Only a few artists capture the spirit and vibrancy of Africa quite like Dobet Gnahoré. Celebrating two decades of a vibrant career, the French-based Ivorian singer/songwriter continues to enchant audiences globally, gaining new followers on a daily basis. Her unique blend of relentless African rhythms and contemporary Afro-pop, infused with poignant social messages, resonates deeply with her fans, both old and new. Like the ones who fell under her music spell a few weeks ago, during her first visit to North Macedonia participating in PIN Conference.
On the cusp of her energising performance in Skopje, we had the unique opportunity to engage with Dobet for a quick but in-depth chat. As we sat down with her, the conversation naturally steered toward her upcoming album, her electrifying live performances, and her influential role as a voice for women.
Zouzou, was our starting point. Anticipated by the singles “Ayoka” and “Gni,” the album is about to be unveiled by Cumbancha in late February. Dobet started our conversation by introducing her upcoming release with a spark in her eyes, “TThe album ‘Zouzou’ continues the tradition of featuring Ivory Coast artists in my albums. It’s mostly composed and arranged in the Ivory Coast by Dr. Wang, a young producer who worked with Malian R&B star AyaNakamura. So, it’s a more modern, urban album that I plan to release in February 2024”.
The story of Dobet Gnahoré is also a tale of collaborations. In this regard, Zozou is enriched not only by contributions from one of Abidjan’s most sought-after beatmakers, Momo Wang (aka Dr. Wang), and leading coupé-décalé singer Ariel Sheney among others, but also reaffirms her long-standing partnership with her label, Cumbancha, and its founder JacobEdgar. This collaboration, spanning almost over two decades, is a harmony of minds and music. “I met Jacob 20 years ago for my second album [Na Afriki]; this one will be my fourth with the label,” she recalls fondly. “He understands me. We have the same vision when we work together,” she adds, highlighting a synergy that has produced four albums, each a chapter in their shared musical journey.
In Dobet’s narrative, each album marks a rebirth. “For me, every new album feels like a fresh beginning. It’s a new Dobet, a new story. I’m continuously growing and evolving in my music, infusing it with my emotions and experiences,” she reflects. Her music is an ever-evolving landscape, where the growth is not just artistic but also deeply personal. She continues, “I keep growing with my music. I explore and understand my emotions and feelings not just for myself, but for my people, for the world.”
Her approach to music is a dance between tradition and modernity. She describes this fusion with enthusiasm, “I take traditional rhythms and blend them with electronic instruments on my computer. For example, when I travel, I listen to all kinds of music. Now, I like listening to urban music. But urban music from Africa originates from traditional music. Only the instruments, the choice of electronic instruments, change. But the sound, the rhythm, remains the same.” This blend, where electronic beats meet the timeless rhythms of Africa, has become her signature.
While when it comes to her influences, she says, “My inspiration comes from everywhere – daily life, my interactions with people, and especially my country and continent. My goal has always been to redefine the image of African women through my music.”
Beyond the notes and the rhythms lies indeed a deeper mission: redefining the image of African women. “I want to give a new image to African women,” she asserts. This vision has been a constant in her journey, unwavering and bold.
Navigating the challenges of balancing her personal life with her career, Dobet speaks of the complexities with raw honesty. “It’s definitely not easy. Balancing the roles of being a woman, a wife, a mother, and an artist requires a lot of mental and emotional strength. It’s a path filled with obstacles, especially when dealing with societal expectations and respect in the industry, and you can easily end up losing your path, because your family wants you to be married, your husband wants you to be at home, your children need their mother. In our artistic milieu as well, you often find a man who wants you, and you don’t want that, you want people to respect you for your work. Many women give up because of these challenges, but I’ve always tried to find a way to continue, without losing sight of who I am.” she admits.
In a world that often demands women choose between these roles, she finds strength in embracing them all, even if it means emphasizing different aspects of herself at different times. “There have been times when I felt I had to somewhat suppress my feminine side. I’ve been doing this work for 20 years, and during this time, I often had to downplay that part of me to earn respect and avoid being taken advantage of, simply because I am a woman. So, it’s complex. While I want to be seen and gain more visibility, I’ve had to contend with the risk of being blackmailed or disrespected. So, at times, I’ve had to show a more masculine side. It’s not easy, but it’s something I’ve found necessary to do“.
As we delve into her story, she starts with a reflection that resonates with humility and pride. “I didn’t quite get that at first,” she confesses when asked about being a role model. “But yes, I’m very happy. However, I don’t just think about being a role model.”
Navigating through the labyrinth of expectations and perceptions, Dobet maintains a remarkable sense of self. “I follow my way,” she asserts. “I’ve learned to follow my own path, doing things for myself first and foremost. If I start thinking I’m doing this solely for others, I lose my balance. My goal is to be a genuine example, driven by my own feelings and sensibilities. I do it in my own way, because as you know, as an artist, I am deeply sensitive. That’s why I don’t overly promote myself or get too caught up in what I am doing. It’s important for me to stay true to my original ideas and inspirations. Sometimes, I need to isolate myself from external expectations and just close off the outside world to keep going.” In these words lies the essence of her artistic integrity – a commitment to personal truth over public acclaim.
In the world of creativity, where every artist is a mosaic of sensitivity and strength, Dobet understands the importance of staying grounded. She explains, “I don’t put myself too much forward. I avoid being an example just for the sake of it,” a testament to her belief in staying true to her core. Her approach to shielding herself from the noise of the world is as poetic as her music. “Sometimes, I have to close my ears and eyes just to continue on my path.” In these simple acts, Dobet finds the solitude necessary for her creative spirit to flourish, untouched by the swirling winds of opinion and expectation.
Dobet recalls an inspiring figure from her past the late Cape Verdean singer Cesaria Evora, a woman whose resilience in the face of life’s challenges left an indelible mark on her. “Her resilience and talent are what inspire me. She played in bars from a young age and never stopped pursuing her passion until her last breath. Her journey reassures me that staying true to oneself and one’s art can lead to success.”
Reflecting on her experience at PIN Conference and her first encounter with North Macedonia, she affirms, “It’s my first time here, and I really like it. I hope the audience appreciated my work too because I’d love to return.” Her words reflect an artist’s excitement at touching new souls with her music.
But that’s what Dobet does best when on stage. Every live set is a journey unto itself, a new challenge that fuels her artistic fire. “Each performance is a challenge for me. I focus a lot on rhythm, I dance, move, and play various instruments on stage. My aim is to offer a holistic experience – if someone doesn’t connect with my music or lyrics, they might still enjoy the dance or the energy of the show“, she shares. “I understand that not everyone will like every aspect of an artist, so I try to provide a diverse array of elements for my audience to enjoy. So that at least they say, ‘Ah, that wasn’t good, I didn’t like that, but I did like that.’ I try to offer everything,” she says, speaking of the energy and passion she pours into every show, every dance move, every note.
As our conversation reached its end, Dobet offered a glimpse into what fuels her musical journey. “I draw from the rich tapestry of African culture,” she remarked, highlighting her profound bond with her roots. Her latest work, Zouzou, is a vivid illustration of her commitment to this cause, demonstrating the significant role African musicians play in shaping global music trends.