Malian singer Inna Modja on the ac­tivism in her mu­sic

The Saturday Paper - - Front Page - JANE CORN­WELL is a Lon­don­based jour­nal­ist, broad­caster and critic and au­thor of The Whirl: Men, Mu­sic and Mis­ad­ven­tures.

“My voice is my weapon. We are still fight­ing.” Inna Modja

Inna “Modja” Bo­coum was four when her great-aunt took her to be cut. She was back in Mali for a visit: her fam­ily was liv­ing in neigh­bour­ing Ghana at the time, and Modja, which means “cheeky girl” in Fu­lani, her mother’s tongue, was be­ing babysat. She has a mem­ory of the rit­ual: of her con­fu­sion, mainly, and shock. She stops her­self re­mem­ber­ing the pain.

“You can’t live if you think about that sort of pain, be­cause it’s in your flesh,” says the singer, ac­tress and model, 32, sit­ting in a cafe in the Bastille area of Paris, wear­ing jeans, a puf­fer jacket and a T-shirt that says Ba­mako Con­nec­tion.

“There is no anaes­thetic; just pain, grief, shame and more pain. For what?” Her almond eyes flash: “To con­trol women, make them just bodies for pro­duc­ing kids. You are not al­lowed to ex­pe­ri­ence plea­sure. You are not al­lowed free­dom. You are not al­lowed to de­cide for your­self.”

Modja did. “I was 19, liv­ing in­de­pen­dently in

France and on my way to be­com­ing a woman. When I dis­cov­ered how dif­fer­ent I was, and what fe­male gen­i­tal mu­ti­la­tion re­ally meant, it made me ques­tion my whole iden­tity. I thought, ‘Who am I? What am I? This is not right! This is not fair!’

“Then I started to read ev­ery­thing I could about FGM. Ed­u­cat­ing my­self was a way of cop­ing with my anger. Of for­giv­ing the per­son who kid­napped me from be­hind my par­ents’ backs, so I could move on with my life. I met doc­tors, lawyers, ac­tivists, got in­volved with sur­vivor groups. I had re­con­struc­tive surgery to re­pair the dam­age done to my body.”

For a long time, Modja kept her ac­tivism and artis­tic ca­reer sep­a­rate. Fans of the breezy, apo­lit­i­cal folkpop she show­cased on her 2009 de­but, Ev­ery­day Is a New World, had lit­tle idea of her fierce com­mit­ment to fight­ing in­jus­tice and cham­pi­oning women’s rights. Her fol­lowup al­bum, 2011’s Love Rev­o­lu­tion, was sim­i­larly sunny, a hook-laden con­fec­tion of tunes such as “I Am Smil­ing” and “La Fille Du Lido”. It saw her named “Révéla­tion of the Year” at that year’s Vic­toires de la Musique awards, France’s equiv­a­lent of the ARIA Awards.

But scratch the sin­ga­long sur­face of the sum­mer hit “French Can­can (Mon­sieur Sainte Ni­touche)”, along with that of its buoy­ant, candy-coloured video, and you found a sub­ver­sive in the mak­ing. Here was an African im­mi­grant ap­pro­pri­at­ing the clichés of her adopted coun­try in an era marked by ris­ing racism and xeno­pho­bia, and giv­ing the French Right a cheeky kick up the butt in the process. It hinted at more rad­i­cal things to come.

“It is hard be­ing an im­mi­grant here, but I had the Euro­pean dream,” says Modja, who re­lo­cated to Paris at the age of 17 to study lan­guages, lit­er­a­ture and busi­ness at two in­sti­tu­tions. “I felt I could not do what I wanted to do in Mali since my fam­ily are not gri­ots [the tra­di­tional caste of sto­ry­tellers and mu­si­cians], and as a young woman I wasn’t be­ing taken se­ri­ously. So I thought, ‘Okay, I’ll travel the world, build my per­son­al­ity, be­come some­body.’” A smile. “Oh boy, it was dif­fi­cult.”

She pauses, shakes her head. “That first win­ter

I was liv­ing in a tiny room with no heat and a shared bath­room, and com­mut­ing to uni­ver­sity in Lille, two hours away. Not that I’m com­plain­ing. I’m lucky that I have a lot of en­ergy, and it gave me even more de­ter­mi­na­tion to suc­ceed.”

Modja was wait­ing out­side a cinema when a model scout ap­proached her. A photo shoot later and she had signed to Elite Model Man­age­ment. She spent the next few years on the cat­walks of New York and Wash­ing­ton. Modja says she didn’t en­joy mod­el­ling, all the com­pe­ti­tion and su­per­fi­cial­ity and pres­sure to be thin, but it was a fi­nan­cial means to an end. Back in Paris she be­came the face of a hair-care line and, be­cause she was good at it, wrote catchy pop tunes for singer friends on ma­jor labels.

