A few weeks ago, freedom-of-expression campaigners Index on Censorship announced Serge Bambara as the recipient of the inaugural Music in Exile Fund Fellowship. But this was more than an annual prize. Better known as Smockey (contraction of “se moquer“, which means “to mock”), what Serge received was really a lifetime achievement award. The Burkinabè MC has dedicated his life and musical career to exposing, standing up against and fighting any form of injustice – in particular those perpetrated by the former Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaoré.
Smockey is a singer and songwriter who has fully embraced the saying “the pen is mightier than the sword“. In his world rhymes are more piercing than bullets. Over the years, he has survived various attacks and assassinations attempts. The most dramatic happened less than a year ago on the 17th September of 2015. On the brink of dissolution, the Regiment of Presidential Security (the secret service loyal to Compaoré) bombed Smockey’s recording studio in Ouagadogou. Luckily he escaped unharmed, and despite being under constant threat for fifteen years Smockey has never compromised or stepped back.
Thanks to Index on Censorship, we managed to meet Smockey in their London office. Even though our conversation went on for almost an hour, we needed only a few words to understand the relevance of his figure for Burkina Faso and Africa at large.
We opened our conversation by asking Smockey to introduce us the musical climate of Burkina Faso.
“Music is moving and starting to change in Burkina Faso. Years ago you could only listen to music from Ivory Coast and Ghana. Today we have a lot of different styles because there are six countries around us. This means that there are a lot of influences to draw from. We are inspired by the music scenes of nearby countries. At the same time, our traditional music is also very rich and is finally becoming more popular”.
Smockey rightfully considers himself an element for change in his country’s music scene.
“I think the main reason for this transformation was hip hop. When I went back to Burkina in 2000, there was no urban music scene in Ouagadougou. People weren’t organised in the city and studios weren’t specialised. We had to do a lot of work. In fact, we were the first artists to have managers and I can see that we made a difference. We started a scene! We were the first who started to make music in a professional way, with press conferences and video clips. Before us, musicians were shooting amateurish videos with flowers and dancers. So we changed the music perception and people immediately followed us. Finally music in Burkina is getting bigger.
Smockey’s popularity has grown since the early 2000s. But his relationship with music and hip-hop started more than a decade before that, and he can be considered as precursor of the Burkinabè hip-hop scene.
“I started my career in 1988/89 in Burkina. At that time, I used to go around with five or six friends and we started to rap together. We were the first ones in our country because most people around us just wanted to dance. Our friends preferred to dance because of ladies! Since I wasn’t a good dancer I chose to rap. We were influenced by Public Enemy, Africa Bambaata and LL Cool J, so we were rapping in English. But actually we didn’t know what we were saying. We were imitating and copying the sounds of those American rappers. That’s also why dancers were more popular than us”.
After a while, he realised that it was a matter of language and message.
“Then I started to rap in French. I was the first one to do that, and finally people started to understand what I was saying. My music suddenly became more powerful and dance passed into second place. That was the moment when people became interested in what I was saying and singing on stage.
A few years later I moved to France, where I released a single with EMI [titled ‘La Steupie‘]. I was supposed to record an album with them but it didn’t go ahead because they wanted to put me in a cage doing some kind of house music. Actually, everything started as a joke. I recorded a single song with some friends for fun, but they liked it so much they wanted an entire album. But I wasn’t prepared to do that and decided to go back to Ouagadougou, founding my own studio [called Abazon, which means “we must hurry” in Bissa language] and becoming independent”.
His ten-year experience in France didn’t impress him much.
“In Paris everything is fast-paced and business-oriented. It’s easy if you have contacts – you can make it even if you’re not good. In the house music scene they don’t care if you’re good or not. They just want to sell. If a product is sellable, quality is not a problem. That’s why I decided to go back to Burkina Faso. Maybe it’s more difficult in my country, but at least you can be original there and take your time to convince people that what you’re doing has quality”.
Arguably, that was also the reason why Smockey consolidated his career once back in Ouagadougou in 2000. That was the moment when he understood the power of music as a medium.
“Maybe it’s a question of education. I was lucky to have parents who taught me free expression and encouraged me to say what I wanted. For this reason I started to criticise a lot of things. The first song I released in Burkina Faso was called ‘Putsch à Ouagà’. People reacted to the song and understood its message. At the same time the politicians didn’t like its lyrics and started to put pressure on my family. I wasn’t famous at that time. Actually, nobody remembered me from the 1990s. When the politicians listened to the song on the radio they intimidated my family because I was talking about the President [Blaise Compaoré]”.
Smockey told us that even his grandfather travelled from his village to the capital to give him a good talking to! Unfortunately for him, the outcome was the opposite. In fact, Smockey treasured his grandfather words, but he used them to write one of his most popular songs.
“I remember that even my grandfather came from his village to Ouagadougou and told me that I must stop because ‘ici c’est Ouagà, c’est pas chez le blanc’, which means ‘here’s Ouagadogou, it’s not like the Western world’. So, since I was in Burkina Faso and no longer in France, I had to pay attention to what I was saying in my songs. Someone else [the musician Black So Man] had already done music like me and had died in strange circumstances. Many people still think that the Government killed him.
So I took the speech of my grandfather and wrote another song, which became even more famous. I used his words and the local language of Burkina Faso to write it. Today it is still one of my most popular songs. As well as rapping on a hip hop base, I used a traditional melody called ‘Samo’ from the Mossi people, who live in the Central and Northern region of Burkina Faso”.
Smockey quickly understood that mixing contemporary and traditional sounds was the key to spreading his music all over the country and bringing people together.
“Traditional music is still the most popular in Burkina Faso. The same happens in the rest of the world: everybody knows traditional songs, whether you’re in Britain, France or Burkina Faso. So if you mix traditional and modern music and you produce it well you can easily make a classic – something that strikes people. This was the tool I used to encourage people to engage with less melodic music and listen to my message.
Since then I’ve repeated this formula. On every album I usually put together one or two songs that fuse traditional and modern music. That way I can become famous in my country. My music has always been political. If you listen to my first albums you’ll find many songs that have a political message, but I didn’t release them as singles or even video clips. So when people who have only listened to my singles tell me that I only started to be engaged during the last few years I tell them to listen to my first works too.”
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