When I met Malian rapper Mylmo I knew nothing about him except that he was performing on the main stage of the Festival on the Niger that very night. I interviewed him in an empty restaurant on the banks of the great river. Most of its patrons were soaking up the midday sun on the terrace outside. Only after we’d finished did I realise the extent to which this polite respectful young man was revered by the youth of his country.
Just a few paces from the restaurant’s entrance the shouts began. “Mylmo! Eh, Mylmo! Eh man! Mylmo, mon ami!!” As we walked, every few yards, another gaggle of excited teenagers would come up for a handshake, a selfie, a group portrait. By the time we got into the Festival site, only fifty metres away, our pace had slowed to a crawl and the crowd around Mylmo had swelled beyond control. Mylmo’s manager, a slight gentle man by the name of Abdoulaye, was looking worried. The shouts kept coming. “Mylmo! Mylmo! Mylmo!” A picture! A handshake! A high five! Pleeeeaaase! Mylmo’s pink Bulls baseball hat was disappearing in a sea of fans and I was being jostled further and further from him. I soon gave up and just stood by the side of the road wiping the sweat from my brow, agog as the squall moved on down the road without me.
I thought I knew something about Malian music. Toumani Diabate, Rokia Traore, Oumou Sangare, Salif Keita, Vieux Farka Toure, Tinariwen. They’re the heroes, right? They’re the legends, the pop icons, the road blockers. I know there are rappers in Mali, just as I know there are rappers all over Africa. But I never knew that the rappers had taken over.
“Mylmo’s the best,” Aboubacar told me as we strolled under the avenue of mature trees that line the main drag of Ségou, Mali’s third largest city, where the annual Festival on the Niger takes place. “He doesn’t insult other rappers, or their mothers, like some people do. And his lyrics mean something. They talk about what’s wrong with the country; the corrupt politicians, all the stealing, that kind of thing.” Aboubacar had a hard face and his flip flops were flimsy. He was a hawker from the Dogon country, who was here to sell his statues and trinkets to the few tourists and visitors who had braved all the travel warnings and made it to this festival deep in the country’s “red zone.”
In the spring of 2012 a Touareg-led uprising in the far north of Mali led to the defeat of the Malian army by a motley alliance of armed jihadist groups, who proceeded to impose strict sharia law on the northern two-thirds of the country and ban all forms of music except Quranic chanting. Mali was plunged into the worst crisis it had known since it won its independence from France in 1960. Tourism, the economic life-blood of people like Aboubacar and tens of thousands of other men and women in this previously safe and welcoming land, came to an abrupt halt. Desperate times followed.
Until this spectacular fall from grace, Mail was considered one of Africa’s more successful democracies. Its streets were safe, its cultural calendar was full of intriguing music and arts festivals, and its people had a reputation for hospitality, tolerance and humour.
Within the country, everybody knew that their much lauded democracy had turned rancid long ago, putrefied by corruption, incompetence and apathy.
Then, in March 2012, a group of soldiers and junior officers, who had grown tired of going into battle against Islamist militia and Touareg separatists without bullets for their guns or proper boots for their feet, staged a mutiny in a barrack town near the capital Bamako and ousted the democratically elected President Amadou Toumani Toure. Their leader was a mere infantry captain by the name of Amadou Haya Sanogo, a native of Ségou and qualified English teacher, who had received military training in the USA.
Few people outside Mali or the immediate region saw the crisis coming. Within the country, everybody knew that their much lauded democracy had turned rancid long ago, putrefied by corruption, incompetence and apathy. But when it came to protest, especially musical protest, most Malian artists hid their disaffection under a blanket of “traditional” respect, obsequiousness and metaphor, often invoking the Fifth Amendment of the reticent entertainer, “Music is music and politics is politics!”
Except the rappers. And the reggae men. If all those foreign ministers, diplomats, journalists and analysts had listened to tracks by Mylmo or a whole generation of other rappers like him, they might have found out what the locals really thought about Mali’s much vaunted model of African democracy. Echoing the words of Chuck D in the late ’80s, Mylmo told me that “when you listen to a rapper, it’s like you’re watching the news on TV. Everything that’s happening in the country, you can understand via a rap song.”
In 2011, Mylmo released his debut album Wilibali, which means “The Truth” in Bamana, the language of the Bambara people who dominate southern Mali. The first track on the album, “Bandjougou,” draws the listener into the miasma of unemployment, frustration and forced migration that most young Malians breathe in every day of their lives. Another song, “Vie Contraire,” goes to the nub of Mali’s generational wars and puts the country’s parents in the dock for misunderstanding their children’s woes.
Master Soumy, a tall and lanky MC who looks like Snoop Dogg only younger and healthier, with eyes full of sharp intelligence rather than the dull haze of chronic, is another star of Mali’s new rap generation. His 2007 album Toukaranké (The Adventurer) touches the problems of youth migration, road safety and more. In 2009, Master Soumy and a bunch of other rappers released an album called Revolté (Revolted), with songs about police corruption and the hypocrisy of the Malian character. “If they don’t stop all this, we’re going to revolt,” was the general message.
