“Don’t be surprised if it explodes one day!”
When I met Mylmo I knew nothing about him except that he was rapper who 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 weâd finished did I realise the extent to which this polite respectful young man was revered by the youth of Mali.
Just a few paces from the restaurantâs entrance the shouts began: âMylmo! Eh, Mylmo! Eh man! Mylmo, mon ami!!â 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. Mylmoâs manager, a slight gentle man by the name of Abdoulaye, was looking worried. The shouts kept coming: âMylmo! Mylmo! Mylmo!â A picture! A handshake! A high five! Pleeeeaaase! Mylmoâs pink âBullsâ baseball hat was disappearing in a choppy sea of psyched up fans and I was being jostled further and further from him, like a man overboard watching his ship disappear. I soon gave up and just stood by the side of the road wiping the sweat from my brow, helpless and 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? Theyâre the heroes, right? Theyâre 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. I never realised that if anyone could fill Maliâs largest stadia and music venues it was the hip hop MCs and their crews, not the names revered in Europe and the West.
âMylmoâs the best,â Aboubacar told me as we strolled under the avenue of mature trees that line the main drag of old Segou, Maliâs third largest city, where the annual Festival on the Niger takes place. âHe doesnât insult other rappers, or their mothers, like some people do. And his lyrics mean something. They talk about whatâs wrong with the the country; the corrupt politicians, all the stealing, that kind of thing.â 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 âred zoneâ.
In the spring of 2012 a Touareg-lead 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 worse 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, most outsiders had been content with the cosy notion that Mali was one of Africaâs more successful democracies. Its streets were safe, its cultural calendar was stuffed full of intriguing music and arts festivals, its people had a reputation for hospitality, tolerance and humour. And its music was celebrated and consumed all over the world.
Then, in March 2012, a group of soldiers and junior officers, who had grown sick and 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 Segou 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 âtraditionalâ respect, obsequiousness and metaphor, often invoking the âfifth amendmentâ of the reticent entertainer: âMusic is music and politics is politics!â
Except the rappers. And the reggae men. If all those foreign ministers, diplomats, journalists, analysts and âspecialistsâ in international relations whose job it was to monitor the pulse of West Africaâs democracies 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 Maliâs much vaunted model of African democracy.
âWhen you listen to a rapper, itâs like youâre watching the news on TV,â Mylmo told me. âEverything thatâs happening in the country, you can understand via a rap song.â
In 2011, Mylmo released his debut album Wilibali, which means âThe Truthâ in Bamana, the language of the Bambara people who dominate southern Mali. The first track on the album, âBandjougouâ, 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, âVie Contraireâ, goes to the nub of Maliâs generational wars and puts the countryâs parents in the dock for misunderstanding their childrenâs 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 Maliâs new rap generation. His 2007 album âToukarankĂ©â (âThe Adventurerâ) touches the problems of youth migration, girlâs education, road safety and more. In 2009, Master Soumy and a bunch of other rappers released an album called âRevoltĂ©â (âRevoltedâ), with songs about police corruption and the hypocrisy of the Malian character. âIf they donât stop all this, weâre going to revolt,â was the general message.
Eight months before the military coup in 2012, Amkoullel LâEnfant Peul, wrote an incendiary song called âSOS.â
âItâs an S.O.S, an S.O.S – a state of emergency!
Itâs an S.O.S, an S.O.S – things have gotta change!
People are enraged, their dreams are being killed
Donât know what to put their faith in any longer,
Itâs the false who get ahead, the true who get buried
Has the law been changed?
If thereâs no hope, if nothing changes
Donât be surprised if it all explodes one dayâŠâ
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.
âWhen we do a song, the average Malian says, âItâs great, youâre saying what we feel. Weâre proud of you,ââ Master Soumy told me, with rueful fatalism. âBut then they do nothing. Now people stop us in the street and tell us, âYou said it all, but we didnât listen!ââ
Malian rappers werenât the only dissenting voices during the build up to the crisis. Some of Maliâs 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. âHere in Mali, a message gets through with music a lot better than any other form of art,â says Doni, Master Soumyâs manager. âThe 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.â
Malian MCs take pride in their mission to âspeak out on high what is being said down belowâ, often referring to themselves in quasi-heroic terms such as âthe voice of the voicelessâ and âthe defenders of the republic.â Itâs always been hard for the young and talented to prove themselves in Malian public life. Itâs 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.
