The 2010 election of longtime opponent Alpha Kondé as president of Guinea brought with it hope that music and other forms of artistic expression would enjoy relatively untrammelled freedom. Such optimism rode on the wave of a burgeoning hip hop scene, an established roster of international stars, a post-independence policy of preserving traditional music and a vocal press acting as watchdogs. Disappointingly, this has not come to be: a spiralling-down of the economy and the growing authoritarianism of the Kondé regime has translated itself into increasing censorship and pressure on the country’s leading musicians. Freemuse reporter Daniel Brown visited the capital Conakry to gauge the current musical climate.
Ablaye Mbaye shows no outer signs of physical trauma from his six months in one of Conakry’s most notorious prisons. Tall, lean and athletic, the dread-swinging artist seduces with his infectious smile and bouncy demeanour. Yet, he admits it has taken over 15 months for one of the two driving forces behind Degg J Force 3 to overcome the psychological scars of his incarceration. The fall from grace had indeed been brutal: from fronting one of Guinea’s most popular pop-rap groups, Mbaye had been flung into a cell he shared with dozens of common law criminals. But two years on he feels ready to once again join forces with his brother Moussa and build on a reputation his band has conquered both home and abroad.
“The school break is over for Degg J,” he chortles, betraying no sign of bitterness.
“For months after my release I was going about in a kind of fog, churning over and over the violence I had witnessed in prison. Now, we’re going to come back stronger, more professional, and lyrically I’m going to feed on the horrors I witnessed behind bars.”
As co-producer of the concert, Ablaye was accused – wrongly, it seems – of being responsible for a concert stampede at Rogbané beach in Conakry in July 2014 which led to the death of 33 people. As the high-profile co-producer of the concert by headliners Instinct Killers and Banlieuz’art, he was an ideal target for government authorities who are none too comfortable with the irreverence and criticism which regularly emanates from Guinea’s urban music scene.
“We come from a rundown and popular neighbourhood of Conakry called Kilometre 0,” Moussa Mbaye, Ablaye’s brother, picks up. “It’s a fisherman’s village in the heart of this urban jungle they’ve nicknamed Pirogue for obvious reasons. It’s where our grandfather settled when he arrived from Senegal. Many rappers are from these kind of ghettos and they don’t have too much respect for the world they live in. They live the poverty and discrimination on a daily basis.”
The voice of the voiceless
Not surprising, then, that their musical dissidence is looked at askance by a regime with low tolerance for outspoken criticism. Kill Point, the pioneering band of what was once Africa’s foremost rap scene – unconfirmed reports talked of over 1,500 rap groups nationwide – had lead the way in the late 1990s with hardcore denunciations of the abuse of power, electricity power cuts, rural hunger.
This group led by Prophet Gee, MoozBee and Aizeck’O produced compilations like ‘Rap-Koulé’ (1997) and ‘Tribunal Hip-hop’ which inspired the Mbaye brothers to pick up the microphone themselves.
“But we saw that Kill Point’s confrontational approach was counter-productive and the authorities were making their lives hell,” notes Ablaye. “The government made sure their songs never got played on the radio or television. And we had messages we wanted to share. So we adopted a more subtle approach and talked directly to the people, not the government. Basically, we hide everything which is political or hardcore, it just won’t get played on the airwaves.”
Since their first single in 1999, Degg J have concentrated their compositions on educating girls and women, orphans used as slave labour, teenage pregnancies and health concerns – Ebola, malaria and AIDS. Their first album Mach Allah sold over 70,000 copies in the first weeks after release, providing the notoriety which opened the doors to international concerts.
“Those songs on social issues go down fine,” explains Moussa. “The music is also softer, without that rapid-fire rap associated with the hardcore scene. We use these tunes as ploys, Trojan horses for our more radical messages, which we often reserve for our live shows.”
This has not been the case for Blaise Bakary Béavogui or Masta G, the singer known this past decade as The Voice of the Voiceless. For years, Masta G was music’s most trenchant critic of successive Guinean government. As a result, according to Pierre René-Worms of Radio France International, Béavogui was censored by the Radio Télévision Guinéenne (RTG). This shy musician, son of an airforce pilot, was also imprisoned, accused of inciting violence and attacking State security.