Eight months before the military coup in 2012, Amkoullel L’Enfant Peul wrote an incendiary song called “SOS.”
It’s an S.O.S, an S.O.S - a state of emergency!
It’s an S.O.S, an S.O.S - things have gotta change!
People are enraged, their dreams are being killed
Don’t know what to put their faith in any longer,
It’s the false who get ahead, the true who get buried
Has the law been changed?
If there’s no hope, if nothing changes
Don’t be surprised if it all explodes one day…
It did explode, in a headline-grabbing way that put Mali through the grinder of international headlines and global media scrutiny for the first time in its existence.
“When we do a song, the average Malian says, ‘It’s great, you’re saying what we feel. We’re proud of you,’” Master Soumy told me, with rueful fatalism. “But then they do nothing. Now people stop us in the street and tell us, ‘You said it all, but we didn’t listen!’”
Now people stop us in the street and tell us, ‘You said it all, but we didn’t listen!’
Malian rappers weren’t the only dissenting voices during the build up to the crisis. Some of Mali’s more courageous and enlightened writers, journalists, visual artists and theatre producers also spoke out. But in a country where at least half the population are under 18 and only a third of all children progress further than primary school, a youth music that prides itself in its verbal dexterity, ability to speak plain truths and relevance to ordinary lives is bound to be a powerful force. “Here in Mali, a message gets through with music a lot better than any other form of art,” says Doni, Master Soumy’s manager. “The authorities even come to us the rappers if they want to communicate a certain message. Companies do too. If they want to promote a product, they ask us to write a track about it.”
Malian MCs take pride in their mission to “speak out on high what is being said down below,” often referring to themselves in quasi-heroic terms such as “the voice of the voiceless” and “the defenders of the republic.” It’s always been hard for the young and talented to prove themselves in Malian public life. It’s a culture that pays enormous deference to age. So for young rappers, often stuck in a state of delayed adulthood by the lack of jobs or opportunities, this mission is the bedrock of self-esteem. It helps them to feel like good citizens and proud Africans who are contributing something weighty and meaningful to their world.
Hip hop bought entry into a global brotherhood of cool, a connection with something distant and aspirational.
But it took them a while to step up to the mic and achieve the attention they now enjoy. Hip hop was a foreign culture when it first arrived in Mali in the mid-’80s. It was a rich kid’s game because only rich kids could afford the VHS machines to play the foreign hip hop TV shows, or films like Wild Style and Breakin’, brought back by the sons and daughters of wealthy Malians from their trips to France and the United States. Only rich kids had parents who could buy the satellite dishes necessary to pick up MTV or had a hope of understanding the foreign language flows of rappers like Grandmaster Flash or MC Solaar.
Initially, Malian rappers were content to ape those distant models and revel in the hip pride of being part of an “exotic other” that was both rebellious and rooted in African culture. Like their Senegalese counterparts – who were always a few steps ahead – they learned rhymes by Kurtis Blow, Ice T, Eric B & Rakim or LL Cool J in English, verbatim. Without the money to pay studios or buy their own recording equipment, they spit those rhymes over beats blasting out of boomboxes at home or on street corners. The fashion, the Adidas and Nike trainers, the chains, the baseball caps, the breakdancing (neither tagging nor DJ culture ever took much a hold) all amounted to a mental escape route from what many well educated youth saw as their cultural “backwardness” and marginality. It bought entry into a global brotherhood of cool, a connection with something distant and aspirational.
Soon enough however, Malian rappers began to heed the advice that Afrika Bambaataa gave to French MCs in the early 1980s: “Rap in your own language and speak from your own social awareness. Rap about the problems that are happening in your own country.” By the late ’80s, most Malian rap pioneers were already putting together flows in Bamana and finding to their widespread delight that the language was ideally suited to the rhythmic dazzle and verbal gymnastics required by the genre.
In 1989, when Lassy King Massassy, one of Mali’s most revered hip hop trailblazers, released the first Malian rap album with his cohort Tidiane Traore, AKA Master T, hip hop crews were already bubbling up all over the country, amongst them Les Escrocs, Zion B, Rubba Boys, Bam Boys, King Daddy, Djata Sia, Fanga Fing and Sofa. (The latter was the duo formed by Lassy King Massassy and Master T, and it’s a name that would resurface with dramatic effect two decades later.)
But rap was still marginal in Mali. The A-list stars of Malian pop – Salif Keita, Oumou Sangare, Sékouba Bambino, Babani Koné, Mangala Camara et al. – still ruled the airwaves. “All the recording studios were reserved for those who were making traditional music. Nobody understood rap – the composition, the beats, the software and all that,” remembers Master Soumy. “So there were plenty of rappers underground who recorded their voice over beats by Tupac and others. There’s no musician in Mali that has struggled more than the rappers, no way!”
