Manu Dibango became the first known artist to die of Covid-19 in 2020. His son James BKS remembers the exceptional musician in an interview.
In March 2020, the grief in the music world was great: Manu Dibango (1933-2020) was the first prominent artist to die of the then new disease Covid-19. The world music star became internationally known in the 1970s with the hit “Soul Makossa”. His son James BKS (39), real name Lee-James Edjouma, follows in his footsteps as a musician.
He didn’t meet his famous father until he was an adult – quite by accident at a music fair in Cannes. “From the moment our paths crossed my life completely changed and we developed a very close relationship,” James BKS told spot on news. Dibango’s son now works with the big stars himself: his debut album features will.i.am (47), Little Simz (28), Idris Elba (49) and Q-Tip (52). “Wolves of Africa” will be released on July 8th.
You were born in France, then lived in the USA, your roots are in Africa. To what extent has this path of life shaped you?
James BKS: I was born in Paris and moved to the US at the age of 19. Back then, the icons we looked up to as middle-class young French Africans came from America. Most of the news that has been broadcast on TV about Africa has been negative. Also, my mother left Cameroon under difficult circumstances and never really got a better picture of Africa. Our only role models who looked like us were NBA players, US athletes, hip hop moguls and Hollywood stars like Will Smith, Eddie Murphy etc. It affected what I sounded like me played basketball and wished to be like my role models. It was only when I returned to France and reunited with my birth father that I was able to see things differently and open up to parts of my culture and origins that I knew little about.
You only met your birth father, Manu Dibango, when you were an adult. How did that happen?
James BKS: My mother told me who my birth father was when she saw that I had followed the same path as him without knowing it. I was 20 years old then. I knew his name, of course, because I was listening to some of his famous records in my crib, but it was like a secret that only a select few in my mother’s circle knew. My father who raised me did a wonderful job. I loved him so much that it never occurred to me to want to know who my father was back then. When my mother finally told me the truth about my story, it was years before I actually got to know him, and in the most random of ways, too. But from the moment our paths crossed my life completely changed and we developed a very close relationship.
How would you describe your father-son relationship?
James BKS: I consider myself very fortunate to have been able to spend almost eight years with him. I learned a lot about him, about Cameroon and in a way about myself because we had so much in common.
Your father’s legacy can be heard on your new album. How important is that to you?
James BKS: It’s very important. My father was an icon who opened the doors to a new generation of African artists. An avant-gardist, he created a new music genre, world music, by blending traditional Cameroonian music with jazz and soul, paving the way for so many. I’m definitely not trying to emulate what he did. I was fortunate to have a music career as a composer, working with big names in the industry and making a living from my art for years before we got back together. I’m building my own legacy, but wherever I go I’ll always celebrate his name because as he always said to me when he saw me doing my own thing, it’s not game over with you!
What special memories do you have of your father?
James BKS: My father was always curious about new sounds, new perspectives on music. He was an avant-gardist who opened the doors to new genres such as hip-hop in France to express himself on a large platform. Not many people know this, but he hosted a major TV show where he hosted the first French rap artists to showcase their talent. He was also a workaholic, constantly revising his standards. That showed me how dedicated and down-to-earth he always was.
Her father died of Covid-19. Did that have an impact on how you dealt with the disease?
James BKS: Both my fathers have died from Covid-19. The last two years have been very difficult to deal with, but I feel her presence and blessings all around me.
You have come a long way to find your identity. What have you learned about yourself along the way?
James BKS: We are always life’s students. There is always something new to learn. I don’t know anything for sure. We just have to keep our feet on the ground, be thankful that we’re healthy, and have good people around us. That’s worth its weight in gold, the rest isn’t that important.
How important do you think it is to know your own roots?
James BKS: I can only speak for myself when I say it has helped me to become a whole person. What I will one day leave my son is worth much more than material things. I will give him strong values for life. He’ll know where he’s from, how his grandparents navigated life, and hopefully that will inspire him to learn from us and be great!
The title of your album is “Wolves of Africa”. Who are these wolves of Africa?
James BKS: There is a breed of wolves called golden wolves or golden jackals that is the first new breed of dog found in North and Northeast Africa in 150 years. I belong to a new generation of African descent born in Europe. I’m proud of my heritage. Over time we have learned from the past and are now committed to our roots and wanting to reclaim our history. I found the golden wolf metaphor to be a beautiful way to describe my state of mind. Also, wolves were often used as symbols of spirituality in ancient African stories and myths.
Big stars like Idris Elba, Little Simz and Q-Tip can be heard on your album. What is it like working with them?
James BKS: Idris is one of the first people to see the artist in me. He gave me a platform to express myself and I will always be grateful to him for that. I was lucky enough to be in the studio when Little Simz recorded her part on my record and it was a great experience. Recently, I’ve been collaborating with one of my musical idols that I’ve been following for years. That was everything I expected, even more. I can’t say who that is yet, but it will be the single that I will release with my album.
What professional and personal plans do you still have for this year?
James BKS: I’m grateful to finally be able to release my album this year. It will be a double album with many surprises. My goal is to eventually have an impact on world music, to be recognized as one of the new players in this genre, which I love very much.