The United States of Africa

Yannick Létourneau talks about the genesis of his film about the Senegelese rapper, Awadi. Also, why so many political musicians come from West Africa.

From the film's poster art.

The rapper Awadi was a founder of a Senegalese’s brand of political hip hop. As ‘kola wrote on this blog, Awadi was at the forefront of a 1990s social movement that helped to galvanize a youthful constituency to help elect Abdoulaye Wade as the new president in 2000. “Of course, after [Wade] got the presidency, he disregarded the scores of youths and rap artists that supported him and pandered instead to wealthy and influential members of the business community, which included prominent Mourid (religious brotherhood) leaders.” Awadi continued his activism, calling out Wade over corruption, subsidizing North Korea, electricity shortages and the tragic cases of young Senegalese drowning on small boats to Europe trying to flee unemployment back home. Wade was eventually voted out earlier this year. (The new president is Macky Sall, a former Wade prime minister.) Awadi remains prominent in local politics, but has been casting his net wider for a more continental remit. His last album, Présidents d’Afrique, is an expression of his continental and diasporic politics. Which is where director Yannick Létourneau’s film “United States of Africa” comes in. The film follows Awadi through Senegal, Burkina Faso, South Africa, France and the United States (including the inauguration of Barack Obama) as he records the album with musicians (Smockey, M1 of Dead Prez, Zulu Boy, among others) who share aspects of his political vision. After watching the documentary I asked the Canadian filmmaker about its genesis, politics and why so many political pop stars come from West Africa. But first the trailer.

Can you say something about the process of making the film and your and Didier Awadi’s respective visions? What you were trying to communicate?

My initial idea was to make a documentary on African hip hop. It was an idea that I carried since the end of the 1990s. The idea manifested itself more clearly when I was invited to screen my previous film, ‘Chroniques Urbaines’, in Burkina Faso in 2004. At the time that I was there, they also had the Waga Hip Hop Festival, an urban music festival with artists from Africa and Europe. That’s where I saw Awadi live in concert as a solo artist. He was there with a full band, 10+ people musicians and dancers on stage, which left a strong impression on me — in terms of the quality of the show, Awadi’s lyrics and the relevancy of everything he had to say. I went to see him after the show and told him about my project. I first heard about Awadi back when he was part of Positive Black Soul. Their first album — which was released early 90s — had equally left a strong impression on me. I had had the opportunity to see them live at several big festivals here in Montreal. So I was quite happy to meet him in person ten years later. And Awadi was open to a collaboration. That same time, I met [the Burkinabé rapper] Smockey who also features in the documentary (more about him later). That’s the early genesis of the project.

I quickly realized I could not just do a film on “African hip hop”. That was too broad and I wasn’t interested in doing a who’s who of African hip hop. That would rather be something for a book. I could not just make a film about ‘music’; because what these artists are doing is ‘bigger than hip hop’. They are concerned with social justice, not only in their own countries but on the African continent as a whole. I needed to go deeper to understand better their commitment to political hip hop. The film took about four years of research, development and financing. It was very difficult to find anybody interested in Africa and/or anybody interested in (African) hip hop. It took a long time but I finally managed to pre-sell it to four Canadian broadcasters, and then a fifth broadcaster (the South African public broadcaster SABC1). After that, it took me about two years to shoot (ninety days) and about a year of post-production. So overall it was a 7-year process. That’s the short version.