It was the popular student uprisings of March 1991 and the subsequent overthrow of the military dictatorship of Moussa Traore that gave rap – and just about every other aspect of Mali’s cultural social and political life – a massive injection of entrepreneurial energy and hope. Lassy King Massassy was a student union leader in Kati at the time, and many of the country’s leading rappers were also in higher education. They were at the heart of the revolution and their idealism and radical energy fed straight into their rhymes.
With the advent of multi-party democracy and the deregulation of the country’s media and airwaves, which led to the creation of hundreds of news radio stations, papers and magazines, the zeitgeist was favourable for a rap explosion. The band that eventually lit the fuse were named after an ancient wall measuring seven metres in height and three metre in thickness that used to protect the ancient city of Sikasso against invaders, including the colonial armies of Europe. It was called the Tata.
Tata Pound (the second part of the name was supposed to be a playful reference to the British currency) started life as a grin (rhymes with the French word for bread: pain); in other words a group of male friends who used to hang out at a specific street corner in the Badalabougou neighbourhood of Bamako, just south of the old bridge over the Niger. After the family, the grin is the cornerstone of Malian social life. It’s the Malian equivalent of the English pub or the French corner bistrot; a place to gather with your closest male friends (women tend to gather indoors), brew up a hot bittersweet tea and chat endlessly about life, love, music, politics, society and the world.
Ride the streets of Bamako in a taxi and you’ll see grins at every corner, under some tree or other convenient piece of shade, with their young men just lounging, shooting the breeze, watching the world go by. The radical spirit of ’91 was fostered in the grins of Bamako and other cities. Just as every US rapper has his homies, every Malian rapper has his grin. The favoured Twitter hashtag of Mali’s youth is currently #Grin223, 223 being the international dialling code for the country.
Released in the run up to a crucial Presidential election, Tata Pound’s “Cikan” supplied a manifesto of sorts for Mali’s exasperated youth.
By the time Tata Pound won Rap House, Mali’s first ever national televised rap competition in 1995, the group had solidified into a trio of MCs: Sidy Soumaoro, AKA Ramses, Adama Mamadou Diarra, AKA Djo Dama and Mahadamou Dicko, AKA Dixon. Right from the start, they were both widely revered and reviled for their uncompromisingly combative and incisive lyrics. In 1997, they performed a song called “Confrontation” on ORTM, the state-owned Malian TV channel, dishing out invective against the country’s politicians and their endless bickering and in-fighting. It lit up the streets like a bush fire.
The release of Tata Pound’s debut album Rien ne va plus (All Bets Are Closed) in 2000 and its follow up Ni Allah sonna ma (If God Wills It) in 2002 cemented the band’s reputation as pied pipers of the Malian rap scene, but it wasn’t until they put out the song “Cikan President” (“Message to the President”) in 2002 that they drove a stake deep into national public opinion. Released in the run up to a crucial Presidential election, “Cikan” supplied a manifesto of sorts for Mali’s exasperated youth: “President…corruption, we don’t want it! Nepotism…we don’t want it! Robbing from the state…we don’t want it!”
In the vapour trail of the song’s success, President Amadou Toumani Toure, or ATT for short, invited the band to perform at the Koulouba Palace, Mali’s equivalent to the White House. The occasion was a special day to mark the beginning of the academic year. Tata Pound performed “Cikan” as well as a few other songs, including one called “Politichien” (an untranslatable pun on the words “politician” and “dog”), in front of an amused audience consisting of the President, the first lady, ministers and other dignitaries. Both songs went out live on TV, which made it difficult for ORTM to cut the performance when the verbal assault become too hot to handle. At the end of the performance, President Toure came and shook the group’s hands. “Ah, so you come to my home and bring me a message like that?!,” he said with a magnanimous smile, “Well, bravo!” That was that. The band’s manager told the press that the President had turned a nuclear bomb into a firework.
Nevertheless, not long afterwards, “Cikan” was played on TV as part of the introduction to the President’s annual address to the nation, just after the national anthem. When ATT started speaking he told the country that he had heard and understood the message of the young people in Tata Pound. “But they just carry on doing the same thing,” Ramses told the website Malikounda a few years later, “So that didn’t satisfy me.”
President Toure came and shook the group’s hands. “Ah, so you come to my home and bring me a message like that?!,” he said with a magnanimous smile, “Well, bravo!”
Tata Pound didn’t receive any invites from the President after the release of Yelema (Revolution) in 2006. Years of honing their sound and their flow resulted in an album that many consider to be a turning point in Mali rap, the country’s answer to Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. It’s a work in which beats, rhymes and pure cathartic anger blend into one of the most effective weapons of mass instruction in the modern history of Malian music. The song that the President and his men objected to in particular to was “Fatobougou” (“The Village of Madmen”), in which the band reminded ATT that a decade-and-a-half before – when he was one of the highest ranking officers in the Malian army – he had assured the nation that he would never run for the Presidency because “only madmen or idiots would want to compete for the highest office in Mali.”
