Banning Eyre caught up with Malian rapper Amkoullel right before his stateside debut in NYC at The Shrine in Harlem. Amkoullel is a something of a trail-blazer in Malian hip hop. He was one of the first major MCs to come out of the country but when he started, he had to go to France to record. Amkoullel is also featured on our show, ‘The Trans-National African Hip Hop Train.’
Banning Eyre: If you could just introduce yourself.
Amkoullel: I’m Amkoullel, I come from Africa, West Africa, Mali, next to Timbuktu, in Bamako.
B.E.: You grew up next to Timbuktu?
Am.: No it’s just a joke. When I say I come from Mali sometimes people don’t know where it is. So I say Timbuktu, everybody knows Timbuktu but some people think that it doesn’t exist! But it does exist, I was there four months ago for the Festival in the Desert and I did a show there.
B.E.: How did that go? I read about that actually. Did you enjoy it?
Am.: Yes I did enjoy it a lot. Because it was the first time a rapper came to this festival, and I’m very happy about that. It shows that the hip hop we are making in Mali is becoming respected and recognized. The festival in the desert is a great stage, and it’s very important to have some hip hop there. Mani, the organizer of the festival, said he liked the kind of hip hop I’m doing.
B.E.: Yeah, it’s beautiful. So tell me a bit of your story, what’s your background?
Am.: I come from Bamako, I grew up there and spent some of my childhood in Berlin, Germany. And after I came back to Mali. Then I was in Paris for ten years doing law and music. I worked with people like Cheikh Tidiane Seck for something like three years. We did shows together, and I even featured on his last album. I also had the chance to meet and do shows with people like Manu Dibango, Keziah Jones, etc.
B.E.: Fantastic. Tell me more about the beginning, they call you the ‘‘l’enfant peulh’… so is that your background? Do you have any musical training from that background?
Am.: Nobody does music in my family. As a Fulani family we’re not supposed traditionally to make music. I was supposed to be a lawyer but I think that I’m doing the same job behind the microphone because the rapper is supposed to be the voice of the voiceless. So I’m doing the same job as the lawyer… I’m the lawyer with a microphone. At the beginning it wasn’t easy because of family, because in my family I’m not supposed to sing. But after they accepted what I wanted to do.
At first I would just do it with my brothers, to entertain our family. After I did some little shows for fun, and a DJ discovered me and asked me to come on the radio to beatbox… So I went to do the beatbox on the radio [demonstrates]. And at the same time, I prepared a little rap as well. When I finished the beatbox, I asked if he’d mind if I performed a short rap that I’d prepared. And he said ‘no problem’, so I did the rap and it was so bad that he called me straight away to say they were taking me off the radio. So once that happened I decided to return home and work even harder at it, and thank god it’s going better now. And here I am today.
B.E.: I read that it was in 1993 that you started to focus on rap. When were you born?
B.E.: So you were 14… did you have any thought of being a musician before or was it rap that made you want to be a musician?
Am.: It’s crazy because I never really asked myself that question… yeah it’s because of rap music that I decided to make music. It’s because of the message. This is the reason that the message inside of my songs is very important to me. I discovered hip hop because of the song ‘911’ by Public Enemy. It was in 1988 or 1989 I think. So I discovered this song, and it is afterwards that I decided to become… At the beginning I was just rapping to have fun with my friends, with my brothers. And then it became little by little more serious.
B.E.: So how did recording start? How did you get from being interested in rap and starting to do it yourself, to getting records out there and being on the radio?
Am.: My first recording was in Mali, in Bamako. There weren’t any studios for rappers in Bamako so it was very, very hard to make a CD or record your song. So we went to the person who repairs radios, and we tried to record with cassettes there. So we took the microphone, put a cassette in, and recording straight out. Or we’d go to nightclubs and arrange to go there in the morning with the DJ when no one is there. Then we’d record there. Because in Mali there were no recording studios for hip hop. It was something new, we were the beginning of hip hop in Mali. So we had to do everything on our own. Before going to France in 1995/1996, I did a few videos which got broadcast on national television in Mali. You stood before a screen, you do the shoot, and then you do the rap in playback. So that’s how we made the videos, and they went on television.
B.E.: What was the title of that?
Am.: Infaculté, it was about schools in Mali.
B.E.: You’ve talked a lot about languages, and the teaching of languages.