Afrika Bambaata: “Rap in your own language!”
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 1980s; a rich kidâs game because only rich kids could afford the VHS machines to play the foreign hip hop TV shows, or films like Wildstyle, Flashdance and Breakinâ, brought back by the sons and daughters of wealthy Malians from their trips to France and the USA. 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 âexotic otherâ that had the advantage of being both rebellious and rooted in African culture. Like their Senegalese counterparts, who were always a few steps ahead, they would learn rhymes by the likes of 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 would spit those rhymes over beats blasting out of boom boxes at home or on street corners. The fashion, the Adidas and Nike trainers, the chains, the baseball caps, the break dancing (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 âbackwardnessâ 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: âRap in your own language and speak from your own social awareness. Rap about the problems that are happening in your own country.â By the mid to late 1980s, 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.
By late 1989, when Lassy King Massassy, one of Maliâs most revered hip hop trail-blazers, 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 duo formed by Lassy King Massassy and Master T and 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 â Salif Keita, Oumou Sangare, SĂ©kouba Bambino, Babani KonĂ©, Mangala Camara, et al. â still ruled the airwaves and Malian rappers found themselves almost excluded. âIt was pure aggro,â Master Soumy remembers with a chuckle. âAll the recording studios were reserved for those who were making traditional music. Nobody understood rap â the composition, the beats, the software and all that. So there were plenty of rappers underground who recorded their voice over beats by Tupac and others. Thereâs no musician in Mali that has struggled more than the rappers, no way!â
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 Maliâs 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 countryâs 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 countryâs 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.
Tatapound (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. Itâs 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 bitter-sweet tea and chat endlessly about life, love, music, politics, society and the world.
Ride the streets of Bamako in a taxi and youâll 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 â91 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 Maliâs youth is currently #Grin223, 223 being the international dialling code for the country.
By the time Tatapound won Rap House, Maliâs 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 âConfrontationâ on ORTM, the state-owned Malian TV channel, dishing out invective against the countryâs politicians and their endless bickering and in-fighting. It lit up the streets like a bush fire.
The release of Tatapoundâs 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 bandâs reputation as pied pipers of the Malian rap scene, but it wasnât until they put out the song âCikan Presidentâ (âMessage to the Presidentâ) in 2002 that they drove a stake deep into national public opinion. Released in the run up to a crucial Presidential election, âCikanâ supplied a manifesto of sorts for Maliâs exasperated youth: âPresidentâŠcorruption, we donât want it! NepotismâŠwe donât want it! Robbing from the stateâŠwe donât want it!â
In the vapour trail of the songâs success, President Amadou Toumani Toure, or ATT for short, invited the band to perform at the Koulouba Palace, Maliâs equivalent to the White House. The occasion was a special day to mark the beginning of the academic year. Tatapound performed âCikanâ as well as a few other songs, including one called âPolitichienâ (an untranslatable pun on the words âpoliticianâ and âdogâ), 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 Tatapoundâs hands. âAh, so you come to my home and bring me a message like that?!,â he said with a magnanimous smile, âWell, bravo!â That was that. The bandâs manager told the press that the President had turned a nuclear bomb into a firework.
Nevertheless, not long afterwards, âCikanâ was played on TV as part of the introduction to the Presidentâs 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 Tatapound. âBut they just carry on doing the same thing,â Ramses told the website Malikounda a few years later, âSo that didnât satisfy me.â
Tatapound received no more 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 countryâs answer to Public Enemyâs It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Itâs 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 âFatobougouâ (âThe Village of Madmenâ), in which the band reminded ATT that a decade-and-a-half before â when he was one of the highest ranking officers in the Malian army â he had assured the nation that he would never run for the Presidency because âonly madmen or idiots would want to compete for the highest office in Mali.â
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 couldnât be released unless some of the lyrics were changed. In effect, its release was delayed. The director general of ORTM himself confirmed his opinion that the album was potentially damaging in a newspaper article.