When Modja started do­ing live acous­tic gigs in France, word spread. She recorded her de­but her­self then re­leased it through Warner Mu­sic France; time and again she’s had to stress that she is African, not French. “Peo­ple would say, ‘Oh, but you’re not do­ing world mu­sic?’ Which for me goes with this old cliché of Africa as a place of suf­fer­ing and star­va­tion. Sure, play­ing mu­sic is nat­u­ral in Mali. But my gen­er­a­tion are mil­len­ni­als; we are cre­ative, artis­tic, plugged in. And Ba­mako is su­per mod­ern, like any cap­i­tal city.”

Hav­ing de­ter­mined to build a plat­form by stealth, the overnight suc­cess of “French Can­can” blind­sided her. “At first I just wanted to en­ter­tain and not go too deep into my story. It is not easy telling the world about some­thing so per­sonal, and if I came in with no au­di­ence, no one would have paid at­ten­tion any­way.”

But af­ter sold­out shows, glossy mag­a­zine shoots, crowded in-store sign­ings and a year’s stint on a tele­vi­sion com­edy sketch show – “I like to laugh; it helps me do what I do” – Modja deemed her con­sti­tu­tion suf­fi­ciently strong and her fan base large and loyal enough to lis­ten – re­ally lis­ten – to what she had to say. Then she set about record­ing Mo­tel Ba­mako, an al­bum that mixes soul and blues with elec­tro and tra­di­tional beats and has her singing and rap­ping in French, English and Bam­bara on is­sues af­fect­ing Africa and the African di­as­pora.

The song “Water” is a lament for a scarce re­source. “Boat Peo­ple”, a duet with famed Malian diva Ou­mou San­garé, one of Modja’s men­tors, re­mem­bers the refugees who drowned when their boats cap­sized off the coast of Italy. “Tom­bouctu”, a prayer for peace in Mali, rails against the vi­o­lence that was un­leashed on north­ern Mali by mil­i­tant groups in 2012, lead­ing to ji­hadist oc­cu­pa­tion and even­tual French mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion.

“We heard sto­ries of women be­ing raped, young girls be­ing forced into mar­riage with the ter­ror­ists, women be­ing beaten in the mar­ket­place be­cause they didn’t cover their heads … In times of war women and girls al­ways are the first tar­gets,” Modja says. “But cul­ture and mu­sic are more pow­er­ful than this vi­o­lent ide­ol­ogy they are still try­ing to force, which has noth­ing to do with the peace-lov­ing form of Is­lam that has been in Mali for thou­sands of years.”

The black-and-white video for “Tom­bouctu” was filmed in the Ba­mako stu­dio of iconic Malian pho­tog­ra­pher Mal­ick Sidibé, who died last April, and bears his unique aes­thetic. Im­ages of Modja with her mother, ma­ter­nal grand­mother and nieces are in­ter­spersed with those of women with ker­chiefs over their mouths and, in one in­stance, the word “Free­dom” em­bla­zoned across bare breasts.

As well as rap­ping in Bam­bara – “We won’t sit down and we won’t shut up,” she spits – Modja im­i­tates the sound of a ma­chine­gun to par­ody, sub­vert, shock.

“My voice is my weapon,” she says, her shoul­ders squar­ing. “We are still fight­ing.”

Modja al­ways wanted be a singer. A hy­per­ac­tive kid, the sixth of seven chil­dren born to a diplo­mat fa­ther from north­ern Mali and a mid­wife mother from Guinea, she grew up lis­ten­ing to her dad’s vinyl col­lec­tion of Ray Charles, Nina Si­mone, Miriam Makeba, her mum’s favourite West African singers, and the com­pet­ing tastes of her sib­lings: “Punk, rock, rap, disco, elec­tro. I was in the mid­dle of all this and soaked it all up.”

Back in Ba­mako af­ter her fam­ily’s eight-year stint in Ac­cra, Ghana, she be­gan record­ing on tape songs that she’d writ­ten and cov­ered. She day­dreamed about play­ing them to Salif Keita, the in­ter­na­tional su­per­star nick­named the African Caruso, who hap­pened to be a neigh­bour. Aged 15, she knocked on his door.

“He said, ‘You want to sing? Sing!’ Af­ter­wards he told me I needed train­ing, and sent me to learn with the Su­per Rail Band, and I be­came one of their back­ing singers. Then I started fo­cus­ing on what young Malians are into, which is hip-hop with Bam­bara rhymes.”

Modja avoided re­flect­ing on what hap­pened to her when she was four, and tried to be the per­fect stu­dent and daugh­ter. She knew her four el­der sis­ters had been cir­cum­cised and one sis­ter, who was taken by their pa­ter­nal grand­mother with­out her par­ents’ per­mis­sion, had al­most died. The young Inna was sup­posed to be spared; her mother’s guilt, she says, is still pal­pa­ble.

