‘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 am both black and white, both American and Swedish'
Photo: Fredrik Etoall

“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.”

Read more Tales from the Top of the World

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.

One of Timbuktu’s most famous songs – English lyrics in comment section below.

“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.”

Click here to discover more Nordic stories

This article was produced by The Local Client Studio and sponsored by the Nordic Council of Ministers.


What are the best concerts in Sweden this autumn?

Now that Sweden has lifted its audience restrictions for public events, The Local's Paul O'Mahony lists his recommendations for the best gigs to attend over the coming months.

Crowd at a music concert in Debaser, Stockholm
Crowds return to Stockholm venue Debaser after pandemic restrictions on events were lifted. Photo: Pontus Lundahl/TT

Sweden’s musicians, concert promoters and venue operators have struggled to varying degrees through the pandemic. One surefire way to help get them back on their feet is to give organisers and artists the financial reassurance they need by pre-booking concerts. 

Of course these recommendations only apply if you feel safe attending large events; remember that you should stay home and take a Covid-19 test if you experience any symptoms that could be linked to the virus, even if vaccinated. And make sure to check with organisers if there are any specific coronavirus requirements you need to be aware of. 

Coming up: top gigs in Sweden over the next few months 

As a regular gig-goer, live music is the one thing I’ve missed most over the past year and a half. So it is with some excitement (and, I’ll admit, a degree of trepidation) that I prepare to go see Norwegian band Pom Poko this Friday at Hus 7 in Stockholm. Their melodic art-punk album Cheater sparked the year into life on its release in January. They’re also playing Plan B in Malmö on Saturday night

Plan B is also the venue when Squid hit Sweden with a thrilling dose of post-punk on October 15th. Tickets remain available for the show at the time of writing (an absolute steal at 120 kronor), though that’s sadly not the case in Stockholm where their October 16th gig at Melodybox sold out a long time ago. (Although you can sign up to be added to a waiting list). 

Another artist well worth checking out in October is Gothenburg guitarist and singer Amanda Werne, better known as Slowgold. Her live shows are great and she is embarking on a Swedish tour on October 8th. 

Emma-Jean Thackray, one of the UK’s most interesting jazz artists, will be at Fasching in Stockholm on October 15th

For the best kind of sonic assault, Anna von Hasswolff’s band Bada are scheduled to play in Stockholm, Malmö and Gothenburg in late October. 

Have any of you ever seen Gothenburg electronic veterans Little Dragon live? I haven’t but might check them out in November when they swing by Malmö, Stockholm and Gothenburg

Amason are also heading out on the road for a Scandinavian tour in November. If you haven’t heard Amanda Bergman’s voice in a live setting before this will be a treat. 

The inimitable Sibille Attar released her superb second album A History of Silence at the start of the year and she’s finally getting the chance to play her eighties-inspired gems live at Slaktkyrkan in Stockholm on November 18th

Cassandra Jenkins long lurked in the background as a musician in touring bands for people like Eleanor Friedberger and Purple Mountains. But this year’s album An Overview on Phenomenal Nature has really established her as an artist to be reckoned with in her own right. She’s coming to Södra Teatern in Stockholm on November 26th

Always popular in this part of the world, The Jesus and Mary Chain return to Sweden for dates in Stockholm and Gothenburg at the end of November

Wry Finland-Swedish indie outfit Vasas Flora och Fauna have some of the funniest (Swedish) lyrics and catchiest tunes around. They’ll be in Stockholm and Gothenburg the first weekend of December

UK experimental rockers Black Midi are also playing Stockholm and Gothenburg on December 4th and 5th. So prepare to travel if you want to catch both them and Vasas Flora and Fauna. 

As if that wasn’t enough, Bob Hund’s annual ‘week 48’ show also takes place on December 4th. But that has been sold out for ages so no decisions to make there. It is also worth noting though that Sweden’s hardest working band has also written a musical that’s going to be performed in Helsingborg (October-November) and Gothenburg (November)

Bonus: For a post-Christmas pick-me-up try to get down to Little Simz at Slaktkyrkan on January 14th if you’re in Stockholm. The UK rapper’s new album Sometimes I Might Be Introvert is one of this year’s best releases. 

Selected artists playing Sweden in 2022: Henry Rollins, Sarah Klang, Yann Tiersen, Mogwai, Pearl Charles, Wolf Alice, Lloyd Cole, Lord Huron, Future Islands, Josh Rouse + Vetiver, Tricky, Snail Mail, Porridge Radio, Aldous Harding, Shame, The Kooks, The War on Drugs, Echo and the Bunnymen, Kings of Convenience, Fontaines D.C., Alex Cameron, Lucy Dacus, The Divine Comedy, Mdou Moctar, Iggy Pop, Chubby and the Gang, Sparks, Belle & Sebastian, The National, Sharon Van Etten, Teenage Fanclub, Tindersticks, Suede, Viagra Boys, Pavement. 

For bigger arena shows, Ticketmaster covers a lot of the bases. Big-name acts with gigs in the offing include Ed Sheeran, Zara Larsson, Whitesnake and, lest we forget, ABBA

And that’s just a fraction of what’s going on. Tour schedules are busier than ever now that artists are finally getting back on the road. To keep track of what gigs are coming up I can recommend checking in with Luger, FKP Scorpio, and Live Nation. Follow your favourite venues too: sometimes they cut out the middleman and do their own booking and promotion. I also use the Bandsintown app, which comes with the added bonus of receiving messages from your favourite artists which let you pretend to be their friend. 

Enjoy the gigs, and stay safe! 

Paul O’Mahony is editorial product manager at The Local. In his spare time he plays the best new indie and alternative music as host of the Signals show on Nerve Music.