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Rokia Traore’s Soulful Voice on Music, Mali and Longevity

Rokia Traore, 41, is an internationally renowned artist of Malian origins. Holder of a degree in Anthology and Musicology, Traore started off by seeking a career in journalism, writing about African cultures. During that time, she also wrote lyrics and played the guitar. As fate would have it, an impromptu performance during which she sang on one of her radio shows in Mali during the 1990s attracted encouraging feedback from listeners demanding more. “I remember laughing about it – “no, I’m not a singer”- I would say. Fifteen (15) years later, I’m here talking to you about music as my profession,” she said when we talked.

In 2013, Rokia Traore was ranked amongst Forbes Africa Top 40 Stars.

Rokia Traore’s words in the following interview for DUNIA Magazine are deeply expressive of the love, hope and vision that she has for humanity, especially for Africa and is working to achieve through her work as an artist. “And it is not simply because Africa is my continent that I love it here, but it’s also because as a human being, that’s the attitude I have – I like discovering, I like trying new things. And I like bringing through what I have imagined… and Africa is the right continent for that,” she says.

As is with most all interviews, DUNIA Magazine provided Traore the interview protocol ahead of the interview date. When she picked up the phone at the other end of the line, the ensuing flow picked up like a conversation that you’d have with an old friend, casual in nature but deep to the core and rejuvenating to the heart…

Rokia Traore AlbumRokia Traore: I’m back and forth in Europe, but I’m basically in Bamako right now. There’s more troubles reported in the media than the reality of what’s going on, unfortunately. The real cry is our love for Mali … yes there’s suffering because of the consequences of war.

As Africans we need to bring opportunities to Africa ourselves. Yes, life here, especially when you’ve lived in Europe and other developed countries, is very complicated. But there are many positive sides as well. There are things to do and definitely more opportunities because everything has to be done. So it’s not only because I think I bring something to Africa that I am based here, but also, Africa brings me something.

Of course there’s corruption – that’s not a lie, it’s true. It happens every day and the consequences are felt in everyday life. There are many complicated things to deal with when you decide to live here, but also, there is so much that this continent can bring you when you see the positive side of things. For me it’s a very interesting experience.

Some of your readers may know that I did not grow up totally here, and of course I can definitely stay in Europe. But I have made a choice to bring projects here, to carry out projects here and to work with artists here. The experience of working here is unique and brings me something I cannot find anywhere else.

There are not so many examples of Africans that are staying [on the continent] and managing projects themselves and having creative perspectives. But that has been changing over the last ten years as Africans are beginning to think differently. In general, however, we have more people from France who come and have projects in Africa and show us a way. But yes, that is changing naturally.

DUNIA Magazine (DM): You are concurring with popular opinion that Africa is a continent on the rise. What in your opinion do Africans & their leaders need to get right in order to continue to move the continent forward?

Rokia Traore: – Honesty. Be honest with ourselves and to be less proud [arrogant]. I am not saying not to have a nice idea of yourself, no; it is important to respect yourself, knowing – what you can do and what you will not do is important for respect. But when you are too proud, that makes you think too much of yourself and thinking of yourself more than a whole system is problematic. We must be humble, and understand that we are simply small parts of a whole organization.

And each of these small parts is very important. Each of us can bring something … understanding that we have to make this Africa together. We must stop seeing ourselves as too important, people who cannot be flexible, who have to fight wars because we cannot compromise. Because someone did something to us, we must do something back to him, or his tribe, just to show that we are stronger.

What are some of your core values?

Rokia Traore: One of the very first ones for me is honesty – be honest with yourself and with others. Everything is based on that. It may be easy to say it, but not easy to be. It sounds simple, but we’re in a world where nothing is that simple. My attitude with Africa for example, has nothing fake about it.

Also an important value in life is to try what you want to do. I say “trying” instead of ‘doing’ because in general, you don’t know whether your dream will be possible or not, so just try it and discover whether it is possible or not. The most important to me is not the success; it is the discovery … to make something real, something great. It is something so deep, so strong to feel that “I managed to do it, step by step; I am the one who built it”. That is more important than thinking,“Ok, I built it, it is the biggest and the highest.”

It’s not about how big you’re going to be, but how far you’re going to go. It must be further than what you did before. And maybe that would make you feel pleasure to see that you are still going ahead, that you are still trying and getting what you want step by step, instead of thinking that it is the highest or the biggest. If you start thinking in absolute terms of what you must do, things in my opinion start being a source of stress, a source of fear, rather than pleasure and greatness.

These are the values that are most important to me.

Therefore, success to you is a matter of the distance travelled?

Rokia Traore: Yes. It is how far I can go, not how big I can be. Because you’ll never be the biggest anyhow; there will always be someone bigger than you are, and you’ll never be big enough for yourself. You’ll be always running after the opportunity to be bigger. But how far you can go is always important because it shows you how strong you can be, how courageous you can be and when you turn back and remember where you started from, there’s nothing more interesting than that.

How does this definition translate into your longevity and success as an artist?

Rokia Traore: I’m more interested in what I am learning, and what I can still learn and what I have learned, than who I am today.

When I released my first album, the lady told me, “congratulations, you just sold 35,000 copies of your first album … that’s something really great. It’s not so often that a first album of African music can sell so much. You came from nowhere, nobody knew you before and your first album sells 35,000 copies after 18 months”. And I said, “…is it so important?”

I didn’t know it was that important. I never realized, because to me, music was the base, the essence of my life. I knew that anything I do would be in connection with music, but I couldn’t imagine that I would be a musician myself because I didn’t have any [formal] training. I’ve never been to any kind of music school, so I couldn’t pretend that I could have a professional career.

