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Wafande: On His Life and Hope for Refugees

Wafande Jolivel Zahor is a leading reggae, hip-hop and soul musician in Denmark. His music is produced by the legendary Danish musician and producer Pharfar. He is also signed to the world´s leading record label, Universal Studios. Zach K. spoke to him in Copenhagen about his life and his hopes for better treatment of asylum seekers and refugees in Denmark.

By Zach K.

“Just give me a smile, when you meet me on the way… you have only one life to live, so enjoy it, and give me a smile” (Gi Mig Et Smil – Hit single 2011)

How do you categorize a man whose mother is half French, half Dane, and whose father has roots in Malawi, Congo, Oman and Tanzania? But that is Wafande for you. A polished reggae and soul musician whose fanatical following extends beyond Denmark´s horizons.

Born and partly bred in the vibrant Freetown of Christiania, Wafande is hitting the music scene with a bang, and his message – Peace! At birth he was named Wafande Jolivel Zahor. The last two names have since faded. With huge album sales and top-of-the-chart hits, one would be forgiven for expecting a sophisticated, flashy personality. But for Wafande, life is more than glamour and ego. He is a humble being who stays in touch with his Christiania roots.

French, Dane or What…

We plan to meet at the Copenhagen Central Station on a Thursday afternoon. He meets me and our photographer with a cheerful smile that I soon realise is his signature expression. Five minutes later we are sitting in a cafe with our cameras rolling. I question if he ever experiences an identity crisis considering his diverse backgrounds; “I grew up half my life in Christiania and the other half in France. I am Danish when in Denmark, French when in France.” He sips his beer. Two sips later, “This is my Danish part,” he quips. Apart from music, he was also a talented basketball player. He played for the French national youth program and won an athletic scholarship to study in the US. This presented him with a choice between the scholarship and being with family. He chose the latter and gave up the scholarship.

Wafande`s music touches on social themes. He particularly focuses on integration, racial issues and coexistence in Denmark. I am curious to know how his life experiences have influenced the themes in his music. “When I moved back from France to Denmark, I lived with my dad but it did not go so well. I got kicked out of the house shortly after moving in.” He ended up living on the streets with his friends. That was to be his defining moment. Rap music started running in his veins. He joined a school where he had access to a studio where he honed his lyrical skills.

Long Way Home…

Looking at him now, with success on his shoulders and a smile on his face, it is hard to imagine the tough young life he endured on the streets. He credits his good grounding in the determination of his mother. “My mother did a good job in letting me follow my dreams and still kept me grounded.” But how was it growing up in Christiania with all the influences there, including drugs? “People cared about each other in Christiania, it was a close-knit community. Drugs were there but we never got involved. They were easily accessible therefore less interesting. Myself and most of my friends never used them, not even smoked a cigarette until I was eighteen.”

The first song that catapulted him to fame was Lang Vej Hjem (Long Way Home). It was politically charged. In it he called on fellow Danes to shun politicians like Pia Kjærsgaard (an MP from the Danish People´s Party), who, in his opinion, seek to incite Danes against foreigners with venomous statements. He dedicated the last verse of the song to refugees.

It is not a choice to be a refugee
they lose their family and their lives turn black
and then they come here to a closed gate
it shouldn’t be like that

His subsequent hits included “Gi Mig Et Smil” (Give me a smile), and most recently Uartig (Naughty), currently riding high on the airwaves.

I ask his opinion about Danes’ perspectives on foreigners. “Sometimes in the Danish society, they have a ´correct´ way of saying they are not racists,” he says. “ They will call you second-generation foreigner. But no matter how you put it, that is a racist remark, because even if you are sixth generation, they still refer to you as second generation. It makes no sense.”

His mission is to open the eyes of his society. He strives to make society understand how hard it is being a foreigner or mixed race in Denmark. “I am complaining because every time I try to get a job they still look at my face and ask if my name is Mohamed!” He expresses his love for Denmark with all the social welfare, but is quick to point out that a change of attitude towards foreigners is necessary.

 Deep Sympathy for Refugees

Wafande narrates how he once played a concert in an asylum centre in Nordjylland. There was a 13-year-old boy who had escaped from Gaza. He had scars all over his face from a bomb that almost blew him up. Before he escaped, he managed to get into their burning house and rescued his two baby sisters from the flames and ran out with them. Somehow they made it out of Gaza all the way to Sweden.They finally landed in Denmark.

His sisters were then six and eight years old. ”Obviously they have nothing to go back to. They come here, we put them in an asylum centre, and say here you go, we saved you. But those children need more help. They need psychological help, they need a normal community. We have to learn to treat refugees better.”

About his political stance, his answer is short and quick. “I hate politics, period!. I have strong feelings for freedom and equality. Basic humanity. To be just and not care about colour or ethnicity.” “But how realistic is that dream?” I interject. “It is not realistic,” he adds, “It is a dream world, but there are more and more people taking notice that some things going on in Danish politics are not right.”

But Wafande´s life is not just music. He makes time to give back to his community. He engages children in various projects. He also works with humanitarian organisations like the Red Cross youth wing to spread the message of universal friendship and humanitarian relations. He also plays concerts for charity.

Keep Smiling

As for his input in the ongoing asylum debate in Denmark – “They [asylum seekers], should be allowed to go to school and to work. Probably their families are dead, the best we can do is to give them a new start to life.” Wafande will never venture into politics. But I still ask him what is the one thing he would change if he woke up one day to find himself the Danish Prime Minister. “I would have very heavy culture politics. I would try and teach the Danes that the world is bigger than what they can see in front of their noses, I would try to make the sun shine in winter time.” His parting shot for asylum seekers and refugees coming to Denmark is: “I cross my fingers for you, so gi mig et smil !”

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