“Popular with a portion of young military reformists,” comments René-Worms on RFI’s website, “Masta G sampled the voice of the campaign director for (former Guinean) president Lansana Conté in his album ‘Election Bata ly’ (‘The elections are coming’). (The sales) shot through the roof, partly thanks to the purchase of 6,000 cassettes by the Guinean authorities – who immediately destroyed them.”
Governmental pressure seemed to silence the singer until he returned in February 2016 with a new song “Nouvelle Guinée”. To a backcloth of subtle kora playing, this is another hardhitting look at the presidential regimes which have, as he puts it, “paralysed the youth, marginalised by politicians and their malevolent programmes.”
“I have the feeling I’m preaching in a desert,” Masta G raps, “but mine is a respectful call for unity and frankness (because) history will repeat itself and we’ll go backwards.”
The powerful single is part of eight songs on the artist’s third album ‘Air Force One’ which he has promised by the end of the year.
Chronic problems of infrastructure
Observers feel Masta G is likely to once again feel the brunt of media censorship. “Outside urban musicians, very few artists talk of the daily lot of Guineans,” observes the cultural journalist Lola Simonet. The Conakry-based reporter has been closely following the music scene for years. “Most of these Mandingo musicians confine themselves to ‘mamaya’ music, (Ed. a traditional instrumental style modernised by orchestras) because they lack creativity and the freedom to explore more challenging genres.” Simonet insists on the cultural isolation Guinea has known ever since Sékou Touré defied De Gaulle and France in 1958 (See: books.google.co.uk).
Added to this, the chronic lack of professionals guiding the musicians, the dearth of managers and the aridity of governmental support for up-and-coming artists have contributed to an impoverished musical scene.
A notable exception to the apparent drying up of Guinean talent is Banlieuz’art. Consisting of a duo of vocalists King Salomon (Soul Dag’One) and Konko Malela (Marcus), they have planted themselves firmly at the top of the pop-rock music hierarchy, not just in Guinea but much of West Africa. The two singers first met in Dakar in 2004 and six years later brought out their inaugural album Koun Faya Koun. A second album followed in 2012 bringing them such acclaim they began touring in Europe and were finalists in the prestigious RFI Discoveries awards 2015.
“But the notoriety hasn’t stopped us being victims of censorship, anonymous threats and bribery,” explains the group’s pugnacious manager Mbaye Abdoul. “Right from the start, authorities viewed us with suspicion because of our name. Banlieuz’art is a play on words but they took us for rough ghetto surburb crooks (banlieusards) when we’re just saying we represent art from the suburbs. Then, they began denying us radio space because of songs like ‘Mansa Sifen’ which means The Throne of the King. They read all kinds of subversive messages into lyrics which, on the contrary, were apolitical. We just sing the miseries of the poor, the problems youth have. And there’s the usual songs on love, friendship, solidarity. But…” Abdoul draws back and re-adjusts his baseball cap, “the authorities are always politicising things, using an ethnocentric vision to divide us, pushing us to kill each other in the streets. All we call for is unity. And our group is living proof of harmony between the communities: Soul is from the Fulani community, Marcus is Soussou, I have Senegalese roots.”
The band began receiving anonymous threats in the form of text messages calling on them to abandon their careers. Then, before the 2015 general elections, they were offered up to $200,000 to compose songs backing one of the candidates.
“We refused. It could have destroyed our career. Other groups accepted and they’ve disappeared.”
The threats reflect the potential power these urban artists have, as they represent a restless youth hungry for role models.
“These musicians help the youth let off steam,” notes RFI’s Pierre René-Worms. “Exile might tempt many to Senegal, France or the United States. But, hell, they represent the hopes of an entire generation and express the dignity of a youth beset by poverty from another age in a country blessed with such natural wealth.”
Daniel Brown is a veteran reporter on current affairs, world music and the politics of music, based in Paris. The photo of Degg J on top of this page was photographed by Daniel Brown. The other two photos are PR photos.