A conversation with the Jamaican born DJ/Producer and Bacardi Sound Of Rum curator who's worked with Mr Eazi, Vanessa Mdee, Ice Prince and Runtown.
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"If we aren't talking about growth, positivity and good energy in the opportunities that we have, then we're wasting our opportunities" Walshy Fire says. "It's about helping move the culture forward - which is what I want to do". The artist, born Leighton Paul Walsh, recently released his Afrobeats and dancehall-fusing debut solo album, ABENG, after achieving global success as one third of supergroup Major Lazer and producing standout hits such as Koffee's "Toast".
In light of Ghana's Year of Return this year and Bacardi's Sound Of Rum campaign which brings artists, curators and music platforms together for the South African Summer we spoke to Walshy and chatted music, heritage and his relationship with Africa. Check out our interview, lightly edited for clarity, below:
You spent your childhood in Jamaica until moving to Miami aged 11. Were you ever exposed to music directly from Africa?
No not all. Directly is the keyword here because clearly the influence was in everything. As far as a direct African artist or song I'd say the closest thing was Paul Simon's "Diamonds On The Soles of Her Shoes". He had Ladysmith Black Mambazo on there and those guys gave me goosebumps! That was the first time we had ever seen Africans performing.
When did you start seeing a turnaround?
Recently, can you imagine? I was a kid when that came out. We're talking about only recently when you can really see a change.
You've taken it upon yourself to make that relationship stronger. How has that been logistically?
Definitely. It's been easy. We're all black people who love each other, want to work with each other and want to see each other thrive. As much as we might see in the news, or maybe even hear in songs sometimes, how we want to tear each other down - the reality is we don't. We don't at all, so it's been a great experience.
You've spoken about seeing similarities between the folks in the Caribbean and your family members in Kenya before, have you seen the same ties with the people of South Africa?
All the time. It's not even in just music, you know. It's in the mannerisms, food and every single thing. Like the BMW 325i is huge in Jamaica, I know it's huge there too. That was the first place I've seen outside the Caribbean that has maintained that car amongst the youth; where the young kids are like "this is the badass car". And they've seen it how we do in Jamaica.
They call it a Gusheshe here, it's a pretty huge part of the culture...
Yeah I've seen it! It's in everyone's videos so I've seen it.
Do you think the Caribbean itself is still essentialised and stereotyped, even by Africans?
If it is, I don't know. Whenever I go into the world as a Jamaican - I think because of the work that Bob Marley, Rastafarianism, Ganja and Reggae have done for us - I have a very easy path. People are always saying words like "irie" and everyone wants to have me as a part of their crew. So if there is a stereotype, it's a great one.
How was it working with people from different backgrounds on ABENG?
Someone like Ice Prince's culture is so familiar. I can't even explain to you how totally similar the culture is. You know, Ghana and Nigeria are where a majority of us on this side come from. It's like you're with your people so it's an easy transition and flex.
How did you approach your debut solo album in comparison to what you've done with the group projects and compilations?
As far as the group it's everybody's ideas in one pot. When it's my solo project it's really my ideas guiding the whole thing and me putting it together. With somebody like Vanessa Mdee, we've been friends for years and always wanted to work together. So it's just one of those things where it might not have happened when there's so many ideas and so many people involved, whereas when it's just me it's like "yo, I gotta work with Vanessa," and that's it.
How did you manage to get all the recordings together?
Almost everything was done through the internet 'cause obviously everyone is all over the world working on their projects and doing their thing. But most importantly, it was the desire from all the artists. They wanted to be a part of this and I thank them so much 'cause they're the ones that really made it happen. There were some songs that needed to get sung over and have parts re-done. And they all did it. It was an amazing experience.
Speaking of re-doing parts, what is your song-making process like... do you have an outcome in mind and work backwards?
It's different each time but never backward. Never backward! You've gotta know something about Jamaicans: we're the originators of what you see now; which is a lot of positive speech. In Jamaica there are certain words that you just can't say and 'backwards' is one of them. You can't even say 'reverse,' 'number 2' or 'pull up' - unless it's in a song. In Jamaican Patois if you wanna say I'm gonna make a u-turn you say "I'm gonna go round then forward". And this is from decades ago. It's from the '70s, so when I hear people say "change your language" I think that's so crazy. I think that's one of the initial sparks for why Jamaicans are so great in the world. It's because it's embedded in the culture to never say anything negative. But yeah, we just work it out, there's no set way or process.
