Fatoumata Diawara is one of those rare performers: someone who projects a gutsy, playful persona with powerful and sensitive lyricism. Her debut album Fatou was a critical and commercial success and she has recently teamed up with Damon Albarn, Tony Allen and Flea from the Red Hot Chilli Peppers to form a super-group called Rocket Juice & The Moon. Here she gives a personal account of her early life in Mali, discusses what it was like to work with Oumou Sangare, the premier Malian singer, and talks about the genesis of the album Fatou and the social issues that run throughout her work.
I’m a Malian singer and I live in Paris. From the age of five to ten I was the best dancer. I loved dancing and then I stopped and returned to Mali, to my roots. I got into acting whilst living there, and when I returned to France, where I now live, I tried to develop my guitar-playing. I also wanted to sing. I was learning the craft and that’s when I met Oumou Sangare, who was an important influence for me.
My debut album, Fatou, really came out of the kind of music that I was listening to at that point in my life. I was learning to play the acoustic guitar, a skill which I’m still honing. That’s why the album has a simple acoustic layering. The emphasis was on my voice and the harmonies that I could create with it. So Fatou came out of that and it’s an album about many things. It’s about the way I see the world, about the different things I’ve witnessed over the years. It’s about the music I’ve listened to but it’s also about social issues. I would like things to change in my country. Women have the power to create change in Africa. But it’s about doing it.
It was an amazing experience to work with people like Damon Albarn and Flea and Herbie Hancock. Flea and Damon are really nice guys and they’re my friends now. It’s about more than music: we share the same sensibility. I had the same experience with Oumou Sangare and Nick Gold, who produced the album. They’re family to me. They just get it. Sometimes there’s no need for words. When I’m with these artists I can feel their passion and their spirit. They understand what I’ve gone through without me having to talk about it. I never discuss my life but these artists feel what I’ve experienced. I don’t need pity because where I come from we don’t do pity of any kind. My story isn’t new. There are women who have gone through a lot more difficulties than I have, women who have never managed to free themselves. That’s a sad narrative and I’m lucky that my life hasn’t worked out that way. I changed the arc of my story when I decided to write my own story. So I can’t accept pity because there’s no need for it. I’m turning my story into something positive. If you want to change your life, do it.
In my country it’s easier for boys and men to be independent. You can work and become a taxi-driver if you want: if you’re male and living in Mali you have options. But Mali is also a deeply religious Muslim country and women have fewer options there. They can’t work and that has to change. If everybody has equal rights and the freedom to do something for themselves, we can have a more open society and the power to develop faster as a country and as a continent. It’s important to have the freedom to achieve everything that your mind is capable of.
FATOUMATA DIAWARA is illustrated by LYNDSEY WINNINGTON.