In Burkina Faso music is at the heart of a movement that last year chased an autocrat from power. Bram Posthumus finds out how hip-hop artist and activist Smockey used rap and reggae to change the country’s political course…
“Look, here they are; you can see for yourself.” Serge Martin Bambara, the 45-year-old better known as Smockey, shows the damage done to his Studio Abazon in Burkina Faso’s capital city Ouagadougou. “Here the bullets went in. And these two big holes you see there, those were rockets. They probably thought I was here…” The iron door at the entrance has been repaired, sort of, but a glass partition has been shattered and in the wall at the back we count at least nine bullet holes. Who did this? The – now disbanded – private guard of the man Smockey helped remove from power, Burkina Faso’s ex-president Blaise Compaoré. They attacked on September 17 2015, one day after they staged a coup d’état, which failed only two weeks later.
The name Smockey is a French pun, taken from se moquer – to make fun of people, especially those in power. That is what he has been doing, mercilessly, for years, on his own and as part of a larger group of rap and reggae artists who have woken up an entire people. The attack on his studio was the last stand of an old guard clinging to its power and privilege. If anything, it has left the country’s revolutionary musicians more determined than ever to finish the work they started.
A BRIEF HISTORY
In 1960, France said goodbye to its colonies in most of Africa, including this landlocked country, slightly larger than the UK, part savannah, part Sahel. It inherited a colonial name: Upper Volta. This was not to the liking of a group of young soldiers who took power in a coup in 1983 and renamed it Burkina Faso – the land of the upright people. The leader of that coup was a charismatic captain by the name of Thomas Sankara. Only four years later a counter coup was orchestrated with the help of France and the revolutionaries were killed. Compaoré took over and under his reign, Burkina Faso was turned into a corrupt family business.
But a new generation was growing up, going to school and looking around their country. They didn’t like what they saw. Neither did the investigative journalist Norbert Zongo, who was casting unwelcome light on the way the ruling family enriched itself. On December 13 1998 his bullet-riddled and burnt-out car was found just outside the capital. Zongo and his three passengers were dead. Who did it? The same armed group that attacked Smockey’s studio. It is not coincidental that on Smockey’s latest album Pre’volution there is a song, ‘Dossier Zongo’, that demands that the inquiry into his death, buried by the Compaoré government, be re-opened. Sooner or later, the song says, the perpetrators will pay for their crime – ‘[Norbert] began the work of an entire generation / Let’s carry on that flame so he will truly rest in peace… / For impunity to end, we’ll re-open the Zongo dossier.’
There were other victims, like the outspoken singer Black So Man, author of the furious ‘Système de Vampire’; it was crystal clear what – and who – he had in mind. Only 32 years old, he was severely wounded in a suspect car accident in late 1997. He never recovered and died four years later. Smockey and his colleague, the reggaeman Sams’K Le Jah faced harassment, attacks and had their music banned. But they never stopped. Sams’K released his second album in 2007 – Une Bougie Pour Thomas Sankara (A Candle for Thomas Sankara). Smockey lampooned the rigged elections in his country in ‘Votez Pour Moi’ (Vote for Me) and typified the establishment with the title of his fourth album, CCP (Cravate, Costard et Pourriture) – Tie, Suit and Nothing but Rottenness Underneath.
In 2013, and inspired by the hip-hop led movement Y’en a Marre in Senegal, Sams’K and Smockey set up Le Balai Citoyen (Citizen’s Broom). The rappers from Dakar had shown the way by preventing an ageing megalomaniac, president Abdoulaye Wade, from taking an illegal third term. It was a matter of time before the brooms would spring into action and start sweeping away a government that was strangling the aspirations of the Burkinabé. Smockey says “when Compaoré decided to stay in power forever… that was the precise moment that we knew: it’s now or never. We talked, we organised, we didn’t sleep.”
The drama unfolded over the last two days of October 2014. On October 30, bribed parliamentarians were rushed into the National Assembly building from a luxury hotel next door where they had spent the night. They were about to endorse Compaoré’s plans. At the same time, commandos entered the building and set it ablaze. Even today nobody knows who they were, but the crucial vote was postponed. Forever. On October 31 hundreds of thousands marched on the presidential palace with one message to the president: get out. Among them were many women who had brought their cooking utensils with them. In this part of the world that is the worst message a leader can get. It means you’re cooked, finished. The same day, Blaise Compaoré was gone, after 27 years.
Smockey reflects “I think we invented a new kind of resistance. Peaceful, but firm. Certainly, we were not going to allow ourselves to get killed by responding to the provocations of the security forces. But we popped up everywhere, to the point that they no longer knew where to attack us.”
“Art was at the heart of this uprising. Many don’t realise that art is subversive and gets into people’s conscience,” Smockey says. It serves another purpose: to restore confidence and pride in Burkinabé culture, a theme shared by a new generation of rappers. “Zongo was my inspiration,” confesses 29-year-old Joey le Soldat. “My first album is an ode to his work.” Joey, who studied literature at Ouagadougou’s university, comes from a line of warriors: his grandfather was forced to fight in the French colonial army, his father was part of the struggle for Burkina Faso’s independence. And those battles continue, he says. “I called my second album Burkin Bâ. It’s a reference to the name Sankara gave to this country. My raps are in Mooré, my language, because that enables me to reach out to the majority of the Burkinabé, who are illiterate. I ask whether we still have people of integrity here, who share, who listen, who don’t steal. Musically I use electronics but the rhythms and the instruments I use are from here. That is how you stay original.”
“Revolution in this country is permanent. It’s been like that from the beginning.” Quite the statement. It comes from Art Melody, who was in a band with Joey le Soldat before both started solo careers. Art Melody recorded his latest album, called Moogho, before, during and after the revolution. Like Joey, he uses a highly effective mix of traditional sounds and modern beats from all around the world – and raps in Mooré and Dioula, the language from his hometown, Bobo-Dioulasso. Moogho means ‘World’ and talks about the inevitability of change in a country where corruption had become the norm, not the exception. But that is not all, says Art: “It’s not just a question of changing leaders. We must educate people, change mentalities. Who comes to work on time and who doesn’t? Who puts his relatives in important positions instead of people who are qualified for the job? There is still a lot of work to do.”
All these rappers and activists took to the streets in September 2015 when they heard that the presidential guard had staged a coup. They helped organise the resistance: a barricade here, a few burnt tyres there, all designed to wear the enemies out, confuse them. It worked: by the end of the month, the “most stupid coup in the world,” as the Burkinabé were calling it, was over and the country’s transition to democracy back on track.
The Avenue de l’Indépendance is so wide it can easily accommodate a military parade. Among the many government buildings here is an imposing once-white building: the National Assembly, now a charred hulk. Smockey decided to launch Pre’volution there. “It is a symbol. It should stay as it is. We want to turn it into a museum and make sure that everyone who sits in the new parliament must pass through here.” In other words: if you make a hash of your job of serving the people, you’re next.
Within a year, the people of Burkina Faso have removed an autocrat, seen off his armed guards and elected a new president. Apart from making spectacularly good rap music, there’s a few other things this country can teach the world.
This article originally appeared in Songlines #115. To find out more about subscribing to Songlines, visit: www.songlines.co.uk/subs