Am.: Exactly, the name of the same album was Infaculté Mali Kalan Ko which means ‘education in Mali’. Because since the ’90s there has been a problem in Mali’s schools that is sadly still ongoing. So my involvement with music has always been on a social level, looking at education and immigration. That has always been very important to me, so my first album was called Mali Kalan Ko. At the time there was the ‘années blanches’ (the white years). A white year is when there are no classes, no one goes to school. Everyone loses a year and restarts classes the next year. So the level of education was really low, student numbers started to fall, and, as a student, I told myself that if I was ever able to have my voice heard, I had to talk about that. So that’s why I talk about it.
B.E.: Was there a particular hit from that record that made things blow up for you?
Am.: This song, ‘Mali Kalan Ko’ was the first hit. And after we had ‘Birissa Gnaguamin’. [French] In the video for this I’m on a bike. This is a song that people really liked because normally in rap videos it’s all about the bling, the girls, the cars, the money. And what took them by surprise is that I’m just there on a bicycle, and I’m dressed in traditional clothing, in bogolan [mud cloth], and I perform the lyrics. People really liked that, and the song as well.
B.E.: Now we’re up to about 1997 you said?
Am.: No, the first album was in 2002. I started singing and performing many years before releasing the first album. And now, hip hop has evolved a lot. Those who are coming after me, starting to do rap, at the end of one or two years they’re able to release an album.
B.E.: You were right at the beginning of hip hop, your story is the history of hip hop in Mali.
Am.: Yes yes, exactly. I had older brothers who started before me, people like Tata Pound. These are the elders who started before me. There are plenty others too. Les Escrocs too, but they were around the same time but they started to become professional, releasing albums and touring before me. But there was this whole wave. Now, there are some groups that released albums before us, but we were all involved in the same period of hip hop. At the time I wasn’t sure whether I was going to continue with it as a career, and I ended up carrying on more for my own pleasure.
B.E.: When was the moment that you realized that this was going to be your future?
Am.: It was when I released my first album in 2002. In fact, it was when I decided to release this album because I was in the middle of my law studies, and at a point I had to ask myself the question: ‘do you want to be a rapper or a lawyer?’ So it was then. What I decided – I went to the classroom to take the exam, I left and I went home. I didn’t take the exam. That’s not advice for anyone, I definitely wouldn’t advise my younger brothers to do what I did… but it was a decision I had to make. Because either I was going to be an artist-musician and follow this path, or I continued along the path I was taking at school.
B.E.: So, let’s hear about the second album
Am.: I made the second album in 2003. It’s name is Surafin – it means to give illegal money [bribery]. So it’s talking about corruption in our young democracy; about cops, when you’re driving your car, sometimes… and about school too. It was about that. In other songs I talk about other topics relevant to society as well.
B.E.: And this album was popular too?
Am.: Yes, it’s for this album that I had the video where with the bike which really got me recognized. With the first album people were still discovering me. But it didn’t generate the same excitement as the second album with the song ‘Birissa Gnaguamin’. This means ‘mix-up’ (melange pele-mele), because in it I take several themes, several subjects that I mix up. It’s like a concentration of the different themes that I deal with, tackled in a more general manner.
B.E.: There are four albums, right? So what’s the third?
Am.: Waati Sera, meaning ‘It’s time’. On this album there’s the song ‘Farafina’ and people really liked that one, gaining me even more recognition. There’s also the song ‘Nene’ that people loved. It’s a fun song, you can have fun with it.
B.E.: Let’s talk about ‘Farafina’, what does that song say?
Am.: ‘Farafina’ means ‘Africa’ in Bamana, or ‘the country of men with black skin’ that’s what it really translates as. ‘Farafina’ means ‘black skin’. So, the album is called Waati Sera, ‘it’s time’. I talk about respect and work. In other words, I’m talking to my African brothers and sisters to say that the only way we can deal with our situation is to work at it, and not to expect that others will come to our aide. Because it is only through work that we can inspire respect. In general, what you can see/note is that sadly, when Africa is shown on the television, all that is shown is war, famine and negative things. But Africa is not only that. And the very beautiful things that do happen sadly get talked about a lot less. Which means that young Africans are growing up with a belittling image (diminue) of themselves. Thank God, I’ve had the luck never to be hungry or to be worried about sleeping on the street. I did have that worry when I arrived in Paris to study law, but never in Mali did I have this insecurity. But then when I used to watch television, it seemed like it was the end of the world – I’m in in Africa and there’s no possible future for me. So I felt I had to leave in order to make it. And that’s what slowly gets into people’s heads. So with ‘Farafina’, I tried to balance it out by saying that we can manage on our own, but we have to believe in it. Because to be able to succeed we have to start with dreams, imagination, and hope. So Africans have to re-discover their hope and I think that there are plenty of people who do have hope.