The brute frankness of the lyrics on Yelema shocked many Malians. On the eve of its release the group received an anonymous phone call telling them that the album couldn’t be released unless some of the lyrics were changed. In effect, its release was delayed. The director general of ORTM himself said the album was potentially damaging in a newspaper article.
Direct and open accusation is a cultural taboo in the traditions of the Manding people of southern Mali. In the old days, it was up to the griot, the traditional hereditary “bard” of the Manding, to articulate social discourse with calming words designed to keep extreme emotions at bay. “In our culture, you don’t aggress people personally by naming them,” says Rokia Traore, the internationally famous Malian singer-songwriter. “The griots were the guarantors of that. If you have to demonstrate in the street, to show your will, it means you’ve already reached an extreme position. That’s why demonstrations often end in violence.”
Rokia uses the Bamana word mogoya, which broadly means the capacity to manage and communicate feelings with tact and restraint. Rappers in general, and Tata Pound in particular, are seen to lack mogoya in some of their rhymes. But that lack of tact is also their defining quality, and the source of the strength and uniqueness.
With their centuries old traditions, their skill as musicians and storytellers and their extraordinary capacity for memory, it’s little surprise that the griots fascinate us in the West. To borrow a famous phrase by the great Malian writer Amadou Hampâté Ba, “When one of these old men dies, it’s a library that burns!” The griots help to reinforce our conviction that, contrary to the conceits of colonialism and racist notions of white superiority, Africa possesses homegrown intellectual traditions of great complexity and depth. Many writers, historians and intellectuals, especially Afro-Americans, have made the claim that the griots are the distant ancestors of modern day rap.
In today’s West Africa, rappers and griots are often at odds with each other. Those rappers I spoke to expressed general impatience with the griot’s tendency to speak in parables and smother truth and emotion in a blanket of deference and good manners. Not only that, but they are deeply critical of what they see as the griot’s fawning relationship to power. A well-known Malian writer recently told me that he wasn’t a fan of the griots, “because the griots are the friends of the fortunate.” It’s true that, since time immemorial, one of the griots’ main roles has been to sing the praises of rich and powerful patrons, reciting the roll call of their ancestors together with their illustrious accomplishments. But it must also be said that this has never been the griot’s sole raison d’être. Many griots are also accomplished historians, negotiators, musicians, instrument-makers, artisans and more.
The griots are there to sing praises. But they ignore the negative side. So in a way, rap is there to fill the gap.
“The griots are there to sing praises,” Mylmo tells me. “But they completely ignore the negative side of a person. So in a way, rap is there to fill the gap. We have to tell the truth. When you listen to a griot, you don’t do it to learn about the realities of society. But when you listen to a rapper, it’s like you’re watching the news on a TV. We’re not here to please or take money off anyone.”
Master Soumy’s manager, Doni, gets heated as he describes the way rich patrons shower their griots with all kinds of gifts – new cars, new houses, airplane tickets, wads of CFA (the West African franc) – whereas those same patrons often do all they can to stop rappers performing. The griots get paid to flatter while the rappers are forced to beg for sponsorship from companies like Orange or Nescafé in order to survive, now that the Malian record industry has been decimated by piracy. “If we really wanted to earn loads of money, we’d tell them what they want to hear, like the griots do,” he says with obvious disgust. “But we’ll never do that. It’s like we’re the voice of the voiceless, and even if people haven’t listened to us, history will bear us out.”
That sense of mogoya isn’t entirely absent from rhymes by the latest generation of Malian MCs. “Since the beginning, rap hasn’t really been understood,” says Mylmo, “because there was Tata Pound who clashed with the regime and they were seen in a bit of a bad light. But me, I have the Mahatma Ghandi concept, which says, ‘revolution through non-violence.’ When you tell someone he’s a thief, even if he’s not stealing, he’ll end up robbing because everyone is calling him a robber. So instead of saying, ‘President, you’re robbing us,’ I simply say ‘President. The people have a problem. As a human, you mustn’t do this. Imagine your sons or children suffering in the same way.’ That’s what I call non-aggressive rap.”
There are also griots who have turned into rappers. In fact, Mali’s most successful hip hop act comprises two young b-boys from griot families. The rapper Iba One’s passport name is Ibrahim Sissoko, and the Sissokos are a griot family with roots in southern Senegal and Guinea, where the kora – the 21-stringed harp that is the emblem of Manding griot culture – was born over two centuries ago. His partner and beat maker, Sidiki Diabate, is the son of the kora virtuoso Toumani Diabate, whose ethereal solo albums and collaborations with Björk, Damon Albarn, Taj Mahal and others have made him possibly the most famous Malian musician in the world. Toumani’s father, Sidiki Diabate [the elder], put the kora on the international map in the early 1970s. The Diabate line is said to go back 77 generations, with griot lore passed down orally from father to son.
