Mali occupies the center of the “ear” of West Africa, but its enormous land mass is split between sub-Saharan land in the south and sprawling desert in the north. It holds more than 40 different ethnicities of people, from the ancient Bambara to the nomadic Berber Tuareg, and while it has only been independent from France for 52 years, these groups have lived together since the ancient Mandé empire of Soundiata Keita. Since before then, they have been making some of the most beautiful and powerful music in the world.
The importance of artistic voice is built into the very fiber of Malian society, and while the great musical traditions of Mali—the kora, guitar, griot singers, djembe rhythms, and other gems—live on vibrantly, it is no surprise that the resonating voices of hip-hop and rap have found their place among those ageless instruments of communication.
In October 2011, a rapper named Amkoullel released a song called “SOS.” During what appeared externally to be a peaceful time for Mali—one of Africa’s few “beacons of democracy” progressing steadily toward another democratic election—Amkoullel declared a state of emergency and a need for change. “The people are angry, we’ve killed their dreams, lies are burying the truth—every time, a little bit of hope, but then it’s gone.” He spoke with insight: two months later, the country erupted into a political and humanitarian crisis on the global stage.
Since he was 14, Amkoullel has been speaking out for change. Born Issiaka Bâ, he is a descendant of Mali’s greatest novelist Amadou Hampaté Bâ, whose words saw Mali through its transition to independence from France in 1960. Issiaka’s family expected him to be a lawyer, but hip-hop had other plans. Instead, he took a name from one of his grandfather’s novels, and Amkoullel the Fulani Child began his career as a a different kind of “voice for the voiceless”—he became an advocate.
Pulling from the style of French hip-hop but always incorporating the traditional sounds and music that have made Mali famous across the world, Amkoullel became one of the first artists to speak to and on behalf of the youth of the country, calling them to unite and stand up. Amkoullel raps about education reform, political issues, and frustrations with governance. He is speaking to the majority of the population as 60% of Malians are under 25. He is also not ashamed to speak bluntly to them: in one song, he tells his fellow Africans to “get up and get to work, we cannot be an embarrassment to the rest of the world.”
As the government began to crumble last year under the pressure of a rebel uprising in the north, they banned Amkoullel’s “SOS,” fearing it would incite uprisings. In a country that values music, it was a shocking move, showing just how fragile the government’s position had become. After a coup d’état in March 2012, a famine in the north, and extremist factions of Al Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb taking over the entire northern half of the country to impose Sharia law, the country was on its knees. The Islamist rebels in the North began destroying Mali’s heritage sites in Timbuktu, imposed amputations for disobedience, raped women and girls, and banned music (other than Quranic verses) and dancing. Mali’s artists, however, could not be silenced.
As France geared up its troops to intervene back in January, 40 of Mali’s most influential artists—from Oumou Sangaré to Habib Koite to Amadou & Mariam—came together to cut a track asking Mali’s people to stand behind them. Amkoullel rapped, “Let’s unite, Malians, and stand strong / Once we do, Maliba, nobody can touch you.”
This is a volatile time for North Africa. Its population is frightened and faces uncertain times ahead. Hip-hop and rap are offering new avenues of communication. Importantly, creative minds are standing up and speaking out, and people are listening. Mali specifically, with its own rich history of this tradition, is relying on artists more than ever.
Sophie Shackleton lived in Mali for two years, working on cultural exchanges with Malian performing artists. She now works as the Project Coordinator for DanceMotion USA, BAM’s global dance exchange program.