Ghana-born, L.A.-based singer Rocky Dawuni spreads his positive message through Afro-roots music
by Bhalin Singh
An unusual Southern California overcast day, clouds pregnant with a much-needed rain blanket the Pacific Ocean. Though, muttering “April Showers bring May flowers” to anyone in the City of Angels will get you nowhere. In the lobby lounge of the swank Casa del Mar Hotel, I stick to my sunny-ass demeanor and get lucky enough to catch up with Afro-roots international star, Rocky Dawuni, fresh back from South by Southwest.
A few things about this man. Rocky’s full-on Rasta. You feel it when you meet him. His dreads shroud him like a lion’s mane. His music and his spirit intertwine like the DNA in his blood. Music may be his ultimate external expression, but something internal writhes, a melodic river of sweet passion for the uplifting of humanity, not unlike Bob Marley before him.
Rocky’s sixth and most recent album, Branches of the Same Tree, has just been released through the accomplished world-music label Cumbancha. The CD is accompanied with a beautifully designed booklet depicting gorgeous images from Ghana. The album’s eleven songs weave together New Orleans funk, reggae, samba, gospel, and highlife and remind me of a very good mole sauce—somehow, deep, rich flavors manage to hold subtlety and edge and deliver all the same.
This record comprises great Jamaican, American, and African musicians marrying those familiar grooves of Fela and Marley into a contemporary Afro-roots classic. Drummer Manas Itiene (Michael Franti and Spearhead), percussionist Leon Mobley (Ben Harper, Damian Marley), bassist Ronnie McQueen (Steel Pulse), and many others all perform on the album, and we feel their musicianship reverberate. The impressive and seemingly disparate range of sounds move between edges of a spectrum, like the melodious Rocky singing over ukulele on “Butterfly,” a Bob Marley and the Wailers song, to the heavy, Fela-like “African Thriller,” a nod to Ali–Foreman and the Rumble in the Jungle. There’s also a nice cover of the Marley and Peter Tosh–penned classic “Get Up, Stand Up.” Rocky brings us back to Africa and we listen.
We begin the begin. Rocky has a smile that warms the heart and puts me, or anyone for that matter, at immediate ease. He orders a pot of black coffee and we hit it.
Welcome back to sunny Santa Monica. I heard you did some cool things in Austin.
[laughs, speaks in his Ghanaian pidgin lilt] Really, really an incredible experience. I was there for several [reasons]. First of all, apart from going to go showcase the new album, I was also on the panel for social good that the Clinton Global Initiative and U.N. foundation had put together, so I had the opportunity to serve on the panel and also do an acoustic show afterwards.
Oh, very nice.
And then post that, I did a show at the Quantum Collective [Southwest] Invasion concert that was out on the rooftop of Whole Foods. They also had the Zombies perform, so it was a bit alternative. [laughs] But the opportunity for me as a musician who plays world music, reggae—my music is kind of alternative when you think about it. So yeah, it was really cool to be a part of that.
It just seems like Afro roots encompasses so many different genres. How would you define it?
Basically, the Afro roots is a reflection of my cultural interactions as an artist getting to interact with different people, styles of music, different cultural contexts, you know. [It] has also helped me mold my style of reggae music or African music, so it’s more of a product of all of these multiple genres. I’m just a child of that, and I think it reflects in my music. Different cultures, you know.
Yes, the melting pot, so to speak. Since I have you for a bit, I wanted to ask about growing up in Ghana. I’ve heard some interviews that you’ve given recently. Growing up with your father in the military barracks, were there specific incidences that made you choose to be a musician?
Well, the music was sort of always there, you know? It was part of me growing up. At the same time, too, another incident I would really relate to helping me in terms of my attraction to music, of communication and empowerment, was also due to the Ghanaian military. At the time I was growing up, I was very involved in politics. I grew up when Jerry Rawlings [attempted a coup d’état in 1979 and eventually] took over power in Ghana. And because he was a military man, we felt everything that was going on politically in the country. During the coup, our fathers were called off in the middle of the night, you know, so the barracks was the center of action; and at one point, they needed keys to the armory, as the barracks was under threat to be bombed. All the stress of the military take-over—I grew up right in the middle of it. That helped shape my focus on issues of national importance, and that then got bridged with music. That experience literally went on to define the artist I’ve become.
Wow, what an experience; the perfect crucible. Yes, and then the bridge that music provides. And what’s so ironic is the military connection to it.