It's incredible how something seemingly as simple as speech can shape a whole peoples' outlook. You've mentioned before how tired you are of operating on lower frequencies and how you want to tap into a higher consciousness. Does that all stem from speaking that way?
I just believe that there's not enough balance in music on my side of the world. In African music there's a lot of love and a lot of fun. On my side there's a lot of "bitches, hoes, kill niggas and sell crack". It's a lot of that and there's not really much popular balance. Of course there's underground balance, but that's why I want to change all that up.
Do you find it weird that you've had to focus on Africa and the Caribbean (even though that's your lineage) rather than just subverting what's in the American mainstream?
No it's not weird at all. Caribbean music is what I've done my whole life and adding Africa to the Caribbean side is probably a safe, comfortable extension for everybody that's in my world. With the next ABENG project we'll take another step and we'll include England, America and start to think about Canada. But I'm glad it's a comfortable conversation 'cause in my books, this will be a good transition for most people. While it's gonna stay musical first, I definitely have visions (for ABENG). I definitely want it to be something that goes into literature, plays, poetry and art.
Speaking of visions, have you earmarked any South African artists you'd like to work with?
I've worked with so many through Major Lazer, we've worked with Moonchild Sanelly and she's been so dope and inspirational. Her voice is crazy. Sho Madjozi though. She's huge right now in America (after "John Cena") and I love her energy. When she smiles on camera, you're just like "I know her already". You feel so familiar with her, and for me that's Black people - that's what we are. We welcome you and we're awesome, and she's one of those people that's just awesome and super talented.
On your Bacardi Sound Of Rum Spotify playlist you've got a great selection of South African Hip Hop, Gqom, Amapiano and Afrohouse artists - how do see these genres developing into movements the same way Afrobeats has?
I'm not really a predictor, so I don't know. Something we haven't even mentioned could be the next big thing, and none of us saw it coming. Just as long as everyone keeps making good music and it comes out to the world.
Someone bringing African music to the world is Mr Eazi. How was it working with him?
He's probably the loudest person in every room. He does all these speaking events, has EMPAWA and with that mindset he's a bona fide leader. I have that same mindframe and we talk about it all the time. He's a great guy and he's so serious about what he loves. So I love that, you know?
Is that mindframe what makes you such a great ambassador for Bacardi?
Yeah. Bacardi and I have been working together for a long time. Bacardi itself has a lineage that goes back to Africa so we've been able to put together some ideas that really matter in the world. We've been very good at getting things together that people can feel, relate to and just be glad someone is able to make sense of. Bacardi is so embedded in Caribbean culture - from my father, to his own and here I am now. It's a legacy I'm continuing and Bacardi has been so caring about the culture. They've participated in things no other brand has, so we keep going forward. They understand how important the unity of the Caribbean and diaspora is – the unity of all people - so when we talk about the concept of building these bridges I'm very glad Bacardi is a part of it.
Hopefully you'll be coming our way to perform again soon. What would the local audience get from a Walshy Fire show?
I'm sure it'll be a bunch of people that are on the same wavelength. Good people listen to good music and that's that. When you see people listen to bad music, you realise there's something in them that they're suppressing… a greatness. We can bring that greatness out - we've just gotta make a lot more great, positive music and you'll start to see people change, grow and evolve. We're evolving as musicians and we want the people who listen to, and love, our music to do the same.
What could the crowd expect to hear from you?
Just good vibes and good music. Me not know, you know? We'll just walk in and we'll see how we feel, ya feel me? The crowd always guides this ting man!
What would you be hoping young, local acts take away from the Bacardi experience?
I'd hope everybody just gets a chance to open up from their normal spectrum of music and go with an open mind. I'd hope they're able to walk away with something inspirational.
Finally, with all the demands of making music - how do you keep making a positive contribution to the scene and keep doing what moves you?
We're not in the same place we were before, you know? We're in much more control of what's being put out into the world. So as far as industry demands, I feel like I've been able to create a space that's comfortable for me and the people that like my music or energy. We've come together to form a really great synergy and I don't know if that's in any of the bounds of what music is but I know I like it and the people that like that, like it too.
Catch Walshy Fire on Instagram: @walshyfire
Tune in to hear the Bacardi Sound of Rum playlists: Bacardi Sound of Rum
Check out the Bacardi Sound of Rum content series on Bacardi's Youtube Channel.