MISIA Discusses (Part2): Start by Learning About Africa and Its Diversity
—It seems that your interest in Africa came from music.
Soul music—which has had a big influence on me—has its roots in Africa, so I'd always been very interested in the continent. Because of charity singles like Band Aid's hit "Do They Know It's Christmas?" in the 1980s, and USA for Africa's "We Are the World," I also knew about the poverty in Africa. Although, I thought that these sorts of issues would be solved by the time I became an adult.
But as I started becoming interested in Africa and learning more about the continent, it began occurring to me that issues like poverty, war, or climate change were all interconnected, not just in Africa but throughout the world. I just had no idea what I could do about it. That's when I met Bono from U2. He told me he'd visited Africa many times, and that I should do the same. So, in 2007, I visited Kenya.
But if you were to ask me if I found the answers there . . . I don't know. In some ways, I became even more confused. The country had such a rich culture, so much nature, incredible music. It was such a deep place that it made me wonder why these issues persisted.
The one thing I did discover, though, was the power of learning. After visiting elementary schools in the slums, I started to believe very strongly that education is life, and that it leads to more life. That was when I decided I would get involved in supporting children's education. And I wanted to start with us learning from each other—with us learning more about Africa too. What we know of Africa is just a tiny portion of what the continent is actually like. What's worse, the parts that people do know tend to be sad, related to issues like starvation or poverty. I wanted more people to know about the wonderful parts of Africa as well.
—Since then, you've traveled to many other countries, including Malawi, Mali, and South Africa.
All of these countries were completely different from each other. I also learned that they had a lot of economic and trade links to Japan. Africa is famous for its chocolate and coffee exports, but I'll bet you didn't know that about 70% of Japan's octopus imports come from Africa. Not many people know that rooibos tea can only be grown in South Africa, or that Japan imports minerals, like the bronze used in its 10-yen coins, from Africa.
In 2008, when the 4th Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD 4) was held in Yokohama, I held a live concert with singer Kubota Toshinobu called "TAKE ACTION! 2008 MISIA Africa Benefit Live Yokohama." The point of the concert was to encourage people to learn about Africa and develop an interest in TICAD. The Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour performed with us. He said, "music is a language." I'll never forget that. I keep those words close to my heart whenever I go to any country.
—Do you think that being a musician helps you develop connections with the people in Africa?
Yes. I've seen that a lot of people in African countries like music and dance. For instance, when I visit elementary schools, I'll sometimes just sing and dance with the children to communicate with them. That usually gets them to open up to me. They'll sometimes teach me songs too, and if it's in a call-and-response style, right away you're able to keep up with the leader's melody. It's a kind of magic, getting everyone to sing the same song without them knowing it beforehand.
In addition to Youssou, I had the honor of collaborating with DouDou N'Diaye Rose, who is also from Senegal. The local people have a really deep respect for both of them. When I went to Africa, there were people who came up to me saying, "Aren't you the woman who was singing with Youssou?"
—What would you want to communicate to people who want to do something for Africa?
What's important is that you learn about Africa. I think by learning about Africa, you'll come to understand what you can do for the continent. It'd be even better if you could learn about Africa without prejudice or getting caught up in stereotypes—if you could learn about it as somewhere "close," not far away. Once, I gave a lecture at a university with a picture book I wrote, Heart no Leona. I remember that just talking about the octopus imports I mentioned earlier was enough to get a huge reaction from the students. I think you have to find your own answers for creating this kind of connection, if you want to really believe in it. So, I'd want people to learn and seek their own answers.
—There have been concerns about the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on the continent. Have you heard anything from the local people?
When I contacted Magoso School in Kenya—one of the schools I've been working to support—they said that a lot of people had lost their jobs and it was a pretty dire situation. But they also said, "We've battled infectious disease, helped each other, and lived through so many things without preventive medicine, vaccines, disinfectants, or even clean water. What makes this different from other times in the past? The only thing that's different is that now, developed countries are also having to battle these infectious diseases, and it's causing all this panic. I wish people in developed countries would calm down and work together to solve the current situation."
I was stunned. It was about the time when there were a lot of medical shortages, but it occurred to me that Japan still had clean water, soap, even medical care. And in Africa, there had been places that had been carrying out virtual diagnoses because the villages were so far apart. I realized that what was important was learning what we could from each other, bringing out our best ideas, and working together to overcome the current situation.
—What is your vision with regard to your involvement in Africa?
I'd like more people to learn about the wonderful side to Africa, including its music and art, all throughout the world. African music has already had a huge influence on the world, and people of African origin have been very successful in the fashion industry. It's my hope that these wonderful aspects of Africa will be transmitted to Japan as well, where they'll enrich people's souls. It'd be great if I could help with that, and if my music could play a part, that would be even better. I'd also want to hold concerts in Africa and have people in Africa learn about Japanese music. Think how wonderful it would be if we could use music to achieve world peace.
Photos Courtesy of mudef（music design foundation）
Translation by Amitt