“I didn’t know which one of our three houses you were waiting in,” Sidiki said by way of an excuse.
I arrived in good time for my interview with Sidiki Diabate, but he kept me waiting in the family home in N’Tomikorobougou for an hour-and-a-half. I sat in an upstairs salon that was furnished like a throne room, with a thick red carpet, lavish damask sofas, chandeliers, sumptuous cushions and hookahs. On the wall there were portraits of Toumani Diabate with various eminent marabout or Muslim holy men, engravings of Mecca and old photos with muted colours of Sidiki the elder in his fez and bazin robes, surrounded by griots and musicians of yesteryear. A French teen sitcom about a girl whose boyfriend had been turned into an iguana blared out from the huge plasma TV screen at one end of the room. The collision of cultures mitigated the boredom of waiting.
Sidiki turned up with a posse of MCs and friends, including Iba One and a tall dude with a bearded chin and unsmiling eyes who went by the name of Memo All-Star. “I didn’t know which one of our three houses you were waiting in,” Sidiki said by way of an excuse. The land on which this particular Diabate house was built had been gifted to Sidiki’s grandfather by Mali’s first president, Modibo Keita. It sat right under the cliffs of Koulouba Hill; La colline du pouvoir (the hill of power) in local parlance. On top of the hill is the Presidential palace with its white colonnades clearly visible from most points in the capital. This positioning is highly symbolic: the griot sitting at the feet of his patron and master.
If Mylmo, Master Soumy and Amkoullel are the “children” of Tata Pound, or what the local press has dubbed “le rap moraliste,” Sidiki and Iba One are what you might call “le rap populiste.” Rather than quoting Public Enemy, Snoop Dogg, NWA, Notorious B.I.G, NTM, I AM and Tupac – always Tupac! – as influences, like the moraliste rappers do, the names that trot from Sidiki and Iba One’s lips are DMX, Mary J Blige, Alicia Keys and Lil Wayne. Their hugely popular hits, backed by beats that Sidiki cooks up in a home studio, using equipment donated by his father Toumani, are never without some honeyed hook line or lavish use of pitch-shift effects and harmony vocals.
“Those guys, the Master Soumys and Mylmos, they have their own style,” Sidiki says, “but I’d say that in Mali, we’re the ones who fill up stadiums.” He holds me with a level, almost challenging look, and then repeats the last phrase, as if to make sure I’ve understood. “We’re the ones who fill up stadiums.” “I have nothing against them,” he continues, “it’s just the truth that I’m saying. And the big difference between us and the others is the kora. I’m a griot and I take what I play on the kora and modify it for the piano and the synth.”
Sidiki has the makings of a kora virtuoso like his father. His exquisite playing gives some of Sidiki and Iba One’s backing tracks an unmistakably Malian flavour. But he’s not unique in that respect. Malian rappers have been incorporating Malian sounds into their music since the late 1980s. For Sidiki, however, this is a matter of duty and pride because he’s a griot, born to the task of preserving Malian culture in all its depth and beauty. It’s the call of his blood.
“You don’t want to be like the Americans?” I ask.
“No, never! Never! It’s not the same. We transmit messages, well-defined messages for the sake of the country, first and foremost, for what we’re we’re living through, for what we have. And we talk about the youth as well.”
I put it to Sidiki that there are Malian rappers who distrust griots because they’re the voice of the powerful, whereas most rappers like to see themselves as the voice of the voiceless.
“No, no,” Sidiki answers, “the person who told you that doesn’t have a good griot. Because a griot is first a foremost a good friend, a confidante. A griot is the blood, the honey, the salt. And the griot who doesn’t tell the truth, perhaps he isn’t free in some way, so he’s forced to lie to have what he wants.”
You don’t want to be like the Americans?” I ask. “No, never! Never!
I couldn’t help remembering the words of a well-known griot, much admired on the international concert circuit, who told a friend of mine that post-crisis, the time wasn’t right for griots to speak up. In other words, he reckoned that many griots had their day in the sun when the old President and the whole system of patronage that surrounded him was still in power. Now it was time to keep a low profile.
Despite Sidiki’s protestation that they could never be like Americans, even if they wanted to, he and his partner in rhyme have been at the heart of a rap feud every bit as pointless and grotesque as the infamous East Coast - West Coast rivalry in the United States. Iba One formed the rap crew Generation RR in the mid-’00s with Youssouf Traore, AKA Tal-B Halal and a bunch of other b-boys (Kappa Flow, Ox-B, Flay, Bechir et al). Sidiki also joined the posse.
Initially the posse held true to their name – the RR stands for “Rap and Respect” – and urged kids to respect their parents and avoid alcohol. However, they soon became sucked into a tit for tat with a rival posse called Ghetto Kafri, led by a pugnacious MC by the name of Gaspi and the same Memo All-Star that I had met in the salon of the Diabate household.
