Rokia Traoré is the inspiring Malian singer-songwriter and musician at the creative helm of this year’s Brighton Festival. It was hearing her speak at the Festival launch that inspired us to choose ‘Curiosity’ as our overall theme for this, May, issue. And I felt privileged to speak to her over the phone from Mali in the Viva office one Monday morning.
I started by asking how she believes curiosity can be key to making this world work: can we be curious about each other, rather than fearful?
She’s compelling on the subject. “Between people from different cultures, but also between people who are friends, or members of the same family, we mustn’t be afraid. We must recognise that fear is a first, natural, human response. And we must learn to keep calm in all situations, to remain curious about what it is the person in front of you is trying to express. Why does a person look angry all the time?”
She talked about keeping calm through that initial heat; discovering what we have in common; and then, beyond that, seeing what is different – and how beautiful that diversity is.
“We must be careful”, she said. “Nothing is simple in this world, nothing black and white. What you see or hear, so often the opposite is actually true. Take time. Have an open, clear mind.”
Rokia values stories, and her work does not shy away from terrible realities. “Huge mistakes have been made,” she says; “how do we learn from them?” But it’s also clear that remaining ‘open to hope’ matters. “Yes”, she says. “We need to acknowledge when something terrible has occured, and reparation needs making to those who were subject to it. But we are all capable of good and bad. In the history of the world, all nations have done great good, and terrible harm. What we need is to be curious about what happened where, and how it came to be a problem. How can we make this world work the best it can be? It will never be perfect, and none of it’s easy.”
Art and culture have a huge part to play, Rokia believes. “This is my dream for Africa too – and in setting up the Foundation [Foundation Passerelle]. It’s very hard, without funding, to support artists to produce work that isn’t just about making money, but has true artistic integrity. But it’s such important, rewarding work. Artists have this ability to put into words – or show back – an experience other people have been having all along but been unable to express. And our ability to collaborate is also vital. We are not alone in this world, though we are alone in our minds and bodies. We have to learn to open our minds to each other.
“I hope people will have good moments at this year’s festival, but also instructive moments. I want to give audiences things to think about. It’s perhaps the most amazing way of all to learn – to travel in the mind through art.”
4th-26th May, brightonfestival.org