An enduring European tradition
An interview with Berlin-based Sierra Leonean electronic musician Lamin Fofana on Europe's longtime fascination with African culture.
Lamin Fofana is a Sierra Leonean DJ and electronic music producer currently living and working out of Berlin, Germany. He runs the record label Sci-fi & Fantasy, and has a new solo album out on Italian label Hundebiss Records called Brancusi sculpting Beyonce (a vinyl edition will be released in January 2019).
Having moved to the US from Freetown in the late 1990s he is an artist with vast range of experiences that have been shaped by international migration. It’s thus no surprise that mobility has long been a part of his artistic exploration. His previous work, completed while living and working in New York City, referenced contemporary headlines around migration. However, after moving to Europe he’s finding there is a fatigue around reporting about the Mediterranean amongst Europeans. So he’s decided to take a long view on human movement around the world, looking back to the past since as he says, “we’ve all been moving around forever.”
Brancusi sculpting Beyonce is based on a Mike Ladd song from the album Negrophilia, a name itself borrowed from a book that explores the co-optation of African cultural artifacts by 1920s modernist European artists such as Pablo Picasso. Fofana’s interest in this legacy comes from his direct participation in the contemporary European art scene, and also having to navigate a not always comfortable existence as an African living in Germany and traveling throughout the European continent. Recently, I spoke with Fofana about his work and experiences. We covered a number of topics, but this excerpt focuses on the current popularity of African music in Europe. The interview is edited for clarity. (Listen to a longer excerpt of the conversation, along with excerpts from Fofana’s album on the latest episode of INTL BLK Radio.)
Lets talk a little about the stage for African music in Europe, so we can kind of reflect on the negrophilia conversation a bit more. So, Europe currently is the largest [foreign] market for what’s being called Afrobeats of Afro-trap, you know, contemporary Afropop coming out of whether it’s Lagos, Paris, London, or Accra. This is this moment where Africa has reached the European stage—it’s coming to the rest of the world, especially the Caribbean—but Europe is a particularly interesting case because of a lot of what we talked about: the racial politics, the history, the proximity to Africa, the economic imbalance, the history of colonialism, so what is your take?
My view is a lot more warped than the average music producer, because I’m thinking about the connections between calypso from Trinidad and Tobago in the 1930s and Sierra Leone, Ghana, and Nigeria in the 1950s and all of that exchange that was happening way back… Afrobeat has been here. It was here before and after Fela. And I have a suspicion that it will be here after MHD, Wizkid and Davido.
This is by no means a disrespect to them, but it has bubbled to a mainstream frenzy, and there is a European / American fascination with it. From the way I see it, I have a bit of suspicion with the mainstream fascination. I think people talk about Afrobeats, and its the current iteration of it, and it’s something to them just because Drake or Beyonce did a song or Diplo did a remix or something. Afrobeats will be here after that.
So you see that we’re in a moment where it’s a trend among the mainstream.
We’re in a moment! Yes! That’s what I’m trying to say. And no disrespect to all of those people. Especially, Davido and Wizkid who are amazing, MHD too. They might be here longer. But in the sense of this current fascination, I think it’s the same way the world is into K-Pop right now or something.
By the way, I like those people, but I’m not into looking for what’s fresh in Accra to exploit, or in Freetown or in Lagos. And that music is interesting, I love it, but like I said, I have my suspicion.
Even the stuff that’s coming out of London, like the Afrowave, there are so many other subgenres of Afrobeats. It’s nice, I like the house-y ones, I like all of them, but I’m just trying to say, all these brand new sub-genres frustrate me a little bit, because I know it’s nothing new, it was there. We were doing it, and we’re still doing it!
People are making a lot of money off it now though.
Well good for them.
One of my favorite recent projects is from Benjamin Lebrave who runs the Akwaaba label in Accra, with the producer Gafacci, they have a project called Jowaa, and they’re producing house and techno out of Accra. That’s interesting to me, until the mainstream takes it and calls it something new.
When you say people are profiting of it, there are certain people who are really making tons of money off of this.
