One of the bravest, most challenging artists coming to WOMAD in 2017 is rapper, soul artist, model and human right’s activist Inna Modja. Her music covers topics like the mutilation of young women in her home country, access to clean water and the politics of its management and the plight refugees fleeing war torn Africa. The 13th Floor’s Tim Gruar was fortunate to find her free during a busy schedule on the WOMAD tour circuit and gave her a call as she was just getting ready to leave her current location in Portugal.
Born in Bamuko, Mali in 1984, Inna Bocoum, who uses the stage name ‘Modja’ now identifies herself as Malian-French. Despite the difficulties over the years she still regularly travels back to Mali to see her family. She has a Malian passport and refuses to completely absolve herself of a country that both recognizes her fame and abhors her presence as a women. “It is a real contradiction,” she tells me in a very confident African-French accent. But her English is almost perfect. She has no trouble understands my Kiwi accent and ‘congratulates me’ several times for being a courteous and considerate interview – especially as I am male.
“Modja”, her stage name, I learn means “bad, not good – or naughty” in Fulfulde, the non-tonal language spoken that’s spoken in various forms across 20 countries of Western Africa and Central Africa. It was a name given to her by her mother, who enrolled her in a choir at the age of five.
Inspired by both her parents’ Otis Redding, Ella Fitzgerald, and Ray Charles record collection, and her six siblings’ love of hip-hop, disco, and heavy metal, she decided to pursue a career in music. At one time she was mentored by legendary world musician Salif Keita (who’s also visited WOMAD Taranaki in 2010). He was her neighbor. She tells me that she didn’t directly tour with him or his band but instead learnt from him.
“I was encouraged to go over to his house and ask him to teach me, so I did. I wasn’t afraid. I knew music was the way I could get out of Bamuko, and so learning from him could help that.”
Eventually she went on to perform as a backing vocalist for the Rail Band de Bamako before relocating to Paris, via Nigeria, Togo, and the U.S., with her some of family. Over time she chose to abandon the music of her African roots in favour of a commercial soul-pop sound inspired by her globe-trotting background. Her international career started in France when she was discovered during the Fête de la musique annual music celebration and in several television shows.
In 2009, she signed to Up Music and released her debut album, Everyday Is a New World, following it up with sophomore outing Love Revolution and its hit single, French Cancan, in 2011. These albums are both upbeat and catchy, with a commercial soul vibe that would give Beyonce and Adele a run for their money. But it’s her latest album Motel Bamako is far more challenging. Her songs support Women’s rights in Africa, among other causes and she’s chosen to sing and rap in her in native Bambara and English (the official language of Donald Trump).
“For me, it (Bambara) was the most honest language to sing in. I was raised among many languages. There is the language of the oppressors in the North (she means the terrorists who implore Sharia law on women in parts of Mali) and there is French, English and many Malian dialects. Certain emotions and feelings are more firmly attached to one language than another. Because of what I want to say it was only logical to express it in Bambara. (But) I am talking to everybody, the world. When you listen to my music in my language, I feel I can take you into my home a little, to show what it is like for us, for women in Mali. I want to open a door instead of closing it. With all this fear of immigrants, the world is scared and I need to show that we are, too. But together we can succeed.”
As a musician, Modja wants to stand up for the women of her ravaged and repressed country. “Independence for women – physical, mental and financial is all important”, says Inna Modja, a singer, actor and former model from Mali. “My song Tombouctou is my way of saying enough is enough”, Modja has also become a women’s rights activist and is particularly committed to eliminating female genital mutilation (FGM). This is something personal to her. She tells me, quite candidly that “even before the age of 5, when my mother was away my grandmother and her sisters took me and mutilated me,” she says referring to the common Malian practice of female circumcision. “My parents were horrified. But, I have to say, all of my sisters went through this. We (our family) are five girls and two boys and all girls went through this.” Sometimes, someone different took them to do this. So for me, growing up it was an issue I wanted to fight. And when I went to Europe I realized that I was different from … everybody and I became an activist to stand up against it.”
Looking back she’s philosophical about her grandmother’s role in it all. “I don’t blame her, it was ignorance, I suppose. The sister of my grandmother (who had insisted on the practice taking place) thought she was doing the right thing and traditions would be lost if it wasn’t don’t. It was the way it was. It was tradition. Sometimes they say it’s to take away the male part so you can be a woman, to get a husband. Sometimes they say it’s a very sensitive part and women walk along way to get water. All these crazy reasons. Mainly it’s to control women. It’s a way of putting women in a box. To deny pleasure, the only thing left after you strip a woman of her reproductive rights and her economic power, her place. I wanted to get out of the box. I refuse to stay at that place where they have put me.”
