Born Seydou Kone on January 1, 1953, in Dimbokora, Ivory Coast; member of the Dioula ethnic group; seven children. Education: Attended Hunter College and Columbia University, New York; studied to be an English teacher. Addresses: Record company--Shanachie Entertainment, 13 Laight St., Sixth Floor, New York, NY 10013. Website--Alpha Blondy Official Website: http://www.alphablondy.co.ci.
Reggae, the spiritual and sometimes sharply political dance music that Jamaica exported to the rest of the world, has often carried a message of peace and universal understanding. One contemporary star who successfully put such ideas into musical practice was Alpha Blondy, a native of Ivory Coast on western Africa's southern-facing Atlantic shore. With a multicultural message delivered in diverse languages that included French, English, Arabic, Hebrew, and his native tongue of Dioula, this "African Rasta," as he often called himself, once even succeeded in calming a set of military hostilities in West Africa.
"In Africa the new generation, my generation, is a mixture of Western and African culture," Blondy told the New York Times. "Reggae has succeeded in a musical unification. It's a good therapy to bring people together." In the 1980s, Blondy seemed the heir apparent to reggae superstar Bob Marley; his popularity after that receded along with that of reggae music in general, but his fame remained international in scope. Many musicians have had to overcome obstacles in order to realize their artistic visions, but the personal trials Blondy experienced on the way to a musical career were nearly unprecedented in their magnitude.
A member of the Dioula ethnic group, Blondy was born Seydou Kone on January 1, 1953, in the Ivory Coast town of Dimbokora. He was raised by his grandmother in the predominant Islamic faith of his people but also learned French by reading the Bible. In school, he told the Toronto Star, he also gravitated toward "English ways" and hoped to become an English teacher. His education was interrupted after an incident that occurred after he was slapped by his math teacher. "Look, baby, a woman like you I got a lot of at home," he snapped back (as quoted in the Star), and slapped the teacher in turn. He sought to make amends to his outraged family by continuing to study English in the neighboring English-speaking country of Liberia.
Already a fan of reggae and of progressive rock acts such as Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix, Blondy demonstrated enough talent as a student to win admission to Hunter College and Columbia University, both competitive institutions, when he came to the United States in the early 1970s. He moved in with a Jamaican classmate and seemed on the road to a successful teaching career, but then things started to go wrong. According to some reports, he became addicted to the drug angel dust, and he began to spend much of his time singing in Central Park, accompanying himself with a drum. Adding to his trouble, he attempted to record an album, but an unscrupulous producer disappeared with the master tapes of his recording sessions.
Increasingly despondent due to what he described to the Star as "the African pride about success, a disease," Blondy was finally arrested and institutionalized at New York's Bellevue Hospital. Released after a year, he ran into even worse problems when he returned home to Ivory Coast and confronted a family that was, as he told the Washington Post, "expecting me to come back with a big diploma, a tuxedo and a car." Blondy continued, "But America is not easy; you don't just come and get the diploma. What you see in the movies, the reality is quite different." His parents, confronted with his Jamaican dreadlocks and total destitution, believed he had completely lost his senses and institutionalized him once again.
Blondy endured a brutal two years of forced medication at an asylum in the Ivory Coast capital of Abidjan, but he continued to write songs. After his release his fortunes finally began to improve. Taking the name Alpha Blondy (the name carries the connotation of "First Bandit" and may have resulted from a family member's mispronunciation of the word "bandit"), he performed on an Ivory Coast talent-search television program, First Chance. Spotted by a producer, he recorded an album, Jah Glory, that went on to become an African million-seller.
One of that album's songs dealt with a police raid, a risky theme in authoritarian West Africa, and Blondy's fame spread. Jah Glory and its Paris-recorded 1984 follow-up, Cocody Rock, received international distribution, and, by the middle 1980s, many observers saw in Blondy a successor to the recently deceased Bob Marley, who had drawn huge crowds in the years immediately before his 1981 death from a brain tumor. Blondy toured the United States and Europe, and like Marley, he applied his talents to the peaceful resolution of political conflict. A 1986 concert he gave on the border between the warring nations of Mali and Burkina Faso is credited with helping to bring about a cessation of hostilities.
