Interview: Smockey (April 2016)


If, after twenty-seven years of uninterrupted governance (or dictatorship) by Blaise Compaoré’s, Burkina Faso can look to its future with moderate optimism, much of the credit goes to Smockey and his civil Movement called Le Balai Citoyen (The Citizen’s Broom). Together, they gave a decisive push to the September 2014 revolution, driving the ‘sweeping’ process forward. One year later, the Central African country has returned to civilian rule and its people can have hope again.

The situation is completely different in Burkina Faso today. We lived for twenty-seven years with dictatorship and no freedom of expression. Since I started singing and playing hip-hop I have only had two or three years of real freedom. They were the first years I was playing, and politicians didn’t understand what we were doing. Most of the time politicians don’t listen or pay attention to the lyrics of a song. As soon as they understood that we were criticising the regime and noticed that people were following us they began to censor us. It became impossible for us to appear on TV and play in many places. Every gig we played happened because we were smart and used fake names.

At the same time, the common people always supported us. They were coming to our concerts despite the intimidating climate. Young and old people continually sent us supportive messages. They were saying that they were praying for us, that we were so brave and were praying for our fight. They always encouraged us to keep on with our battle. They wanted to listen to our music and we used the music to fight again the system”.

Smockey has always used music as a weapon, but also as a way to communicate, engage and support Burkina Faso from the grassroots.

Music and art at large is the strongest vehicle for transformation. It is not the transformation itself, but because the music is catchy it reaches everybody. Nobody can stop it, not even dictators.

Centuries ago, there were griots in Africa. They were like the court jesters, and they could say anything they wanted to the king. In that way they could present the truth, and that’s the point. Whatever a griot said, you couldn’t touch him. Similarly, you can’t touch a painter, actor or even a journalist, because they have no dangerous weapons. They just think and speak in an imaginative way. They can be even useful to politicians because they’re in touch with people and speak with them. That’s something that politicians hardly ever do. They never go to the ghettos or spend time with common people. So artists still have this function. When people get in touch with them it’s because they want to let them know what’s wrong in their lives and their world. It happens to me all the time. People continuously ask me to write songs about different problems. One example was a man who came to me and complained about the condition of drivers. So I met with people in the syndicate of drivers and then wrote a song about their situation. Finally their conditions improved”.

As a matter of fact, Burkinabè are looking at Smockey and his movement as the solution to many problems.

Since we created the movement Le Balai Citoyen, it’s like we have become the medicine of everyone’s illness. Sometimes it is really weird, because people come to us to complain about their family disputes, like divorce. But then I have to tell them ‘what should I do about this? I’m a musician not a lawyer, go and see a lawyer!’ Everybody is coming to us with the most diverse issues, from miners to farmers. Unfortunately, we can’t help everyone. People have to start their resistance and fight on their own. Then, when it becomes a shared issue, we can do something. But before that point, it’s a private matter”.

Sadly, as Smockey told us, few artists are willing to help them and support their cause.

Most of Burkinabè artists and musicians don’t care about our cause. They join us just to play some shows and earn money, taking advantage of our name. They don’t care who’s paying, they just want the money! It’s easy for an artist to convince people, but it’s very difficult for people to convince an artist because artists are free thinkers and anarchists by definition.

When we started the movement we were only two artists [besides Smockey there’s reggae musician Sams’K Le Jah]. Then others joined later. Basic Soul is one of the most important artists who joined us. He’s responsible for the communication of the movement. He takes care of the social media stuff. He observed us for a while and then decided to join. That’s what we look for: people who are willing to join us spontaneously. But the most of Burkina Faso artists who are already famous and make money don’t care about our Movement. They just look for publicity and want to sell more CDs”.

As it often happens, not everyone is happy with the hard-earned popularity of Smockey and his Movement.

Before the Revolution we worked with a lot of people because we had the same vision and aims. We wanted freedom and to overthrow Blaise Compaoré. Now that he’s left and there’s a new Government there are many people who worked with and for us who are starting to fight us. The reason is because we are still the same as before: we are still doing our job and haven’t let our guard down. That’s why we have a lot of new enemies now. Some of them already worked for the Government in the past, but others are new.

The rest of Burkina Faso civil society is very jealous of us. That’s due to the fact that, if we want to tell the truth, there’s only one real civil society in Burkina Faso, which is represented by Le Baloi Citoyens. Most of the other Movements are working in conjunction with the Government. They have accepted money, funding and got sponsored by the Burkina Faso Government or foreign ones. That’s why I usually say that the only independent civil movement is our one. We are not sponsored by anyone. We collect money and fund our activities on our own, among our militants.

Even if some people, usually on social media, say that we got money from this or that billionaire, but we don’t care because it’s not true. They said that we received money from Soros for example, and wrote that we have one billion and seven hundred thousand dollars in cash. They also stated that I bought a villa in Ivory Coast, while in fact I’m living in a small rented apartment in Ouagadougou. It was claimed that we drive around in big cars, but I still go around in my old Mercedes with no air conditioning, so every time I drive is like a steam bath! Finally, they rumoured that I had sex with the wife of the French Ambassador and she gave me 300 million euros. When I met the Ambassador and told him about the gossip he laughed, and answered ‘how is that possible? My wife is eighty-two years old and never comes to Ouagadougou!’

