“Africa needs to speak out right now,” says Ousco calmly over a crackling phone line from Bamako. “Africa must stop crying.” It’s a neat little summary of what African rap is all about: No mincing words or metaphors. No ancient musical traditions that cosy up to power. No decadent ghetto fabulous fantasies. None of that. Just plain rhyming about the simple truth that everyone can see out of his or her window. “Africa is hungry, OK?” Ousco continues, making sure I’m getting his gist. “In Europe and America, people eat so as not to feel hungry. In Africa, people eat when they’re hungry. Everything is very very different, you know?”
Ousco is the ‘O’ in SMOD, a trio of hard working musician MCs from Bamako, the capital of Mali in West Africa. He met Donsky, the ‘D’ in the name, Mouzy the…ok, you’ve it now…and Sam at the Lycée Biya, a progressive high school in the Sogoniko district of the city. The four friends were fans of hip-hop but that was nothing special. Everyone below a certain age in Bamako was falling in love with hip-hop back in the late 1990s, along with the rest of Mali, and Africa for that matter. “Tupac Amaru Shakur, Snoop Dogg, Notorious B.I.G, The Roots, 113…they were our idols,” Ousco recalls.
The new rap sounds came in through the few liberal cracks in Mali’s media and cultural landscape, like the pioneering show ‘Generation 21’ on the national state TV channel ORTM, the radical Radio Kayira…’The Radio Station of the Voiceless’, or foreign channels like Black TV, M6 and NRJ. They took hold of young kids who loitered on street corners around a charcoal brazier and a small bubbling enamel tea pot full of extra strong sugary tea, the kind that puts fuel in your motor in all weathers. Such a cluster of aimless youth was called a grin in local Bamako street slang. There music was discussed, pirated cassettes were exchanged, frustrations were aired, and raps were born. Sam, Ousco, Donsky and Mouzy hung out in Faladié, one of Bamako’s most happening hoods, with its immense market and inexhaustible street-level energy. “We used to organize these little free flow jousts between the rappers,” Ousco remembers. “There was always a rap showdown or a dance showdown happening somewhere, and we always took part. Sometimes we came first or second, sometimes lower down.”
Mali’s homegrown rap scene was young but spurting. Veterans like King Massassi, Fanga Fing and Tata Pound had pioneered rap in the local language Bamanan, with plenty of rude boy French thrown in, from the early 1990s onwards. “Tata Pound were the first,” Ousco states firmly. “And, tell the truth, we saw them as leaders.” But hip hop was still an illicit adventure for most kids, the kind of thing they wouldn’t dream bringing back home to meet the folks. “We were like clandestinos. My parents didn’t know anything about my rapping, right up until the time when our songs started to be played on the radio and our videos appeared on TV. Rappers were considered delinquents at that time.”
The four friends were beginning to get quite a following in their locality, so they had to solidify and find a name quick style. They opted for the acronym route and settled on SMOD. That was in 1999. Then, just a year later, Mouzy cut loose and left for Europe, like so many other Malians of his age. The remaining trio stayed loyal to the name as a token of their lasting friendship with the departed Mouzy. “Sometimes we even do interviews with Mouzy,” says Ousco reassuringly. “In a way, he’s still in the band, and still in our hearts too.”
Sam, Dronsky and Ousco found a space to breathe and rehearse in the house of Sam’s parents, who happened to be the imminently world famous blind Malian couple Amadou & Mariam. “We got together there every evening, in ‘seventh heaven’, on my parents’ roof,” Sam recounts. “That terrace has always been our place of creation, of inspiration.” The trio were grafters right from the start. Sam says that hard work was the most important lesson his parents ever taught him. “Music is a tough career. Nothing is ever preordained and you have to persevere.”
The first fruits of this work ethic appeared in 2002 with the release of the group’s debut cassette ‘Dunia Kuntala’ (‘The path of life’). It was recorded at Bamako’s famous Bogolan studios, with help from Amadou and Mariam’s French manager and friend, Marc-Antoine Moreau, and the French producer / arranger, Marc Minelli. SMOD’s appearance at both the opening and the closing ceremonies of that year’s Cup of African Nations, which was held in Mali, brought national fame knocking at their door. They then toured all over the country, supporting the Afro-disco coupé décalé sensations Magic System, as well as Tata Pound and others. “It was great to play in places like Gao and Timbuktu,” reminisces Ousco. “They really know their hip hop there.”
