Family Matters

Does it matter whether the hip-hop artist Ismael Sankara is related to the great Burkinabe leader, Thomas Sankara?

Ishmael Sankara in a screenshot from "The Rhythm of My Life" (via

There are many things in life that really don’t matter all that much, but are very intriguing. The line between a person’s privacy and how to inappropriately disturb it by sticking one’s nose where it’s not invited is thin on a good day. It was this conundrum I was battling with, and a little bit of me was convinced that I should not ask Ismael Sankara – a Hip-Hop artist based in Miami and Gabon, but born in Burkina Faso – whether indeed he is related to the late President Thomas Sankara, but at the same time, quite a lot bigger part of me felt that since there’s been speculation we should try to clarify this matter.

‘The Rhythm of My Life,” a short – approximately 20 minutes – documentary on Ismael Sankara, is doing the rounds. The film implies, if only vaguely, that there’s a relationship between Ismael and Thomas Sankara and it has been said that Ismael is a son of Thomas. The implication is that he the product of an extra-marital affair. People who say they are part of Thomas Sankara’s extended family has contested these claims.

Implied, speculated and contested. Surely it would be okay to just ask. I thought I’d give Ismael a week to come back to me.

The documentary is beautifully shot. It’s like an extended music video for no particular song with a fair amount of context. None of the context is in any way critical – nor very analytical – and a lot of it is told to us following the exact standard of popular culture narratives. The style of the commentary, seemingly the sentiment behind it and the overarching braggadocio could be borrowed from any YouTube clip of any band anywhere at the moment. I am not suggesting that the expression isn’t genuine – after all he seems to be cultured to a large extent in the United States, so he isn’t a lost soul copying someone else’s vocabulary and style to express his innermost feelings. That kind of thing is all too commonplace. British author Patrick Neate in his Where You’re At, a book about Hip-Hop around the world, suggests that the expression particularly in this art form, oftentimes, resonates the communal prayers in that what is said is less significant than the fact that it is being said. That this global unity underneath a broad umbrella of an art form is what counts especially to a lot of younger people, rather than the individual messages shared as part of song lyrics or even interviews. I, however, feel like I am too old and perhaps too sceptical to be satisfied by a sense of global unity of any kind – as fascinating as I may find it. Of course, also, around the world the content of these interview clips may vary – none of this is absolute anyway – so if context would have been a tad more substantial and a bit less small talkish it could have gone a long way in making this more of a documentary and less of an infomercial.

Whether Ismael Sankara is a son of Thomas Sankara or not, he wouldn’t be the first offspring in direct lineage of African greatness to have embraced Hip-Hop. I am not sure what happened to the Hip-Hop crew called The Cartel from South Africa. The special thing about this group was that members were the grandsons of Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu: Bambatha Mandela and Ziyeka Sisulu. Their performance at the 90th Birthday of Nelson Mandela was rather awkward and other than that I have not heard much of them. They signed a major label deal in 2006, but never became major stars. Not that I necessarily rate major stars just because they are stars, but major labels tend to want major returns for their investment and somehow – in the most major way – I doubt that this had happened. The famous, even heroic names on the background were not enough to polish the music that admittedly needed many more hours of humble practice. These days you can hear some of their material online, which I assume is a bit more recent, without a mention of multinational corporate backing: here and here.

But back to Gabon. Or is it Burkina Faso? Perhaps Miami? A week has passed from my potentially intrusive email to Ismael Sankara and no response has reached me. It might never do, but with some further googling – both searching and translating as this story or anything to do with it is primarily told in French – I am finding some more material, which might be as straight an answer as we can get. Sankara answers the question to someone else,

Sorry, but legally I am not the son of Thomas Sankara. To be recognized as his son, this would require an appeal to justice and would raise many sensitive issues … I do not wish to be associated with this. I am an artist, and my work is music.

It’s hardly a straight answer to the question, but perhaps – and this is all speculation – it supports the idea that was already mentioned; that certain social pressures would make it a topic difficult to discuss. For a fact it further creates a sense of mystery around all this. While the wish of not wanting to discus the matter further is clear, the statement oozes the type of mystery that leaves us with more questions than what we had before hearing it. And yet, I feel like his privacy should be respected.

Perhaps the myth is more valuable, financially and/or otherwise, than a historically accurate version of the story. Does it even matter if he is a son of President Sankara, a relative or someone else? If he is the son, it’s an interesting detail, but understandably these larger than life characters create both blessings and shadows on the way of their offspring who will forever be treated as the son or daughter of that person. Perhaps I should not have even asked him. Perhaps he is too busy to even ever see my email. Perhaps that wouldn’t be a bad thing. After all this question has been asked to him many times before and he has indicated his reluctance to deal with the matter. Hypothetically, if he was a charlatan, then yes, that would be significant. The Hip-Hop market is flooded with artists from all around the world and in order to stand out, everyone seems to need some kind of unique selling point; at times even at the expense of their art and expression. The story told in ‘The Rhythm of My Life’ is interesting even if the opening sequence which, as later on becomes clear, is fictional, creates more confusion than clarity. But these back stories are part of artists and the marketing of their art, and the suggestion of a relation between the artist and a historical figure seems central even if unspoken. We can neither deny nor confirm its accuracy based on the information available. I am unsure how useful of a marketing tool this possible relation – the ‘myth’, as we have called it here – would be in the United States anyway. Perhaps it would make a difference elsewhere. After all he has chosen to use his full name – it’s his name and he has a right to use it and be proud of it of course – but if he wanted the matter not to be discussed ever under any circumstances he could have done what practically nearly every rapper in the world has done and used a stage name.

Perhaps I am too old for some of this music. Many of my rap heroes are in their fifties and while I still have nearly two decades to get there myself, I personally have an appreciation for lyrics that mean something a bit more. Of course none of that necessarily is age specific anyway, but perhaps, as Neate mentioned, the lyrical content of some of these younger artists is less important than the fact that they are living their version of Hip-Hop. Just as I am, in some way, living my own version. These things don’t have to match. And perhaps the suggestion that these two Sankaras are father and son creates an unfair expectation to the younger one to be overtly – or even a bit – political, which doesn’t seem to be the case. The myth remains, but for me it isn’t quite enough to carry the fascination on the music of this young man (or men, if we keep the Cartel in the same analysis), but at the same time life is long and it would be foolish to criticise young people for being young or indeed someone for making music that I am not in a target market for

Further Reading

Fearless in Nigeria

In this installment of our “Liner Notes,” the Nigerian musician, Villy, writes about his band’s EP, “Humananimals.”