Koffi to the music world, aspiring Senator Agbepa to the voters

Saturday April 06 2024
Rhumba maestro Koffi Olomide

Rhumba Maestro Koffi Olomide speaks to the media at the Ole Sereni hotel in Nairobi, Kenya on Monday, March 9, 2020. PHOTO | FILE | NMG


When it was first reported that rhumba maestro Koffi Olomide had thrown his hat into the political ring, many treated it as an April Fool’s Day stunt around the continent. The first burst of the news out of the Democratic Republic of Congo startled millions of his fans. It’s an ambition that the crooner has harboured for more than a decade but failed to attract the powers that be.

Koffi, 67, whose real name is Antoine Agbepa, is due to run in Sud-Ubangi Province in the April 22 polls on an AFDC-A party ticket. He is a member of Bahati Lukwebo’s AFDC-A, which is one of the parties in President Felix Tshisekedi’s ruling coalition.

In the musician’s favour, the president had already appointed him ambassador of Congolese culture in 2022. Koffi had earlier tried to get closer to the PPRD, Joseph Kabila’s party, during the former president's reign, but his antennas did not yield any forward momentum. He did not impress Kabila as a favourite to draw support but things now do seem different.

“I have served the Congo. I have restored the image of my country throughout the world and in Africa with my music. People know how well I’ve done that over the years. Everywhere I go, it's always the same kind of welcome as what I've just seen.

Read: Musician Koffi Olomide to vie for Congo senate seat

And I'd like to thank the people who came to the airport today. Who do you think they came to welcome? The son of the soil. The son of the soil is in trouble. For the past 10 years or so, wherever I go, people tell me they see me serving the Congo in ways other than music. Koffi, you've got to become a senator, they have even seen me a bit higher than that. I could play one of these roles even without a salary,” he said.


“I love my country. I love the Congo, and I love the well-being of the Congolese people. It hurts me when I see people in total comfort having fun with billions and people with nothing to eat for days. I see mothers and their children in the streets when it's time to go to school. It hurts me. I say this to you sincerely. And if that's why the people, my brothers and sisters, want to send me into this field – then yes, I say yes. Because I want to be their voice.”

The singer, who has a career spanning almost 50 years, intends to get fully involved in politics. From Kinshasa, he moved to Sud-Ubangi on March 30, where he promised to contribute to the development of his province.

Born in Kisangani in the northeast of the DRC in 1956 to a Congolese father and a mother from Sierra Leone, Koffi has made a career out of singing languorous love songs. Some of his fans compare him to Spanish singer Julio Iglesias for his penchant for singing about love.
Koffi has become one of Africa's greatest artists.

He was not, however, destined to make music. In the 1970s, singers in Zaire were regarded as thugs who had missed out on a normal job. Koffi grew up in an environment where his mother put her heart and soul into her children's education. As a young man, he was sent to France to continue his university education.

By the mid-1970s, he had already made the acquaintance of Papa Wemba, for whom he wrote songs when he returned to Kinshasa during his student holidays. Wemba appreciated the young student's songwriting talent. The songs he gave Wemba were a huge success with Wemba’s Viva La Musica orchestra. Wemba dubbed Koffi “the most famous student in Zaire”.

Koffi soon learned to play the guitar. Between his studies in France and his contacts with singers at home, the young student had his eye on a world that was already calling his name.

In 1978, Koffi was named the best star in Zaire after the release of his song Anibo, sung by Wemba. After completing his studies in 1980, he returned to Zaire. The young intellectual developed a taste for music, encouraged by his friend, the singer King Kester Emeneya, also a protégé of Wemba. He devoted himself entirely to music.

Apart from the songs he wrote for Wemba, Koffi released his first song under his name, Princesse Senza. Performed by Wemba, King Kester, and Koffi himself, who was trying his hand at singing, the song was a runaway success. He tried to break away from his mentor and performed on stage, accompanied by the more seasoned singers of Zaïko Langa Langa.

Read: A two-horse race in Congolese music scene

The mayonnaise took, and the Zaire of Franco, Tabu Ley, Wemba, and Zaïko discovered another form of rumba, essentially love songs, with lyrics of a different style. Koffi asserted himself as a singer, refining his style and nicknaming him Tshatsho.