Saying on high what they’re saying below
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 âbardâ of the Manding, to articulate social discourse with calming words designed to keep extreme emotions at bay. âIn our culture, you donât aggress people personally by naming them,â says Rokia Traore, the innovative and internationally famous Malian singer-songwriter. âThe griots were the guarantors of that. If you have to demonstrate in the street, to show your will, it means youâve already reached an extreme position. Thatâs why demonstrations often end in violence.â
Rokia uses the Bamana word mogoya, which broadly means the capacity to manage and communicate feelings with tact and restraint. Rappers in general, and Tatapound 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 story-tellers and their extraordinary capacity for memory, itâs little surprise that the griots fascinate us in the West. To borrow a famous phrase by the great Malian writer Amadou HampĂątĂ© Ba: âWhen one of these old men dies, itâs a library that burns!â 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 todayâs West Africa, rappers and griots are often at odds with each other. Those rappers I spoke to expressed general impatience with the griotâs 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 griotâs fawning relationship to power. A well-known Malian writer recently told me that he wasnât a fan of the griots, âbecause the griots are the friends of the fortunate.â Itâs true that, since time immemorial, one of the griotsâ 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 griotâs sole raison dâĂȘtre. Many griots are also accomplished historians, negotiators, musicians, instrument-makers, artisans and more.
âThe griots are there to sing praises,â Mylmo tells me. âBut 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 donât do it to learn about the realities of society. But when you listen to a rapper, itâs like youâre watching the news on a TV. Weâre not here to please or take money off anyone.â
Master Soumyâs manager, Doni, gets heated as he describes the way rich patrons shower their griots with all kinds of gifts â new cars, new houses, airplane tickets, wads of CFA (the West African franc) â 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 NescafĂ© in order to survive, now that the Malian record industry has been decimated by piracy. âIf we really wanted to earn loads of money, weâd tell them what they want to hear, like the griots do,â he says with obvious disgust. âBut weâll never do that. Itâs like weâre the voice of the voiceless, and even if people havenât listened to us, history will bear us out.â
That sense of mogoya isnât entirely absent from rhymes by the latest generation of Malian MCs. âSince the beginning, rap hasnât really been understood ,â says Mylmo, âbecause there was Tatapound 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, ârevolution through non-violence.â When you tell someone heâs a thief, even if heâs not stealing, heâll end up robbing because everyone is calling him a robber. So instead of saying, âPresident, youâre robbing us,â I simply say âPresident. The people have a problem. As a human, you mustnât do this. Imagine your sons or children suffering in the same way.â Thatâs what I call non-aggressive rap.â
Les clasheurs: N’tomikorobougou vs Badalabougou
There are also griots who have turned into rappers. In fact, Maliâs most successful hip hop act comprises two young b-boys from griot families. The rapper Iba Oneâs passport name is Ibrahim Sissoko, and the Sissokos are a griot family with roots in southern Senegal and Guinea, where the kora â the 21-stringed harp that is the emblem of Manding griot culture â 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 BjĂ¶rk, Damon Albarn, Taj Mahal and others have made him possibly the most famous Malian musician in the world. Toumaniâs 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 arrived in good time for my interview with Sidiki Diabate, but he kept me waiting in the family home in NâTomikorobougou 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 bazinrobes, surrounded by griots and musicians of yesteryear. A French teen-school 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. âI didnât know which one of our three houses you were waiting in,â Sidiki said by way of an excuse. The land on which this particular Diabate house was built had been gifted to Sidikiâs grandfather by Maliâs 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 âchildrenâ of Tatapound, or what the local press has dubbed âle rap moraliste,â Sidiki and Iba One are what you might call âle rap populiste.â Rather than quoting Public Enemy, Snoop Dogg, NWA, Notorious B.I.G, NTM, I AM and Tupac â always Tupac! â as influences, like the moraliste rappers do, the names that trot from Sidiki and Iba Oneâs lips are D-Mix, 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.
âThose guys, the Master Soumys and Mylmos, they have their own style,â Sidiki says, âbut Iâd say that in Mali, weâre the ones who fill up stadiums.â He holds me with a level, almost challenging look, and then repeats the last phrase, as if to make sure Iâve understood. âWeâre the ones who fill up stadiums.â âI have nothing against them,â he continues, âitâs just the truth that Iâm saying. And the big difference between us and the others is the kora. Iâm a griot and I take what I play on the kora and modify it for the piano and the synth.â
Sidiki has the makings of a kora virtuoso like his father. His exquisite playing gives some of Sidiki and Iba Oneâs backing tracks an unmistakably Malian flavour. But heâs 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 heâs a griot, born to the task of preserving Malian culture in all its depth and beauty. Itâs the call of his blood.
