Brukinabé Rasta And The Living Spirit Of Struggle

The music is blaring over the radio station sound system when I arrive. Reggae. Alpha Blondy. The song–“Coco de Rasta”. 

When I meet Jamal, as he prepare for his 2-hour DJ set, he is sporting a jean jacket with an image of Haile Selassie stitched on. We greet each other at the broadcast offices of RMO FM. Jamal is one of the most well known Burkinabé Rastafarians and rap musicians. His parents named him Gnoumou Barthelemy La Mousa Rab. The streets however call him Jamal. “My story is the generic Burkinabé story, “ He laughs when I ask him about his early years. “Born and raised in the Ivory Coast, peasant farmer parents, worked themselves like slaves to put some food in front of me.” He looks at me out of the corner of his eye, his smile never leaving his face. “I am just another African story, my brother.” He pauses for effect. “Just, another Africa Rastafari story.” And then cracks up laughing.

Reggae and Rastas are everywhere in Ouagadougou. Anywhere you go–bars, cafes, art galleries, even from the interiors of street side kiosks and businesses, you can hear those immortal words…

Get up, stand up—stand up for your rights!

Get up, stand up—don’t give up the fight!

You can buy patches and badges with images of Haile Selassie in any market in the city. Street markets were filled with bootleg Bob Marley. And bootlegs of bootlegs. The Rastafarian god incarnate had a home in Burkina Faso and millions of followers.

Dating back to its origins in the 1930s as a direct outgrowth of the intermixture of Christian millennialism and the pan-African ideology of Marcus Garvey, the nascent Rastafari movement believed that the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie I (1892-1974), a direct descendent of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, was God incarnate. In fact, the movement’s name, Rastafari, is derived from Selassie’s Amharic title and birth name—Ras Tafari Makonnen—prior to his ascendancy to the imperial throne in 1930 [Floyd-Thomas, 2010]. 

A week earlier I had stood with a crowd of young Burkinabé dancing and jumping in a dusty town square and watched Jamal perform on a makeshift stage. He was traveling with a group of Le Balai Citoyen activists in the days before the 2015 general elections–the first since the fall of the Blaise Campaoré regime. He was the star act, the one that everyone had been waiting for. A radio personality and a recording musician, almost everyone knew him by name, and anxiously waited for him to get onto the stage. Tall, elegant, confident, with an attitude and bodily manner that made approaching and speaking to him seem easy and natural, Jamal carried himself with the confident self-awareness of a performer among his fans. That night he had danced and sung of revolution, of rising up, of stepping forward to accept responsibilities to the society, of faith in the ability to change the world, and the courage to think that. I too got caught up in the words, and ideas. The crowd certainly went wild with joy.

Now, in the comparatively quieter atmosphere of the broadcast studio, Jamal was busy adjusting various microphones that surrounded him, constantly gesturing to the recording assistant to make sure everything was ready before he began. He invited me to join him in the room, but I reminded him that my camera shutters may in fact be noisier than he would prefer. Instead, I stepped outside and watched him perform his set–gesticulating, dancing, laughing, shifting, rocking on this chair, and swinging to the music. Entertaining the listeners, as if he was on a stage, for the entire two hour session.

“I am Bobo. My Tribe. We are the first anti-colonialists.” He smiles with pride. Exhausted after his broadcast session, he is gulping water, as sweat runs down his cheeks. We are sitting in a conference room adjoining the broadcast studio. Cups of vending machine coffee sit before us. “I am a revolutionary by heritage.” I realise that he is serious. This isn’t just an empty boast, and my instinctive scepticism is more a reflection of my ignorance. Later I will feel ashamed at my scepticism, based as it was on the assumption that Jamal was parlaying in exaggerated rhetoric, not real history. Later, when I research the claim, I find that indeed, he belongs to a long line of revolutionaries and anti-colonial resistance fighters. Jamal knew his history. I find a book–West African Challenge to Empire: Culture and History in the Volta-Bani Anti-colonial War, which tells the history of what the authors call the ‘Volta-Bani anti-colonial war’.

The conflict was arguably the largest resistance movement anywhere in Africa between 1914 and 1918. The rebels mobilized as many as 20,000 soldiers at the height of the rebellion in 1916 and the French required 5,000 troops, mostly tirailleurs, to put out the firestorm among the 900,000 inhabitants touched by the resistance. African flintlocks were no match for French firepower and the toll on resistors was high; one battle near Bobo-Dioulasso in May 1916 left 2,000 dead [Saul & Rover, 2002]. 

“School changed me.” We are in the radio station’s small library of long play and 33RPM records. “That is where I learned about the central role of the slave trade in the wealth and power of the European nations.” He periodically hands me a record, saying nothing but I assume that the ones he hands me are the ones he approves of. “I learned about how we have become as weak and – Kunta Kintay and others were opened to me. My teachers opened my eyes, made me see things more clearly.” But this opening had also been an invitation to leave, and to go see the world. Jamal had travelled to Europe, worked in Ivory Coast, and spent four years on the road as a musician. But he had tired. Of Europe’s ‘false promises’, as he called them, and of the constant longing to return home.

Jamal’s music is about a spiritual revolution. When I stood with the crowd listening to him perform, I could hear him calling for a spiritual revival. A cleansing of the young souls, trying to warn them away from material possessions and towards genuine liberation and freedom. “I want to change their ideas about life and to imagine a new future.” He tells me. “I want to warn them about Europe, and to make them see that home is here, in Africa.” He adjusts his t-shirt, and carefully arranges a pair of sunglasses over her head as he prepares to stand for a portrait in front of my camera. “I am a Shepard to the flock.”

Leave a Reply