My interest in Africa goes deeper than just my interest in hip hop. My first encounter with the continent was when I travelled to Burkina Faso in 1993 to visit my mother who was working there for an NGO. She lived there for 9 years. I wasn’t particularly interested in Africa. I had all these stereotypes in my head as a young Canadian citizen. I didn’t know much about what I was going to see or what was going to happen once there. But that first trip changed me and my perceptions: the people that I met, the stories that I learned, my hearing about the story of Thomas Sankara who had been killed five years earlier. From the youth of Burkina Faso who saw him as a fallen hero and by studying Sankara, I found out about the unhealthy relationship with France and their former African colonies; I learned about the issue of debt and its use by the IMF and the World Bank to justify privatization of health, education and other common goods. I got more interested in the socio-political aspect of what was going on in Burkina Faso but also throughout the continent, as the same dynamics are at play in other African countries. This film for me is the result of 20 years of traveling back and forth, lots of reading, meeting people, engaging in conversations and finding out more about a history I didn’t know of. I realized I didn’t know any of the African heroes and thinkers like Diop, Nkrumah, Lumumba, Nyerere, Biko, Cabral or Hani. It’s only with time that I got better acquainted with the concept of the United States of Africa, a concept initially put forth by Marcus Garvey (and which was pushed further through Nkrumah etcetera). That concept became the frame of this film.

This film has become for me a way to challenge the stereotypes and the negative representations I had of the African continent and the contribution by Africans to civilization and history — too often portrayed in a negative way as if Africa was somewhere outside of history. Sarkozy’s speech in Dakar in August 2007 (where Sarkozy said Africans had “not fully entered history”) sums up that colonialist point of view very well. This film is my way to talk about this other Africa we unfortunately don’t know much about.

In the film, Awadi focuses his energies on at least three contemporary presidents. The film suggests that two of these fall short: not surprisingly, he has clear dislikes for Abdoulaye Wade and Nicolas Sarkozy. In contrast, he is excited by Barack Obama’s ascent to the American presidency in 2008 and even defends his position against that of critics like M1 of Dead Prez, who’s also a collaborator on Awadi’s album “Présidents d’Afrique” and distrusts Obama (to be fair, Awadi mostly sees symbolic value in Obama’s election). As things stand, Sarkozy and Wade are now both confined to history. Has Awadi’s position on Obama changed? What is your position vis a vis Obama?

I understand Awadi’s position when he says that what is important for him is the fact that the son of an African father is now the president of the United States of America. That meant a lot to him then in terms of symbolism. No matter how dark your skin is, you can be the most powerful man on the planet. But other than that, Awadi clearly says in the film that he’s aware Obama won’t change American policy, he’s just a part of a system that is much bigger than himself. Awadi is far from being naive. M1, in the film, is much more reactive and outspoken about what Obama stands for. But M1 also understood what Awadi was saying and where he as coming from. It was important for Awadi to be in Washington DC for the inauguration. It was an opportunity to witness history. But we now see things haven’t changed that much since — be it on a foreign policy level or on a national level; think: the reinforcement of the Patriot Act, the military spending and the extra-judicial killing outside the US and AFRICOM. All of that just shows it’s more of the same.

As things stand, yes, Sarkozy is gone, replaced by a socialist government, and Wade is gone as well. But what Sarkozy is recorded saying in the film is still relevant. His Dakar speech was a resumé of the colonial mindset which has justified a perpetual involvement by France (and other world powers) in African affairs and politics, always for the control of resources. That’s what it is. The dream of the West is having an Africa without the Africans. They really don’t care about the development of the African people. Again, the IMF and the World Bank’s policies encourage the different countries to remove their trade barriers which are essential to developing a national economy yet these same trade barriers are used effectively by the US and Europe. Why is that? It doesn’t make sense. There needs to be trade barriers in order to stimulate national growth and economy. Some form of protectionism is needed to develop and protect local industries — whether cultural or agricultural, in Africa.

My position regarding Obama? I have no hope in the president of the United States. You can now be arrested and searched in the US if police says you look suspicious. Protesting close to a president can get you in prison. These laws were put in place by Obama. Is that democracy? Let’s not be blind. It really is the business world controlling governments everywhere. It’s the 1% against the 99%.

Awadi is very articulate about what ails Africa (harsh and indifferent global realities along with profligate African leaders). To confront these realities he offers the examples of past anti-colonial and African (and black) nationalists leaders as well as his music. Yet he also concedes that symbolic politics won’t be enough or get us very far, and suggests people “need to organize.” Yet Awadi leaves the latter option open. Is he deliberately leaving that open? Does he have a political program and if so what is it?