Such albums as Jerusalem, Apartheid is Nazism, and Masada brought Blondy worldwide acclaim; Masada was released in over 50 countries. Though firmly rooted musically in the reggae tradition, Blondy added to it a distinctive element of African percussion and African-style backup vocals--his full band, Solar System, had 15 members--that allowed his music to succeed on his home turf. He often performed in colorful robes or army fatigues, sporting a Jewish Star of David on a helmet and carrying both a Bible and a copy of the Islamic Quran. Challenging his audiences to accept the differences among peoples, Blondy sung in Hebrew in Arabic countries and in Arabic in Israel, where he enjoyed a strong following.
For several years during the 1990s, Blondy dropped out of the music scene and spent time attending to the seven children he has fathered with seven different women. He returned to action with the 1998 CD Yitzhak Rabin, commemorating the slain Israeli leader who had tried to bring peace to the Middle East. Partly recorded in Kingston, Jamaica, at Marley's Tuff Gong studios, Yitzhak Rabin featured backup vocals from Marley's former backing group, the I-Threes. The Ottawa Citizen noted the album's "shimmering, textured sound," and fresh tours undertaken in support of the release put Blondy back in the limelight in the West--although youthful listeners in his native Ivory Coast had largely moved on to newer acts. Blondy's album Paris Percy was released in 2001, followed by Merci in 2002. Merci was nominated for a Grammy in the category of Best Reggae Album the following year. Blondy used the fame he received following the Grammy nomination to call attention to a cause close to his heart: peace in his homeland of Ivory Coast following a rebellion that began on September 19, 2002. He spoke out passionately in his interviews, imploring people to understand the dire need for peace in the volatile region.
by James M. Manheim
Alpha Blondy's Career
International reggae music star; sings in French, English, Arabic, Hebrew, Dioula, and other languages; incarcerated in psychiatric hospitals in U.S. and Ivory Coast, 1970s; appeared on Ivory Coast television program First Chance; recorded debut album Jah Glory, a million-seller in Africa; album Cocody Rock released in the United States, 1984; toured widely, late 1980s; released Masada, in over 50 countries, 1992; released Yitzhak Rabin, 1998; toured United States and Canada, 1998; released Paris Percy, 2001.
- Selected discography
- Jah Glory , c. 1980; reissued, Moya, 1985.
- Cocody Rock , Shanachie, 1984.
- Jerusalem , Shanachie, 1986.
- Revolution , Shanachie, 1987.
- Apartheid Is Nazism , Shanachie, 1987.
- The Prophets , Capitol, 1989.
- The Best of Alpha Blondy , Shanachie, 1990.
- SOS Tribal War , Alex, 1991.
- Masada , World Pacific, 1992.
- Live au Zenith , World Pacific, 1992.
- Dieu , World Pacific, 1994.
- The Best of Alpha Blondy , World Pacific, 1995.
- Yitzhak Rabin , Lightyear, 1998.
- Paris Percy , Shanachie, 2001.
- Merci , Shanachie, 2002.
- Contemporary Black Biography, Volume 30, Gale Group, 2001.
- Larkin, Colin, editor, The Virgin Encyclopedia of Reggae, Virgin, 1998.
- Africa News Service, January 16, 2003.
- Billboard, July 10, 1993, p. R2.
- Gazette (Montreal, Canada), November 21, 1998, p. D9.
- Jerusalem Post, June 6, 2000, Arts p. 10.
- Los Angeles Times, February 21, 1988, Calendar p. 76; February 29, 1988, Calendar p. 6.
- New York Times, March 22, 1998, p. C13.
- Ottawa Citizen, August 13, 1998, p. F6.
- Toronto Star, March 31, 1988, p. B3.
- Washington Post, April 8, 1988, p. D1; August 5, 1998, p. C5; August 7, 1998, p. D4; January 10, 2000, p. A14.
- "Alpha Blondy," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (November 6, 2002).