At that point, SMOD were following the rap textbook pretty closely. It was all about fat beats, baggies, white trainers, b-boy stances, skewed baseball hats and no instruments. The style is evident on the video clip for their song ‘Dakan’, which appeared on the band’s second album ‘Ta I Tola’ in 2004. But the independent spirit of African rap asserted itself in the flow. ‘Dakan’ accused the country’s leaders of being a bunch of robbers, and the video was censored by ORTM. It was typical of SMOD’s lyrical concerns. “We talk a lot about politics, about corruption and injustice,” Ousco asserts.
Everything changed when Sam decided to learn the guitar in 2004. “We couldn’t beat the Americans at their own game,” says Ousco. “We had to try and come from our own culture. So Sam took up the guitar and we tried to mix African singing into the rap.” SMOD developed their own hybrid, which they call ‘Afro-Rap’, with rich tactile instrumentation and bubbling afro-centric rhythms providing a warm bed for their lyrical flow. It’s not American, or French, or even recognizably Malian. But it’s fresh and African. “In some ways I think we opened a breach,” says Sam.
SMOD got to know Manu Chao up on the roof, in the balmy air of the African night, above the raucous hubbub of the streets. He was in Bamako in 2005 to record the hit album ‘Dimanche à Bamako’ with Sam’s parents. One evening, when most of the household were already in bed, Sam found Manu strumming his guitar down in the house, so he invited him up. Manu was charmed by these three hard-working dreamers, with their radical lyrics that reminded him so much of his own. Being a night owl, Chao spent most of the following evenings up top, buzzing on tea, chatting, jamming and minting new friendships. “Whenever he come up to the roof to take some air, he would see us there rehearsing,” remembers Ousco. “Jeez! – he said, “Those guys are real warriors!” One of SMOD’s songs, ‘Politic Amagni’ (‘Politics Are No Good’), found its way onto ‘Dimance A Bamako’.
Back in France, Manu Chao sent SMOD an email telling them that he really liked what they were doing and would love to produce an album with them, if they had the songs
“We wrote back saying that if he was interested, we were interested too. To be honest, we didn’t who Manu Chao was at the time. He was an international star, but he wasn’t known in Mali.”
Manu Chao came back six months later and recorded SMOD with his little portable studio, up on their roof, or down in the house. His credo was, “You don’t mess with what happens on the terrace.” In other words, keep it simple, natural, rooted. Then Manu took the tapes home with him to mix. “ The album ‘SMOD’ was released in May 2010 in France, and will soon be released in the UK.
SMOD started touring Europe in 2008, supporting Touré Kinda, Matthieu Chedid, Tiken Jah Fakoly, Salif Keita, Amadou and Mariam, Oumou Sangare and Manu Chao amongst many others. They also took time to experience the French hip-hop scene and see an old idol like Snoop Dogg, in concert at The Zenith in Paris.
But far from being hypnotized by the bright lights of Paris and Europe, SMOD’s attention is still focused on their homeland. “To help hip-hip in Bamako,” Ousco explains, “We’d like to set up a studio with some French friends, because there are plenty of rappers who have no means of their own. We want it to be free. And we’re hoping to do more tours in Africa. That idea is dear to our hearts. We care about what’s happening around us. I mean, look at Ivory Coast. They have two presidents! We always said that Africa should never have celebrated the 50th anniversary of its independence. How can you talk about 50 years of independence when there’s no real democracy.”
In many ways, SMOD, along with many other Malian rappers, embody a new spirit, a new freedom of expression, unchained by old social constraints or the need to kow tow to the rich and powerful.
“Hip-hop is rebel music,” Ousco affirms. “It came along because things weren’t working right. Back in the day, the griot sang the praises of the King, except that the king wasn’t thinking of his people any more. Many people were marginalized and rejected and it was those people who became rappers. They said to the king, “Your power may be fine and all that, but there are people dying of hunger. And we who are from the ghetto, we want something better.”