Awadi is not a politician. He’s an artist. And artists have limits in terms of what they can do as artists. You can sing about revolution, you can talk about the conditions of the people, you can pinpoint specific problems or offer solutions. You can encourage people to go out into the streets. You can serve as a voice for the voiceless and speak truth to power. But at a certain point it’s up to the people to organize politically. And Awadi knows that. That’s why he says that if we want things to change, we need to jump the fence and commit ourselves beyond just attending concerts and lifting your fists in the air screaming ‘revolution!’.

If you look at history and the revolutions that have happened (e.g. the fall of the Berlin wall or the struggle against apartheid), it’s because people organized en masse. There was mass education and mass action. This is what the film suggests at the end with the example of South Africa and the speech of Blandine Sankara. Smockey for example goes beyond his role as a musician and reaches out to the kids as an organizer of sorts — not with a political party but through the ideal of humanism and social justice. He confronts the kids with their fear. Their fear of action. I believe it’s only through action that change will come. If there is to be change, it needs to come from the people, and that includes the artists who need to step down and go into the streets and organize. There’s no other way. That is what Awadi meant when he says politics of symbolism won’t be enough, nor get us very far. Yes, we leave the question open. Deliberately. We wrote the film and left it open — and went through the whole narration with Awadi too so it could be his as well — because it’s not up to us or to Awadi to say how the people need to organize. People know what to do and can do it very well. Take the recent of example of what happened in Burkina Faso last year, where the same dictator has been around for the last 25 years, with support of Western powers. There were huge protests by youth and young adults who were protesting the beating and killing of a kid in the police station — protests that where barely covered in the mainstream press here. Or in Senegal, where you have hip hop artists who stepped down as artists and started organizing politically through Y’en A Marre. That’s a very concrete and real example of people taking things into their own hands as citizens, not as artists. Getting down with the people, doing education and organization. Whether through a political party or just as citizens fighting for social justice. I don’t think Awadi has a political program other than letting the people speak and let’s have justice prevail. There are politicians out there who do have a political program and those we believe in should be supported. Real people democracy. That’s his program. (Or at least my personal interpretation of what Awadi stands for.)

As discussed earlier, the film was completed before the recent Senegalese elections that saw Wade voted out of power, but we get glimpses of Awadi openly criticizing and ridiculing Wade’s policies. Apart from Awadi’s more continental and symbolic politics, what was his role in the recent political struggles inside Senegal? What is his relationship to groups like Y’en A Marre?

I know he was supportive of what Y’en A Marre were doing. Yet, he decided to align himself with the broader M23 movement — a coalition of which Y’en A Marre was part of, bringing together citizens, political parties, NGOs and other interest groups from civil society. He has worked with artists that are part of Y’en A Marre. He recorded some songs during the events and he was very outspoken about it in national and foreign press. He’s always been very critical of governments that are messing up. He’s not a kid anymore. He’s in his forties, he has a lot under his a belt as a man, as a father, as an artist, as a citizen, and I think he’s got a very acute understanding of the politics in Senegal and in Africa in general — an interesting point of view as to what needs to be done for the country and the continent to emerge as a force. First and foremost in the best interest of the people.

I was very impressed by the Burkinabé rapper Smockey. He is very courageous and politically involved. Can you say more about him and his musical and political movement in Burkina Faso. He is not alone with his stance in that country, right?

