Tiken Jah Fakoly, a well-known reggae artist who’s been based in Bamako’s Niamakoro neighborhood for the past several years, just released a single entitled “An ka wili” or “Let us rise up,” urging Malians to unite against the Islamists who have taken over the north of their country.
True to form, Tiken Jah grounds his call to action in Mali’s precolonial history. Below is my own translation of the lyrics to “An ka wili”:
Mali will slip away from us [Mali bè na taa k'an to] / Kidal will slip away from us / Timbuktu will slip away from us
Chorus: Let us rise up, let us rise up, if we don’t rise up, Mali will slip away from us
Let the descendants of Sumaoro rise up! Let the descendants of Sunjata rise up! Let the descendants of Sonni Ali Ber rise up!
We cannot tell our children, “Kidal once was ours”
We cannot tell our children, “Timbuktu once was ours”
What will we tell our children, that Gao once was ours?
What will we tell our children, that Timbuktu once was ours?
Sonni Ali Ber, died in 1492, the greatest hero and legend of the Songhai empire / A brilliant strategist, authentic military genius / He led 32 wars over 26 years, and won them all, Mali!
Samory Touré, great African warrior, synonymous with resistance against the colonizers, Mali!
Sunjata Keita, King of Mandé, who brought the peoples together, founder of the Mandé empire, Mali!
Babemba, fierce opponent of colonization, Mali!
Rise up! The day has come!
There’s nothing unusual about these lyrics’ heavy historical content: in my previous post, and in a recent scholarly article, I’ve referred to the role that Mali’s legendary precolonial rulers and heroes continue to play in the nation’s political imagination. What may appear unusual, at least to outsiders, is that Tiken Jah is not Malian: he was born and raised in Odienné, in northwestern Côte d’Ivoire. He only left his native country in 2003, after his outspoken criticism of the nativist doctrine called ivoirité earned him death threats from the supporters of then-president Laurent Gbagbo.
In other settings it would probably be strange to see a non-citizen leading calls for nationalist mobilization. (Could “God Bless the USA” have been recorded by Michael Bublé or Celine Dion? Could “The Rising” have been written by Bruce Cockburn instead of Bruce Springsteen?) But the collective sentiments to which Tiken Jah’s lyrics appeal don’t correspond neatly to the modern Malian nation-state: they cite the names of kings and warriors — Sunjata, Samory, Sumaoro and others — who ruled over territories encompassing much of present-day Mali, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, and Burkina Faso; notably, they also cite Sonni Ali, who conquered areas stretching from Senegal to northern Nigeria, and whose capital was Gao, the largest city occupied by Islamist militias today.
(Bamakois have embraced Tiken Jah as one of their own, but his activism on behalf of Mali’s national unity only gives ammunition to his critics in Côte d’Ivoire, who claim he’s not a true Ivoirian anyway. As Sasha Newell demonstrates in his new book about “nouchi” youth culture in Abidjan, a large number of urban Ivoirians regard anyone wearing a boubou as unfit for citizenship in their country.)
When Tiken Jah sings “Let us rise up,” he’s primarily addressing citizens of modern Mali; his video was produced in Bamako, after all, and it is Malian people of various walks of life (laborers, soldiers, seamstresses, civil servants, youths, street vendors) who appear in it. But the singer is also framing himself as a descendant of those illustrious forebears who united the populations of many ethnicities and localities, and who led opposition to foreign domination. (Note that in Bamako, the Islamists are widely perceived to be non-Malians, and indeed many of the leaders of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and its offshoot MUJAO are from Algeria and Mauritania.)
Tiken Jah’s secondary audience might be citizens of neighboring countries who take their inspiration from some of the same founding figures, and whose governments could support a multinational military offensive to take back the Malian regions now under Islamist control. The “An ka wili” video is also replete with Pan-Africanist symbolism, from the red, green and gold colors to the outline of the continent. It speaks to a broad range of loyalties to unite listeners in opposition to the Islamist threat.
“I’m calling for a general mobilization,” the singer told the AFP. “Mali has known great men, great empires and it is unimaginable to leave the country divided as it is today. Malians must count first on their own strengths.”
Tiken Jah’s message is in line with the public mood in Bamako (on which I reported in my previous post), where people are fed up with waiting for outside assistance to reunify their country. I doubt that any attempt to mobilize the Malian people can succeed without making reference to the kinds of historical imagery presented in “An ka wili.” Interim President Dioncounda Traoré and his speechwriters should take note.
Following the example of journalist and fellow Mali RPCV Peter Tinti, below I suggest a few notable English-language press items on the situation in Mali:
- “Al Qaeda carves out own country in Mali” (Rukmini Callimachi), Associated Press, Dec. 31
- “No Easy Answers in Mali” (editorial), The New York Times, Dec. 30
- “The secret race to save Timbuktu’s manuscripts” (Geoffrey York), The Globe and Mail, Dec. 27
- “Islamists’ Harsh Justice is on the Rise in Northern Mali” (Adam Nossiter), The New York Times, Dec. 27
- “Mali’s neighbours fear spread of terrorism from Islamists” (Geoffrey York), The Globe and Mail, Dec. 20
Also, the National Public Radio show “Fresh Air with Terry Gross” devoted its Thursday, 3 January broadcast to the crisis in northern Mali, with Adam Nossiter as guest. And I was hoping Terry would invite me….
Postscript, Jan. 12: Bamako Hebdo features a write-up on Tiken Jah’s song.
Postscript, Jan. 19: A group of Malian artists calling themselves “Voices United for Mali” has released a song “Mali-ko/Peace” (see the video). The group includes Tiken Jah, Fatoumata Diawara, Amadou and Mariam, Oumou Sangaré, Bassekou Kouyaté, Vieux Farka Touré, Djelimady Tounkara, Toumani Diabaté, Khaira Arby, Kassé Mady Diabaté, Baba Salah, Afel Bocoum, Amkoullel and Habib Koité among many others. Meanwhile, Bamako Hebdo features a write-up on a new single by rapper Master Soumy, of Sofas de la Republique fame, entitled “Sini yé kêléyé” (Tomorrow is a fight), which he calls “a song dedicated to the Malian army, dedicated to mobilizing the people behind their army.”