âThe koraâs the main instrument, but we also use the calabash, the tama and the dundun, to bring out Mali in our music,â he says. âBecause letâs face it, thereâs no way we can compete with Lil Jon.â
âYou donât want to be like the Americans?â I ask.
âNo never! Never! Itâs not the same. We transmit messages, well-defined messages for the sake of the country, first and foremost, for what weâre weâre living through, for what we have. And we talk about the youth as well.â
I put it to Sidiki that there are Malian rappers who distrust griots because theyâre the voice of the powerful, whereas most rappers like to see themselves as the voice of the voiceless.
âNo, no,â Sidiki answers, âthe person who told you that doesnât have a good griot. Because a griot is first a foremost a good friend, a confidante to his djatigui. A griot is the blood, the honey, the salt. And the griot who doesnât tell the truth, perhaps he isnât free in some way, so heâs forced to lie to have what he wants.â
I couldnât 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 wasnât 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 Sidikiâs 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 America. Iba One formed the rap crew Generation RR in the mid 2000s 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 âRRâ stands for âRap and Respectâ – 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, lead 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 âclashâ sessions, where the two crews would come together for some free-style rhyming and baiting. âAs they say, without competition thereâs no evolution,â 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, bursting out like an unwelcome rash on the face of the scene.
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 Oneâs grandmother was even moved to post a communiquĂ© on the web, asking ânational and international opinionâ to bear witness to Tal-Bâs 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. âGo on, do your clashes, but respect your parents!â ordered the rapper Mobjack in an online post.
Mylmo wrote a song called âBidenwâ which criticised the youthâs increasing thirst for alcohol and debauchery. âLittle kids donât want to go to school,â he tells me. âThey all want to become clasheurs. Get 10,000 CFA, go into a studio, insult the mum of a friend, whoâs 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 canât 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.â
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, heâd 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.
âWhere does it all come from?â I wondered out loud. âI can only say that those guys are all looking at the Americans,â Master Soumy suggested. âWith globalisation and all that, we have to open ourselves to others. Weâre obliged to share, to collaborate. But you mustnât let yourself be influenced by everything and abandon what you already have. You must know how to distinguish and make a mix. Thatâs what AimĂ©e CĂ©saire 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 âYeah, I want to be American. I do clashes. I insult people.â OkâŠbut you live in one of the poorest countries in the world. Sorry mate!â
Thatâs the nub of Malian rapâs duty of conscience. Rappers just canât afford to be gross, materialistic or insulting like some of their US counterparts. You canât talk about bitches, hos and n***ers 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 positive, forward thinking, constructive and critical. You have to be more Professor Griff than Biggie Smalls or Tupac. It canât 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 a Malian t-shirt. 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 and licks a plenty in his videos when it suited his purposes?
The point is that Tupac was part of the whole gangsta phenomenon against his better judgment. Underneath that gang-banger stare there was a highly vulnerable and intelligent kid, who read Shakespeare and wrote poetry at his performing arts school in LA and whose mother was an ex-Black Panther, steeped in the civil rights and black pride mentality of the 1960s before being led astray by poverty and crack. Tupacâs songs mix the almost saccharine melody with hard rhymes about hard times. His eyes look out of that rude boy face like chocolate drops. Heâs tough like rawhide and tender like Ave Maria. Itâs a mix that Malians love. They can relate to the hardness, respect the gentleness, and forgive the rest. And his flow was second to none.
âEveryone is free to do what they want, but Malian culture isnât like American culture,â Sidiki told me. âMalian education isnât like American education. Here we learn to respect the family, to respect the women who is your mother, to respect and to make oneself respected. Weâre in a Muslim country. We canât 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 maffĂ©. Itâs more traditional. Itâs better.â
Don’t touch my religion!Â
Religion touches a raw intellectual nerve in Mali. Some have complained that itâs impossible to have a free and open discussion about its merits. Avowing atheism publicly would be almost suicidal. A fascination with animism exists amongst certain intellectuals – one writer told me regretfully that âMali has lost its animist heartâ – but itâs a minority strand in the nationâs intellectual life. Islam reigns supreme. In recent years, its stricter Salafist incarnation has been gaining ground over the more laissez-faire Sufism that has traditionally held sway.
