The Racial Politics of Tuareg Nationalism

Historian Greg Mann is not a big fan of Tuareg group, Tinariwen. The music is alright, he agrees, but the politics is rancid.

Tinariwen in performance. Image Wiki Commons.

Like good nomads ought to be, Tuareg desert blues super group Tinariwen are on tour. I hear good things about them as individuals, and I’m sure they’re all fine human beings, but I’m not a big fan. The music is alright, but the politics is rancid. Here’s why.

“Our music was created under the same circumstances as the American blues,” Eyadou Ag Leche tells Belgian TV. “We’ve been colonized.” He seems to want a Tuareg state in the Malian Sahara, something like the state of Azawad that declared its independence from Mali on Friday.

Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni, member of the band Tinariwen, at a concert in Hamburg. Image: Wiki Commons.

Whatever Tinariwen’s singing, it ain’t the blues. It’s the white man’s blues. In the 1950s, many people in the southern Sahara, mostly Tuareg, did not want to be ruled by Blacks (sound familiar?). The racial divide was an old one, but the French colonizers had nurtured it, even doped it up just before independence. They promised to create a separate Saharan territory expressly for the Tuareg, one that would stay under French rule. When independence came in 1960, and much of the Sahara became Malian territory, many Tuareg considered this a betrayal — the ‘other’ Whites had left them to be ruled by the Blacks. Some have been in revolt, on and off, ever since. This history isn’t pretty, and the racism cuts both ways. The extreme violence with which Mali put down a Tuareg revolt in the early ’60s didn’t help. They might have killed a lot of people, but they didn’t kill the dream. Today’s claims for an independent ‘Azawad’ are based on an old racial rhetoric and a newer nationalist veneer.

So whose blues are Tinariwen singing? I’m from the South — not the global one, the American one. If Lynyrd Skynryd sang this same song (“Sweet Home, Azawad”?), you and I would call bullshit on that, too.

Further Reading

An unfinished project

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