“The per­son who did this to me died a while ago. To­day I can­not hate her; she thought she was right,” says Modja, who in De­cem­ber took part in the first US sum­mit to end fe­male gen­i­tal mu­ti­la­tion, a prac­tice the World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion has doc­u­mented in 30 coun­tries be­yond Africa and the Mid­dle East to com­mu­ni­ties in Asia, Aus­tralia, Europe, and North and South Amer­ica. More than 200 mil­lion women and girls are af­fected.

Her co-pan­el­lists were for­mer United Na­tions sec­re­tary-gen­eral Ban Ki-moon and rep­re­sen­ta­tives from or­gan­i­sa­tions in­clud­ing Safe Hands for Girls, a group ded­i­cated to end­ing fe­male gen­i­tal mu­ti­la­tion and pro­vid­ing sup­port to sur­vivors. Their com­bined aim is to elim­i­nate FGM by 2030 – that is, within a gen­er­a­tion.

“You can­not just ban a rit­ual. But we can cre­ate al­ter­na­tive rit­u­als, bring­ing girls to­gether with sto­ries, mu­sic and food, telling them about soror­ity and sis­ter­hood and all the things that will make them stronger, help them face the world.”

Since 2015, Modja has worked with the doc­tor who per­formed her re­con­struc­tive surgery – “It saved my life; fi­nally I was the same as ev­ery­one else with the same op­por­tu­ni­ties and bag­gage and fucked-up­ness ” – and is act­ing as spokes­woman and group leader for La Mai­son des Femmes, a free women’s day clinic at­tached to a hospi­tal in Saint-De­nis, Paris, that caters for sur­vivors of fe­male gen­i­tal mu­ti­la­tion, rape and do­mes­tic vi­o­lence. “The big thing is the fear and the shame. Now, be­cause I have a plat­form, I can get other sur­vivors to open up, and talk­ing helps me, too. If I can change one life, one view­point, then it’s a vic­tory.”

It hasn’t been easy, of course. She’s been trolled on­line, spat at on the street.

“It’s just ig­no­rance,” she shrugs. “I’ve re­alised that women will al­ways have to fight more. They will al­ways be judged. Their path will al­ways be more dif­fi­cult.”

In be­tween cam­paign­ing and mak­ing mu­sic, Modja likes to paint, make pho­to­graphs and read. A favourite au­thor is the late Malian cul­tural am­bas­sador Amadou Ham­pâté Bâ, whose fa­mous quote – “In Africa, when an old man dies, it is a li­brary burn­ing ” – un­der­scores the im­por­tance of doc­u­ment­ing African oral tra­di­tions.

“My coun­try is this amaz­ing mix of the old and the new, of colour and vi­tal­ity, danc­ing and joy, and I bring this to my con­certs. But I need to share, too; the world is not in a good shape right now.”

Work­ing towards a pos­i­tive fu­ture for Mali, for Africa, is vi­tal to Modja, who co-stars in French-Malian di­rec­tor Daouda Coulibaly’s forth­com­ing fea­ture de­but, Wùlu – a gritty thriller fo­cus­ing on a bus driver turned drug traf­ficker. “So much ter­ror­ism is fi­nanced by the drug deals in the north of Mali,” Modja says of this vast, largely law­less re­gion. “Drugs are flown in from Latin Amer­ica and spread to Europe, Asia, ev­ery­where. No one talks about it.”

Then there is #wings­for­free­dom, the so­cial art project Modja has go­ing with her Ital­ian film­maker boyfriend Marco Conti Si­kic, in which they paint sprawl­ing an­gel’s wings on city walls in Paris, Ba­mako, Jaipur and Mex­ico City and then pho­to­graph peo­ple stand­ing in front of them, as if fly­ing. “It’s about hope,” she says, “and we need hope.” Later this year, she will be work­ing on The Great Green Wall, a UN-backed doc­u­men­tary about the Africa-led project to grow an 8000-kilo­me­tre wall of trees and plants across the width of the con­ti­nent.

But first, there’s tour­ing to be done. By the time this ar­ti­cle ap­pears, Modja will have played gigs in Brazil and New York; next month she makes an ex­clu­sive ap­pear­ance at WOMADe­laide. She emails me af­ter our in­ter­view: “I’m do­ing a new project on women’s em­pow­er­ment around the world and re­search­ing tra­di­tional dancers in Aus­tralia, if you have any ideas.”

Modja in­sists she’s only just be­gun. The mu­sic that gives her strength takes her for­ward.

“Mu­sic will al­ways reach more peo­ple than dogma,” she says. “Dogma talks at you. And mu­sic?” She

• flashes a grin. “Mu­sic talks to you.”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.