But even outside of Africa in New York, London or Paris, these are African immigrant children and people from a working class background who are making this. So when mainstream fascination comes and it’s being played on the radio, you celebrate the few that make money. But, once people are collaborating with Drake and some international DJs, I don’t know, we should not embrace it as a success. They’ll move on to the next thing very soon.
So you don’t feel like it’s bringing any political bridges or changing the reality on the ground for Africans in Europe. Some of the experiences you’ve had you don’t think it’s changing…
If you want to check out an Afrobeats night, there are spaces where you can go, and clubs are booking African artists, people from Africa are coming through and playing European clubs and touring the world. In that sense it’s good that the culture is being celebrated. But at the same time, you have to really examine it. Not just, “yeah nice Wizkid is doing his thing, I like his clothing line!” or something. It’s deeper than that. And that is what is at its peak right now.
You don’t think it’s challenging… maybe not politics, but I think for me one of the most important political decisions any migrant has to make when you reach a new land, is the question of assimilation. They say “do as the Romans do,” but you know the tension is always, what do you retain from home, and what are the ways [you act here], and so do you think that the popularization of African culture or at least making Africa cool amongst young European people of all races is changing ideas of assimilation?
Yes! I mean, I don’t know about ideas of assimilation, but I think yes it’s celebrating African culture. As we say in the US it’s “Black Joy,” it’s beautiful! And I mean creating spaces where people can express themselves is a great thing.
A new way of belonging to German society…
Yes, absolutely! I think especially in a society that feels hostile to you all the time, [having open and safe spaces] that in itself is great! But, I can’t say that and then not say that the mainstream fascination with the current Afrobeats phase and craze…
There’s more at stake.
There’s more at stake! What are people taking and who’s walking home with the loot? That’s just where I’m at. And it’s important, it’s the reason why at this festival thing that I curated, that you guys played last year, people were struggling to try and get visas for some of the artists. And it’s kind of like you have to do the work, or else I cannot just be up there playing this music all the time, I have to contribute somehow. A little bit, as much as I can.
So you are, I would say, an African diasporan, you’re a member of the diaspora, you have a US passport, you’ve traveled and you have all these experiences, like myself, and people like us are largely the ones who are able to direct international conversations about the continent, if not even maybe shift them here and there back home. What does this cultural frame then say about diapsora, and maybe a little bit deeper what does it say about democracy, to you?
I think it’s a fucked up imbalance. I think one of my favorite compilations, that has the most ironic title from awhile back, I think it was from Ghana, titled “Songs about Leaving Africa” I don’t know if you remember that?
It has this character on it, and he’s suited up, and he’s got his shades on, and he’s got his suitcase, that’s what this question makes me think about. Like the constant looking over here [in Europe] sometimes.
And then, the thing about the current Afrobeats phase is that music from Africa, current fresh happening music from Africa is being played in New York nightclubs, in Berlin nightclubs. That’s pushing against that constant one-sided dialogue.
In the independent music industry there’s also a constant reaching for something that’s “more authentic” to the point where they can’t even find the authentic anymore, they just have to go and dig up old vinyls and reissue them. [The authentic] is right in front of us, it’s the music that’s being played by the kids over there now, by the kids in Freetown, by the kids in Accra.
What it says about democracy? Like I said, it’s a fucked up imbalance, and I think the current situation or the current popular fascination with Afrobeats at the same time is a double-edged sword.
So you mentioned Jowaa and so I guess I want to know what other scenes you are looking at or inspired by. Let’s talk a little bit about the alternative take on this Afrobeats thing, this more Afro-alternative [sound] coming out of Lisbon, or Jowaa, or even out of Uganda with Nyege Nyege Tapes, which is also a music festival. Could you talk a little bit about what your observations on those scenes are?
I think I saw the Ugandan label, at Berghain some weeks back, no some months back, awhile ago. They absolutely destroyed it.
It’s interesting because Simone Trabucchi of Hundebiss, who put out this release that we’re talking about is actually in Kampala right now because they invited him for a residency over there.
If children of African descent are producing fresh, happening music, that’s great. But I think the…
Do you think this is a positive development, do you think it’s more empowering to have these alternatives than just the mainstream Afrobeats, or do you think it’s the same kind of negrophilia that the cubists participated in?
