As it turns out, no, she’s not “bad” at all! If you read that her name means “Inna is bad”, that was just a mistranslation copied and pasted by a host of websites and magazines, a fact that Inna Modja herself was keen to emphasize when we met her at WOMAD: “I’ve read many interpretations about my name. Someone even wrote ‘Inna is bad’ or ‘Inna is no good’! But the real meaning is different: it’s more like ‘Inna is a pest’. I’m hyperactive and I have a lot of energy. I come from a family of seven kids and I’m number six. So, when I was a child, I had too much energy and my mom was used to say to me ‘you talk too much, move too much, ask too much’. So it was a cute way to express that, that I was a pest. That’s the real meaning of my stage name”.
As well as being a pest, Inna Modja has also always been free spirited, a quality which shines bright in her creative and artistic character. She started playing music when she was a teenager, thanks to the help of her neighbour. Then, she never looked back.
“I began singing when I was 14. At 15 I went to knock at Salif Keita’s door (he was my neighbour at that time), because I wanted someone to guide me. So he sent me to the Rail Band of Bamako and it was a really inspiring experience and amazing journey, because I learnt music there. Then I went on to learn different kind of music on my own and with my friends who were my age”.
Bamako, her native city, was and still is an exciting, vibrant place to learn and play music. Inna revealed to us that it’s like one big family of remarkable musicians.
“The music scene in Bamako is still amazing, because there are so many amazing musicians! We all know each other and have a great connection. For example, I know Mariam from Amadou and Mariam very well. One month ago, she told me a story about her life which I didn’t know, even if it is related to my own family. She told me that, when she was very young, she was used to go to my grandmother and sing, so my grandmother could give her a little money. It was really interesting to know that, because a lot of musicians in Bamako are connected and that’s why the music scene is so stimulating. So, yes I’m very fortunate to have lived and grown there”.
Being born in Mali, in one way or another, music has always been a part of Inna Modja’s life.
“You can’t grow up in Mali without music! Music is part of our life, even if you don’t play music, music is always there. I remember at my grandmother’s place or even at my parents’ place that the radio never stops, it’s never off and plays music all day long”.
…and music has manifested itself in in the most diverse ways:
“When I was a teenager I was very curious about music, because through music I could understand and learn. So, I was listening to everything: from American soul and Nina Simone to metal bands. Also Miriam Makeba was really inspiring for me in many ways. I always wanted to understand how the world was and how I can learn something new to do my own things”.
Today, Inna is focussing her attention on hip-hop and its social connotations:
“I still listen to a lot of music, but in particular to hip hop. I loved American hip hop when I was a teenager and I still love to listen to Public Enemy, Run DMC, 2Pac, Erik B and Rakim. I discovered rap thanks to the Old School MCs from the ‘80s, but I still enjoy listening to new hip hop artists like Kendrik Lamar. I love them because they have a lot of social significance. Their lyrics are very conscious and I love the way they deliver their messages. That’s because they created a platform and they use that platform to spread their ideas. When I discovered rap, it was about expressing social issues, but me and my friend weren’t recognising ourselves in what they were talking about. That’s because, under a cultural perspective, we are so different from those artists. We don’t have the same issues in Mali. But the genre was so amazing that we decided that even if we have our own issues and our own music, we had to try to do something with that anyway. When American hip hop started, it was all about soul and funk samples, so it was interesting to work on that and we developed a fusion between Malian music and hip hop”.
The fusion is most evident in Inna Modja’s lyrics and use of language. She is Malian and her first language is Bambara, but she easily sings in French and English without sacrificing the values of her words.
“I have never had many problems with languages. I use English a lot because I spent eight years in Ghana, so I can easily jump from English to French to Bambara. I like to explore all these different languages, but I always recognise Bambara as my language, the one in which I am best able to express myself”.
Lyrics are indeed a crucial aspect of her music, because Inna Modja has always used her music to talk about and expose Malian and African problems and struggles.
“You can use your music however you choose to, but for me, it’s all about having a platform and a voice. I can use my music as a platform to give a voice to people and issues which otherwise have no voice and also to deal with problems that I’m concerned about.
One such example is clean water, which is something that is really missing in a lot of countries, not only in Africa. And it’s not just about clean water, but also the amount of time that people (children and women in particular) spend to go and collect it. They walk up to six kilometres a day to find a spring or a well. So that’s a huge amount of time during which they can’t go to school or work and in this way they can’t be independent! I think that it’s also really important to consider and expose smaller issues which are direct results of bigger ones”.
Then, there’s the misrepresentation of Africa, its countries and people which worries Inna.
“I’d like to share the beauty of Africa, because a lot of people are scared of Africa. There are all the stories about hunger, war and disease, but I really like to show what Africa truly is. I aim to let people know that Africa is modern too. That there’s a lot of culture and you can visit beautiful countries. I’d love to see African people and young Africans in particular start to say important things with their own voices: we matter as much as the rest of the world! So, I really hope that people will finally stop asking us if we’re still living in trees. Unfortunately, there are still some people who do that. Obviously, people who come to see us know that we’re not living in trees, but there’s still a huge problem, which is the fact that most of the things that people think they know about Africa are from what they see on the news. So I want to show that Africa is much more: we have a lot of issues, but also a lot of beauty”.
As a matter of fact, she’s keen to do so every single day through her music and different side projects. For example, also through her acting career:
“I’m touring a lot at the moment. Actually, we have been touring for nine months now and I’ll be touring until the end of 2017. That’s more than a year. I also did a movie in Mali, which will be out soon. It’s a movie about Malian youth and the struggle that we have to succeed. The title is Wùlu, which means dark. That’s not the first time I’ve acted because I’ve already done a light-hearted TV-series in France on Canal +. But this movie is really different and also really important for me. It talks about the everyday difficulties of the Malian youth, like the issues in finding a job and a way to succeed in life”.
To give a voice to the voiceless is something more than a desire for Inna. It has indeed become her mission and final purpose of her artistic career:
“I’m a Malian woman and a musician and I’m big-mouthed. For me it’s really important to talk about things, everything. In some places in my country music has been banned so I can’t go there any more for now. For this reason, I use my music and voice to talk about that too and to do that in front of an audience is one of the most beautiful things that can happen, because I love to bring people together”.[justified_image_grid ng_gallery=290]
Inna Modja is a breath of fresh air! A versatile and genuine musician, an acitivist, a proud African woman… What more could I ask for? Mali is one of my favourite countries in West Africa, it’s rich musical culture being one of the primary reasons. Great interview.