I have never thought of how successful or which kind of star I’m going to be. For me it’s not about that. It’s about sharing projects with other artists. And during the first 10-12 years of my career, that’s what I did. Because I had never been in bands, I needed to learn, to share projects with others.

And so I was glad to work with the Chronis Quartet, Bill Frisell, to work with directors in France and other European countries. Each of these experiences was for me so great and like, WOW … this is one more dream I’m able to make real. That is most important.

Who are some artists who inspire you?

Rokia Traore: I have loved so many great artists. Fortunately, we have so many great artists from everywhere, all around the world. Of course there are great Malian singers, West African singers and African musicians, and also musicians from the rest of the world.

I started travelling when I was very young, then I started listening to music with my dad who used to be a great fan of music, and who used to listen to all kinds of music, and I discovered with him great artists from West Africa like Solikanjo Kwete, Ernesto Djedje from Ivory Coast, or a younger artist like Salif Keita, of course Angelique kidjo, and Bob Marley, and all these British rock stars, American blues and classical jazz and French music, classical music such as Mozart. I grew up listening to everything. Maybe that’s why I love music so much. Musicians were such special people in my eye I could never imagine that one day I would also be a musician.

You obviously have experienced working with people from different cultural backgrounds. How do you navigate cultural differences to create harmony with those you work and interact with daily?

Rokia Traore: In my work, I need to be surrounded by people from everywhere. I need to have around me the diversity of the world and to feel it in everything I do because I am so amazed by that … the difference, how it is beautiful, and how it can be terrific the way we see each other. This is amazing to me. It is my source of inspiration. It’s a work environment I need.
I like collaboration. For me it is not something difficult to be with people from different cultures, it is a necessity, it is something I feel good with, I learn from the others when they’re different, they can bring me something because they’re different.

Now that we have this opportunity to hear directly from her citizen, please tell us about life in Mali.

Rokia Traore: Bamako is becoming more and more a big city. But despite that the people are glad to be nice to you especially when you’re a friend. Of course, like everywhere you may have some people who are nasty, or can be aggressive with foreigners, as I say it’s a big city, but basically, it’s a very pleasant city and Malians are nice people. That’s why the war and all the other things which happened were surprising even to Malians themselves. You can see how a difficult economic situation and a complicated political situation can change people.

We leant so much from what happened … and, yes me too I’m interested in serving with what’s going to happen now, how things are going to change and how mentalities are going to change after what happened. We didn’t expect at all.

Mali was recently devastated by civil war. What are the lessons of war from your perspective?

Rokia Traore: For countries where war hasn’t happened yet… take things into consideration and never forget because once it’s there, it destroys a lot of things. The fact that war could happen in a country like Mali where people are not violent… The situation in the North of Mali was always there for various reasons. But to have it become so complicated was due to different things, among which the situation in Libya and all the Islamists who came into the north of Mali. That’s why I’m saying we were surprised because this was not a Malian problem. It is a problem which came from somewhere else, and it added to a relatively small problem which we used to have with rebels, and with people who were angry and would like more consideration from the government as it is everywhere in Africa.

We must do things in a certain way for our governments to understand that they have to take care of us. As presidents and leaders they have commitments towards the people to fulfill. But being violent is not a good thing. This is something other countries should pay attention to. It can happen anywhere. I think the whole country has been pushed 10 years, 15 years back. That is not something anyone would hope for their country and that is not something I hope for any other country especially in Africa.

We recently learnt about the Foundation Passerelle created by you which aims to support and develop a viable music/art environment for artists. Please tell us more about it.

Rokia Traore: We started with Malian artists in 2009. And Last year was the first time we had auditions with artists coming from 5 different countries in West Africa. And from these auditions, I have chosen a drummer and a base guitarist I am working with now. We’ve started touring together for the last part of my tour on this last album.

I think it’s about how to bring opportunities in Africa. And for me too, it’s a way to see how to develop projects here and try experiences here in Africa. Sharing projects with all these different artists teaches me so much. So yes, it’s a cultural project, it’s about our African culture. I am convinced that culture is much more important than the importance we grant to it for now, unfortunately.

Education is probably one of the most important things in Africa and through culture we can educate not just in a country, but also teach, learn and be taught about others in different countries in Africa. I think one of the most important things in Africa today is the importance of learning more about us. We need to learn about self respect: understanding that you deserve more than going to Europe and staying there all your life; no longer accepting the killing of each other like we’re nothing; understanding that there’s no reason wars stay inside Africa all the time from part to part, that’s not normal.

And the best way to understand all which we are, and to understand what is our culture and that we used to have a culture even before colonization and we still have a culture, it’s even richer because what we got from colonization mixed with our original culture creates something beautiful. All of that comes to us by way of the work of artists – through music, through theatre, through movies, through visual arts. Through the arts and culture, it is possible to show Africans what Africa is on the positive side. It’s a pity that not much is being done for culture in Africa.

Closing thoughts…

Rokia Traore: – We have to keep going and trusting in Africa and in ourselves, not only because we’re from Africa but to show the continent as it is – beautiful … very simply. That does not mean that there are no other great continents or cultures. There are. But it is us who can show what Africa is, which is not shown most of the time through the media in the rest of the world.

Describe yourself in 3 words?

Rokia Traore: Oh my God this is very difficult … Probably – Woman, Mother and Lover.

In speaking of longevity, Ms Traore talked about collaboration as one of the keys to her success. Here’s a piece she did with the great Senegalese artist Youssou N’dour:

Rokia Traore’s website is

First published in DUNIA Magazine print, Fall 2014 edition
Interview conducted by Lema Abeng-Nsah, September 2014; Innocent Chia contributed in the editing of this article.
Lema is on Twitter: @LemaNsah.

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