Whenever African music gets out of Africa, there’s a level of that to it. Negrophlia, fetishization, exoticism…
Are those scenes kind of like an antidote for Afrobeats?
I mean, to be honest I prefer those scenes. If anything when we talk about techno, the most exciting electronic music is coming out of Lisbon and going [under]heard.
But the audiences aren’t necessarily… well maybe locally it’s empowering, but internationally, the audiences aren’t necessarily the African kid in London, working class, with immigrant parents…
But, these labels, in this current space, they do have a strong connection, especially in Lisbon, to the idea of neighborhood. The community is strong there, so it doesn’t feel like its something being removed and put on display.
The same thing that we were talking about, all the current iterations of Afrobeats happening in London and in Paris are things that African kids in Europe want to hear.
So my thing would be, the labels that have these infrastructures, that have these distribution networks, that are constantly going to dig up this obscure funk and soul to reissue them, there’s a market for it, but I think for what it is, that can be a lot more problematic than labels putting out fresh new music.
I kind of lost touch with Benjamin recently but when I first got to Berlin he was visiting and we sat down and talked for a bit, and we talked about Jowaa because I think they were getting into the idea for the project then. But we were talking about certain kinds of music that were popular in West Africa that kind of slip under the radar. Basically, the mainstream attention goes up and down. Afrobeats too is a thing that could be a big wave, but it’s not immune from something else capturing the imagination.
Well I think maybe another case study that has a bit more of a lifetime that we can analyze is gqom music. Where it went from a kind of underground scene in Durban, then it got attention in London, some labels in Europe started releasing it. Then it went a little more mainstream back home in South Africa, and then it became the sound of South Africa, then it was in the Black Panther soundtrack, and now Nigerians are making it. Right?
Ohh mannn… Extreme iterations!
Is it more empowering to have these independent labels that are searching for new fresh sounds, is it more empowering for African creatives or is it recreating…
An imbalance? Yes! It does, that’s why I’m trying to point out the people with infrastructure. People like DJ Lag tour, but I wish that people like that would get more attention.
This is not pitting Afrobeats against underground independent[s], but I think the attention and the frenzy with gqom went away a bit. And that’s because things in the global underground electronic music scene move faster. The distribution system is definitely inherently flawed, like the way things flow.
You can imagine, [you’re] a kid growing up in Durban or somebody growing up in Accra, and you’re making this obscure music that people appreciate in your neighborhood …
Or maybe don’t appreciate in your neighborhood.
Even worse, yeah.
And then you get this opportunity or get this email, you put something up on Soundcloud and some random person wants to release it and book you on a fifteen date European tour. That’s great!
But what would be better?
(Laughing) The question you’re asking, it requires like a fundamental rethinking of the global trade system and everything! I know it’s fucked up, but the way these systems are, it’s so entrenched.
Is it too much to ask for an independent musician, for us to create a fair distribution network, which can be heard from Durban or Johannesburg, Accra or Freetown and [someone can] show up and play five shows by booking a flight from Freetown?
We still live in an uneven world.
Yeah it’s so much more fucked up, this question you’re asking. If you think about the historical depth (laughs). When you think about these small independent music scenes, it’s like a tiny spec on the sensor of this shit!
Maybe we shouldn’t care so much and just enjoy the music?
No no no! I’m not saying that, I’m trying not to say that, but I’m also trying to say… it’s the struggle, basically why I’m running around in a pretzel…
Di money dey na Europe (The money is in Europe).
Di money dey na Europe. It’s the fundamental bind that our parents were in when they moved to Europe. You talk about opportunity, I ask myself this question and try not to get too far into [my] head, but people move to places, but the newness of those places, like my mom moving to New York City in the late 1980s…
We’re just figuring it out and you want us to question the trip? (laughs)
Right yes, the newness of those places wears out really fast. And then you start to begin to save because you want to move back.
I have to come up with formulations to express this kind of… it’s really much much deeper than what an obscure electronic music producer can give you. (laughs)