No Malian rapper would ever express anti-religious sentiments. In fact, it struck me how respectful and observant the rappers I met were, despite their ghetto-fab âstreet wearâ and Crips ânâ Bloods imitation mudras. Every mention of the Prophet was followed with a âPeace and blessings be upon himâ. Allah was often invoked as the ultimate and unchallengeable authority. âWhen you follow the truth, God himself sees what youâre doing,â Master Soumy told me.
Sidiki and Iba One recently released a song in homage to a Muslim marabout called Mohamed Madani Haidara, who died young. He was the son of ChĂ©rif Ousmane Madani Haidara, one of the most powerful and popular religious leaders in the country. âWe sang for him as fans,â Sidiki told me, âbecause when he died, we couldnât get over it, and because he was a great man.â
If religion itself, or the hegemony of Islam, isnât really open to debate in Mali, the different strands of Islam certainly are. The hardline Wahabi Islam that the mujahedeen of Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) or the Movement for Unicity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) imposed in northern Mali by force after their takeover in April 2012 was denounced as alien and âun-Malianâ by most people in the country. The public flogging of women for wearing the wrong clothes or men for smoking tobacco, drinking beer and other offences, was deeply shocking. Not to mention the severed hands and feet. And for musicians, MUJWAâs ban of all music except for Quranic chanting called into question their very being as musicians on the one-hand and believers on the other.
âIt made me feel bad,â Master Soumy says. âThey canât come and impose anything on us. Weâre free men. Weâre a sovereign nation. Weâre independent, and one of the guarantees of independence is culture. Culture represents what the Malian is. Itâs our identity. So, right now, if you ban music, itâs as if youâre closing our door on the outside world. Itâs impossible.â
Sidiki Diabateâs gave a phlegmatic response when I asked him about the ban: âThey say that freedom ends where the freedom of others begins. Islam condemns all violence, so I think that this guy with his beard had his own concept of what Islam is. I was taught at home that youâre born, you get your kora to play on, youâre baptised a Muslim. Youâre taught that playing music is a part of you. Itâs your life. And Islam is also your life, now, here on earth, and in your life hereafter.â
Amkoullel answer was more forthright: âI donât give a toss what they [the hardline Islamists] say. What they think is their own business. We didnât have to wait for them in order to be Muslims. Mali is a secular country, where everyone declares their religion according to their feeling. And in any case, they know that a Mali without music is an impossibility. They themselves canât live without music. The Prophet was a man of culture who adored art and culture. So I donât know what theyâre talking about.â
Mylmo sounded almost hurt when he talked to me about the ban. âThe Quran never talks about music. Itâs just after the death of the Prophet PBUH that his disciples were divided and some of them forbade certain things. So it [the ban] hurt me, because I think that what I do gives advice, it doesnât destroy. I tackle subjects that puts people on the right path. God wonât punish me for that.â
Doni, Master Soumyâs manager, even sees a Shia plot in the rise of a more hardline Islam in southern Mali. He tells me about someone involved in hip hop who became a preacher. âHis father was a big preacher, so he became a preacher too. I know that theyâre financed by Iran and theyâre trying to divide religion.â
Both Mylmo and Master Soumy have written raps that challenge religious extremism. One of Master Soumyâs songs on the subject is called âExplique Moi Ton Islamâ (âExplain Your Islam To Meâ). âI ask our preachers, our scholars, people who have a great grasp of religion, to find the grace to direct the people to that which was said by God in the Quran. And limit it to that. Not to add other ingredients so that they can do their business. Because there are preachers who, when you listen to them, give you the impression that Islam itself is impractical. Whereas, quite honestly, where you look into Islam, thereâs nothing in there that goes against being human.â
Mylmo wrote a track called âTafsirâ (âExegesisâ) which he rapped to me as we sat in the restaurant on the banks of the Niger:
Â âMohammed, peace of God upon you, greetings
Will me meet on that last day of reckoning?
