Not The Rebellion Nor The Revolution We Imagine?

I want to believe that they–the rappers and slam poets, are radical, and committed to fighing power, and transforming the state. I want to hear rhetoric that talks about tearing the existing political structure apart, and rebuild a better and more equitable one. I want to find the true commitment to Sankara, to see mirrored in action, his vision. But I realise, while speaking to Basic Soul, that I will not find any of these imaginary aspirations here with him.

Ouedraogo Souleymane, otherwise known to his fans as Basic Soul, is no revolutionary. A member of Le Balai Citoyen, he refuses the posture of the radical. “I speak softly, and my work does not scream ‘fuck this…’ or ‘fuck the system…’.” The more we speak to him, the more I try to provoke him to offer more radical thoughts, but he refuses to give in. “My music, my rap, focuses on showing people how to live better, and to help themselves.” He smiles, languidly sitting back in his chair as he says this. Basic Soul carries himself with a rather casual calm, seeming to survey the world around him through languid and lethargic eyes. It is as if nothing really bothers him, and that his presence here at the head office of Le Balia Citoyen isn’t a reflection of his politics, but merely an accident. As we proceed through the interview, I find that his responses remain in the ‘safe’ zone, never trespassing into problematic political polemics or denouncements of power.

But could his reticence to critique aggressive be because Basic Soul is a product of the very regime that has now been toppled? I do not ask him this question, but it is one that is provoked by research into the history of the rise of popular music in the country.

In the early 1990s the state engaged in democratic opening, in the manner similar to many other African countries. Compared to the previous decade, musicians of the 1990s enjoyed a relative freedom of action, and better production opportunities brought by a nascent private sector–more precisely the birth of private FM radio–that encouraged new initiatives in the music sector. Some former members of deceased bands either abandoned music, or turned to solo performances with varying degrees of success, because they were facing competition by young and ambitious artists…The dominant figure of the early 1990s is, perhaps, Nick Domby, joined in the mid-199s by Zedess, Basic Soul, and Black So Man. But next to these rising stars, others were taking to their first steps in public performance and with the support of political action from the government, and they became the pop stars of Burkina modern music of the 2000s. To mention but a few…Smockey, Yeleen, Bil Aka Kora…Ali Veruthey, Yoni Floby. The democratic opening of the 1990s also brought freedom of thought and expression, which fertilised artistic creation…Kaboret and Kaboré observe that since 2000 there has been a tendency for protest in the lyrics and tone of musical production of Burkina. Certainly, the political and social critique by musician are remarkable [Somé, 2012, 69].

There is an irony here that is difficult to ignore. The Campaoré regime encouraged–through the creation of events such as the Grand Prix de la Musique Moderne in 1999, and the establishment of the Centre National des Arts du Spectacle et de l’Audiovisuel (CNASA), a performance space for amateur musicians, and the awarding of grants through the Programme de Soutien aux Initiatives Culturelles (PSIC) , greater cultural production [Somé, 2012, 71]. This very opening, and support, unleashed the voices that took down the regime some sixteen years later. This is also the period in which musicians like Basic Soul became household names, and are today among the most popular and famous rap artists in the country. The very system that enabled his success and fame, is the one that has been torn down around him. Is this perhaps why he is unprepared to condemn the regime as so many of his colleagues actually have done?

“Yes, my music is a critique of the system, of the reality that has been created for me. But it isn’t an aggressive critique.” We are sitting in the Le Balai Citoyen head office. It has taken me a few days to get Basic Soul to sit for an interview. He was evasive about sitting with me, until I found him at the offices one afternoon and had my assistant insist that he give us a few minutes. Now, looking relaxed and comfortable on a metal chair not designed with relaxation or comfort in mind, he languidly answers my questions. “My raps focuses on telling people about how to change their lives for the better. I am not about screaming at the system. I am just a musician, an artist.”

Have I misunderstood the uprising against Campaoré? Have I projected an assumption that the movement, led by Le Balai Citoyen, was revolutionary in intent? In a critique written soon after the elections, Chouli raised perhaps the most troublesome question about the nature of the civic protest movement:

As for civic groups, for the most part they are not organising themselves against state power, but rather are wedded to the current hegemonic concept of civil society, that is to say neoliberalism, in which they are just keeping a watchful eye on ‘good governance’. In this context, demonstrations are organised with a view to the agenda for the Transition and political parties, where only the electoral timetable is of importance, rather than with a view to specific social issues. While various social forces and the authorities repeat over and over again that nothing will be as it was in Burkina Faso, the first months of the Transition and what it indicates for the future do not make obvious the nature of the change [Chouli, 205]. 

Our time is short. Basic Soul seems content with his responses. Unable to get him to dwell into the motivations and inspirations for his work, or unveil a deeper political and social engagement against the system, I end the interview. But the conversation leaves me asking myself what the uprising was really about. What did I expect to find when I came here? The more I speak to members of Le Balai Citoyen, the more I think that despite the Sankarist discourse, the aims of the uprising that toppled Blaise Campaoré were far more prosaic. 

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