He emerged at the lobby of the Southern Sun hotel, Victoria Island, Lagos for this interview, dressed in a simple long sleeve shirt rolled up to the elbows. The style was perhaps the only thing that could give away the age of the 43-year old, tall, lean bowler hat-wearing blufunk singer and guitarist. Originally named, Olufemi Sanyaolu from Abeokuta, Ogun State, this globally renowned artiste now known as Keziah Jones left the shores of Nigeria to school in England as an eight-year-old boy.
Soon after he got to the United Kingdom, UK, the young man fell in love with the jazz, funk and rock music of the 1980s. He too wanted to sing. But then there was a snag. He is a black young man in an environment that was not yet very receptive of people of his own skin colour. In order to overcome that challenge, the young man then decided to adopt a stage name that sounds European. Thus, he picked the name, Keziah Jones and also blurred his photograph on the jacket of his first album just so that the European society could learn to judge him only by the content of his music and not the colour of his skin. When he performs, the guitar sounds come out like the strings were being slapped, Jones played it like a percussion instrument. They had never seen this style before, it was a wow! As it turned out, “Blufunk Is a fact,” his first album made him a star in 1993.
Almost two decades later and after millions of records have been sold, concert halls filled and prestigious festivals headlined, Jones is on the verge of making an eighth studio album and he has returned home to Nigeria to soak up energy to write his new songs. Visiting Nigeria and Ghana in the last several months, Jones has been exploring the creative vibe of the Lagos area to propel his upcoming album. No longer is his music going to explore the crisis of personal identity that he experienced as a young African in Europe, he will be exploring the reality of being an African in the 21st century. He has grown from an artist who needed to hide his African identity at the beginning into a more comfortable juggler of sounds. Haruna Ishola’s form of Apala music will be one of the many influences in his new work. In this interview with Ololade Adewuyi, Senior Assistant Editor, Jones talks about his inspirations and his next album. Excerpts:
You call your music blufunk, could you tell us more about it?
It’s basically a style that I created by myself because I play the guitar in a way that’s based on percussion. I play it like a percussion instrument. So within that guitar you hear base, you hear percussion, you hear the guitar and I sing my words in between. So blufunk is an attitude as well as a technique. It’s a way to still my mind.
Your music style is not very popular around here, are you looking to work more at home and be known?
What I’m really interested in is the phenomenon of Nigerian music. I think it is a great thing to be observant of. I don’t necessarily want to join it because I have already been making music for more than 20 years and selling albums. I’m of an older generation than the guys who are doing their music now. And I’ve toured around the world. What is important for me is to be around a lot more in Nigeria to encourage whoever needs encouragement to show maybe there’s another way to approach music. There’s a lot of technological music going on here because it is cheap to make. Like I said it is not much about people who play instruments. So what I’m trying to do is to bring some of that vibe back. In the days of Fela everybody used to play and it was based on how good you are on your instrument. That’s kind of died out. What I want to do is to encourage people here to maybe go back to the roots of music like Fela did. He created something unique and original from the music that already existed here. So that’s what I’m here for.
What inspires your music?
Most of my music has always been based on trying to transcend limitations. My whole experience in trying to transcend everything is put in my work. So in my music I talk about identity, I talk about reality, I talk about personality and I talk about finding a way to resolve them. In my new album really, what I’m trying to do is to find traditional sounds that I can find here to make a modern form of music. Not so much technological music but organic music. I’ll be taking elements from Apala, taking elements from Fela to create a modern form of funk called Afrofunk or Afrorock. I’m a guitarist, I come from Jimi Hendrix, all the great Blues guys to John De Luca, to Fela, to Yusuf Olatunji to Haruna Ishola. I’m an instrumental player.
African artists who live in the West always sing about identity. What is it about identity and living in the West? We don’t talk about identity living in Lagos.
Of course not, you don’t have to, you talk about inter tribal stuff. You don’t need to talk about identity because everybody’s black, everybody’s African and everybody’s Nigerian essentially. When you leave the African continent you have to begin to express yourself as the way people see you, now you’re a minority not a majority. Your identity becomes part of what you say and do. You’re judged for your difference rather than as a human being. When you’re within the shores of Nigeria you don’t have to think like that. Most people who leave Nigeria have to deal with that at an early age. So you have to deal with a totally different culture, different language, different values, and different morals. So your identity is questioned fundamentally and you have to respond in some way. I responded by writing and making music and reinforcing my identity, remembering Yoruba language, remembering things about home so I don’t forget myself. But if I had stayed here I wouldn’t have had to go through that so that’s why I talk about it.
