Cameroonian Blick Bassy, founder of The Jazz Crew and above all Macase, a leading Bantou-Groove band, handles pop with a painter’s touch, particularly since the start of his solo career in 2006. His basic palette is that of his roots, the traditional colours and light of his homeland, to which he adds traces of electro (increasingly present), groove and funk. But what he infuses most strongly into his albums are central themes with strong socio-political connotations.
In Madiba (2023), water is the discursive foundation, greatly channelled to an impressive panoramic effect thanks to a soundtrack with almost symphonic ambitions. On his previous album, 1958 (2019), he paid tribute to Ruben Um Nyobé, a hero of Cameroon’s anti-colonial struggle, but in truth, he took the opportunity to deepen the link with his own roots and identity.
A few days before his visit to the Festival International Nuits d’Afrique, as well as the Festival d’été de Québec, the singer, songwriter, producer, guitarist and percussionist, but also author, filmmaker and socio-political actor (he was recently appointed co-director of the Commission mémoire sur le Cameroun instituted by French President Emmanuel Macron) spoke to me not only about music but also about community, humanism and the importance of being part of the “Chain of the Living”. Explanations.
PAN M 360: Your albums take a militant, sociopolitical and consciousness-raising turn. Why and when did you first feel the need to get involved?
Blick Bassy: Back in the days of Macase, I always put forward a conscious approach to writing, to talk about the problems that prevent human emancipation. Since the start of my solo career, I’ve simply deepened my approach. I tell myself that since I have a public platform thanks to my artistic profession, I might as well use it to share my thoughts on what might enable us to achieve, perhaps one day, a kind of osmosis as humans. I want to raise people’s awareness of how important it is for each individual to be part of the Chain of the Living. We are all contributors to, and dependent on, this chain.
PAN M 360: What brings you to choose a subject?
Blick Bassy: It’s a process. One thing leads to another. Take the last few years, for example. On my album 1958, I was pursuing a personal quest for my identity, which led me to question the nature of my Cameroonian roots. What is this nation? What does it represent? In a sense, it’s an identity space created and named by others, the colonizers who determined its geographical contours and, by the same token, its socio-politico-cultural nature. From there, I also asked myself how we could appropriate this imagined space and give it renewed life in the contemporary game of nations. But this time, from the perspective of Cameroonians, according to their vision and ideals. Through the figure of this anti-colonial activist assassinated in 1958, all this is materialized in words and music. In the end, I’ve come to ask how we can live in peace, in a shared reconnection, Cameroonians and French, to a mutually solidifying Chain of the Living.
In Madiba, water is a kind of continuation of the questioning suggested in 1958. Water is a powerful metaphor for the Chain of the Living. It is a link without which we cannot live. It’s in all of us, in every living element of the natural order! As in a chain, as with water, we cannot extract ourselves from the chain without harming ourselves and others. Conflicts are like this: a withdrawal of certain groups from the Chain of the Living, from the chain of dependence. And the consequences are disastrous. Chaos.
PAN M 360: Does it work? Do you feel you’re making a difference?
Blick Bassy: I think art breaks silently into hearts and brains. It prepares people for dialogue. You lower everyone’s defences by using a means of communication that diverts attention by offering pleasure and even transcendence. It can create favourable predispositions for meeting others. I remain optimistic, yes. The ideas behind the 1958 album are rejected by many in France. It’s still a little-known story, that of the colonial period and its effects on local populations. Some French people feel offended because they have the impression that they’re being asked to repent at every turn. But with music, I feel we can talk in a calmer way. It stimulates dialogue. It’s always dialogue that’s lacking in conflicts.
PAN M 360: President Emmanuel Macron recently appointed you co-director of the Memory Commission on Cameroon, a body whose mandate is to document the decolonization of Cameroon and the repression carried out by France at the time. How do you feel about the responsibility of this role?
Blick Bassy: It’s a huge responsibility, which I’ve accepted with great humility. We have to travel the length and breadth of Cameroon, meeting our fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters, and giving them the opportunity to speak without fear. These are people we’ve never listened to. It’s a psycho-therapeutic task, but also one of archiving the memory of the history of Cameroon, but also of the shared history with France. This will enable us to establish a truly constructive dialogue, to bring two communities together in a shared Chain of the Living. I feel lucky to be carrying out this mission.
PAN M 360: That said, the current social situation in France is contradictory, isn’t it? How do you feel about the fact that the very state that is enabling you to carry out this memory work is associated with a security apparatus perceived as violent and discriminatory by part of the population, especially of African origin?
Blick Bassy: I can see that the machinery of government can sometimes take positive steps. You have to jump at the chance. But it’s true that France is suffering at the moment. It’s suffering a lot. We won’t bury our heads in the sand. Many people feel rejected by this country. And others reassure themselves by unloading the weight of their responsibilities on scapegoats. There’s chaos in this country. In a normal France, everyone would stand up to denounce an unacceptable act of violence. And there should be no kitty for the shooter (an online fundraiser raised over a million and a half euros for the policeman). It’s an example of leaving the Chain of the Living I was talking about. There is no longer any awareness of the link that unites all humans, despite their differences. And it all stems from the breakdown of the state, which is subject to the law of modern capitalism, which has no interest in people understanding what’s at stake. It wouldn’t survive. We entertain, we divert attention, but we let a lot of people leave the living, the chain of relationships and community. Capitalism is not interested in solving this problem. It sells more by making people not care about these things.
PAN M 360: Let’s get back to music. I’ve noticed an increasingly assertive move towards electronics in your recent albums, especially the latest, Madiba. Why this progression?
Blick Bassy: You’re right. For several years now, I’ve wanted to use the tools that technology offers us to explore new, unprecedented sound spaces. I like to think of myself, humbly, as an avant-garde African artist. I’m looking to take my people outside the general African framework in which we’re expected to operate. The music scene in Africa is not structured. We don’t have spaces to help artists explore and manipulate sounds. I’m in France and I have access to spaces like that. So I want to make the most of them to bring something else to the African brand in music. What’s more, once again, it creates a chain between my native culture, its traditions, language, etc., and the non-African for whom it’s all foreign. Thanks to these sounds, he’ll be more receptive to the dialogue I want to start.
PAN M 360: I hear a sound universe that I associate with Afro-futurism, a cultural movement that embraces literature and the visual arts in particular. Do you feel a connection with this movement?
Blick Bassy: It’s interesting because, in my approach, I try to think about the future, yes, but for me, Afro-futurism is above all about reconnecting with tradition using modern tools! To have a future, we need to rebuild a solid base on which to project ourselves into the future. Right now, our basic structure has a serious problem: it’s been built by others! So, yes, I can relate to this current, but my approach is different.
PAN M 360: Thank you, Blick Bassy, and welcome to Quebec!
Blick Bassy: Thanks, I’m really looking forward to it.