The feud was fuelled by regular “clash” sessions, where the two crews would come together for some freestyle rhyming and baiting. “As they say, without competition there’s no evolution,” Sidiki told me, as if the whole spat was a manifestation of inevitable Darwinian forces. Following their lead, the phenomenon of les clash and les clasheurs began to take a hold of Malian rap, with insults against the families, especially mothers, of rival MCs, becoming enormously popular.
Things took a nastier turn when Iba One and Tal-B fell out and in April 2013, Tal-B issued a death threat against Iba One, who promptly filed a complaint at the local gendarmerie. Local community leaders became involved. Supporters of each camp smeared the web with videos full of vitriol and petty posturing. Iba One’s grandmother was even moved to post a communiqué, asking “national and international opinion” to bear witness to Tal-B’s desire to kill her grandson and burn his house to the ground.
Many rappers and members of the public were incensed at the lurid baseness of this high-profile skirmish. They were even more disturbed when they saw young wannabe rappers hurling copycat taunts at each other. “Go on, do your clashes, but respect your parents!” ordered the rapper Mobjack in an online post.
With globalisation and all that, we have to open ourselves to others. But you mustn’t let yourself be influenced by everything and abandon what you already have. You must know how to distinguish and make a mix.
Mylmo wrote a song called “Bidenw” which criticised the youth’s increasing thirst for alcohol and debauchery. “Little kids don’t want to go to school,” he tells me. “They all want to become clasheurs. Get 10,000 CFA, go into a studio, insult the mum of a friend, who’s also a clasheur / rapper. I think that that is directly inspired by the USA. Instead of instructing, it destroys. Before, no one thought that to fill stadiums in Mali, you needed rappers. Even the griots can’t fill a stadium. So the government has to get it into its head that this [rap] thing is getting bigger and we have to make sure that it instructs, and goes in the right direction.”
Some rap gigs became battlegrounds, with youth throwing stones at their rivals and rampaging through the streets. When I met up with Master Soumy at the Festival on the Niger, he’d just been denied his slot on an open air stage in Segou sponsored by Orange, because a bunch of stone-hurling kids had begun to trash the equipment, forcing the police to intervene and call a halt to proceedings.
“Where does it all come from?” I wondered out loud. “I can only say that those guys are all looking at the Americans,” Master Soumy suggested. “With globalisation and all that, we have to open ourselves to others. We’re obliged to share, to collaborate. But you mustn’t let yourself be influenced by everything and abandon what you already have. You must know how to distinguish and make a mix. That’s what Aimée Césaire said. Our culture is about discipline, respect, the ethic of traditional values. But some want to abandon that whole side of it just to say ‘Yeah, I want to be American. I do clashes. I insult people.’ Ok…but you live in one of the poorest countries in the world. Sorry mate!”
That’s the nub of Malian rap’s duty of conscience. Rappers just can’t afford to be gross, materialistic or insulting like some of their US counterparts. You can’t talk about bitches, hoes and n**s with their finger on the trigger when in every direction you look you see a deeply religious country in which most people live on the breadline, or under it. You have to be forward-thinking, constructive and critical. You have to be more Professor Griff than Biggie Smalls or Tupac. It can’t be a matter of merely winning by the rules of the existing system. It has to be about changing the system itself.
And yet Malian rappers also revere Biggie Smalls, and they unanimously adore Tupac Shakur. Along with Barack Obama and Osama Bin Laden, Tupac has long been one of the most common faces on t-shirts in Mali. Why Tupac, the gangsta rhymer who drank, snorted and humped his way to success, not balking at beating his rivals black and blue or parading curves in his videos when it suited his purposes?
The point is that, underneath that gangbanger stare, Tupac was a highly vulnerable and intelligent kid, who read Shakespeare and went to a performing arts school. A rapper whose mother was an ex-Black Panther, steeped in the civil rights and the black pride mentality of the 1960s. Tupac’s songs mix almost saccharine melody with hard rhymes about hard times. He’s tough like rawhide and tender like Ave Maria. It’s a mix that Malians love. They can relate to the hardness, respect the gentleness, and forgive the rest.
“Everyone is free to do what they want, but Malian culture isn’t like American culture,” Sidiki told me. “Malian education isn’t like American education. Here we learn to respect the family, to respect the woman who is your mother, to respect and to make oneself respected. We’re in a Muslim country. We can’t do the same thing as the Americans. We like a nice video, we like big cars, we like big chains, we like big stages, but we prefer bazin, we prefer a prayer rug, we prefer the kora and we prefer maffé. It’s more traditional. It’s better.”
In many ways, the crisis of 2012 was Mali rap’s finest hour. Not that the rappers welcomed the misery it caused. It just seemed like a vindication of what they’d been trying to tell the people over the previous decade. But it wasn’t the time to look back or bask in any kind of schadenfreude. It was the time for the action.
