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Johnny Strange: 'In Africa, I'm the white guy'

Berlin band Culcha Candela is a musical melting pot - blending reggae, dancehall, and hip-hop with lyrics in English, German, Spanish, and Patois. Deutsche Welle spoke with band singer Johnny Strange.

Deutsche Welle: Johnny Strange is your artistic name. What's so strange about you?

Johnny Strange: I'm a stranger in a certain way since I come from two different worlds. I realized that when I was a little kid. On visits to Africa, I was a white guy. Back in Germany or Europe, I was a black guy. So people have always looked at me like I'm foreign. But I took this and turned it into something positive for myself - that I'm at home everywhere I go. And it's the same thing with music: I feel at home in very different kind of music! I like to mix music and make something new out of it. And that's the strange thing about it - so the "strange" or "foreign" is not a negative thing, but a positive one!

Positive, indeed! Your father is from Uganda. Your mother is from Germany. You live in Berlin. And your band is part of the German reggae and dancehall scene. Reggae has been a political genre in the past - where people tend to pour salt in the wound and say "Hey, this is something we need to change! This is injustice and we're not taking it!" Dancehall, on the other hand, is more of a positive, optimistic, "let's party" kind of music that gets good energy going. Your band, Culcha  Candela - which means something like "hot culture" - is part of that. How would you describe the scene in Berlin?

The scene here: not huge, but nice. And growing. When we started ten years ago, people thought things would just pass over. But it's all still alive and strong. In fact, I think maybe it's going to get even more intense as some strong artists come along.

Johnny Strange von der Berliner Musikgruppe Culcha Candela demonstriert am Sonnabend (09.06.2012) am Alexanderplatz in Berlin beim weltweiten Protestmarsch Guluwalk unter dem Motto Krieg ist kein Kinderspiel. Mit dem Guluwalk will der Humanistische Verband die Aufmerksamkeit der Gesellschaft auf die Lage der Kinder in aller Welt lenken, die Opfer von Sklaverei und Gewalt sind, oder in Konflikten als Soldaten rekrutiert werden. Foto: Matthias Balk dpa/lbn +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++

Johnny Strange, of 'Culcha Candela'

But German reggae has a hard time of it. English-language reggae, also from Germany, is stronger because somehow it's not so easy to translate the conscious message of reggae into German. The German language can be very harsh. And sometimes when you listen and try to hear the message, it's hard to dance.

You mean German is too complicated to get simple political messages across?

Yeah, yeah... In German, you say "Stock im Arsch."

Which is like saying, "people are very stiff."

And the language is somehow is like that too. But there are some people who can do it. And, the number is growing!

A positive attitude and that sort of positive energy you get out of music is something that's part of your life - not just in music, but also in the projects you tackle. One project you're involved in is called "Afrika RISE." What's it about?

It's been around for over half a decade now. It's an organization we developed together with different musicians - where we just said we want to change things. That's actually one big reason why I make music, and also was our main aim with Culcha Candela - not just to make music, but to work for change with it. I think that's the approach taken in many kinds of music. But that notion is particularly strong in reggae.

Culcha Candela performing in Berlin Copyright: Paul Zinken/dapd

Culcha Candela describes itself as 'multiethnic'

So, we had a lot of political songs - but then we said we don't want to just talk about things. We started getting different musicians together, and released a compilation CD with African artists and German artists. And with the money that we made with that first CD, and with later CDs,  DVDs, T-shirts, soccer balls, concerts, and various activities, we raised money for vocational, secondary school in Uganda. We give young people the opportunity to get training in bricklaying, construction, tailoring, mechanics and different professions where they can build themselves a better future. And yeah, to empower the youth especially and also to help find new perspectives for development, especially in the villages - like solar energy and sustainable farming, ways of developing the communities.

What's the Ugandan side to the music?

We have Ugandan musicians, a lot of them. And sometimes we make tracks and release CDs with them. And then we mix them  together with other German artists into one song, turning it into something new.  

The music in Uganda is very energetic, positive…it's reggae-dancehall in a way. But it's also African, and hip-hop. Ugandans are poor, but they don't talk about violence, and they're not very violent. They are positive. So, the music is very motivating! When you go there, you feel the energy. Everybody wants to dance, even small children. Nobody wants to fight!

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