According to US State Department website the most common forms of female genital mutilation (FGM) or female genital cutting (FGC) throughout Mali are “Type I (commonly referred to as clitoridectomy) and Type II (commonly referred to as excision), despite the fact that Malian women’s groups have been actively campaigning against this practice for over a decade. The more radical form, Type III (commonly referred to as infibulation), is practiced in some of the southern areas of the country. The incidence of these procedures among the women varies very little by age, religion or level of education. A recent survey found that three-quarters of the women between the ages of 15 and 49 favoured continuing this practice.”
Even more horrifying is that according to the (US State Department funded) Commission for the Promotion of Women it is estimated that as many as 96% of women and girls living in rural areas and 92 percent of women and girls living in urban areas (of Mali) have been subjected to one of these procedures. The practice is found among more than 95% of the women and girls in the southern half of Mali, predominately populated by the Bambara, Soninke, Peul, Dogon and Senoufo ethnic groups. These groups include Muslims and Christians, as well as Animists. In Bamako and Koulikoro in southern Mali, the rates reported at around 95% or higher.”
As mentioned by Modja, the practice is so deeply rooted in tradition and culture that any challenge to it runs into strong social opposition and repercussions. Women who have not been subjected to one of the procedures or parents who refuse to subject their daughters to it face social pressures and potential ostracism from society. Often women who have not undergone the procedure cannot marry, as Malian society considers an individual (male or female) to be a child until circumcised. This is another way to keep women in a box, argues Modja. Some Bambara and Dogon believe that if the clitoris comes in contact with the baby’s head during birth, the child will die.
At its most explicit, it is their deeply held belief that both the female and the male sex exist within each person at birth and it is necessary to rid the female body of vestiges of maleness to overcome any sexual ambiguity. The clitoris represents the male element in a young girl while the foreskin represents the female element in a young boy. Both must be removed to clearly demarcate the sex of the person. Another extreme belief of the Bambara men is that upon entering an unexcised woman, a man could be killed by the secretion of a poison from the clitoris upon its contact with the penis. This folk belief acts as a rationale for clitoral excision.
This is a highly dangerous ‘procedure’, too. The risk of hemorrhage and infection is high. The State Department have reports that only about 4% of these operations are performed in hospitals by health professionals, with anesthesia. In some areas of the country, extended families excise all of the girls.
Even though she’s now had reconstructive surgery, she doesn’t shy away from it. During International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation (8 February 2016) where she performed during a special event on “Mobilizing to achieve the global goals through the elimination of female genital mutilation by 2030”.
“As an African woman I went through female genital mutilation. I know what it is and I know how harmful it is”, she said at the time, “And I want to protect those younger girls and those generations coming, because FGM has to end,” Modja said. “I say this a lot but it is true,” she tells me, upbeat, but you can hear only too clearly. “I was totally broken by FGM. I was not going to stay that way. I wasn’t going to be a victim of something that simply is wrong. I won’t be boxed and told what to do, or why I can’t even feel.” Modja considers herself a feminist, for equal rights not against men. “It’s just for women”, she says.
Her own response is the song Tombochou. Historically, Tombouctou Region is one of the administrative regions of Mali. It is the largest of Mali’s eight regions and includes a large section of the Sahara Desert. The region is world-famous for its capital, the ancient city Timbuktu (in French: Tombouctou), synonymous to 19th-century Europeans as an elusive, hard-to-reach destination. The city gained world fame in 1390 when its ruler, Mansa Musa, went on a pilgrimage to Mecca, stopping with his entourage in Egypt and dispensing enough gold to devalue the Egyptian currency. This started the legend of a city in the interior of Africa, where roads were said to be paved with gold and buildings topped with roofs of gold.
But Modja’s song tells a different story about the life of women in Mali, especially in its northern parts that include this eponymous city and the constant war that has been tearing the place apart. It’s also a prayer for peace in her homeland.
