Got Tal­ent

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Wear­ing a black “Hate Hero” T-shirt, a large pair of head­phones clamped over his ears, the young singer croons into a mi­cro­phone at a sim­ple record­ing stu­dio in­side a prison in Burk­ina Faso.

Known as Johnyto, the 25-year-old is serv­ing two years for be­ing an ac­com­plice to rob­bery at an over­crowded prison known for its abysmal con­di­tions in Bobo-dioulasso, Burk­ina’s sec­ond city.

Here, he is one of 700 in­mates, some of whom are look­ing on cu­ri­ously as he works the syn­the­sizer, the mixer and the am­pli­iers.

“School didn’t work out be­cause I wanted to make mu­sic, but well, that didn’t take off... Many things hap­pened be­fore I wound up here,” ad­mits the young singer, whose real name is Jonathan Sougue.

“But one day, I hope to be­come a real star and for­get this life.”

And in March, Johnyto in­ally got the break he was look­ing for when he en­tered an au­di­tion run by Burk­in­abe reg­gae star Free­man Tapily who was look­ing for an inmate who could record an al­bum be­hind bars.

In what could have been dubbed “Prison’s Got Tal­ent” or per­haps “X-fac­tor Be­hind Bars”, four peo­ple in his jail vied for irst place, and Johnyto, with his mix of rap and bal­lads, won.

Sev­eral months later, Tapily’s team came into the prison and set up a ba­sic record­ing stu­dio where Johnyto spent three days with them record­ing ive songs, shoot­ing a mu­sic video and tak­ing a se­ries of pub­lic­ity shots.


The project is be­ing jointly inanced by the Burk­in­abe Ofice of Au­thor’s Rights and by African Cul­ture, an or­gan­i­sa­tion owned by Tapily which in­vites well-known Burk­in­abe singers and mu­si­cians to per­form at con­certs in­side pris­ons for free as a way of help­ing with the in­mates’ re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion.

“These projects are close to my heart,” Tapily told AFP.

He started the ini­tia­tive in 2010 with a con­cert per­formed in front of 1,400 in­mates at the MACO cen­tral prison in the cap­i­tal, Oua­gadougou.

“Now it’s 2018 and there are roughly 2,000 pris­on­ers. It’s go­ing up!” he said.

But what he re­ally wants to see is the numbers falling -- in a sign that the in­mates are com­plet­ing their sen­tences, get­ting out and get­ting on with nor­mal lives.

“For the num­ber to fall, we have to get on with re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion. With re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion, we will ight crime and re­peat of­fences, that’s our bat­tle,” he said. “And in terms of re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion, mu­sic can do a lot.”

Tapily has a lot of conidence that Johnyto can make it as a pro­fes­sional mu­si­cian.

“Me, I make my liv­ing from mu­sic... and I think Johnyto’s tal­ent is far greater than mine,” he told AFP.

“I think he can go be­yond re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion -- he’ll deinitely do that -- but I think he could even help other peo­ple do the same,” he said, sug­gest­ing the young mu­si­cian could even hire some of them to work with him.

The al­bum, which is due to be re­leased in De­cem­ber, has songs on it with lyrics in both French and Dioula, a lo­cal lan­guage also spo­ken in Ivory Coast and Mali.

And Johnyto has ded­i­cated the main track -- “I’m Sorry” -- to his mum.

“I didn’t know how much you loved me / I’m sorry, yes mama, I’m sorry / I’m sorry to have caused you so much mis­ery,” he sings.

Once the al­bum is in­ished, Tapily’s team will burn 100 copies that Johnyto can distribute and sell him­self, like most Burk­in­abe mu­si­cians do.

Although the prison ad­min­is­tra­tion it­self doesn’t get in­volved in fund­ing such ex­ter­nal ac­tiv­i­ties, it is happy to en­cour­age them and to en­sure the events go off as smoothly as pos­si­ble.


For Pas­cal Yabre, re­gional head of prison se­cu­rity, re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion of the in­mates is a top pri­or­ity.

“The aim is to en­able those pris­on­ers who have been here once to leave and never come back,” he said.

Across this West African na­tion, pris­ons are now of­fer­ing in­mates train­ing in a wide range of skills, from gar­den­ing to live­stock farm­ing, to tai­lor­ing, car­pen­try and soap­mak­ing.

Ac­tiv­i­ties vary from one place to an­other, but for now, only a small per­cent­age of pris­on­ers are in­volved.

“The prob­lem is that we of­ten lack re­sources, which means we don’t man­age to put them on at all the pris­ons,” Yabre ad­mits, cit­ing inan­cial di­fi­cul­ties at the pris­ons’ au­thor­ity.

For Tapily, the fund­ing short­fall is eas­ily ex­plained.

“We are in a poor coun­try where ev­ery­thing is a pri­or­ity so the state can’t al­low it­self to spend too much on the pris­ons,” he says.

“If I was pres­i­dent and had to choose be­tween build­ing a new hos­pi­tal and a new jail, I would choose a hos­pi­tal!”

Jonathan Sougué, records his video clip among co-pris­on­ers in­side the Bobo Dioulasso prison.

Jonathan Sougué, known as Johnyto, records his al­bum at the Bobo Dioulasso prison.

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