This is part of an interview with Salif Keita, conducted by AfroPop’s Banning Eyre and Sean Barlow in September 2002.
Interview S.B.: You said that culture is rich but badly used, poorly exploited, as you put it. What do you mean? There are so many musicians with great careers, so many studios, so much success. Why poorly exploited?
S.K.: Poorly exploited–why? Because music is not a real profession in Mali right up to the present. There is religion struggling against it. The Muslim religion. Just near me there is a mosque, and every Friday, they speak against artists. They say that when you are a musician or a singer you are a Kaffir. You are outside the religion, banned by the religion. You are damned. Things like that. Then afterwards they hide, and they come and ask me for money. I say, “Not my money. This is the money of a singer. I don’t give it to you.”
B.E.: I’ve read that political Islam is on the rise in Mali? Are you saying this is getting worse? Or is it something that was always there?
S.K.: It’s there. It’s there, and it’s getting stronger and stronger. I will tell you why. The ones who control music piracy in Mali are religious leaders. The biggest mafia of pirates are the religious ones.
S.B.: The marabouts?
S.K.: The followers of the marabouts, the friends of marabouts. So that the population will not hear those who struggle against piracy, what do they do? The make counter-propaganda. “You mustn’t listen [to the musicians who complain]. These are Kaffirs!” You understand the game? That’s it. And as they know that Mali is 90% Muslim, they know people will listen to the marabouts, and then they profit from the musicians. They pirate their records. They’ve brought in the customs service. They’ve brought in the army. They’ve brought in the police. It’s a big game, and it’s killing us. Often I feel like finding a new profession.
SB.: But people still hear music on the radio. They still go to concerts. No one can stop that.
S.K.: No, they can’t prevent the average Malian musician. But I will tell you this: Mali is run from the mosques. I am sorry to tell you this. In fact, the president we have now, we are counting him, but this is someone who does not listen to the people. He would like to change things. But when? You have to have a free hand to make changes. It’s religious politics that dominate there. It’s a catastrophe. It’s very dangerous. Me, I talk, but others are afraid to talk about this. I’m not afraid. I don’t care. I’ve done nothing wrong. I don’t earn my living there; I earn my living abroad. I’m not a griot tapping on the door of a marabout when I need to eat. No. I eat elsewhere. And so I speak out. But others are afraid to speak, because it’s a real mafia. It’s true.
B.E.: That’s serious.
S.K.: It’s very serious, and this is the only real problem in Mali. That’s it.
B.E.: And you think this is worse than when I was living there in 1996.
S.K.: It’s worse now. There are radicals now. They want to make Mali an Islamic country, like Nigeria. With Sharia, everything. It’s dangerous. For me, I’m not worried. My god is everywhere for me. But poor Mali! If that happens, we are ruined. The whole region is ruined.
B.E.: So how can you fight against that?
S.K.: Ah, me? I can’t fight it alone. But in general, you have to come up with a strategy. Salif Keita cannot do that.
B.E.: Even if he is God.
S.K.: Even if he is God. You know, God never speaks in the end. [LAUGHS] He never speaks.
SB.: This is interesting, Salif. You were just talking about the tolerance in Mali, the (cousinage).
S.K.: Mali is an ancient civilization, dressed up by religion. When you speak about God there. Hey wait, you must know what I have said before, about misery. You mustn’t forget that spirituality says that God is there. God is a remedy against misery. This is a philosophy that keeps the poor in line, that maintains poverty. It’s not that religion is bad. It’s the interpretation, the way it is used. That closes the door. Me, I’m a Muslim. I don’t hide that. I know that God gave me a good head, to serve me, to allow me to reflect, and to allow me to go and find food to eat. But this is our biggest problem in Mali. I even heard this talk from Samassa. You know Samassa, the producer?
B.E.: The cassette producer. Yes.
S.K.: He’s the biggest pirate of all, along with Sylla productions. Samassa came to my house. He said, “Salif, we want Mali to become an Islamic country.” Ah, no!
B.E.: Really? And this was recently.
S.K.: Six months ago. That’s dangerous. Thieves like him! No, that is dangerous. I am afraid of that. It’s when I think of that, I say, “Poor Mali.” We had a chance. We became a democratic country. If we could have continued like that, we would have a real chance, more even than the countries on the coast. Because what is a country? A country is a way of thinking. But if that escapes us–and there is a risk that that will escape us.
B.E.: What about the new president, A.T.T.? Do you think he’s on the right side of this?
S.K.: I can’t talk about that. Me, I really like A.T.T..
B.E.: He was a real hero in 1991 [because he took power after the coup against Moussa Traore, but then called elections and did not declare himself a candidate.]
S.K.: Yes, for 1991. I like him a lot. And beyond that, all the good that I see in Mali, and all the bad that I’ve seen, still I keep in my head the idea that he is good. For me, he is good. But I believe that as he is intelligent, the day he will have real power is the day that he has a real majority in the parliament. Only then can he really rule. If he had that, he could really change things. But he will find that there is another mandate, that the power is with the Muslims. Will he use his veto? That’s the question. He needs help to hold onto this country. Because I am a Muslim, but I am against—1000 times against—fundamentalism. And Islamic country means: Hello, fundamentalism. It’s very dangerous.
B.E.: Salif, this is fascinating, but we have to wrap up here, and I want to get back to music for a minute.
S.K.: But you mustn’t forget that side. You have to speak about this. It is important. I don’t hide the fact that I am a Muslim. I pray. But I am against fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is violence, and it’s a mafia that once in place is very hard to remove.
S.B.: That’s exactly what Khaled of Algeria told us.
B.E.: But what you’ve told us about religious leaders controlling piracy is especially disturbing.
S.K.: They make it hard for musicians to organize. Me, for example, they say, “Don’t talk to Salif Keita. He’s a Kaffir. He is against the Muslim religion.” Because I am intelligent. Because I fight against piracy. Because I am the only person willing to stir up the shit. So what do they do? They tell people not to talk to me. Everything they can do in religious circles to stir up the shit in my life, they do it. I am not afraid. There is nothing they can do to me. Nothing. But it’s too bad for all musicians, for me too. Because if we can’t meet, we can’t fight piracy. They have the mosques. They have all these religious places to organize against anyone who would organize against piracy.
S.B.: But Salif, you have power as a musician. Can’t you sing about this?
S.K.: I could sing, but would those in power be free to let the message pass? It’s a good question. Sure, I am a friend of A.T.T., but if I were to sing a song with a theme like that, he could never let that pass.