You know, the funny thing is, in the places where I grew up, the soldiers were mostly— apart from your typical military history [like] when the army literally takes over the government—[in Ghana] there was also the inclusion of the Ghanaian military in all of the U.N. peacekeeping initiatives. You see? There was always a strong underlying positive theme—not totalitarian. So my father served as a cook, a military cook in Egypt, you know, as part of the U.N. So there was always the whole thing of seeing the military as more of a peacekeeping environment; we were seen more as peacekeeping than warriors, you know, warriors against aggression. So I grew up in the mind-set of military thinking, but my father wasn’t on the front line; he was a cook. Also, a lot of the soldiers, too, used to travel a lot and there was always an influx of fresh new music. So I was always hearing things that happen outside before it got really popular within Ghana. I was fortunate to this kind of musical nurturing.
Warrior poets on the cutting edge—
[laughs] Yeah, the cutting-edge stuff. So it kind of all helped nurture the very sharp and keen musical instinct within me. [laughs]
It’s good for the U.S. market. That familial connection seems to keep showing up. Coming back today, for instance, the panel that you were on this past weekend, can you talk about the social, good projects you are involved in?
Specifically, I work with the U.N. Foundation and Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves launched by Hillary Clinton, of which I am an Ambassador. The innovations in cookstove technology are really helping to cut down in emissions and provide cleaner-burning fuels, which greatly improves health and the environment too. Also, it provides new opportunity to really nurture a sort of business that helps people from the bottom of the pyramid on up.
What sounds great about cookstoves is that it has an immediate impact. I hope it’s not lost on you that it’s a cookstove. I mean, your father—
Yeah, that’s very interesting. [looks upwards, smiles] My father was a cook, so there is a full-circle thing. [laughs] Actually, it never actually occurred to me that my father was a cook, and naturally, that led me to the cookstoves now.
Right. So the cookstove initiative has done really well?
Yeah, it has really reduced levels of soot, one of the leading causes of lung cancer, stroke, you know, and infant mortality. And [in] children under five, diseases are really caused from that, you know.
Yes, encouraging to hear this. And you performed afterwards?
I played “Jammin’ Nation,” “Walls Tumbling Down,” and “Get Up, Stand Up.” This was about waking up humanity. So I use music as a means to empowerment much like my album out now.
Yep. The new album, Branches of the Same Tree, I mean, there are certainly some hits here. What you would call them, dancehall songs? I think “African Thriller” will get some traction.
Yeah, [for “African Thriller,” there] was such a great first video for it. It also represented the cross-collaboration, you know, really crossing Afrobeat and dancehall, you know…
Yeah, and African dance music at the same time [so] it feels good, but it’s also empowering. Empowering in that way too, that is.
It’s, like, revolutionary.
Exactly. So that was really the concept, and the video, too, was very representative of that. So I think that song also defines my style, you know. My style is a fusion: you can [not] only find dancehall and reggae, and Afrobeat, all meeting seamlessly, because those are my foundations. And it’s a natural thing for me.
Oh, it’s beautiful, because when it works, it’s uplifting, but there’s also the power from the foundation of Afro roots and Afrobeat.
And all the highlife, the highlife guitar, and the same time, the funk too. So you find it all in there.
And, when it works, it’s so beautiful.
[laughs] Thank you.
Yeah, just a great message. I want to talk about this one song, “Children of Abraham,” that’s sort of a ballad. What was the inspiration behind it?
Well, I wrote “Children of Abraham.” It was inspired by a trip that I took to Israel. You know, I toured Israel with very famous Israeli artists, and spent a long time traveling with my friends, going to Shabbats, and having the opportunity to visit the mosques, to the Wailing Wall, to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre [in Jerusalem]. And for me, “Children of Abraham” really started there. It was my recognition of commonality or the shared foundations of all Abrahamic faiths and the foundations of the commonality shared by all of us. And then I traveled to Jenin [in the West Bank] and went into a lot of Palestinian communities; met the women, children, and men. “Children of Abraham” is a song that, first of all, is a matter of recognizing how far we’ve come, really the brotherhood that we share. By how far we’ve come, I mean, “Put your weapons down,” because nobody’s talking anymore. War and violence look like the language for everything, you know? And, really try to nurture the truth of diplomacy and the truth of conversation and connection, and maybe, maybe that could start a dialogue towards genuine peace. And right now too, we just have to look at that region and recognize that conversation is really such an urgent thing; I feel that this song will provide inspiration for people to see that we are all children of Abraham.
