'I am both black and white, both American and Swedish'
Jason Diakité – perhaps better known by his rap artist name Timbuktu – has decided to stop being half.
“I don’t define myself that way anymore. I am both black and white, both American and Swedish,” he tells The Local. “That’s one of the biggest revelations I’ve had in life.”
And with what he’s accomplished in life so far it’s easy to see that Jason doesn’t do things halfway.
The Swedish-born son of two American parents already has 11 studio albums under his belt, picking up seven Swedish Grammy awards along the way to becoming one of the giants of Swedish hip-hop music.
He’s appeared on numerous television shows, hosted a radio show, and gained accolades for his activism against racism and xenophobia. And now he’s a published author as well, with his first book – based on his family history – released this past autumn.
But for all his success - or perhaps hand in hand with it - Jason continues to come to terms with his identity as a man of mixed race and mixed nationality.
His mother comes from a white, Republican-leaning family; his father is black and comes from the working class with roots in plantation slavery. He was born and raised in the sleepy Swedish town of Lund, now lives in New York, and carries two passports.
“But it’s hard for me not to intuitively view the world through Swedish eyes,” he remarks. “I have Swedish culture in me from my fingertips to my toes.”
He says it’s hard to explain to a non-Swede what exactly “Swedishness” is – but much of it is about the Nordic model of social democracy.
“The Nordics have a unique system of putting the wealth of the country to work for a lot of people, rather than a concentrated few,” he explains. A political system which favours only certain members of society can only go so far.
“If your neighbour’s house is on fire, that will affect you, no matter how many police you put on the street and no matter how high you build a fence between you and them,” he says. “So we focus more on humanity and sustainability than nationalism.”
Photo: Fredrik Etoall
A rap star is born
But while growing up in Lund, surrounded by social democracy, certainly left Jason feeling Swedish, it was an American cousin who helped shape his eventual career path.
“In the late 1980s my cousin from Brooklyn came to live with us, and he brought a lot of cassette tapes with him,” Jason recalls. “That’s how I discovered hip hop. It just drew me in.”
He says he loved the confidence and swagger of the rappers. And also…
“They looked like me. My identity was still being formed and…hip hop became my guiding star.”
His first solo album, T2: Kontrakultur was released in 2000, and in 2002 - after his second album - he won his first Swedish Grammy award.
And that was just the beginning.
It didn’t take long for “Timbuktu” to become one of Sweden’s most famous rappers - thanks in large part to Jason’s scathingly honest, frequently political lyrics. They’ve landed him in some controversy, particularly with the anti-immigration Sweden Democrat party – but for Jason, that’s part of the beauty of the art.
“Music can be shaped to be used for any number of things – from pure entertainment to an actual uprising. It all depends on the listener and the artist,” he explains.
He adds that hip hop has a raw honesty – “both mindless and mindful”. And it’s particularly strong in tough times – like those he feels the US is facing with Donald Trump as president.
“It’s frightening to see that this is the kind of medicine that the United States has prescribed – to itself and the world,” Jason says.
“One ironic aspect of a right-wing populist leading the country is that the quality of music is going to be so high over the next four years. Whenever things are at their worst, musicians and artists show our best.”
The space between identities
There was a time when Jason himself thought of entering politics. But now he’s not so sure.
“I have always been interested in politics. But in reality… I’m a kind of naïve person in a lot of ways, and I’ve realized that it’s sometimes a lot harder to change things from the inside than the outside.”
But he is trying his hand at other new pursuits: the songwriter has turned the page to try his hand at a different kind of writing.
His first book, En droppe midnatt (A Drop of Midnight), was released in November. It's a family biography of sorts, delving into his grandfather's past on the cotton plantations of South Carolina – and confronting the racism still there to this day.
Over a cup of coffee with his father in Malmö one day, Jason’s dad told him about a time when he was travelling in the American south in 1965 and thought he was going to be lynched.
After that Jason decided to follow his family roots, back to where his grandfather was born in Allendale, South Carolina, in 1907. He looked out at the fields where his grandfather was picking cotton as a sharecropper at the age of five.
“It had a big emotional impact on me, seeing the rural south as it stands today,” Jason says. “There was something poetic about standing there, seeing the cotton fields still growing, still vast, and the old plantation houses still standing, with new coats of paint. It’s all still there.”
The effects of slavery are still there, too, like “open wounds”.
While many parts of the US – such as Jason’s current home, New York – may be more diverse than Sweden and the Nordics, he says that race and racial divides are structured into American society in a different way.
“I’m never more aware of my skin colour than when I’m in the US,” he says.
“The US is full of stories of mixed heritage, yet things like race and class are built into laws, society, and the cultural sub-consciousness in a way that they’re not in Sweden. I think that being an ethnically and religious diverse society is a newer reality for Sweden, and it’s still manoeuvrable. It hasn’t cemented its foundation like the States.”
But for Jason – who has always felt very black with his mother’s family and very white with his father’s family – experiencing that reality helped him map out his past and consolidate who he is.
“I grew up in Sweden with two American parents, one black and white. I grew up in the space between all those identities. And my road to discovering who I am, and where I belong, has been a winding one,” he says. “But having more than one identity has broadened my horizons and hopefully given me some more humanistic values.”
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