New Internationalist

We aren’t victims in Mali’

October 2013

Singer-songwriter Rokia Traoré talks to Graeme Green about being an ‘Afro-progressive’ and how politics informs her music.

Mathieu Zazzo
Mathieu Zazzo

On your new album, Beautiful Africa, you call yourself an ‘Afro-progressive’. What does that mean?

There’s a generation in Africa now who no longer wants to think in simple ways, like ‘Africa is a victim and Europe is guilty’. We’ve thought like that for a long time. Of course, slavery was a bad idea, colonialism was a bad idea for Africa. But if you accept the role of victim, it means you accept not only that others are guilty, but also that they’re more powerful than you. We have to trust in the fact we can change things. We no longer accept we are victims. We’re going to take charge of our own destiny and make decisions.

Are music and politics inseparable for you?

Politics is part of life. I’m not a politician and my will is not to become a politician. But yes, my songs tell about life as it is, everyday situations in Africa and Mali. I didn’t start [writing] music for that, but in this period of humanity there are problems and it’s difficult to write lyrics without talking about your feelings about things happening around you.

Singers from Africa, more than any other region, double up as political figures and spokespeople. Why?

Because music’s the only positive thing coming out of Africa – or so it seems. You hear about positive things from other places in the media. What we see on TV and in newspapers about Africa is always about war, famine, problems. Culture and music in Africa are really a big form of communication. There is much more happening in Africa than most people see.

Your father was a diplomat and musician, and you moved around a lot when you were younger. Did that sow the seeds for your later life?

Yes, probably my life wouldn’t have been the same if I’d stayed in Mali all the time. It had an effect on my personality and my life. It probably had an effect on my profession, being aware through my dad of what was happening in Mali in terms of diplomacy and politics. The way you grow up defines who you are and the way you think.

What are your thoughts on the recent violence in Mali?

The occupation of the north was violent and the world heard about it. But what people don’t know about is the occupation of the south for years by Muslim leaders who became stronger because politicians weren’t taking care of the population. Even though these Muslim leaders and some Christian leaders didn’t have real, complete solutions, there’s nothing easier than pushing people who are desperate and wondering what they will eat tonight. The population needed to trust in someone and the Muslim leaders were there, saying ‘God is there for everybody’ and ‘God is going to make changes’.

Music was banned in some Islamist-occupied areas. As a musician, how does that make you feel?

The symbolism of this action was very strong, but it wasn’t so important. There were more terrible situations than the simple fact of prohibiting music. I’m not saying that isn’t bad, but it’s like a package with the situation of war and the occupation of a country.

What would you like to see happen in Mali?

We’re going to need education and culture to push a change in mentality and for people to understand it’s too easy to say the problem is coming from African leaders or from Europe. It’s all of our responsibility. I’m optimistic, but I know it will take a lot of work. We need some time and peace for this. There’s no work possible without peace. We need to stop criticizing everything and be open-minded to understand each other, to build Mali and Africa together.

Graeme Green is a freelance writer and photographer. graemegreen.org

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 466 This column was published in the October 2013 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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