Smockey was really keen to highlight how Le Balai Citoyen works. He underlined that they act openly and honestly.

The way we work is very transparent. Usually we receive money from our militants on a monthly or yearly basis. If they have money, they make donations to the Movement. Otherwise, people can offer some service or their time too. Then, when we receive those donations we make a budget and you can read all the details on our website. We have a webpage that is about our funds. We have some programs that are already very developed and need funding to reach other parts of the country. We want to send militants all over Burkina Faso, but to do that we need more donations from our supporters.

The only time we have received funds from abroad was during the elections. We got money from Diakonia, which is a Human Rights NGO. The program on which we worked was developed in two parts. The first stage was before the elections. We wanted to urge those people who joined us and were involved in the revolution to vote too. It was the first step to push young people to get registered to vote. The second part of the campaign was called “Je vote et je reste” (I vote and I stay). So, instead of going back home after having cast their vote, people needed to stay there where they voted. They had to check that the voting system was working and the process was regular. They could even help to count the votes if they wanted. But apart from that, we don’t receive any help from external organisations. We collect money from our militants or Burkinabè diaspora”.

In the last few years, Smockey has been trying to spread the word outside Burkina Faso and the African Continent to reach the diaspora. In that way his music can have a decisive impact.

My music is also able to cross borders. I use French, and in this way I can spread my message all over the French-speaking world. We are trying to organise ourselves to be more international and go outside Africa with collaborations, features and compilations. Even though that’s not easy we are finally starting to succeed. I recently played in Belgium and France and people told me that they liked my music.

The only problem is that if you want to tour Europe or the States, there are a lot of expenses. So Western promoters prefer to organise tours of African artists who already live in Europe or are even second generation. They promote these artists saying that they play African music, but that’s not true because they’re not African any more. Other times, when it comes to big artists who still live in Africa, they have trusted musicians based in many European cities, so they can travel to Europe alone. But when it comes to small artists like me it’s very hard because I have to compromise. I have to travel alone and play with a DJ, or if I want to travel with my musicians I need to arrange more gigs together so we can share the expenses between the venues.

At the same time he fosters and wants to encourage the local music scene of his country.

“Our dream and challenge is to be self-sustainable in Africa. We are looking forward to doing our business in Africa. In Burkina Faso we can’t put the price for concert tickets too high because people can’t afford to pay too much. At the same time, our expenses are considerable: we have to pay the venues, lights, sound systems – and the same happens with our albums and their production. Burkina Faso is not like Nigeria where music is a business, but it is getting better. So we hope to become autonomous and not be obliged to go to Europe to make money.

There are some musicians, who are related to world music whose career is dead if they don’t have contracts in Europe because they don’t work in their country and have no audience there. It happens today to many artists who are really famous abroad, but at home they’re no one. They have changed their style and their traditional music to appeal to the white audience. They ended up making music for white people. An example is Manu Dibango. If he goes back to Cameroon it will be really hard for him to move people, because the music he is playing today is perceived to be music for white people in his country. The same happened with Ali Farka Tourè in Mali. That’s why we want to develop our national music market”.

The best way to help the market is to put out more albums and help the local musicians

I’m looking forward to producing my next album before the end of this year. I reckon that I need to be more productive. Since I work with many other artists and produce them in my studio I don’t have time to work on my own material and I leave my career aside. My penultimate album was even released six years ago! It took me a long time to come back because of the Revolution and the fact that I worked on many other projects. What I need to do is to produce a new record every two years, otherwise the interval between one album and the next is too long. I always have a lot of ideas, but I need time to work on them”.

To close our interview, we asked Smockey how much the Fellowship he was awarded will help his career and what people in Burkina Faso say about it.

Actually it doesn’t change too much to me personally. I liked the experience, the opportunity to come to London and meet so many nice people – but I’m an activist and an engaged artist so I’m a little pessimistic by nature. That’s why I think that it won’t change too much in my life.

At the same time this award is really important for my Movement. First of all, it gave me the opportunity to talk about Burkina Faso and cast a new light on its situation. Then this is important for Burkinabè people. They already asked me for videos of the event. They want to see pictures too. They asked me to send them all sort of things. It was a really significant moment for Burkina Faso people, especially for the older ones because the fact that an English speaking country is interested in what is going on in a French speaking one, is really meaningful in Africa. Most of the time people from Burkina Faso never come to an English speaking country so it’s symbolic to overcome this barrier. Then you have also to add the fact that we are a poor country that is trying to develop itself. So it’s remarkable that a richer and more important country is interested in us. As a matter of fact, we give more importance to what happens abroad and outside Africa than what happens at home. Sometimes one can become ‘good’ only when he is recognised outside Africa”.

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