Dixon and Ramses from Tata Pound, Master Soumy and group of friendly lawyers, media and business people came together just days after the military coup that brought Captain Amadou Sanogo to power in March 2012. “‘OK, so what do we do now,’ that was the question?,” remembers Doni, Master Soumy’s manager, who was part of the group. “We had denounced the regime for years. We’d said all we could and it hadn’t worked. It was time to come together and create a collective, a pressure group. So that’s how the idea of Les Sofas de la Republique came about…”
A sofa was originally the name given to a warrior of the Manding empire that covered much of present day Mali, Senegal and Guinea from the 13th to 17th centuries. Sofas also fought in the armies of Samory Toure, a hero of Malian history who ruled over a part of southern Mali in the 1880s and resisted the armies of colonial France for years. The humiliations suffered by the Malian army at the hands of the Islamists and Touareg separatists in early months of 2012 had created a profound need to reassert the nation’s honour and manly spirit of defiance. Historical role models had to make up for a deficit of contemporary ones, and so les sofas were resurrected in a new form; a “civic” warrior rather than a military one.
There were gun shots all over the place. We did it all under fire.
The first of Les Sofas de la Republique’s initiatives was to go out into the streets and distribute flyers denouncing the coup. The fame of the rappers helped to attract attention, but that attention wasn’t only benign by any means. The atmosphere in Bamako was febrile and dangerous. Many ordinary citizens supported Sanogo and would refuse to take the flyers, or threaten those handing them out. “There were gun shots all over the place,” Doni remembers, “we did it all under fire.”
Then, very soon, the death threats came. “I had an acquaintance at the police who called me, just when we had finished distributing the flyers,” says Master Soumy. “He said, ‘Hey! What you’re trying to do there, take care. If not we’ll kill the lot of you.’ I answered, ‘The one who must die tomorrow won’t die today!’”
Ten days after the coup, Les Sofas de la Republique released their first YouTube single. It was called “Ça Suffit!” (“That’s Enough!”). On the video, dressed in sober black with expressions of grim purpose, Ramses, Dixon and Master Soumy start by paying their respects to all the soldiers fallen on the field of battle, and their solidarity with the people of the north suffering from aggression. Later, Dixon raps out the line “Coup d’États in Africa, corrupt soldiers, opportunistic politicians – THAT’S ENOUGH! Demagogic politics, populist and corrupt, inactive citizens – THAT’S ENOUGH!”
In May 2012, the interim President Dioncounda Traoré was beaten up in the Koulouba Palace by a mob that had the backing of Sanogo and various other politicians. Disgusted by this violation of every social grace that Mali holds dear, Les Sofas released their second YouTube single, “Aw Ya To An Ka Lafia” (“Leave Us In Peace”). The song attacked all the politicians and demagogues who supported Sanogo and demanded that he restore democracy and concentrate on his soldierly duties by helping to defeat Mali’s enemies in the north.
Meanwhile both Mylmo and Amkoullel had also stepped up to the mic. Four days after the coup d’état Mylmo released a song called “Couvre Feu” (“Curfew”) that took the form of a letter to Captain Sanogo. “Dear Captain, you’ve lead a coup d’état, it’s true. But is this the solution? Won’t the country descend into crisis?” Mylmo also predicted the murderous battles that would ensue between army factions loyal to the deposed President and those loyal to Sanogo and the junta. He then joined forces with Amkoullel to film a You Tube version of “SOS,” Amkoullel’s song of dire foreboding which the pair had recorded months before the crisis. It was sliced up with footage of the nation in crisis and has the feel of a broadside in rhyme. Like the videos by Les Sofas and Mylmo, it lit up the streets.
Amkoullel formed his own collective which he called Plus Jamais Ça! (Never Again). They organised a protest, in which a giant human chain formed around the Monument de l’Independence in downtown Bamako. “We did all this on Facebook and by SMS,” Amkoullel remembered. “Our phones were bugged at the time. We’d organise an action and then everyone went away and told the 20 or 50 or 100 people they know and so the message spread.” Like Les Sofas de la Republique, Plus Jamais Ça organised meetings and debates around the pressing subjects of the day: democracy, cultural and religious freedom, citizen responsibility, apathy and awareness.
The videos of Les Sofas and Plus Jamais Ça were censored by the state broadcaster ORTM, although “censored” might be too strong a word for what was a simple aversion to getting into trouble. “The junta still controlled ORTM back then,” says Amkoullel. “People were frightened to act. When I sent them the video, they told me that the Minister of Communications had to vet the video first. As if a Malian minister of state hasn’t got anything better to do than look at one of my videos!”
Sanogo said something to me that I’ll never forget: ‘Mylmo, I ask you in the name of God, do a song to tell the Malians that the time has come to choose a good President.
