Fighting for the republic, with beats and rhymes

Malian society has seen unprecedented levels of tension since Mali’s northern rebellion, military coup d’état and subsequent political turmoil came to a head a few months ago. Young Malians, and young Bamakois in particular, have felt increasingly victimized by the selfishness of their elders, and in their desperation they have been easily manipulated by the same unscrupulous politicians who got Mali into such a mess to begin with.

Young people in Mali — la jeunesse, as they are glossed in French — constitute the country’s single largest demographic group: half the country’s population is age 15 or younger. Yet they have also been the biggest losers in Mali’s backward slide: dysfunctional schools, no jobs, no hope, and no way to make themselves heard in a society that too often privileges seniority over everything else.

One of the few expressive outlets available to young urban Malians in recent years has been rap. And unlike its counterpart in the U.S., rap in Mali has remained relentlessly engaged with difficult social and political questions. Never has this been more true than in the months following the coup.

Mali’s de facto partition has given rise to what may be the first made-in-Mali benefit recording, a track by rappers Amkoullel and Mylmo entitled “S.O.S.” The video, featuring French subtitles, is below; the single is available on Amazon. Proceeds are supposed to fund humanitarian aid for northern Mali.

Particularly noteworthy has been the role of a collective of rappers and activists that formed immediately after the coup. Calling themselves “Les Sofas de la République” (sofas being a Mandé name for the warriors in the army of anti-colonial resistance leader Samory Touré), these young men took time to think through their country’s crisis and their own responsibility in it. “After 20 years of democracy we were back to square one in a country without a state, without laws, without anything,” group spokesman Mohamed “Ras” Bathily lamented to me. As he expressed it,

If we elected an inept government, it’s because in the run-up to elections we weren’t interested in the credibility of the men for whom we were going to vote. Nobody was interested in their social platform, in their morality, we just wanted the cash and the t-shirts they were giving away. Even though they took advantage of our ignorance, our poverty and our vulnerability to offer us trifles, we never had this civic reflex to vote for a platform, not for a man. It was this error we made, the result of which was the election of an incompetent government, the loss of two-thirds of our territory, chaotic governance in every domain, no economy, no jobs, no health care, you see, nothing was working! So we said, “This must never happen again.” And this self-critique, this recognition of our own responsibility must lead to an active civic awareness.

Just ten days after the coup, Les Sofas de la République released a rap song and video entitled “Ca Suffit!” [“That’s Enough!”], with lyrics in Bamanan calling to account the nation’s corrupt leaders, demagogues and profiteering soldiers. It was an immediate sensation, and within 48 hours Les Sofas had over 5000 Facebook friends.

With the media attention generated by its new visibility, the group began calling press conferences and issuing statements attempting to re-frame political discourse in Bamako. After the junta suspended Mali’s 1992 constitution, Les Sofas advocated a return to constitutional rule. Bathily and another prominent Sofas member, rapper Master Soumy, both have masters degrees in law, and during the debate over what would follow the 40-day “interim period” when no elections could be properly held, they called out Mali’s political establishment for what they considered its self-interested reading of the constitution.

But it’s rap, not law, that has remained the core of Les Sofas’ approach. The group has two audiences: young people, who listen to hip-hop, and political authorities, who can be influenced indirectly by mobilizing the youth. Bathily characterized hip-hop to me as “the best way to reach the youth, who don’t read anymore, who don’t watch the TV news anymore, who aren’t cultivated but who cling to music.” This is why hip-hop is the vehicle through which Les Sofas convey their political message. The impact of the “Ca Suffit!” song and video, according to Bathily, derived

first from the melody, and then after two or three listens the message would get through, and a lot of people joined the cause. As Bob Marley said, before telling the youth what to do, speak to them in language they understand. Then you can tell them what you want to tell them. When you offer candy to a child he’ll come! Offer him some chocolate, he’ll come! And once he comes, you can tell him what you want him to do. But if you start out saying ‘Do this’ without offering anything, he’ll go to whoever’s offering some candy.

Les Sofas’ second track, released last week, is “Aw ya to an ka lafia”, meaning “Leave us in peace.” It is a direct response to the May 21 attack on President Dioncounda Traoré, denouncing the politicians who continue to squabble over power in Bamako instead of addressing Mali’s partition and the humanitarian crisis in the country’s north. [The recording below is audio only.]

