Reggae Prophets And Revolution
On 4 March, 2011, in front of a large crowd gathered to watch him in concert, Sams’K le Jah sang what has now become the anthem of the people’s movement against Blaise Campaoré.
Thousands would sing this refrain at protest marches and even as they burned the parliament building in Ouagadougou during the uprising. Smockey, one of the founders of Le Balai Citoyen, called it one of the most important songs of the decade, explaining that:
There is a recording of that moment in March, when a rapper’s songs became a nation’s voice.
I meet Sams’K Le Jah at his family home. He looks different from photos of him. He looks at me and smiles when I point this out to him. Caressing his dreadlocks, he adds. “I am back to looking like a Rastaman.” And breaks out into laughter. For a man who has been given the task of representing and speaking for an entire uprising, Sams’K Le Jah carries himself with a casual ease and a devil-may-care attitude.
The interior of the house–quite large by Burkina Faso standards, is sparsely decorated. A couple of large arm-chairs and a sofa sit in the immaculately clean living room. The floor sparkles as if still laid out in a showroom. Two acoustic guitars are thrown on the sofa. There is a picture of Thomas Sankara on the wall–the only wall decoration in the entire house. I had seen this before–a single photograph or painting of Thomas Sankara, in the homes of other members of the Le Balai Citoyen. It was like a talisman–a source of good luck and of course, rememberance. As we enter and make small talk, I ask him about the photograph. “You have to remember that my family left my country which was then called Upper Volta, and I returned I returned to a new country called Burkina Faso.” He has settled himself in one of the arm-chairs and grabs one of the guitars and presses it to himself. “The Ivory Coast was the El Dorado of the region,” he tells me. “My father left Burkina Faso to make his fortune there. It is the Burkinabé story you will hear everywhere.” The history of migration between the two countries is a long and complex one, tracing its links to French colonialism, plantation economies and the uses of itinerant labour. A 2003 piece in the New York Times described the meaning of Ivory Coast for the Burkinabé;
But the welcome did not last long, especially when the Ivory Coast economy faltered and what was once social prejudice, turned into a legal and political one. As Kahn points out in a piece written in 2003:
Sams’K’s family story is the story of these many thousands. “Many Burkinabé migrated to work in plantations in Ivory Coast–coffee, cocoa plantations. My father was one such person. He met my mother there.” But there were different kinds of migrations. Sams’K’s father moved from a poor country to another poor country, but there were Burkinabé elite who migrated to Europe, and formed a wave of academic and intellectual migrants to countries like France.
He pushes his hair out of his face, and says. “No one has written the essential book about the time of Thomas Sankara.” Leaning back, and crossing his legs, as if about to tell me a long story, he adds. “We were living in a dream world. I was living in a dream world.” Born in 1971, Sams’K returned to the new country of Burkina Faso in 1985. It was the time of Sankara’s revolution. “I saw him with my own eyes. I heard him with my own ears.” He leans forward on the armchair, waving his hands to emphasise the significance of the moment. “People want to know the roots of the revolution, and why Sankara means so much to us.” He sounds impatient, “But you only have to understand the humiliation and prejudice in which the Burkinabé is born and grows up in, and you will understand why we still love Sankara so much.” His hands move over the frame of the guitar, as if restless to play it. “Sankara made us proud to be Burkinabé. He gave us dignity.”
Dignity. Many Burkinabé I have spoken to, repeat this word–dignité. Migrants from Burkina Faso living and working in the Ivory Coast were considered barbaric and backward. They were mocked and called ‘bushmen’ for their unfamiliarity with urban ways, and their simple rural habits. “People thought that we lived in trees,” he says incredulously. “They would ask us if we had electricity and running water or if we lived in houses.” He grimaces as he things back. “We were slaves to them–worth nothing more that the two hands with which we served them.” Thomas Sankara changed that. Sankara himself would again and again stress this point.
“To understand our anger, and to understand our commitment to change, you have to understand our quest for respect and for dignity.” I have been asking Sams’K to explain to me what made him into a revolutionary, and what gave him the strength to carry the ideas of the uprising. But Sams’K Le Jah is a spiritual man, and he refuses explanations that appeal to science or progressive interpretations. “Prophets can be guides–and we are guided by all of them” He answers, carefully choosing his words. “I am not saying that Sankara was prophet like Jesus or Mohammad (pbuh)–both of whom by the way, were revolutionaries.” His eyes turn towards the floor as he thinks about how best to explain himself. “Sankara was a living man, not a god–I saw and heard him with my own eyes, but he was a guide.” He takes a deep breath. “He lived and walked among us, and showed us what was possible.” Sams’K was a member of Sankara’s Pioneer’s of the Revolution–a youth movement that was modelled on similar youth movements in other Communist countries. It engaged school children from a young age to work on creating a self-reliant community and encouraged them to participate in the work of cleaning up, and organising at the community level. “We believed that anything was possible. Sankara made us feel that we could change the world.”
Sams’K is on his way to France the following day. He needs to complete errands and is impatient to finish our interview session. With the uprising now all over global news, and Le Balai Citoyen famous across the Francophone world, both he and Smockey are celebrities and travel frequently in the region and to Europe to perform, and speak about the revolution.
Before I lose his attention, I ask him why it took him, and others, so many years to react to Sankara’s assassination. He looks at me quizzically, as if I have accused him of negligence. “It took me three years to accept what had happened.” He is referring to Sankara’s assassination. “It took the country far longer to wake up from that shock.” We walk out of the house and towards my waiting car parked in the small alleyway. “Of course, we were young and did not understand the world–we did not know about ideologies and behind-the-scene conflicts.” He has placed his right hand on my shoulder as we walk towards the car. A group of people have now joined us, bought towards us at the sight of Sam’s K. I am reminded that I am standing with Burkinabé royalty. “We were left stunned when it happened. It took the nation many years to even accept that Sankara could be dead.” He is shaking people’s hands, as they touch him and pat him on the back. I have the impression that he avoids coming out onto the streets too often. “When a brother murders a brother,” He says, referring to Campaoré’s betrayal of his close friend and comrade Sankara, “You not only kill a family member, you kill the very values that made us a family in the first place.”