There is a poignant music video that will leave any viewer unresolved: it’s the video to Inna Modja’s song “Tomboctou.” Inna Modja?
Inna Modja is a French Malian musician who has produced some of today’s most gorgeous political music. She directed the video for the song “Tomboctou” herself. It was all shot to be as raw as the song itself: a song that asks a society to fight for Tomboctou and for the entirety of Mali. In the song she chants that “night has fallen,” in a way that reminds of Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat. The video only features women and it becomes apparent that it was meant to be wholly feminist. It is a great song and a highlight of contemporary political music. She seems to have a great understanding of crowds and that political music is felt best today as nuanced, euphoric, and accessible.
She’s not an international star but has every bit of potential to be one. At first glance, Inna Modja’s videos and pictures, especially her ‘French Cancan’ video, sell her as a run of the mill pop star or pop star in the making. The record label that she is signed to seems to tell us the same story: that there is no way that Warner Brothers France would ever support a political artist, one immediately thinks to one’s self, unless if this political or independent artist has already found some sort of huge commercial success. However, we quickly learn that Modja’s politics are anything but simple. She is both, to quote Sartre, engaged in wanting to improve her native Mali and a feminist cosmopolitan who works hard to sincerely express identity and complexity, despite the stereotypes that want to define.
The very first writer to use one term in the English language to signify both African and cosmopolitan identity was Taiye Selasi in a very important essay in contemporary cultural history, “Bye-Bye Babar,” with her word Afropolitan.
They (read: we) are Afropolitans – the newest generation of African emigrants, coming soon or collected already at a law firm/chem lab/jazz lounge near you. You’ll know us by our funny blend of London fashion, New York jargon, African ethics, and academic successes. Some of us are ethnic mixes, e.g. Ghanaian and Canadian, Nigerian and Swiss; others merely cultural mutts: American accent, European affect, African ethos.
Taiye Selasi makes the mistake in her essay of only attributing the term to well off Africans in her essay (academic successes ..) The phenomenal Congolese writer Alain Mabanckou also attempted to pin down the phenomenon in his novel “Black Bazaar,” without focusing on the high achieving or the well-bred. In it, he explores the aftereffects of the meeting of the West and of Africa from an African’s perspective and concludes that to be an Afropolitan is to be open to living the outside world all the while being self. Both Selasi and Mabanckou agree on one thing: that the phenomena is defined by being well dressed and open to consuming things outside of one’s own traditions, however grand they may be.
In Inna Modja’s cosmopolitanism, we hear vibrancy. A Fulani, her love of music in all of its forms began as a child in Mali, where she was neighbors with the legend Salif Keita. He invited her to sing in the mythical Rail Band’s choir. By the time that she had moved to France, she had explored all sorts of different idioms as both an avid listener and a singer. By the time that she left Mali, she had also began to live the contradictions, joy, and tribulations that make up any day to day living in human society and from them her political ideas were first fermented. From her childhood of Mandingue guitar playing and of Sahel blues, of Hip Hop but also of the reality that was genital mutilation, she developed into an artist who cares deeply about woman rights and her west African cultural heritage as much as she does about the beauty of music. Her music is the expression of this and acoustic drums can be heard side by side with Hip hop -esque synths. All of what she is and loves can be heard in her songs.
Tomboctou is a song on er most political album, Motel Bamako. Bamako, the crocodile river city (bama translates to crocodile and ko translates to river in Bambara) is known much less for its splendor these days despite it being built on the majestic Niger river than for the now well-known issues that Mali faces as a whole. Whether it be radical terrorism in the north and the horrific stories that came out of Tomboctou of the destruction of cultural heritage or poverty, according to World Vision, it is one of the five least developed countries in the world, the capital city moves to the often worrisome rhythm of Mali’s landlocked 478,840 sq. mi. and 14,853,000 inhabitants who deal with a plethora of issues with natural, geo-political, and colonial roots. Bamako’s national museum the largest in West Africa but its musicians such as Vieux Farka Toure, or Salif Keita whose album “Soro” pushed West African music in a big way onto global charts, are touted as some of the very best musicians, especially guitarists, living today. In it, she reveals the totality of the woman that she has become through song: a woman as much in love of with both the distances that she’s traveled as she is with rootedness and home. In it she raps in her native Bambara. Like Keita, she seems to be offering her sounds as source of pleasure, all the while singing lyrics that can guide a listener towards fulfillment.
Her album is not easy to access however for an English speaker and without translating both French and Bambara the depth of her art will not be revealed. Keep in mind that it is not as easy to translate Bambara as it is to translate French. Her rhythms however make up for it and are post-colonial sounds of freedom, though one might not want to associate the French Can-can with post-colonial (it’s also a matter of personal choice). Through her music, to quote the Malian writer Yambo Ologuem, who like herself is a great lover of both personal liberty and progressive nationalism, “the world when it wakes up goes to go the closest library / to consult the key of dreams.”