A Conversation with Salatiel Livenja Bessong

Salatiel Livenja Bessong, popularly known as Salatiel, is a young Cameroonian artist working diligently in both Cameroon and America. He is the founder and CEO of his own record label, Alpha Better Records, which is one of the biggest record labels in Cameroon right now. He has worked with artists from all over the world, from Mr. Leo, a well-known Cameroonian artist, to the don himself, Don Jazzy, and has now broken new barriers with his recent collaboration with Beyoncé. He didn’t always have his roots in music, however. Growing up, Salatiel had dreams of becoming a medical doctor, but after starting a music band with friends in university those dreams were soon averted. I had the amazing opportunity of speaking with him and learning a little more about his journey — from dropping out of medical school to being one of the top producers in Cameroon.

Precious Onuohah for ONETRIBEMAG: Being African, I understand the high expectations our parents have for us, especially career-wise. With that being said, I am curious: how were you able to convince your parents that the medical route was no longer for you and it was music? What was their reaction to that?

Salatiel Bessong: I won’t lie to you, my parents didn’t accept my path until very recently. Not only are my parents African, but my father is a pastor. Without their initial support, I had to go about it the hard and rebellious way. Before pursuing music, I was in medical school. Eventually, I decided to drop out of medical school because I was no longer passionate about it. I felt it was taking too much of my time and didn’t allow me to focus on my craft. When I decided to drop out of school, my parents grounded me for 8 months. During that time I was basically the house servant for my parents, cooking for them, cleaning, etc. I also wasn’t allowed to touch anything to do with making music. These were honestly the darkest days of my life. After those 8 months, I decided I couldn’t go back to medical school, because I was so far behind, and re-entered the University studying Zoology. I wasn’t very passionate about it, but it allowed me to work on my music and so I stuck with it. Around this time I decided I wanted to be independent, so I left my parents’ house. It wasn’t easy, there were times I went without food or sleep, constantly grinding so I could support myself, but because I was so passionate about my music and producing I stuck it out. Every time people ask me about what defines me as a person and producer I tell them about this period. Eventually, things got bigger for me, I made more money, gained more popularity, and it was around this time when my parents started to understand my choice. Generally speaking, for African parents being a musician is being a rascal, getting into drugs and women. With time my parents understood that for me music was my passion. 

I read that recording the gospel album “Lord I’m Sorry” with Breakthrough Voices was a turning point for you. What about that process made you realize you want to be a producer?

That project created that spark for me to know that I wanted to be a producer. During that time I was in university where my brother invited me to be the music director of the choir. I took the position and began training the choir with my keyboard, directing them, and eventually wrote songs for them. This was the first project that took me to a professional recording studio for the first time. With this project, I worked with producers and music directors. Most of the time, I was doing most of the production work since I knew the songs, how to arrange a live band, etc. I was the main one giving all the directions in the studio. That’s when I realized all I needed to do was figure out how to use the software and I could be on my way to becoming a producer. All my life I knew I wanted to be a musician. 

You’ve definitely come a long way since your first solo single “Fap Kolo”. Can you tell me a little about your journey up until this point? 

It all began when I learned how to produce. While in M1 Studios studio I worked on all genres of music. From very traditional music in the villages of Cameroon to country music. I had a wide range of music I worked on. I discovered, through acquiring knowledge of so many different genres, that I could do something special with it. One of my biggest strengths when it comes to music is my ability to fuse different genres together. This process of fusing kind of became my brand. A few years after officially becoming a producer, I started working with some of the biggest artists in Cameroon, like Manu Dibango.

In 2010-11 when the general trend of African urban music started taking the lead, I really tapped into that genre and turned it into my specialty. Then in 2012, I went to Europe for the first time to visit a friend and see how I could get my music out there. My style was a fusion between Afrobeat and soul but unfortunately, that kind of music is not easy to sell in Cameroon so I sought other markets in Europe. Even though I gained popularity, during that time I realized if I wanted the world to look at me and hear my music I would have to build a foundation at home. That’s how I decided to come back home and start up my record label with a friend (Mr. Leo) that I met in 2007. 

My goal with this label was to build a local resume so to speak with Afro-Cameroonian pop music before I branched back out into the world. In 2013 I started putting out songs and in 2015, my song “Fap Kolo” won the MTN competition “Make the Music”. Since then I’ve released many singles and have worked with many African artists. Eventually, I decided for myself that I would no longer be in the background. Many people knew my work but didn’t know who I was. In 2018, I decided to focus on myself and that was when things took a big turn. I released a single called “Anita” in 2019 which is currently the biggest hit in Cameroon. Things have just been growing for me. I ended up receiving a call from Beyoncé and her PR team about the Lion King project and quickly took the opportunity. Everything happened at the speed of light, honestly. I am forever grateful for it all.

Transitioning to the Lion King project now, how were you able to incorporate the “Cameroonian sound” into “Water”?

I think it all started when Beyoncé’s team went through my music and listening to what I produce. It was important to have that Cameroonian guitar and the Cameroonian makossa on the track. As for the song itself, it was written by their songwriters. They went through my music and wrote a song that was going to one, fit my sound and two, meet the goal that Beyoncé wanted to achieve (that being, having an authentic African sound in her album). Her intention was for it to be something bigger than just a classic Afrobeat sound. So when they sent me the song I was like, okay this is cool, it’s radio-friendly and it has the possibility for a wide audience. After listening to the song I asked if I had the option to put in the Cameroonian world music sound. They agreed and told me to add what I thought was missing. On this song, I added chants to bring in that African/Cameroonian spirit and color into it because that’s the way we sing in the villages. Ultimately, I was glad I was able to be myself and have the opportunity to bring in that vibrant Cameroonian sound to this song.