Oh Mohammed! Iâm lost in your religion,
Not my fault if I no longer understand the deen ,
WâallayiâŠall I ever wanted is Paradise, a way in,
Iâve seen people who kill in the name of religion
Who never hesitate to cut off arms and fire on the innocent
Mohammed, I swear, I saw an old drunk
Who for political ambition recited all the Surat
Your religion has become a shield,
Behind which evil is done and wrongs are forgotten
Weâre the victims, who donât know what awaits us
On the final day.â
Mali rap’s finest hour
In many ways, the crisis of 2012 was Mali rapâs finest hour. Not that the rappers welcomed the misery it caused. It just seemed like a vindication of what theyâd been trying to tell the people over the previous decade. But it wasnât the time to look back or bask in any kind of schadenfreude. It was the time for the action.
Dixon and Ramses from Tatapound, Master Soumy and group of friendly lawyers, media and business people came together just days after the military coup that bought Captain Amadou Sanogo to power in March 2012. ââOK, so what do we do now,â that was the question?,â remembers Doni, Master Soumyâs manager, who was part of the group. âWe had denounced the regime for years. Weâd said all we could and it hadnât worked. It was time to come together and create a collective, a pressure group. So thatâs how the idea of Les Sofas de la Republique came aboutâŠâ
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 thirteenth to seventeenth 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 nationâs 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 âcivicâ warrior rather than a military one.
The first of Les Sofas de la Republiqueâs 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 wasnât only benign by any means. The atmosphere in Bamako was febrile and dangerous. Many ordinary citizens supported Sanogo and would refuse to take the flyer, or threaten those handing them out. âThere were gun shots all over the place,â Doni remembers, âwe did it all under fire.â
Then, very soon, the death threats came. âI had an acquaintance at the police who called me, just when we had finished distributing the flyers,â says Master Soumy. âHe said, âHey! What youâre trying to do there, take care. If not weâll kill the lot of you.â I answered, âThe one who must die tomorrow wonât die today!ââ
Ten days after the coup, Les Sofas de la Republique released their first You Tube single. It was called âĂa Suffit!â (âThatâs Enough!â). 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 âCoup dâĂtats in Africa, corrupt soldiers, opportunistic politicians â THATâS ENOUGH! Demagogic politics, populist and corrupt, inactive citizens â THATâS ENOUGH!â The groupâs spokesperson, Mohammed âRas Bathâ Bathily, told the American anthropologist and blogger Bruce Whitehouse: âRap is the best way to reach the youth, who donât read anymore, who donât watch the TV news anymore, who arenât cultivated but who cling to music.â
In May 2012, the interim President Dioncounda TraorĂ© 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 You Tube single, âAw Ya To An Ka Lafiaâ (âLeave Us In Peaceâ). 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 Maliâs enemies in the north.
Meanwhile both Mylmo and Amkoullel had also stepped up to mic. Four days after the coup dâĂ©tat Mylmo released a song called âCouvre Feuâ (âCurfewâ) that took the form of a letter to Captain Sanogo: âDear Captain, youâve lead a coup dâĂ©tait, itâs true. But is this the solution? Wonât the country descend into crisis?â and so on. Mylmo also predicted the murderous battles that would ensue between army factions loyal to the deposed President and the those loyal to Sanogo and the junta. He then joined forces with Amkoullel to film a You Tube version of âSOSâ, Amkoullelâs 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 âPlus Jamais Ăa!â (Never Again). One of its first coups was to organise a giant human chain around the Monument de lâIndependence in downtown Bamako. âWe did all this on Facebook and by SMS,â Amkoullel remembered. âOur phones were bugged at the time. Weâd organise an action and then everyone went away and told the 20 or 50 or 100 people they know and so the message spread.â Like Les Sofas de la Republique, Plus Jamais Ăa organised meetings and debates around the pressing subjects of the day: democracy, cultural and religious freedom, citizen power, citizen responsibility, apathy and awareness.