B.E.: That’s a great message. You talked about corruption. Have you found any resistance from officials, government or media? Was it a welcome discussion or was it a problem?
Am.: At that time, hip hop in the “naughties” (the 2000s) had already become accepted by the public to a certain extent, but it wasn’t seen by the authorities as a threat. It’s now that they realize the real power that rap artists have on a social level, and how they are able to move the public, across all ages. We are lucky in Mali as from the ages of 7 to 77, everybody from every social category listens to hip hop. So that gives it great strength. And then, when I sing this song about corruption, I explain that, with great effort, corruption can be stopped. The song itself is against corruption, but it also explains that it the primary responsibility of the head of a family, before being honest and not being corrupt, is to care for the family. If the head of the family is forced to be corrupt so that his children don’t die of hunger, then he will be corrupt. He has to be. If I were in that position, I would do the same. So the message of the song was more to ask why people are okay with being corrupt. That’s the real problem. It’s too easy to say to people ‘don’t be corrupt’. But why are they corrupt? Try to understand that first. Because life is too expensive in comparison to what people get paid. Sometimes the salaries of civil servants are not paid for two, four, even seven months. It’s absurd. It’s not normal. And how can you expect people to be honest after that? No, they can’t be. They have families, children who will die. So there you have it.
B.E.: So it was a critique but done from a positive position, not without hope.
Am.: Exactly, that’s the message. In the chorus I say that corruption cannot be stopped while people are hungry. And that’s totally normal/understandable. That’s the message. Within that I say that corruption is clearly no good, but everybody knows that already. It’s not worth saying.
B.E.: The last time I was in Mali was 2005 and I met Tata Pound. He told a story about a song he’d sung that translated as ‘The Promise’. It was about the promises the president had made during his campaign, and demanding that he lived up to them. He said that ATT actually responded to his song in a speech, which I found very interesting. It demonstrates the truth of what you were saying – they are actually listening and they want to participate in that conversation.
Am.: They want to participate because they don’t have a choice, actually. That’s the reason why. Because at the beginning they believed that hip hop would just pass. They thought it was just the youth, and not so important. Afterwards they realized that people give us power, because people need us to send a message to those responsible. This has given us a certain power. So now, seeing as hip hop exists anyway, it’s better to communicate and to change things with us. Thank god, we’re lucky we can do that. In Mali we have a certain freedom of expression. In Mali we can say practically anything we want. We can say what we want, we just have to find the right way to say it. There are many free radio stations in Mali, so there is a freedom of expression. So even if it’s true that there was a time when Tata Pound was censored, and even now he gets censored. But it’s alright.
B.E.: I’d like to talk about the newer songs. Could you give me an introduction in English to them. There are two videos in the new one, one…
Am.: I have five videos from the new album. I’m not sure which one you’re talking about.
B.E.: Let’s start with “Sinin.” I might try to use this to be an introduction so they can understand what’s happening when they watch the video. So introduce “Sinin” to an English speaker.
Am.: ‘Sinin’ means ‘tomorrow’. So ‘Sinin’… you pray. Tomorrow is a big question. Because when you’ve lost your hope, you don’t know how tomorrow will be. So it’s about that. It’s about the problems and everyday troubles that you can have. I talk about the different kinds of problems people have in Mali and Africa. Tomorrow, what will happen to me? It’s a song about hope, saying ‘keep on dreaming’. Everything is going to be okay.
B.E.: What about “Kalan”?
Am.: Kalan’ means ‘education’. We have a problem with public education. School is supposed to give equal chances to everyone in society. But in Mali now, we have some expensive private schools, and public education which is free. Public schools are ‘falling down’, so we can’t get a good education there. That’s not normal. The poor will not have a good education and the rich will go into the good schools. We have to protect free, public education because that’s the only way to give the same chance to everybody. We need to have the right president, the right ministers… To give the same chance to everybody, education must not depend on what money you have. In Mali, in Africa, there are many people who do not have the money to buy a private school education.
[Amkoullel starts freestyles]
B.E.: What were you singing?
Am.: I did a kind of remix. I was talking about the song ‘Sinin’ (tomorrow). Everything was in Bamana. I was saying – what shall I do tomorrow so that I can manage? It’s like a prayer to the lord from someone worried about the future and asks many questions. All these questions that come up in the song. So I say that everyone has worries in their head, [says lyrics in Bamana], everyone has problems. But it’s not so bad. You can be sad because you have problems, but others smile and live in spite of it all. Everyone has problems.
B.E.: So you do raps in Bamana and French?
Am.: Yes, I mix up French and Bamana. 95% of the time that’s how I rap.