An Odyssey Towards Respect–Art Melody’s Search For Freedom

Art Melody asks that we meet on his small plot of vegetable farm land on the outskirts of Ouagadougou. “It is where I go to do my writing.” He tells me in his gruff voice. “Where I feel most free.” When I arrive for our scheduled meetings, I see him, and his friends Jacques, ankle deep in mud and sand, their t-shirts and shorts covered in dust and mud, working in the fields. Their bodies rise and fall in unison as they work the earth with shovels. Art Melody is a celebrity rapper in Ouagadougou–his songs can be heard over the radio, and thousands arrive to listen to his concerts. He is also a member of Le Balai Citoyen. I saw him perform in front of a crowd in a town on the outskirts of Bobo-Dioulasso. The digital magazine AfricaIsACountry had done four profiles of him and his music, and his YouTube videos remain popular, with tens of thousands logging in to watch and listen. Nicolas Guibert produced a documentary film about his life–Ts’eliso Monaheng reviewing it said it “…is just about the realest portrayal of a rapper’s life I’ve ever seen.”

Another documentary about Art Melody’s life journey, music and politics was produced by Cine Droit Libre itself.

But before he a famous and sought after rap artist, he was a typical young Burkinabé man growing up at the turn of the millennium and drifting from country to country in the hope of finding a decent, respectable way to live. A lack of money, and the assassination of Thomas Sankara in 1986, forced him to leave school and head for the Ivory Coast in search of work. “My brothers were there,” He tells me as we settle down to talk, finding cement blocks lying close to a wall that abuts the land he was working on. “I began writing my music during those years,” he adds. We are surrounded by rows of young Neem trees awaiting shipment to the gardens of the wealthier Ouagadougou residents. They also act as a wall to block of the noise of the heavy traffic on the dual carriageway nearby. Art Melody’s face is covered with sweat, and he is breathing heavily from the field work, but he seems to relish it all. 

He was in Ivory Coast only two years when a coup there forced him to leave that country too. He headed towards Senegal, then later Mali, Gambia, and Mauritania, spending the next five years trying to find work and a place he could settle in. He finally made an attempt to cross the Atlantic towards Europe, but ended up in an immigration detention centre in Algeria. A few weeks later, he found himself dropped off at the Malian border with a set of clean clothes and some money, and told to go home. He returned to Burkina Faso, bitter from his experiences, but also more determined to make something of himself. 

“My mother gave me the music.” The roar of traffic makes it difficult for me to hear him. “She did not teach me to sing, but music was everywhere in my life.” Art Melody’s parents were peasant farmers, working the land in a settlement some 50 km from the city of Bobo-Dialosso. “My mother sang to me,” he underlines. “And our community sang to me–during the many religious and planting season ceremonies we celebrate.”

His real name is Mamadou Konkobo. “My father was taking me on his bicycle for my first day at school, when news of Sankara’s death arrived.” He solemnly tells me when I ask him about the political nature of his music. “My life may have been very different had that not happened. So Sankara was in my life even before I knew.” His death had a profound impact on him even though he was too young to know about Sankara. “I could feel the gravity of the situation from how life in my household changed,” He explains. “My father was never the same afterwards.” Thomas Sankara remained a powerful influence on him, particularly Sankara’s call for self-reliance and independence from the global capitalist system. As Bruno Jaffre points out

The aim [of Sankara’s policies] was to promote autonomous economic development that did not depend on outside aid. Sankara said: ‘Food aid… becomes embedded in our brains. Enough of reacting like beggars living on handouts. We have to produce, produce more, because he who feeds you will also impose his will on you.’ [Jaffré, 2007]

Today, it is this aspect of Sankara’s ideas that most appeals to him, and the one he tries hardest to implement in his own life. Art Melody takes me for a walk on the land. “I am happiest here,” he declares. “This is where I write all my music, and my albums.” He walks barefoot, taking pleasure in the sensation of his feet sliding into the mud and sand. “Sankara gave us an idea of how to be free–how to be independent.” I see large trucks and goods lorries–some with the international consumer goods and food brands splashed across their sides, rush by. Burkina Faso’s entanglement with the international markets would have angered Sankara. “I joined Le Balai Citoyen because I wanted to bring this message of freedom, of self-reliance, to everyone in Burkina Faso.” A small man-made lake–most likely constructed for the 5-star hotel and the viewing pleasure of its well-heeled guests, sits on the opposite side of the road. It makes for a beautiful view, despite its artificiality and inaccessibility to ordinary people. “I bought this land so that I could work it with my hands and grow my own food. So that I could be free.” As Jaffré reminds us, it was what Sankara asked the people to do: 

“Under the slogan “Produce and Consume Burkinabé”, imports of fruit and vegetables were banned to encourage traders to look for produce in the southeast of the country…A national retail chain was established. Through local committees, employees were able to buy national products at their workplace. Civil servants were encouraged to wear the traditional hand‐woven cotton clothing, faso dan fani, which encouraged women to take up weaving at home and earn income. [Jaffré, 2007]

Today, Burkina Faso remains one of the poorest nations in the world, and deeply embedded in the global system of resources and labor capitalism. Though symbolic paeans to Sankara’s vision and call for self-reliance can be seen around the city.

Image Information: Statues of Burkinabé political personalities dressed in locally produced Faso Dani cloth outfits. Copyright @ Asim Rafiqui 2015

Sankara’s plans for an independent, self-reliant Burkina Faso was quickly dismantled after his assassination. This does not seem to have deterred Art Melody. “He gave us this idea that we do not need to ask for from others, that we did not have to wait,” He hands me a shovel and asks me to play with the land. “Go on. Feel it.” As we dig and make channels for him to plant seeds later that afternoon, he smiles at me through his sweat covered face. “We can free be free Asim. We did not have to be dependent on anyone.”