I can’t think of many rappers anywhere on this planet who pick their references as meticulously as Togolese rapper Elom 20ce. In every medium he works, he sprinkles numerous historical and cultural references, laying out his political orientation. A quick glance at his videos shows that the references and symbols are multifaceted, from ceremonial masks and stilts to carefully chosen Kente patterns. The Lomé-based MC choses to rap in French to reach out to the broadest audience possible, and sees his work as a mission to pique the curiosity of Francophones around the globe, particularly those located in that swath of land sitting between Dakar and Antananarivo.
Being a rapper, the main canvas for his mission is his music. In a recent chat, he took time to break down the second verse from his new song Vodoo Sakpata, off of his new album Indigo, which helps to clarify his mission in general:
Can you explain: “couper la tête aux colons en véritable asrafo” (genuine asrafo cutting colonists’ heads)
Asrafo is a reference to warriors in Ewe tradition. They are said to hold mystic powers. We’re told that on the battlefield, “they have the power to have their enemies swallowed by the earth. When the head remains on the surface, they come to chop it off.”
“Couper la tête aux colons en véritable Asrafo” is a métaphore to say we need to put an end to those who humiliate and deplete Africa: the colonists.
Chilembwe, Kimathi: Can you tell me what they represent for you, and for your audience?
John Chilembwe was a Baptist educator and political leader who organized the uprising against British colonists in Nyassaland, today Malawi.
Dedan Kimathi was the Mau Mau leader, warriors who fought for Kenya’s independence.
They understood the importance of getting organized to fight against the system which oppressed them. They understood the importance of educating the masses. Chilimbwe created a network of African schools. They also understood that violence is necessary to liberate a people from systemic exploitation which itself uses violence. To rely on the colonists’ good conscience would be totally naïve.
Despite being both killed, their struggle contributed to the independence of both Kenya and Malawi.
Can you tell us what “Gnawoé, mila wô doakaka di la vôlé n’ti, élabéna, miabé djéna bé dô wom miélé” means?
The truth is we will accomplish our task efficiently, because our rights are at stake
Lomé, Ouaga, Conakry, Accra: besides the rime, why these particular cities?
Lomé because it is my home town. The other cities, because I am linked to other engaged artists there, working towards enhancing the conscious of their people. Besides, Ouaga because of Sankara and his heritage, Conakry because of Amilcar Cabral, Sékou Touré and their heirs, Accra because of Kwame Nkrumah and his legacy. At the time, they all worked together. Today, we have consumed and digested the balkanization of Africa. These cities to abolish the borders drawn in Germany during the Berlin conference.
Who do you mean by compadores? People working for major multinationals?
Not only. There are people working for multinationals who are not compradores, or at least not intentionally. I’m talking about those chosen by the imperialists, those they put in place to support their vision and handle the dirty work on the ground. Basically, relays of the imperialists among the oppressed population.
Gobineau, Ferry, Foccart: how do you see their role and impact on Africa?
They are all racists from different generations, who stole Africans like animals, who worked towards dehumanizing and destabilizing Africa.
Arthur de Gobineau wrote an essay about the inequality of human races in 1853. Apparently he inspired Hitler. Anthénor Firmin responded with his book about the equality of human races in 1885.
In 1885, Jules Ferry held a speech at the French National Assembly to defend colonization. I learned this from Kwame Knrumah’s book Africa Must Unite. Here’s an excerpt from his speech of July 28, 1885: “Colonies are an advantageous capital investment for rich countries […] For the crisis faced by all European industries, the foundation of a colony creates a new market. Gentlemen, we must speak louder and more truthfully! We must say openly that superior races have a right in regards to inferior races […] because they have an obligation to them. They must civilize the inferior races.”
Foccart was the man in the shadows for De Gaule, Pompidou and Chirac. He was the man behind the coups and other detabilizing operations in Francophone Africa, even in Angophone countries as well: during the Biafra war in Nigeria, the French backed Ojukwus and armed them via Omar Bongo’s Gabon and Houpouët Boigny’s Côte d’Ivoire.
“Crois-tu que je m’égare quand je dis que les miens sont pris pour cible? Regard Haiti” (Do you think I’m confused when I say my people are a target? Look at Haiti) – What link do you see with Haiti?
What I’m saying is imperialists are organized, and often work strategically so that Africa, and even the Caribbean islands, do not develop. I am using Haiti as an example because it is a country they tried to asphyxiate from birth. When it freed itself from its chains in 1804 after defeating Napoleon’s army, the cost for its independence became paying the “colonial debt”: in 1825, 21 years after independence, Charles X [then King and ruler of France] asked that Haiti pay a compensation of 150 million gold francs to be left alone. In other words, reimburse former colonists and guarantee privileged commercial trade with France. The country was born dead, and it’s no coincidence. If you say no to France, you become its enemy and it crushes you. I could have said in my lyrics, look at Guinea, in reference to Sékou saying no, and all of the operations of sabotage that followed. For instance the fake Guinean franc bills poured into the country to destabilize the Guinean currency. But I already mentioned Conakry earlier, and wanted to also insist on my opinion that Haiti is a part of Africa.
Sharpeville, Marikana: do you think most people in Togo, or elsewhere in Africa you’ve traveled to, are aware of these incidents, and do you think they impact their concerns and conversations?
Within a certain milieu, yes. Within pan-Africanist networks. Such events remind of Cabral’s speech, “Like a Fish in the water”: the enemy is not the white man, but the oppressor, no matter the color.
Can I ask you the same thing about Biko or Shaka Zulu?
Biko, Chilimbwe, Kimathi are not all that known in Lomé. But I am addressing my words to the entire world, not just to the Togolese. I’m referring to people who did a lot for Africa’s emancipation, yet who aren’t always so well known. We often hear about mandela, etc. There are others. My goal with these references is to tease people’s curiosity so they go and find out who they are. The title of the album, Indigo, is a reference to the seventh color of the rainbow, which is not actually visible to the naked eye. I want to make room for the unknowns. This explains the photo of my mother on the CD cover, and the image of the lady with a weapon in her hand and a rifle in the other on the CD itself.
Shaka Zulu however is known in Togo, thanks to a TV show directed by William Faure, which many African stations broadcasted in the late 1980s.
*This post is part of our Liner Notes series, where musicians talk about making music.