So if this is the case, I ask her, why does she appear topless on the single’s sleeve? She explains that this is not to be intentionally sexy but to be political provocative. Because much of Mali is now under enforced Sharia law women must cover up. Her cover was a statement against this. I’m expressing my right to show my body – I’ve modeled and had the freedom to do this if I want. It’s a statement. Also. It’s very common in Africa that when a woman is truly hurt or angry, by a devastating thing she takes her clothes off in the street and everybody in the town knows that she is going through something really terrible. She does this when it’s serious. All of that is behind the photo.”
But there’s even more to it. On the cover and in the accompanying video she also wears a bandanna across her face as a statement of silence. Her mother, grandmother, sister, niece and one of her cousins – all of them appear in the new yet old-school. “So many women are silenced and they have no voice. I am letting people know about this.”
I ask her about the state of Mali. She goes back to see family regularly. She says the situation is improving, slowly. But it’s unpredictable. As many who attend WOMAD regularly may already know, Islam as practiced in Mali, at least until recently, recently was commonly reported to be relatively tolerant and adapted to local conditions. And so, women participated in economic and political activity, engaged in social interaction, and generally did not wear veils.
Many aspects of Malian traditional society encourage norms consistent with democratic citizenship, including tolerance, trust, pluralism, the separation of powers and the accountability of the leader to the governed. Relations between the Muslim majority and the Christian and other religious minorities—including practitioners of African Traditional Religion were reported to be generally stable until recently, although there have been several cases of instability and tension in the past. But, sadly music has become another victim of the changing political landscape.
Since the 2012 imposition of Sharia rule in northern parts of the country, persecution of Christians in the north increased significantly and was described as severe by the organization Open Doors (non-denominational mission supporting persecuted Christians in over 60 countries) which publishes the Christian persecution index; Mali appears as number 7 in the 2013 index list.
Implementation of Sharia in the rebel-controlled north included banning of music, cutting off of hands or feet of thieves, stoning of adulterers and public whipping of smokers, alcohol drinkers and women who are not properly dressed. Many towns in Mali are falling victim to extremist groups’ implementation of Sharia law, by which many African cultures and enjoyments have been denied. A recent report I found in UK newspaper The Guardian revealed that extremist groups have banned music in certain regions and were known to turn up randomly in villages, armed with weaponry, to burn musical instruments and musical items on bonfires. One guitarist was threatened that his fingers would be chopped off if he ever showed his face in one town again.
Her new album covers a number of other issues, too. Like water rights which she covers in the song Water. “It should be something so basic. I go back to Mali frequently, and I visited my grandmother and we must buy water because she there was no basic tap water (like in New York and France where I have been recently). This was common. Through my work with the UN I find out that it’s common for women and children are walking up to 6kms to get water. It’s time that could be used for work. Children could go to school. And is it clean (this water)? There’s the people who store it and sell it from trucks because they are greedy. Or the water source is in a war zone. It’s crazy. We need more equality in the world.”
Another issue she feels strongly about is addressed in her song Boat People, which acknowledges the plight of Syrian refugees. “It’s terrible what’s happening right now. I think all these people getting on all these boats and not knowing if they are going to make it. Just fleeing a war zone.” As an immigrant herself Modja sees poor treatment of refugees – especially those who are victims of extremist Islam vigilantes. Many thousands who have fled Mali because of them but she acknowledges that the problem is bigger than just Europe – it’s a problem for the whole world. “They’re human beings. We must help them. We need to make this world a better place by showing compassion. We must care more about what’s going on outside of our towns, our homes. History will look back on this and it won’t look good. I don’t think that being born in a country means others who don’t deserve less than anyone else.”
It’s here that I reveal that most New Zealanders are immigrants of some kind. She asks how we get on and I must confess that we have our problems but overall there’s a feeling that we must help in some way. “You are lucky, to be like that. The colour of your skin doesn’t mean anything. We all come from somewhere else. I am in New York now – and here in Portugal today – everyone is an immigrant. We have to see differently what immigrants are because generations before have been immigrants…Today we travel everywhere, we are from everywhere. That’s the world is – we have to start accepting others and their differences.”
As a final question, I ask her if she knows much about New Zealand and in the process end up telling her that this is the place where women were first given the vote. This comes as a bit of a shock to her, as if she doesn’t believe me. “Really, I want to find out more. This is incredible. Such a different place than in Mali. Or even France. I am so please to hear this. I am very passionate about equality for women. There is still so much more we need to do because people still think that women are capable of less than men. Little girls need to be able to learn at school and do the same jobs as men and be leaders, too, and be independent in life. Without independence, you haven’t got a voice. How can you have your say?”