Yes, and the song is part of the platform, from your perspective?
Yeah. And [“Children of Abraham”] is a manifestation of that. The refrain is “Come on, let’s make peace work.” You know, so it’s not like, “Let’s have peace,” it’s “Let’s make peace work.” So, it’s going to require effort and sacrifice, and all of us getting away from our orthodox views, and looking at new ways of engagement; but ultimately, it leans towards peace and our shared humanity, yes.
It is a moving song. There’s a bit of melancholy to it, of course.
Thank you, thank you. Yes, it comes from the soul, because I experienced and felt and saw this. It is based on real experiences and real connections with real people who are undergoing and dealing with the situation.
Having access to that reservoir as an artist is invaluable. That leads me to ask you about music as a platform for activism. Where does activism fit in as part of the creative process?
[laughs] Yeah, yeah. You mean in terms of whether it’s a conscious objective to you to use for a social cause?
Yeah, some of these classics from Bob Marley to Fela Kuti, as you know, there’s a very strong intention in their songwriting which has created some great, great music.
I think it has always been hard for me to make a distinction between whether activism is what inspires the music, or if music inspires activism. Yeah, the chicken or the egg? They all made sense to me from an early age, and once I recognized the opportunity to perform music live, and having platforms to engage in, how can that platform also have a tangible effect apart from its message. To really, directly impact people on the ground. You know, pondering over those things made me recognize the hype that comes with music can be used to shine light on issues. I feel that is a great use of the platform and the greatest legacy anyone can leave is how they impact the life of others. I believe that is what I aspire to.
That’s a noble way to engage in your art. Like you said, it doesn’t really matter which comes first. So maybe then, that’s where the activism is. It’s already there. Coming back to cooking, sometimes you put in one ingredient before the other, and it doesn’t really matter what goes in first.
Exactly. As long as you want to make some good sauce out of it, you know? [laughs]
So right, as long as it tastes good.
It tastes good, yeah, in the end.
There’s a famous quote by Duke Ellington that said, very simply, “If it sounds good, it is good.”
I wanted to ask you about your first gig in Accra, Ghana? Was that your first big gig?
Yes, that’s my first major gig. I mean, that was actually a turning point, you know. I mean, there are a few turning points in terms of a musician’s life. First of all, the story leading into that was, I had qualified to go to the University of Ghana. And, you know, getting to the university was a very hard thing; you sat for an exam that the whole country took, and only a few students were chosen.
And at the time, I felt I didn’t need a formal education. I just wanted to start my music. And, my brother, who was already in the university, came and lobbied me at home, and he was able to convince me. So I get on campus and I meet other amazing musicians and fellow students, and we decided to start a band. At first, we wrote a few songs and all collaborated. And then we set up… We made rough tapes and I started circulating them around campus. We played our first few concerts on campus and pretty much got known. By then, there was a big international concert with mainstream artists from Ghana, and other international artists, and I think Jermaine Jackson was even playing. So, we went [to the show] on the day, not understanding how shows are made; we get to meet the promoter in our get-ups to play, you know. And we’re like, “Well, we’re from the university, we play reggae and African music, and our music is pretty great, and you’ll pretty much be doing yourself a disservice if you don’t give us a chance.” So he looked and was like, “Well, if you guys know how shows are booked, this has been set for a long time, but, since I’m curious…” Basically, he wanted to see what a bunch graduate students have to offer musically, you know? He gave us our chance to go on after the last band. We got onstage and our drummer didn’t even know what kind of drum set it was and started freaking out. We were like, “Just play! Wind up, find your kick, find your hi-hat,” that kind of stuff. We rolled in, and we just performed our hearts out. And, people started coming back. And from then on, you know, our band name became very popular. The band’s name was Local Crisis. My musical journey started from a local crisis of sorts.
It’s a very cool story.
[laughs] Yeah, it’s a cool story.
Thank you for sharing, because when I read about how you made that happen, I knew: I want to hear this. I wanted to talk about Africa for a moment because I feel like there’s so much happening there right now, and because of this album and your track “Black Star.” Are you referring to the black star on the Ghanaian flag?