Smockey is definitely not alone. One of his friends Sams’K Le Jah, a reggae artist who is very outspoken, was attacked by the government and received death threats yet continues to fight for social justice in Burkina Faso. Smockey is an impressive character, an artist, and a very courageous citizen. (When I speak with Awadi we worry for Smockey’s safety because he’s risking his life doing what he’s doing.) At the same time, Smockey knows it and there’s nothing that will stop him. He has received death threats before, directly and through his family and close ones. But, fortunately, he’s not alone. He is part of a larger network and is known in and outside the country. It gives him some sort of protection because the Burkanibé government wants to be seen as being open and democratic. Partly because in 1998, elements of that government killed an investigative journalist, Norbert Zongo, who was critical of the corrupt elite of that country, of the government and the people close to the government — which made him an easy target. When he was killed there was almost a coup d’état: people came out massively, and President Blaise Compaoré almost stepped down. So yes, it’s dangerous in that country. Others in the past have disappeared and were killed in strange circumstances. Smockey, again, is not a politician. And Awadi is concerned about the development of the people and his country. When you see the exploitation and the poverty of the people, you can’t just sing about love, sex and party.

There is an urgency and an everyday threat, there is hunger, there is exploitation and repression. So I understand and can only agree when they say they have a responsibility as artists to talk about what is going on because many people are afraid to talk.

Even if there’s an illiteracy rate of 85% in a country like Burkina Faso, the word gets out thanks to artists like Smockey, and people learn through him and others like him about what’s really going on, and how the elite is only really interested in preserving their privileges. These artists have an influence because they’re using rap and words everybody can understand. Hip hop is the music of my generation. We grew up with that music. That is, I guess, also why I was interested in doing this film.

Why do you think Thomas Sankara holds such attraction for especially young West Africans?

Sankara is an important political figure on the continent. Not just for West Africans but also for anyone who’s interested in politics and history. He was a revolutionary who proved that even the poorest country on the planet could lift itself out of poverty. He set an example for the oppressed people of the world. I believe that’s why people appreciate what Sankara managed to do for Burkina Faso in only four years. Younger generations know that he wasn’t perfect but he was always seeking and fighting for that ideal. He was a pan-africanist as well. He was killed by the actual government with the complicity of several other African countries, and France, to set an example to anyone who would consider taking that route. Sankara tried to break the vicious circle of debt and privatization that enslave people around the world.

Sankara is called the Che Guevara of Africa by some, but many are inspired by Sankara because of what he has achieved in a mere four years. You might be the last country on the development list of the UN, but that’s no reason why you can’t develop yourself. You might be the poorest country in the world, it is within our means to get ourselves out of the underdevelopment and to change things around. He showed that was possible through massive vaccination, eradication of famine, through putting wome in power in all the key sectors of society. He’s an example for every developing country. (Watch: ‘Thomas Sankara: The Upright Man’.)

Finally, I kept thinking of Awadi as a younger version of Tiken Jah Fakoly or Fela. What is it about West Africa that it produces political pop stars?

That’s an interesting parallel. Awadi and Tiken Jah are about the same age and they have collaborated together (on Coup de Gueule’s first track, ‘Quitte le pouvoir’). And yes, Fela is definitely part of the family of thinking. But I’m not sure why so many political pop stars come out of West Africa. Is it because there’s such a strong popular culture which is rooted in consciousness or politics? When you listen to, say, Nigerian or Ghanaian hip hop music, it’s harder to find political conscious artists. Of course there are, but it seems as if you go to Burkina Faso or Senegal, most artists are politically conscious. Probably because there’s so much wrongs in West Africa. Look at Nigeria and its oil politics, or Côte d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso and Senegal: too much corruption. You’ll have people who barely eat once or twice a day. It is tough out there. There’s massive unemployment, youth is disenfranchised, there’s not a lot of opportunities. People are pissed-off because they’ve been promised development, by their government and financial institutions such as the IMF and others. Now, five, ten, twenty years later, we see that nothing has changed. It has become harder than ever. People are fed-up. So the fight of Fela, or Tiken Jah, is only more relevant today. This is something we need to hear. You often learn much more by listening to these artist than to reading news-feeds from AFP or Reuters. If you really want to know what’s going on, wherever you are…listen to these politically conscious artists. You’ll have a better perspective about the people, and a better understanding of the powers at play in those countries.

Further Reading

An unfinished project

Christian theology was appropriated to play an integral role in the justifying apartheid’s racist ideology. Black theologians resisted through a theology of the oppressed.