Let us relate your identity with your music. You perform in English, why?
Fela was my main point of reference. What Fela did was to be the first African artist to be known without having to leave the shores of Africa, the Western world came to him. He became known because the Western world heard about this guy and he became internationally known and travelled out. He was living at that particular time when there was a military dictatorship, Nigeria was newly independent and all the things he was singing about was about that reality. I was born after the civil war, still in military dictatorship when Nigeria was independent rich and certain people got enough money to send their kids to Europe. As we went to Europe, Nigeria went further and further down. So the dreams had crashed. So basically I said to myself that I don’t want to be in the ghetto when I make music, I want my music to be able to be heard by everybody in the world. But as an African person I’m going to be put in the African category and the record shelf like jazz, blues, African music. I want to be in the front of the shelf like rock and pop. So I made up a name, a stage name because I want you to hear the music first before you judge me as a person. The first album they don’t even see my face, it’s all blue. So I basically used the tricks of African Americans in the 1950s who weren’t allowed to be on their albums because white people wouldn’t buy it. They were called race records.
The phenomenon of the invisible Man?
Exactly, but I turned it around. In the old days, it was because the white folks wouldn’t buy it that they didn’t put the black man on the cover. In this day I want to bypass, not the general public, but the people who run record companies, the gatekeepers. So Keziah Jones. And the name also meant a lot because Jones is for everybody, any man. Mr Smith, Mr Jones, Lagbaja. But I’m not anybody, I’m a particular type of Jones, I’m Keziah Jones. When I did that, they were just forced to listen to my music first because they couldn’t see my image on the album. I put all my lyrics there so you were forced to read the lyrics and listen to the music. That’s how I got into rock and pop right in front of the record store and the first album sold half a million copies. And I didn’t say that’s only because I changed my name but because the music to me is my heritage of funk, blues, all the African American heritage is mine because they all came from the Nigerian coast due to slavery. So I’m reclaiming all that music because it’s mine. I’m also going to add Apala, Juju and Afrobeat. I’m not going to sit in front of a white company executive and explain all this. He’s not going to listen to that. How long have I got, you know what I mean? So basically I just chose Keziah Jones, blurred the album cover and it sold. When it sold now, it was all about cash, they were making money and they said, “make another one.” So that’s how my career took off. I got past the first hurdle, a lot of my friends didn’t make it because I had a lot of friends who were musicians who were also Nigerians. But they didn’t make it past that first hurdle either because of their own personal weaknesses or all the things musicians get into or the inability to confront that reality about your identity.
Do you think things are changing now?
I think internationally the ones who can sell from here are Asa, Bantu, Nneka, I think 2Face because he did an international copy of his album because they’re now all realising that this Nigerian music without it being World Music, how do we get into that bigger market? It’s a market. Are you just going to sell within Lagos or Nigeria or Africa or in the world? And when you talk about market it’s not about your country anymore, it’s about your music. So people like Asa can get across because she makes African music in a pop form, same thing that I did 20 years ago. See somebody like D’banj now, they’re all going to America, because they know that they’ve got to market themselves to a wider audience which means you’ve got to make your music more marketable. I think it’s happening slowly and it’s exciting because when I started out there was no record industry as such.
Some people say that there’s no proper foundation for the Nigerian music industry, where do you see Nigerian music going in the next decade?
I think basically the rise of the Internet and with more and more people getting access to the Internet will help the record industry to really advance as it is one of the things that we will use to get our music out to the West. One kid who is intelligent enough to construct his music using technology for a start can load it up on MySpace or YouTube and can get heard. People have been signed online. That’s one side. The other side is that I hope kids would begin to look more for the roots because after the hip hop thing has happened, the younger kids will look for the roots of the music and start learning instruments and teach themselves and form bands again. And then there will be the other side. I definitely see Nigerian music becoming sought after because African Americans and Caribbeans are mixing with Nigerians in America and the UK and will be looking for that root and attitude. They will be coming here eventually. I see Nigerian music becoming more international and I see Nigerian artists becoming more international minded in their subject matter and production. If you listen to Wande Coal today, some of those songs are just pure pop that we hear on Radio One in the UK. I don’t think he realises that because he’s still based in Lagos but I’m listening to it and I say that’s a great pop song. When they become aware of that then there will be a major revolution aided by the Internet and the access we have to the outside world.