In advance of his appearance at the David Rubenstein Atrium tomorrow night, Sierra Leonean superstar Bajah, of Bajah + the Dry Eye Crew, talks about the important role artists play in society and how he uses his music to speak up.
Eileen Willis: The "dry eye"” in your band name comes from an expression meaning "boldness." Were you bold before you started making music, or did making music make you bold?
Bajah: Well, before I started making music I was still bold, but it was just among my peers. According to our culture you should always lower your voice when taking to an older person, as a sign of respect. And when I started making music, seeing all the corruption, promises, and lies by our so-called leaders made me go "dry eye" on them . . . to remind them about the promises they can't fulfill and how they don't want to tell the people they've failed us and instead they use force.
EW: You've been called "the voice of the voiceless." What does it mean to you to be in a position to speak truth to power?
Bajah: It means everything to me. I would love to sing feel-good music all my life if my people were not crying about the system. I use my music to translate the way the people in the ghetto feel, the lower class and middle class.
EW: What is the artist's responsibility, if any, to be a voice for the voiceless?
Bajah: First thing first, you have to be dry eye. If not they will just walk on us like a red carpet. Be in touch with the lower class to know their messages that the government don't want to hear. Because they like it easy. You should be responsible to keep them in check, not just politicians but also how we treat one another as humans.
EW: In terms of the message in your music, how do you balance talking about big problems that are going on with feel-good things like love, hope, and staying positive?
Bajah: We have to tackle bigger problems. Because we can't sit and watch them break it down for all of us. Some people will always speak up. And while we're in the revolution and speaking up we also have to give the people courage that we win by making music of love, to stay strong and positive, and also make feel-good music to just dance your stress off.
EW: Hip-hop is a truly worldwide art form now. What do you think made it become so universal?
Bajah: To me it was more of the message and flow. They were rapping about the Struggle and real stuff that most people can relate to all over the world. And the flow was more consistent and mostly appealing to youths.
EW: What are you looking forward to in terms of future projects?
Bajah: I have two projects I'm excited about, one is an album I did with a producer by the name of Billy Polo of Prince Polo records to be released in the middle of this year. And another project called "We Chief" is comprised of two DJ/producers and a female singer and me, which is still in works. But I just can't wait to get them out!
Eileen Willis is the Editorial Director at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.