The legendary Senegalese
musician on Africa Utopia, music
and human rights activism

It's very clear what message Baaba Maal wants to impart on the world. He’s repeated it several times mere minutes into our interview. “A positive Africa,” he says. “Not just the Africa that is on show all the time like begging, crying and fighting.” Africa as he puts it “is moving forward but people don't seem to know it. We are moving forward when it comes to technology, when it comes to culture, when it comes to communication and that's the Africa we wanted to show.”

He is referring to Africa Utopia at London’s Southbank Centre - an event he’s championed since its inception in 2012 as its founding artistic collaborator. The festival aims to celebrate all that is great about modern Africa and its diaspora through exclusive screenings, gigs, debates and performances. This weekend the award winning Senegalese superstar is in conversation with the Guardian’s Gary Younge and then hosts a club night featuring DJ sets from Johan Hugo of Afropean outfit The Very Best. Hugo was also the producer on The Traveller, Maal’s recently released album after a seven year hiatus. His fascination with and sentiment on this modern Africa is evident in this work. “It’s not just Senegalese music but music that travels all over the world. What I really appreciate from Johan is that he is an open minded musician who has the ability to listen to everything, different people who come from different platforms - Sweden, Mali and England, that all blend together in a very natural and organic way.”

The album also features an unexpected but widely successful collaboration with purveyors of British folk rock Mumford and Sons. Their joint track There Will Be A Time, that also features The Very Best and Beatenberg, appeared on Mumford and Son’s recent Johannesburg mini LP. The fundamental lesson is that to appreciate music from the continent and elsewhere is another form of travel. “It’s about getting people from all different stages of life and learning from each other musically. You have a chance to blend all this music in a good way and probably make something great,” he says. “It’s really interesting to see these young generations that are coming up. In Senegal I’m watching Jack from the group Takeifa as well as Adji Ouza.” Both these artists are “very modern in their way of thinking, of behaving and making music. The way they extend themselves is arrogant but in a good way. Just to say we are Africans, we are modern and we are proud, we have culture - I love that. Thank god we have these generations coming after us, you know.”


“It’s really interesting to see these young generations that are coming up… The way they extend themselves is arrogant but in a good way. Just to say we are Africans, we are modern and we are proud, we have culture - I love that”


A lot of Maal’s thinking these days is about Blues du Fleuve, the music festival founded by the singer in his hometown of Podor that commands thousands of revellers. He’s getting ready for this year’s edition in December and hopes for it to become Africa’s Glastonbury. “It’s getting bigger and bigger. We have a movie about it coming out in October that will be showing in film festivals worldwide.”

Through and beyond music, Maal is dedicated to speaking on such issues that matter to Africans. “For example, Chinese people on the continent, what are they doing here, is it good, is it bad, what can Africans get from that and what can we give to China and what can we give to the rest of the world?” I ask him whether as an acclaimed musician  from the continent who commands international attention, does he feels he has to speak about Africa or promote its cultures. “At a certain level I think you should use that power to entertain people to sing and dance, but although it is very difficult, at the same time to talk about the important things that matter to a lot of people.” Maal has always thrown himself into social activism on Africa and has campaigned on human rights since becoming global ambassador for Oxfam in 2012. “Culture and music especially have always been something that people use to say what people are thinking.”

Must the two go together? “Activism and entertaining go well together if you know how to do it,” he muses. “It has to go together because even on the continent when you are a great singer and people dance and you get very popular, they are still going to ask what your message is. It can be a simple message of love but at the end of the day they are all messages.”

As part of Africa Utopia, Baaba Maal is in conversation with Guardian editor-at-large Gary Younge on Activism, Africa and the arts on 3 September from 3.30pm – 4.15pm, then presents a club night from 7pm at the Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall