How did you come up with the idea of the Questlove’s Afro Picks show?
The first thing we had in mind was to create an overview of African music, with an emphasis on this particular era: those years during the seventies, when Africa was deeply affected by the decolonization process. The aim was to get a modern glimpse on this past by writing new arrangements for old tunes.
Decolonization, as a political phenomenon, paved the way for a lot of artists, including Fela [Kuti], Bongi Makeba, Oumou Sangaré or Tony Allen, who wrote songs about the freedom they discovered - or even songs simply advocating the beauty of Africa, the strength of its people. But they also kept it political by denouncing shady systems like apartheid or some kind of neo-colonialism going on at the time. The tracks we chose also reflect one thing about this era: the pride of being African, which was new to them people. So this project can also be considered as an update of the political music from the 70’s - between past, present and future. Through Afro Picks, I also wanted the public to discover classic tunes of African music. In a sense, it’s a way to celebrate African music heritage, and to make them understand how African music, jazz, and afrobeat paved the way for some of the music we listen to today. And as an African-American, it’s also a way to pay my dues to the true creators.
Who are the most important artists in your journey through African music?
There are a lot of musicians I like, but I have to admit that Fela Kuti is one of the most important for me. He wasn’t only a musician, but also a political leader. He was a kind of Bob Marley for his fellow Africans, and his music reflects the seventies like no other.
How would you consider him in your own music pantheon?
He’s not someone who I listen to everyday, but as far as Afrobeat is concerned, he’s the reference, the cornerstone. He also had a unique science of musical arrangements, especially in his way of mixing horns and drums together. He created something that didn’t exist before him. Listening to his music also makes me figure how it was living in Lagos at this time. In Lagos and in all those big African cities surrounded by jazz.
What makes this African era of the 70s so important for you?
The pan-African philosophy which was going on at the time, which gave birth to the “African sentiment”, the feeling of being African, which was new. It is also an interesting era, because of all those movements growing during those years. There was this ‘Free Mandela’ thing and many others at the end of the seventies, when some people realized that even if they were independent, it was difficult to stay away from those colonial schemes. Some African countries still face those questions.
Decolonization, as a political phenomenon, paved the way for a lot of artists, including Fela [Kuti], Bongi Makeba, Oumou Sangaré or Tony Allen, who wrote songs about the freedom they discovered
Do you see any similarities between those movements in Africa and the Civil Rights Movement in America?
Yes, because it’s all about freedom! But the freedom Africans won through decolonization is different from what African-Americans were looking for. We, in America, didn’t own the land, whereas Africans living in Africa were suddenly free to use the land. The problem was they didn’t have the money for that, so they had to start back from zero. The freedom African-Americans were looking for was more of a state of mind, something inside. It consisted in destroying racism.
How did you choose the tracks for Afro-Picks?
First, all tracks represent the post-colonial era. This is the reason why we have some songs by Miriam Makeba or Fela. For example, I chose ‘Gentlemen’ by Fela, ‘Colonial Mentality’ or ‘Sorrow Tears and Blood’ because they truly represent the cynical derision that prevailed towards colonialism at the time. To make the connection with the Black is Beautiful era, I also chose some funky and dancing tracks by Tony Allen like ‘African Message’ or ‘Love is a Natural Thing.’
How did you choose the musicians for the show?
I met a few musicians who used to play with Fela back in the days, like Oghene Kologbo, who’s been his guitarist for years. Martin Perna, musical director of Antibalas, formed the horn sections because he really knows about that, and then we had the chance to get some vocalists from the musical ‘Fela!’ I chose Macy Gray as a lead vocalist because of her energy and her voice. And, for a lot of reasons, I think nobody would fit better in political songs than my partner-in-rhyme from The Roots, Black Thought! And at last, when I had all these people ready, David Murray seemed to be THE man for the arrangements. He’s a jazz living legend, and I totally trust him for this.
How do you work with Tony Allen, the other drummer of the show?
At first, Tony wanted to keep his Afrobeat original. But when David offered new arrangements for Love is a natural feeling, turning it into a duo between Macy Gray and Amp Fiddler, he loved it. Murray simply transformed his song into a kind of Marvin Gaye-meets-Tammi Terrel duo.
What do you think about the work being done by the Red Bull Music Academy?
I was really proud and happy to collaborate with young musicians at the Academy when I went there. This is a very exciting opportunity for young people. In New York, in Philadelphia and all over the world, I know a lot of musicians who deserve to be helped in this way with their music, and that’s exactly what the Academy offers.
Any message for this year’s participants?
Explore what the Academy can bring to you, and see where you can go from there!
For more information on Questlove's Afro Picks event, visit the Academy's World Tour Paris page.