What does it mean for you to have been apart of this album? And for you to have brought that Cameroonian sound to a global audience?

It really means a lot to me. Before me, there had been many legendary artists doing this. But for my generation of artists, this is the first in Cameroon. And for it being the first, it’s really huge. I mean it’s a Beyoncé album. It means a lot because right now we are free to do what we want to do. And just the fact that Cameroon is represented on this album, it makes the world turn around and look at us and be like, okay there’s a Cameroonian based artist that is doing music in Cameroon that is represented. And to be honest, it extends from Cameroon. I am the only artist from the French-speaking side of Africa that’s represented. So it really means a lot. This project really opens doors for us and allows people to show themselves. I hope that after this project there are many more opportunities for us to show who we are.

Shifting gears here, can you tell me a little about your creative process? What is the first thing you listen for when listening to a new recording?

For creating, I am a very vast listener. I listen to every kind of music I can lay my hands on. Believe it or not, my library ranges from Jewish music all the way to Irish traditional music. Being this kind of a producer, it obliges you to listen to really wide ranges of music. At the end of the day when I’m creating, I’m creating with respect to where I want to sell. Who is this music going to? What is the primary and secondary target? Once I figure those out, I put together the elements needed to reach and touch both targets. Sometimes I write a song before I  produce, sometimes I produce before I write a song. It could go in any direction. I don’t have any particular way it works, and that’s just how it works for me. 

What is the best and worst thing about being a producer?

The best thing is to be able to sit down in a studio and calculate the public I’m trying to target and produce something that turns out exactly how I calculated it. Like okay, I’m putting these lyrics here because I want people to react like this to it, or I’m making this beat go in this particular place because I want people to react to it like this. Seeing that happen, seeing people react exactly the way I imagined it makes me feel like a magician. When I’m on stage and I sing a song and 50,000 people react to it exactly the way I saw it when I was creating that song, that’s one of the best feelings. For me, it’s like “Wow, this is great. This is beautiful”. I’m able to connect to every single person in the room or stadium and expanding from that, being able to have this connection with the world without even knowing I have this connection makes me feel free. It tells me I’m not alone in this world.

On the flip side, one of the worst things about being a producer is being a producer in Africa. The organization of the African copyright and royalties is not that great. You don’t really get what you deserve as a producer, especially in Cameroon. The industry is not really as organized as it could be when it comes to royalties for radio play, TV shows, or performances. Ironically these are the areas where the producer is actually supposed to make money. For me personally, I would consider it the worst because I’m doing all of this work but I’m receiving very little from it. Hopefully, in the future, everything is sorted out. 

What does the African music scene look like to you in terms of artists collaborating and how does that impact reaching a global audience?

Collaborations have always been the way through which people come across cultures. To me, it’s what’s happening right now with African music in general — you see more African artists collaborating with artists from other parts of the world. Today, we saw the release of a Davido and Chris Brown song. What’s great is the fact that they aren’t collaborating on Western pop, but the collabs are coming from African pop. There’s no better way to export music than that. And to do it with the people that are popular where they are and introducing your own sound into their market, it introduces you and Africa to the rest of the world. In terms of collaboration, I really love what is going on right now and I think we’re going to see many more African artists collaborating with western artists on African music.

Do you think this Beyoncé collaboration is (or could be) the spark for further collaboration and success globally for African artists and African music? If so/if not, how do you envision the future of African music and how does the African music scene get to that future?

The Beyoncé project is a great project and is a good thing for Africans. It’s not really a spark but more so another move, another important mark for African music exposing itself globally. I mean before Beyoncé we saw other collaborations, Wizkid with Drake, Fuse ODG with Ed Sheeran, etc. We’ve seen it before, so this project is just another big step for African music. It’s like continuing to fuel what is already trending. In terms of the future for African music, I see African music becoming 100% mainstream like rock or pop around the world. With the move of African urban music to the mainstream, it means that African artists that know how to do it are going to be as mainstream as Drake. We’re going to have many more African artists that the world unanimously accepts like any other artist in any mainstream market. That’s the future and it’s not far away. We’re very close to that future because the world is ready to consume new sounds and Africa is that new sound.

Do you fear that with African music gaining popularity and becoming mainstream it may lose its originality?

Well, the way I see music is, just like with everything in life (technology, life itself) it evolves. Evolution means that things are going to change. I mean the Afrobeat we call Afrobeat today is not the same afrobeat Fela [Kuti] was doing. It’s not the same kind of sound. Today we have a lot of digital production, computerized production and Fela used to do it really raw. So things are evolving. In every music market, when it evolves there are the people that stay original and there are the people that fuse. African music is never going to be lost, it’s just another evolution. I wouldn’t label it as losing its originality, I would see it as evolving which will lead to African music being exported everywhere around the world.

It seems like you’ve been working towards putting Cameroon on the map with this album and your recent hit record “Anita”. Are there any plans in the works that we should be on the lookout for? 

Yes, of course. Right now I’m working with a couple of Cameroonian artists. Keep an eye on Mr. Leo, he is going to blow. He has so much potential. I also have another artist on my label called Daphne who’s making a name for herself in Cameroon as well. I will also be releasing my international EP titled “Africa Represented” in the coming weeks. Cameroon is a boiling point right now in francophone music, the world should keep an eye out.

This interview has been shortened for clarity.
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