Interview: Book Of One - Kwadjo Spiri, Sydney Salmon and Erik Rabasca
Completing what might be an industry first, Light Warriors alongside a series of musical collaborators have created a project that highlights both oneness and diversity. We sat down with Light Warriors founder Erik Rabasca, as well as performers Kwadjo Spiri and Sydney Salmon to talk about their latest venture.
“Music is a melody that brings joy, if I have to convince you of my point, I have to bring it in a way that will be receptive to you. I can’t come in arrogant, I can’t come in anger, with boastfulness or egotism and expect that you are going to be convinced of my way. I have to come with sincerity, with love and with grace.” - Sydney Salmon
The Book of One, Light Warriors’ extended single that contains nine distinct versions of their latest single, One, is, in their founder Erik Rabasca’s own words, an “album-length single”. Running to around 34 minutes, Rabasca mused that this might be an industry first. When we asked about the thought process behind the song the guitarist and singer joked that it was “insanity” that drove him. He collaborated on the various versions of the single with many musicians from around the world, two of which were Ghanaian conscious rapper, Kwadjo Spiri, and repatriated Ethiopian reggae artist, Sydney Salmon.
Spiri and Rabasca met when both of them were guests at the U DAY festival in Addis Ababa in 2018. “We just started talking and I felt an immediate connection with Kwadjo,” Rabasca regaled. The friendship was cemented in the week or so the two men travelled around with the other delegates on the festival. “Both of us are conscious men, so the vibe was instant… we begun to talk about music, about life, about everything,” Spiri added. Though the connection was strong, they only maintained cursory relations over the intervening years, until this project fell into Rabasca’s lap. Rabasca stated that a project like this could only have happened during the conditions that 2020 provided for the world. Initially recorded pre-pandemic and as part of a wider album, when the events surrounding the murder of George Floyd sparked into the public consciousness, Light Warriors felt a need to release the song in support of social justice charities and put forward a much-needed message of unity. The pandemic also allowed Rabasca to accumulate a large number of collaborators for the single, which had now taken on “a life of its own”.
“I asked my singer, Liz [Page], who is now in Oxford studying ethnomusicology, if she wanted to do a version, she was like ‘you’ve probably got enough One’s’ and I am like ‘you can’t have enough One’s!’” Rabasca even added that he was thinking of doing a second volume at the end of the year. Spiri appears on two songs in the single, the second and the fifth versions, which feature his signature style of conscious hip hop, rapping about unity, spirituality, and cosmic themes. However, Spiri’s main influences are not conscious rappers. Citing the Notorious B.I.G. as his favourite rapper, he also told us he holds rappers like J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar in high esteem, as well as taking inspiration from Jamaica’s most famous son, Bob Marley.
Another collaborator on the project who has, in some respects, followed in the footsteps of Bob Marley is Sydney Salmon, who the pair also met at the U DAY festival. Born and raised in Jamaica, Salmon obviously found himself influenced by the likes of Peter Tosh and Bob Marley, however, rather idiosyncratically, Salmon garnered other influences that one might not expect of a reggae star. “I’m a weird guy”, Salmon jokes. He describes growing up listening to songs his father left behind in Jamaica on cassette when he left Salmon to go to the United States. He cites the likes of Johnny Cash, The Carpenters and Marty Robins as heroes, stating “black music, white music, it doesn’t matter – music is music”.
Salmon’s relationship with Bob Marley is in some ways intrinsic. The biggest highlight of his music career was headlining at Bob Marley’s 60th birthday celebrations, Africa Unite, in Addis Ababa. Invited to play by Rita Marley, Bob Marley’s widow, he looks back fondly at performing to almost half a million people in Meskel Square. “The Ethiopians gave me a hero’s accolade, they saw me in the spirit of Bob, because [I am] a Rastafarian who came home.” Nowadays, though Salmon is not performing those sort of gigs now, like Bob, he is still carrying the messaging of the important figures in the Rastafarian community, such as Haile Selassie, on his radio show Ethiopia is Calling. The show is broadcast out of Ethiopia’s capital city on Afro 105.3FM and on Facebook, where he gives the perspective of a repatriate living in Ethiopia in the English language to try to reach out to all different cultures and communities within and outside the country, in an attempt to unify people from all walks of life.
Having lived in three countries and having spent time working on Wall Street in New York City, before repatriating to Shashamane, he holds a philosophy of internationalism close to his heart. He then recited a section of Haile Selassie’s speech at the United Nations in 1963 for us, which he feels has inspired him greatly:
“The problems which confronts man today are, equally, unprecedented. They have no counterparts in human experience. Men will search the pages of history for solutions and precedents, but there are none. This, then, becomes the ultimate challenge. Where are we to look for our survival? We must look, first, to Almighty God, who has raised man above the animals and endowed him with intelligence and reasoning. We must put our faith in Him, that He will not permit us nor allow us to destroy humanity which He created in His own image. We must look into the depth of our souls, into the depths of our being, becoming something we have never been and for which our education, experience and environment have ill-prepared us. We put away petty prejudice, knowing that our ultimate allegiance not to nations but to our fellow man within the human community.”
Salmon told us that the reason the words connected so deeply with him were because they made him realise that regardless of one’s nationality that one must “try to be human, that is your obligation.” He continued, “this philosophy has brought me much success in terms of relating to other people. I realise I am just a part of the creation, it is not about any of us. It is about the one who put us here to live and love and coexist.” His interpretation of the speech differs greatly to the one popularised by Bob Marley in his song War, concluding from Selassie’s words, a message of peace and unity – carried into his latest work with Light Warriors.
