tight band.
I was due to interview Baloji the next day, just before he hopped on a Eurostar train back to Belgium where he lives. Unfortunately, certain wires got crossed somewhere along the line in the booking process, and I ended up having to do the interview in the taxi that took him from his hotel in Whitechapel to St Pancras station where he was catching the train. With London lunchtime traffic, the ride took just under 20 minutes – just about enough time for him to give me the run-down on his music, his acting aspirations, his concerns about his country and his hopes for the future.
Here, for your listening pleasure, are some edited highlights of that interview – plus snippets of tracks from Baloji’s album Kinshasa Succursale. Enjoy.