Then Mylmo received a request for an audience with the leader of the putsch, Captain Amadou Sanogo himself. “I was scared at the time because rumours were running wild in the streets that I had been imprisoned by the Captain. A guy came to my place and said, ‘the Captain wants to see you.’ I wasn’t able to go but after a few months, he sent someone else to see me, a friend. ‘The Captain is a fan of yours, he wants to see you.’ A fan! So I went and Sanogo was super cool. He even remembered one of my lines which went something like: ‘Well, Captain, the other day, your soldiers were in the streets firing in the air. But we have rebels in the north. If all the bullets get fired into the air, will there be any left to fight?’ We chatted and he said something to me that I’ll never forget: ‘Mylmo, I ask you in the name of God, do a song to tell the Malians that the time has come to choose a good President. People have to stop voting for the t-shirts and the money.’ So I did, and the track was called ‘Les Milles Verités’ (The Thousand Truths).”
Les Sofas also received a summons from the Captain. A rapper friend turned griot was sent to deliver the request. After much discussion, the group agreed to go and hear what Sanogo had to say. “He tried to manipulate our psychology,” says Doni. “They sent us an air-conditioned bus and, when we arrived, Sanogo made us visit the barracks in Kati, to see how the soldiers were living, in beaten up old buildings made of adobe mud. Then he brought us to his HQ. ‘Well guys, thanks for coming,’ he said, ‘I appreciate the fact that you believe in the law so I want to explain why I did the coup d’état. We soldiers were treated [badly], salaries weren’t paid, we were lied to. There were generals who were given millions to buy food for the soldiers but who stayed in Bamako and used all the money there. But we said ‘[Despite] that, my brother, [the coup] wasn’t the solution for it.’ We talked and finally he became convinced of our arguments, to the point where he said, ‘From now on, I’m a sofa like you.’ And after that, every time Sanogo went on air he said, ‘Ça Suffit!’”
“I got the impression that he was someone who was happy to attack others just to stay in power,” Master Soumy said. “But we knew very well that a lie has a short life expectancy. Sooner or later, the truth will come out.”
“He even tried to corrupt us,” Doni continued. “As we left he gave us some money. ‘Take this for your petrol costs.’ It was about $1,000. But he wasn’t going to buy us. The guy who’d acted as a go-between, we gave it to him. We just said, ‘It’s your lucky day.’”
We talked to Sanogo and finally he became convinced of our arguments, to the point where he said, ‘From now on, I’m a sofa like you.
Perhaps an even greater challenge presented itself in the summer of 2013, when Mali was asked to go to the polls and elect a new President. Mali’s “conscious” rappers believe in democracy, passionately. This time round it had to work. “The people were so disillusioned that there was a danger of them accepting the coup d’état as something normal,” said Amkoullel, “and that’s very dangerous, because it’s as if in the collective consciousness, democracy was seen as a failure in Mali. Whereas that’s not it. It’s the politicians themselves who have been the problem, not the system. They simply hadn’t respected the rules of democracy.”
Les Sofas, Amkoullel and others threw their weight behind the fight against apathy and disillusion, especially amongst the young. The challenge was to get the youth to register and obtain the NINA voting card, a highly sophisticated piece of plastic which including the voter’s biometric ID. Apart from the usual debates and press conferences, Les Sofas organised benefit gigs, entry to which was only possible with a valid NINA card.
“On the eve of the elections we circulated throughout Bamako,” Ousmane Toure remembers, “to explain to the youth why they had to vote, why they couldn’t accept money in return for their votes any more, why women couldn’t accept shawls or bazin cloth in exchange for going to vote. We didn’t tell people to vote for X or Y but we urged them to vote for real candidates with real projects and with honour, suggesting criteria to single out the ones who really thought about the people.”
The elections passed off with minor incidents and were considered free and fair by international observers. But Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, the new president, is a far cry from Mylmo’s plea for youth with new ideas. IBK, as he’s almost universally known in the country, is a former Prime Minister and Speaker in the National Assembly, a crusty old Bamako political insider whose name isn’t entirely clean when it comes to the dubious reputations of former regimes. But it’s still too early to lodge the definitive verdict on his administration.
As for les clasheurs, they succumbed to the prevailing mood and made peace. “People thought that peace was really impossible between us kids,” says Sidiki Diabate of Generation RR. ‘I said to myself ‘OK, as griots, we’re going to take the initiative. We’re going to forget what we’ve said, what we’ve done, we’re just going to take the positive side. We’re going to sing for our Mali.’”
The hatchet was buried with a song called “On Veut La Paix” (“We Want Peace”) recorded by members of both Ghetto Kafri and Generation RR and posted on YouTube in December 2012. In an appropriately somber tone, the rapper Gaspi opens the song with the lines: “We’re crossing a very difficult period, which obliges us to make provisions, but pity remains the best provision of all, because Allah protects us…” The song’s chorus is rousing and urgent: “We make peace, we make peace, we make peace, not hatred, nor war!”