Learning about Les Sofas and their mission, I’ve found it striking that this ad hoc collective of rappers, radio hosts and activists actually embodies “civil society” much more than Bamako’s plethora of local NGOs and civic associations, most of which have been thoroughly co-opted by the political elite. (This critique applies broadly across Africa, where the “civil society” paradigm has become almost meaningless.) Using consciousness-raising and mass mobilization, Les Sofas seek to uphold republican institutions and give voice to Mali’s disenfranchised young people.

“From now on we will watch to ensure that Mali will not be the victim of ideological aggression to manipulate the people, that it won’t be the victim of territorial aggression, that rebels will never again come attack Mali and occupy it, that Mali will never again be the victim of institutional aggression by the coup d’état that happened on March 22nd,” Bathily told me. “If these things have happened it’s because we failed in our civic duty. Aware of our mistake, of our irresponsibility, we’ve assumed our civic duty to defend the republic and watch over it.”

As the group expands and its membership grows, it could constitute a force to be reckoned with, perhaps even a model for grassroots activism and genuine democracy. And what helps drive its growth is the medium of hip-hop.

All of which makes me nostalgic for the days when hip-hop in America meant something more than unabashed sexism and conspicuous consumption.

Update, June 9, 17:00 GMT: An article published in the Malian press this weekend reports that the ORTM is “censoring” activist artists by refusing to air their latest videos (Les Sofas’ “Aw ya to an ka lafia” and the Amkoullel-Mylmo collaboration “S.O.S”). Apparently authorities are concerned that such messages could disturb public order. One wonders why they didn’t consider that before broadcasting the press conference announcing COPAM’s “national convention” three weeks ago….

See also an online interview with rapper Amkoullel about his single “S.O.S.”

Update, September 14, 12:00 GMT: Les Sofas have launched a new campaign, according to an article from Bamako’s Le Republicain newspaper, aimed at voter education among young Malians.

Update, December 1: Rapper Master Soumy, a founding member of Les Sofas, has released a single (maybe from a forthcoming album) entitled “Anw bee de no don,” which means “We’re all at fault.” You can read an article from a weekly Bamako arts magazine or listen to the audio online.

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11 Responses to Fighting for the republic, with beats and rhymes

  1. keen insights in the world of urban expressive culture. thanks!

  2. ptinti says:

    Great stuff, Bruce. Do you have any idea to what, if any, extent Les Sofas are inspired by the “Y’En A Marre” movement in Senegal? Y’En Marre’s success came in large part from its ability to occupy a political space that more conventional “Civil Society Organizations” never really inhabited in Senegal (paging Doctor’s Chabal and Daloz). I am glad you highlighted this same potential in Les Sofas.

    It’s been hard to guage Les Sofas’ influence from the US. There were a few articles in the Malian press when the group first emerged, but almost no mention since. Some of my Malian friends have heard of them, but few had much to say regarding their support/influence. I get the impression they are a fledgling movement and in no rush to join the political fray in any “traditional” sense. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      I don’t know what if any debt Les Sofas owes to “Y’En a Marre.” I should point out that hip-hop activism has been present in Dakar for a while; there’s an excellent documentary, made in 2007 around the previous election, called “Democracy in Dakar” that highlights the role of rappers in mobilizing the youth.

      In terms of “joining the political fray,” I think Les Sofas have done that from the outset: they have taken clear positions (e.g. on return to constitutional rule, on the 40-day interim period) that have gone against prevailing sentiment, they have held plenty of press conferences and they have gotten a good amount of local media attention. My impression is that they’re fully engaged in the political process here, though not as a political party per se.

  3. Mike says:

    Bruce, love your blog, best commentary on the Mali crisis going. Keep it up!

  4. apostrophekola says:

    Bruce, thanks for this … there is indeed an element of semblance with Y’en A Marre in Senegal ( I wonder if the different groups know about each other. Here is a link to a continental Map ( I am creating for Rap Group(s) like Les Sofas in hopes of shining more light on their civic participation on the continent.

  5. mkevane says:

    The Girifna movement in northern Sudan is a similar, though now far more developed, youth movement engaged in resistance to established party politics,
    See here for amusing video with English subtitles:

    And here for their most well known confrontational video

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  8. I would explain that stylish-hop activism remains found in Dakar for a while there is a great documentary, created in 2007 across the previous election, referred to as “Democracy in Dakar” that highlights the purpose of emcees in mobilizing the youth.

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      That is a good film, I use it in a few of my classes. My subjective impression (not knowing much about the Senegalese case) is that the Bamako rap scene is rather far behind its Dakar counterpart in terms of political engagement, but lately it has been catching up.

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