Yeah, the black star in Ghanaian flag, and “black star” as a metaphor too, of the children of Africa. So, there’s the metaphor to represent what we Africans all should aspire, you know, in terms of aspire to excellence. And when I talk about Africa too, you know, everybody comes from Africa. Every person alive that makes up a part of this human tree of humanity has their roots, their ancient, ancient roots in Africa. So, empowerment of Africa is actually for the good of all humanity and that’s why “Black Star” is a song of empowerment for young Africans. You know, it has to come from rooting out corruption. It has to come from elevation of our manhood. It has to come from nurturing our traditional industries and not by selling out our continent. This is a song, but it represents a challenge to inspire young Africans to take charge of their destiny. And this is an appeal to the world community that Africa needs partners for Africa’s development, genuine partners who also share the same interest of Africans. It has to also come from the concept in “Africa as One.” You know, [sings line from “Black Star”] “Rise ye mighty people once again.” Waiting for some handout or some type of aid from outside is rarely the way to go. And, that takes me to the topic of education, because it’s really one of the best ways to help nurture that “can-do” spirit. Make education accessible to everybody and then you have an equal playing field and allow people to be masters of their own destiny.
That’s the truth. There’s all of these various, tiny civil wars happening all over Africa, it seems.
Yes, and you know, you can find them both from old tribal problems that become bigger now and permeate in political parties, and then create divisions; you know, like all these things, things that we have to deal with, but it’s also the evolution of Africa’s experiment with democracy—taking modern democracy and integrate that within the context of traditional African ways. Yeah, to lead and be action-oriented in genuinely bringing people together, and to see what their collective will can do.
Yeah, it reminds me of the Peter Tosh song “African” from Equal Rights.
Yeah, [sings] “Whichever place you come from, as long as you’re a Black man, you are an African.”
Yeah. That’s it.
Yes, Peter Tosh. It lays the foundation, the whole thing has a truth to that, there’s evidence, there is science, and all that.
That’s what happens when I traveled there: most people feel that connection.
I was thinking about Nelson Mandela a bit because of something you said in your BBC interview, that Africans want a messiah, but there’s no real messiah; and when this person is elected, the people expect this person—it happens here, too, not just in Africa—we expect the president to be a messiah.
A one-way magician.
They expect them to be perfect—they’re not, they’re human. And I thought of Mandela; if there is someone close to a messiah in Africa, then it’d be him, but look what he had to endure. To be a messiah only after decades of imprisonment. And yet, he became a shining light. I think he’d certainly dig Branches of the Same Tree.
[smiles] Thank you.
Looking at the album, what’s the song that you think embraces your vision of an Africa living with authentic power, authentic leadership?
Several. They all hint in one way and really express this message like, “Rock Your Soul,” “Get Up, Stand Up,” and “Shine a Light.” But you know, to solve issues on a national scale requires time, patience, and contribution from every aspect of society, and everyone must be involved. If people are not involved with solving their own problems, I don’t think anyone can go and solve their problems for them. I just want Africans to see politics as an opportunity to do something for the greater good. I feel sad to see the sense of community that’s lost, you know? In Africa, we have these extended families. We have the family mentor and all relatives living nearby… There’s like a social net that supports everybody. And so, it makes life eternal. When you are born, you’re in this womb, kind of social cocoon that helps nurture you and gives you confidence and beauty of life, and that foundational stuff. I feel that cannot be peeled off to be lost in so many places in terms of community. Community spirit is a great thing to have.
Amen to that, man. Music is the glue to community.
Beautiful. You know, there’s much momentum going on, you know, with the [new] record and so we are very excited about it.
And you should be. Great listening and feel-good album. Afro-roots classic in many ways. Oh, before we wrap, please tell me about tomorrow night?
Yes, tomorrow night [April 8, 2015], I’ve been invited to join Jackson Brown, Melissa Etheridge, David Crosby, Graham Nash, Tom Morello, and La Santa Cecilia for an event called Concert for Social Justice [at the Fonda Theatre] presented by the Grammy Museum and the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights. So I’ll be playing only short sets and then doing a finale together. Pretty much, the event title explains the importance of music.
There you go.
Yeah, proactive music, so this interview is a great warm-up. [laughs] I’m privileged to share the stage with all of these luminaries.
Sounds great. What a lineup. Afro roots will be well represented. It’s awesome that you’re playing. Extra ticket?
[laughs] Already accounted for. Maybe next time.
Yes, next time. It has been a rain-check kind of day.
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