Blondy, Alpha (1953– ),
Ivorian reggae music star, was born in Dimbokro on 1 January 1953 to a Muslim mother and a Christian father. The oldest of nine children, he was named Seydou Koné, after his grandfather, and brought up by his grandmother, Cheri Coco, in the Muslim faith. Early signs of rebelliousness prompted his exasperated grandmother to call him “blondy,” an apparent mispronunciation of “bandit” (troublemaker). Reunited with his father in Odienné in 1962, young Blondy spent the next ten years attending Saint Elisabeth High School, where he became involved in student politics and also developed an interest in music. Expelled from school for an altercation with his math teacher, Blondy went to Monrovia, Liberia, to study English. He proceeded to the United States, settled in New York in 1973, and enrolled first in Hunter College and later in the Columbia University’s American Language Program to pursue a career as an English teacher. At the time he was seeking to please his father who considered teaching English a more dignified profession. However, the pull of music, especially reggae, was much stronger. Heavily influenced by Bob Marley, Blondy became a Rastafarian and supported himself financially by singing Marley’s songs in Harlem nightclubs. He also practically lived on the street, playing a drum and singing in Central Park. He was hospitalized at New York’s Bellevue Hospital and treated for drug addiction and mental health for about a year.
Discharged from the hospital, Blondy returned to Ivory Coast. However, his personal struggles were far from over. He was imprisoned for threatening the Ivoirian ambassador in New York who had raised doubts about his Ivoirian citizenship. He thought Blondy’s English was too polished for an Ivoirian. Blondy’s parents also had him institutionalized at Bingerville asylum in Abidjan for two years, convinced that their son’s dreadlocks and apparent destitution after years in America were unmistakable signs of insanity. Blondy continued to write songs even while he was under the influence of powerful antipsychotic sedatives. Released from the asylum, Blondy’s fortunes began to change when he was reunited with a childhood friend Fulgence Kassi who had become famous as a television producer. Blondy’s career as a reggae artist took off when he appeared on Ivoirian television’s talent show, First Chance. He began using the stage name “Alpha Blondy,” with the addition of the first letter of the Greek alphabet. He recorded his first solo album in 1982, entitled Jah Glory, and began touring all over Africa. The album proved enormously successful in Africa, selling more than a million copies. It would later become a resistance anthem because of one of the songs on the album, “Brigadier Sabari,” recounts Ivoirian police brutality that Blondy had experienced personally.
With his newly formed band, Solar System, Blondy recorded his second album, Cocody Rock, in 1984 in Paris. Reflecting Blondy’s versatility as a musician, the band featured an international cast of musicians drawn from Cameroon, Ivory Coast, England, France, Jamaica, and Togo. Blondy returned to Abidjan in 1985 to record Apartheid Is Nazism. In 1986 he made a pilgrimage to Jamaica and recorded his third album, Jerusalem, with the Wailers at Marley’s Tuff Gong Studios. Committed to using his music to promote unity between Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, he sang in Hebrew during a concert in Morocco in 1986. By the time he released Revolution in 1987, Blondy had established himself not only as Africa’s premier international reggae artist but also a politically engaged musician and heir-apparent to his idol Bob Marley. Blondy spent the years between 1987 and 1989 giving concerts and recording SOS Guèrre Tribale in Abidjan.
Blondy dropped out from the music scene for several years during the 1990s to spend more time with his seven children. He sought psychiatric help at the beginning of 1993 following a bout with depression after a world tour. This new episode is reflected in his more spiritual and religious album Dieu (God) that included tracks such as “Heal Me,” an apparent reference to his illness and recovery, a veritable cry for help. He released Yitzak Rabin in 1998 to commemorate the slain Israeli leader’s efforts to bring peace to the Middle East and Elohim in 2000. It featured the single “Journaliste en Danger,” a reference to the assassination of the journalist Norbert Zongo. Blondy celebrated twenty years as a recording artist with MERCI (Thank You) in 2002. While the album earned him a Grammy Award nomination for Best Reggae Album, he was unable to attend the ceremony in New York because of the political turmoil in Ivory Coast at the time. He celebrated the signing of the March 2007 peace agreement between Laurent Gbagbo’s government and the rebels with Jah Victory in July. Blondy gave a concert in New York’s Central Park on 19 July 2009. On 13 June 2010 a concert he gave to celebrate the peace and unity of the country drew such a huge crowd that twenty people were crushed to death in a melee. Like his idol Marley, Blondy has used his talent as a musician to promote global peace, love, and religious tolerance. At home he preaches national unity and social justice. He empathizes with the downtrodden, the impoverished, the dispossessed, and the marginalized of society. He rails against “tribalism,” human rights abuses, corruption, and dictatorship in Africa and elsewhere. He coined the term “democrature” (democratatorship) to describe Africa’s sham democracies. To this day, Blondy remains a staunch supporter of African unity.
Blondy was named United Nations Ambassador of Peace for Ivory Coast in 2005. He has worked tirelessly to promote reconciliation and reunification of his country, divided into two since the failed coup of 19 September 2002. A humanitarian to boot, he has set up a nonprofit foundation, Alpha Blondy Jah Glory Foundation, to promote social justice and alleviate generational poverty by giving people the tools they need to help themselves. The foundation’s work is reflected in the Women’s Self-Sufficiency Micro Loan Program and Tafari-Genesis Retreat Camp for Children in Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso. Blondy gives an annual free concert at Bassam beach called “festa” and his message of peace and global understanding is delivered in an assortment of African and European languages including his native Dioula, English and French, and sometimes in Arabic, Baulé, Hebrew, Malinke, Twi, and Wolof.
[See also Gbagbo, Laurent Koudou.]