The young singer now had a reputation in the music world. In 1986, he founded his group, Quartier Latin International. His songwriting talent continued unabated. He went on to write a string of hit songs.

At the same time, he gained a reputation for being a man of conflict, according to several of his country's singers. In the meantime, Koffi, who has nicknamed himself Le Rambo du Zaïre, had fallen out with his mentor Wemba, Emeneya, and his former friends from the group Zaïko Langa Langa. But he feels he is the victim of other people's jealousy. He was nicknamed ‘Antoine Makila Mabe’ (which means ‘bad blood Antony’ or unlucky child).

For most of his career, he has vacillated between harmonious relationships and recurring conflicts with singers from his country. In short, he was controversial because of his human relations with his fellow singers, but his talent and tenacity were recognised everywhere and this soldered his reputation throughout Africa and the world. In 1996, he reconciled with Wemba.

The two released the album Wake Up, which was a resounding success. “The greatest duo of all time,” he said. The partnership only lasted as long as the album. The two fell out again, but this did not stop the Quartier Latin from shining in concert halls in Europe, Africa, and the United States.

In early 2000, Koffi became the first black African artist to perform at Bercy Stadium in Paris. “Before me, there is only Michael Jackson,” he boasted. The nicknames piled up, and Koffi was branded ‘Mopao’ (meaning “the boss” in Lingala).

In Africa, Koffi has performed in numerous venues and stadiums. In 2003 in Benin, his concert caused a deadly stampede at the Stade de l'Amitié in Cotonou. Among the thousands of spectators who came to hear him, 17 people died in a stampede. “Tshatsho martyrs,” as he would say in 2023 when he went to Cotonou to pay tribute to the relatives of the 17 fans who died.

As the artist has succeeded in raising his music to new heights, he has at the same time multiplied scandals. In 2015, while his fans were enjoying one of his performances at the Palais de la Culture in Abidjan, Koffi decided to cut his show short, provoking scuffles. The singer accused the promoter of failing to respect a clause in the contract prohibiting the presence of other cameras in the venue. In 2016, he was briefly arrested in Kinshasa for “assault and battery”.

In 2016, Kenya expelled Koffi following a public assault on one of his dancers. The singer apologised, acknowledging “a little moment of distraction”. In 2018, Zambia issued an arrest warrant against him for assaulting a photographer.

In 2021, the singer was acquitted of a sexual assault charge on the same dancers, who are former members of Quartier Latin. Four former dancers accused the rhumba star of sexual assault and kidnapping, which happened between 2002 and 2006 in the singer’s villa in Asnières, a town in the Paris region.

Read: Koffi Olomide joins new political party

The acquittal was “given for the benefit of the doubt”, as the president of the 7th Correctional Chamber of the Versailles Court of Appeal explained, referring in particular to the “evolving, sometimes contradictory statements” of the complainants.

Koffi rejected accusations from his former dancers and said that “the dream of the young women who accused him was to live in France and obtain papers from association”, adding that the “women are very well protected”. Despite all the scandals, Koffi has always had the reflex to apologise. This attitude has earned him forgiveness, particularly in Côte d’Ivoire, where in 2023 he was crowned “King of the Lucky Sun” by the Baoulés, the ethnic group of former Ivorian President Houphouët Boigny.

Koffi has persevered, crossing eras and generations. His career should soon total 50 years, punctuated with good collaborations. He has worked with Davido, Tiwa Savage, Diamond Platnumz, Youssou Ndour, Daphné, Lokua Kanza, Meiwey, and Alpha Blondy. In half a century, the Rambo of Zaire has shown great tenacity.

Unlike music, politics is a different ballgame altogether. He has already shown his tenacity and furious drive. He has shone in the ability to act rashly and apologise wholeheartedly; he has displayed the ability to break up with friends and to reconcile and break up again; he has proven the ability to weather storms of scandals and come out clean; he has demonstrated the capacity to never make permanent friends or enemies.

All these are the ingredients required in the rough tumble that is African politics. What remains to be seen is if he has the organisation and patience to campaign resiliently and convince the voters to look his side. Will he be able to show the same drive in politics?