The videos of Les Sofas and Plus Jamais Ăa were censored by the state broadcaster ORTM, although âcensoredâ might be too strong a word for what was a simple aversion to getting into trouble that motivated most of the channelâs top echelons. âThe junta still controlled ORTM back then,â says Amkoullel. âPeople 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 hasnât got anything better to do than look at one of my videos!â
Then Mylmo received a request for an audience with the leader of the putsch, Captain Amadou Sanogo himself. âI 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, âthe Captain wants to see you.â I wasnât able to go but after a few months, he sent someone else to see me, a friend. âThe Captain is a fan of yours, he wants to see you.â A fan! So I went and Sanogo was super cool. He even remembered one of my lines which went something like: âWell, 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?â We chatted and he said something to me that Iâll never forget: âMylmo, 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.â So I did, and the track was called âLes Milles VeritĂ©sâ (The Thousand Truths).â
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. âHe tried to manipulate our psychology,â says Doni. âThey 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. âWell guys, thanks for coming,â he said, âI appreciate the fact that you believe in the law so I want to explain why I did the coup dâĂ©tat. We soldiers were treated [badly], salaries werenât 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. And if soldiers were sent to the north, there were generals who ordered their children off the bus and let the others go on.â He explained all that. But we said â[Despite] that, my brother, [the coup] wasnât the solution for it.â We talked and finally he became convinced of our arguments, to the point where he said, âFrom now on, Iâm a sofa like you.â And after that, every time Sanogo went on air he said, âĂa Suffit!ââ
âI got the impression that he was someone who was happy to attack others just to stay in power,â Master Soumy said. âBut we knew very well that a lie has a short life expectancy. Sooner or later, the truth will come out.â
âHe even tried to corrupt us,â Doni continued. âAs we left he gave us some money. âTake this for your petrol costs.â It was about $1,000. But he wasnât going to buy us. The guy whoâd acted as a go-between, we gave it to him. We just said, âItâs your lucky day.ââ
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. Maliâs âconsciousâ rappers believe in democracy, passionately. This time round it had to work. âThe people were so disillusioned that there was a danger of them accepting the coup dâĂ©tat as something normal,â said Amkoullel, âand thatâs very dangerous, because itâs as if in the collective consciousness, democracy was seen as a failure in Mali. Whereas thatâs not it. Itâs the politicians themselves who have been the problem, not the system. They simply hadnât respected the rules of democracy.â
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 voterâs 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. Their efforts were extended to all the regions of the country, except Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal in the north. Once again the immense popularity of Tatapound and Master Soumy helped to drive the message home.
âOn the eve of the elections we circulated throughout Bamako,â Ousmane Toure remembers, âto explain to the youth why they had to vote, why they couldnât accept money in return for their votes any more, why women couldnât accept shawls or bazin cloth in exchange for going to vote. We didnât 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.â
Mylmoâs song âLes Milles VeritĂ©sâ was a plea for change. âI did the song to warn peopleâ: This time youâre going to go off to the polling stations, but you have to choose well. Itâs the moment to create a new Mali.â I even urged people not to vote for the older candidates, because itâs an old generation with an old mentality. We need the youth now to come with new ideas.â
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 Mylmoâs plea for youth with new ideas. IBK, as heâs 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 isnât entirely clean when it comes to the dubious reputations of former regimes. But itâs still too early to lodge the definitive verdict on his administration.
As for les clasheurs, they succumbed to the prevailing mood and made peace. âWith all the problems in the north and all that, we thought why not, one day, sing together for the peace of Mali,â says Memo All-Star of Ghetto Kafri.
âYes, people thought that peace was really impossible between us kids,â Sidiki Diabate of Generation RR continues. âI said to myself Ok, as griots, weâre going to take the initiative. Weâre going to forget what weâve said, what weâve done, weâre just going to take the positive side. Weâre going to sing for our Mali. Because Ghetto Kafri, Sidiki Diabate, Toumani Diabate, if thereâs no Mali, thereâs nothing.â
The hatchet was buried with a song called âOn Veut La Paixâ (âWe Want Peaceâ) recorded by members of both Ghetto Kafri and Generation RR and posted on You Tube in December 2012. In an appropriately somber tone, the rapper Gaspi opens the song with the lines: âWeâre crossing a very difficult period, which obliges us to make provisions, but pity remains the best provision of all, because Allah protects usâŠâ The songâs chorus is rousing and urgent: âWe make peace, we make peace, we make peace, not hatred, nor war!â
Andy Morgan (c) 2014
First published byÂ Red Bull Academy Magazine – April 2014