A few days ago, Al Jazeera English channel screened (and then put online) a 30 minute documentary, “The Power of Song,” on the Ivorian reggae star Tiken Jah Fakoly. Made by a Canadian production company, the film was billed by Al Jazeera as following Fakoly on a visit to two village schools in Côte d’Ivoire that he funds (51% of Ivorians are illiterate). The publicity also emphasized generalities. Tiken Jah “fights for Africa’s poor and marginalized.” Al Jazeera also played up this quote uttered by Tiken Jah at the film’s outset: “There’s something wrong. Africa is one of the richest continents, yet the people who live on this continent are the world’s poorest. That’s a problem. We’re living in a house of gold and we can’t get medical care, we can’t send our kids to school, we can’t get enough to eat. That’s the paradox, it’s historical and no one can fix it except us. It is our unity that will allow us to overcome it.” Not surprisingly, this was also how I learned about the film on twitter: it’s about schools and Tiken Jah’s general criticism of African corruption. But then I actually watched the film.Of course the film focuses on Tiken Jah’s efforts around funding schools, but then about a third through the film, the narrator prompts Tiken Jah to talk about being forced to leave Abidjan, the capital in the south, when a civil war broke out in 2002. Part of the cause was the government refusal to allow a northern Muslim, Alassane Ouattara, to stand in presidential elections in 1995 and 2000 because he was allegedly not Ivorian enough. The 2002 civil war then split the country in two with the north controlled by rebels sympathetic to Ouattara. In the fim, Tiken Jah talks about how he realized that if he stayed in the capital, “the people in power in Abidjan would try to hurt someone famous from the north to lower morale in the rebel zone.” The government also accused Tiken Jah of being “the musical branch of the revolution.” Tiken Jah ended up fleeing and living in Bamako, Mali.
It is well known that Ouattara was eventually allowed to run in 2010. He won that election. The incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo refused to step down and a civil war broke out. Gbagbo was eventually arrested by rebel forces and extradited to The Hague.
The film also includes scenes where Tiken Jah discusses how he came to have his name, as well as a brief scene where an audience member at one of his concerts rains US$100 bills on Tiken Jah. The singer defiantly hands the cash to the audience to show that “he can’t be bought.”
Why should you care about all this? Well, apart from learning about Tiken Jah’s place in Ivorian politics when you actually watch the film, it also makes me wonder about social media’s ability to inform us and wonder whether people actually first watch or read half the stuff they then tweet and retweet.
* Btw, I can also recommend Siddhartha Mitter’s interview with Tiken Jah in September 2011 in New York City.