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Malian rappers seek harmony through hip-hop

Following Mali's political crisis, a collective of musicians that includes the country's leading hip-hop group are rapping for a return to full democracy. FRANCE 24's special correspondent reports.


The morning after the Friday night announcement of a transitional plan for crisis-hit Mali, rapper Ramses saunters in, late, for a meeting with fellow musicians in one of the few leafy districts of the capital of Bamako.

It was in this very house, in Bamako's Badalabougou district, that a handful of musicians, recording artists and radio presenters gathered more than three weeks ago, the morning after Captain Amadou Sanogo ousted President Amadou Toumani Touré in a military coup.  A number of musicians had spent the night discussing the situation and decided to get together and take action.

Ras Bathily, one of the founding members of Les Sofas de la
Republique. (Photo: L. Jacinto)
Ras Bathily, one of the founding members of Les Sofas de la Republique. (Photo: L. Jacinto)

That's when they formed the collective Les Sofas de la Republique. “Sofas” is a Mandinka term for warriors who served in the Mali Empire that lasted from the 13th to the 17th centuries and covered, at its peak, a swath of West Africa stretching from Timbuktu to the Atlantic coast.

Sofas have a unique resonance in West African culture, since they functioned not only as warriors, but also as guardians and custodians.

“We see ourselves as defenders of the constitution,” says Ras Bathily, a lanky Bamako native sporting a Bob Marley T-shirt and a pendant of Thomas Sankara, the assassinated former Burkinabé president also known as the African Ché Guevara.

Ramses, whose real name is Sidy Soumaoro, sits beside Bathily and nods sagely, his dark sunglasses masking all emotions. The epitome of cool.

Sidy Soumaoro, aka Ramses, is a member of Tata Pound, Mali's
leading hip-hop group. (Photo: L. Jacinto)
Sidy Soumaoro, aka Ramses, is a member of Tata Pound, Mali's leading hip-hop group. (Photo: L. Jacinto)

The early morning hours are not the best time to catch a rapper. But when the sun goes down and Ramses teams up with band members Dixon and Djodama, the 30-year-old can get the crowd on its feet, grooving to a music that is at once local Malian and global hip-hop.

His group, Tata Pound, revolutionised the genre with tracks that invariably tackle the daily struggles of ordinary Malians. "Tata" is a colonial-era name of the wall that protected the southern city of Sikasso from invaders, while "Pound" refers to the British monetary unit, the significance of which Ramses is reluctant to expound at this early hour. In the world of rap, some things are just so.

Right now, Ramses and six other Malian artists are working on a song “mostly in Bambara [a local Malian language] and some French,” he says. “It will talk about the situation in Mali.”

Mission not yet accomplished

The situation in Mali over the past three weeks has been troubling, to say the least.

Taking advantage of the power vacuum after the March 22 coup, Tuareg rebels formed an unlikely alliance with Islamist groups and seized control of northern Mali, declaring it independent last week.

The military coup, meanwhile, sparked crippling regional and international sanctions against the impoverished, landlocked country as ECOWAS - the West African grouping - attempted to negotiate a return to democracy.

The first steps were taken on Friday, with a deal that provided a framework for a return to constitutional rule and the lifting of the sanctions.

So, does the latest ECOWAS-brokered deal spell the end of Les Sofas de la Republique's mission?

Half-a-dozen Malian musicians shake their heads in unison and say, “non, non”.

Bathily, by far the most articulate in the collective, explains why the mission is not yet accomplished. “It's not a question of this man goes and that man comes,” he explains. “Today, we don't have faith in any politician.”

Les Sofas de la Republique have a Facebook page that, at last count, has more than 2,000 fans and provides a forum for an ongoing discussion about the situation in Mali. Its members regularly release statements calling for Malian youth to rally for a return to full democracy.

Performing for and against the ousted president

Ramses discloses that Tata Pound performed for ousted president Amadou Toumani Touré back in 2002, when “ATT”, as he’s widely known, was elected president in a wave of optimism.

At that time, their song “President Cikan”, which could be translated from Bambara as “Message to the president”, was a hit. Shortly after his inauguration, ATT invited the group to perform at a gathering of Mali’s leading cultural figures at the presidential palace.

But in 2006, things began to turn a sour when the group released their album “Revolution”, which was widely viewed as a critique of ATT's presidency.

A Malian hip-hop artist's heroes: Former Burkina Faso president, Thomas Sankara and Bob Marley (Photo: L. Jacinto)
A Malian hip-hop artist's heroes: Former Burkina Faso president, Thomas Sankara and Bob Marley (Photo: L. Jacinto)

The backlash was more subliminal than overt, Ramses explains, as the national radio and TV stations refused to play their music and sponsors withdrew their support.

But that has not stopped the group from engaging in Mali's socio-political situation. As Ramses says, in these troubled times, the work must go on.

Bathily chips in to explain why the collective's mission is far from finished. “Right after the coup, Malian society was divided between pro and anti-coup people, and we started to see a polarisation of opinion,” he explains. “So we said listen, stop, that’s enough. That's our message. We at once understood the consequences for the people, and we had to put the people first. We knew there would be sanctions, that the people would suffer. Today, we live in a unipolar world, a world of democracy. We Malians want to belong to the world, we don't want coups that will cut us off from it.”

All eyes on the north

If all goes well, the coup in Mali could be a thing of the past. The transitional plan sets out a roadmap to democracy in which the interim president, parliamentary head Dioncounda Traoré, must oversee elections within 40 days.

But the situation in northern Mali remains grim. International human rights groups say there were widespread human rights abuses, inluding rapes, in the rebel-controlled city of Gao earlier this week. Amnesty International has warned of a looming humanitarian crisis sparked by a combination of the recent political upheavals and a drought in the region.

“The situation in the north, it breaks my heart,” says Mamani Abba Sanassekou, a TV producer and presenter of a popular cultural show. “The MNLA claims they have liberated the region,” he says, referring to the Tuareg separatist National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad. “But they are not protecting the population. They don't care about the population and they do not represent the population of the north. We Malians don't want the Islamists. We want to live in harmony.”

Harmony, with a little bit of hip-hop in the mix, is the medium and the message Ramses and his fellow artists in Les Sofas de la Republique are determined to pursue as Mali gets back on the path to democracy.


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