Whilst a message of openness amongst cultures is one that is shared amongst all involved with the Book Of One, for Spiri this does not prevent him for maintaining a sense of pride about his nationality or culture. He said, “there is something about the spirit of Africa which amazes me, Africa is very deep.” His latest album, Okwantuni, which tells a cosmic story from an African perspective, was an endeavour for him “to show the world the other aspects of Africa people don’t know”. On the record he uses a range of indigenous African sounds that are not popular in the music that people in the West are more familiar with, from Afropop superstars such as Burna Boy and WizKid. Spiri speaks with pride about the hospitable nature of many African people, and he feels like this characteristic helps inform his understanding of the world, as he perceives everyone and everything as equals.
This is due to Spiri’s belief that we all come from one central source, which links all beings (sentient or otherwise) as being interconnected and as such carries with it a message of environmentalism. “Directly or indirectly, everything is connected and if men would try to actually see that all things emerged from one infinite source, it would be very difficult for the world not to progress, in a sense that loving a brother would become very easy.” He adds, “seeing a brother as a reflection of yourself becomes very easy, doing something for somebody from that space of oneness, that space of understanding; you don’t even see people as friends no more, you see them as brothers and sisters.” Furthermore, this carries with it a connection to everything and he believes that acting upon this “would be the beginning of the end of all the wars and all the dark energy in the world”.
For Salmon, his understanding of oneness lies within the framework of his Rastafarian and Ethiopian Orthodox Christian beliefs. He sees carrying a message of oneness as a mission, hence aligning himself with Rabasca, who previously featured on his radio show with a very timely and appropriate message of ‘No More Division’. To celebrate the Triple Crown birthday celebrations of Marcus Garvey, Prince Zere Yakob Asfa Wossen (grandson of Haile Sellassie) and Emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia, Rabasca performed his most well-known track from Light Warriors’ 2017 album Raise The Frequency. Salmon posited that “we don’t talk about people in terms of colour, black or white, but it was really funny [that] a white guy with his guitar [was] telling us ‘no more division’, so it really resonated with us.” He emphasised his point, saying: “It only goes to show that the message is universal, and that the message is one. It transcends colour, it transcends race and all boundaries that are put there.”
The philosophy that Salmon carried into his version of One was grounded in a similar idea put forth by Haile Selassie, encapsulated by Salmon when he commented: “we have to be above nationality, we have to be above all this”. However, he manages to balance this ideology with his steady belief in Christian doctrine. Salmon elaborated that he believes that the Holy Spirit infuses all of humanity and it is thus our responsibility “to find that oneness, and the oneness [that] runs throughout” within the self. This is where the three men come together in their outlook on oneness even though Salmon’s view incorporates more traditionally religious understandin s. Once again, looking to his religious belief, Salmon turned to scripture citing King David who in the Book of Psalms said “let the word of our mouth and the meditations of our heart be acceptable in thy sight O God”. The message that this represents for Salmon is that the revelations found within meditation must be made pure for God.
Introspection and reflection are clearly huge factors behind the making of One. A driving force for many of the collaborators involved in the project and their realisations about the message of unity and oneness have arisen from a regular meditation practice. Rabasca has been meditating since his student days and in a similar vein, Spiri, several years his junior, begun meditating at a similar time in his life to help regulate his stress levels. Inadvertently, he stumbled across a goldmine of the soul, as it allowed him to sharpen his creative edge and by his own admission deepen his relationship with himself and others. He divulged “meditation seems to be one of the effective ways of tapping into that inner force, when I got to understand what meditation was all about, I couldn’t stop it. It became an addiction.” Rapping specifically then became the medium for him to release the energy and wisdom built up through the practice of mindfulness, saying: “I don’t really use rap as a way to destress, but as a way to channel what I find within when I am destressing.” Spiri shared that he often writes in the early hours of the morning and meditates at dawn. He testified that he does this because he feels that when the world is very silent, the universe reverberates back at him.
The spearhead of this project, Rabasca, was keen to outline to us what he feels is the importance of achieving oneness. “Oneness is the most simple thing to get to and yet the hardest thing to get to for some folks. What is so exciting, is there is a wealth of insight and perspective in all of these versions.” The lyrical content on One is what marks it out from the crowd, by bringing in a diversity of people on the project, he and his fellow band members are trying to express that oneness is not a matter of homogeneity. Rather, it is bringing together a tapestry of interpretations all in service of a higher cause. That said, this project is not just about singing in a self-congratulatory manner in which people can absolve themselves of guilt for their good fortune in life. He poses the question: “Can we be grounded in a way, that doesn’t have us being all ‘Kumbaya?’” This is why the money from purchases of the Book of One on Bandcamp go to WhyHunger, a charity dedicated to ending poverty and providing nutrition to those in need. When asked why he felt the need to do this, Rabasca replied that “people with the best of intentions are sometimes caught up in the peak experiences of coming together, and they are really powerful. These wonderful peak experiences are impossible to sustain, you can climb the mountain but you have to come down from the mountain and till the soil – that is what this is.”
This is a sentiment echoed by both Spiri and Salmon, the latter of which quoted scripture in support of this: “'singers and players of instruments shall be there, all my springs are in thee.’ Psalms 87. We have work to do!”