Legendary words


Institut Français Tchad, hip-hop art, home for Voices. 2015. Photo: Mirjam de Bruijn

This winter holiday I watched movies about Congolese freedom fighter and first prime minister at Independence, Patrice Lumumba. He is one of the heroes of my friends in N’Djamena, Chad. In these documentaries, Lumumba is presented as educated, integer, socially minded, a little authoritarian, intelligent, and moving toward change, but foremost as a leader in qualm, as if he did not want to become that leader. The time of Lumumba is a time full of controversies, oppositions, and hope. It is a period in which Africa’s new leaders fight for liberation, to gain real independence, to leave the yoke of colonialism. Lumumba’s words of his unplanned speech at Independence Day formed prose that was listened to by all the people of Congo and beyond:

Excerpt from the speech held on 30 June, 1960, Independence Day of Congo

(…) For this independence of the Congo, even as it is celebrated today with Belgium, a friendly country with whom we deal as equal to equal, no Congolese worthy of the name will ever be able to forget that it was by fighting that it has been won, a day-to-day fight, an ardent and idealistic fight, a fight in which we were spared neither privation nor suffering, and for which we gave our strength and our blood.

We are proud of this struggle, of tears, of fire, and of blood, to the depths of our being, for it was a noble and just struggle, and indispensable to put an end to the humiliating slavery which was imposed upon us by force.

This was our fate for eighty years of a colonial regime; our wounds are too fresh and too painful still for us to drive them from our memory.

Who will ever forget the shootings which killed so many of our brothers, or the cells into which were mercilessly thrown those who no longer wished to submit to the regime of injustice, oppression and exploitation used by the colonialists as a tool of their domination?

All that, my brothers, brought us untold suffering. (…) Brothers, let us commence together a new struggle, a sublime struggle that will lead our country to peace, prosperity and greatness.

 We shall stop the persecution of free thought. We shall see to it that all citizens enjoy to the fullest extent the basic freedoms provided for by the Declaration of Human Rights.

 We shall institute in the country a peace resting not on guns and bayonets but on concord and goodwill.

Lumumba was killed a few months after he gave this speech, by those internationals who depicted him as communist, and by those nationals who did not want him in power. Justice was not their main wish.

Words of a hero live in the present
The words of Lumumba never left and they do still inspire young people in Africa: young men and women who are fighting for a similar cause, because the optimistic words ending the speech of Lumumba have not become reality up till now. And many of the sufferings Lumumba enumerated in his speech are lived today.


Films keep Lumumba’s words alive

His words are captured in mobile telephones as a ringtone, as I discovered during a voyage in Northern Congo in June 2014, when a young man’s phone spoke Lumumba’s 1960 words (he transferred the mp3 file into my phone). Later I came to understand that these words are listened and referred to by young men and women throughout West and Central Africa, who are fighting for recognition of today’s injustices. For them Lumumba is a hero who at least tried to bring real liberty. But they all feel that that time has not come.

Today’s powerful words
Would it be exaggerating to say that we live again in a period of intense oppositions and injustice? That we enter a new epoch in which development aid comes to an end, in which protest is taking over, be it in severe violent actions, or in popular movements in Senegal, Burkina Faso, Congo, Chad? That this will be a period of insecurity, of new élan, in which new leadership is called for!

Words have power. They make us remember and they encourage actions. Words are very present in the ‘revolutions’ or ‘social movements’ that are spreading through Africa today. Is it not a coincidence that words of songs are central in recent uprisings: ‘Y’en a Marre’ in Senegal, a coalition of rappers and journalists, or rapper Smockey who led with other rappers the movement ‘Balai Citoyen’ in Burkina Faso and all the other hip-hop artists who revive the origins of this protest art (rap and hip-hop), sing about injustice and want to raise awareness? Urban protest art has gained importance in Africa over the past decades. This is not only a consequence of increasing possibilities offered by new technology, but certainly also because there is a serious need for such voices! Slam and spoken word meet increasingly in African festivals. The words carry a message and explain the reasons to protest. Words are non-violent protest.

Words are the future history
Can words carry a revolution? Words are no longer only broadcast by the radio, as was the case in the time of Lumumba, but they are, accompanied by pictures, videos, etc. disseminated by Facebook, social media, text-messages, Bluetooth, whatsapp, etc. They are picked up by international organizations who spread the words into the ether. Words are reaching out to so many people today. Also ‘old’ words appear to be new and forceful in today’s struggles.

The new word-jugglers will never say they follow in the footsteps of their heroes. For them heroes are sacred, untouchable and hence should not be mimicked. But who knows what their words will bring? Who knows what heroes they will be? We will see which of the words of these new leaders will finally end up in the history books and will be labelled memorable by the historians of today’s Africa.

Musical futures of young people in Chad – Les futures musicales de la jeunesse au Tchad

the forumOn the ‘Salon International des Technologies de l’Information et de la Communication (SITIC) sur le thème central ”Les TICs, moteur de développement durable”’ (International Forum on ICT, main theme: ICT, motor of durable development); 9-11 September N’Djamena, Chad:

Screen shot of Croquemort's Facebook post.

Screenshot of Croquemort’s Facebook post.

‘Le SITIC au Tchad, c’est comme vendre une cabine de bronzage à un noir, c’est comme vendre un peigne à un chauve, c’est comme donner un os à un chien, c’est comme.. (à completez…)’ (‘The SITIC Forum in Chad, it’s like selling a tanning booth to a black person, it’s like selling a comb to a bald person, it’s like giving a bone to a dog, it’s like (please complete…) Facebook post of Slam-artist Croquemort, Wednesday 17-09-14)

ICT hub
Africa’s societies are young, hence the youth are Africa’s future. Nicely said, but who are the youth, what are their doubts and can they be the future? What does ‘being the future’ mean in a country where the ‘hub of ICT’ is announced as the future, despite the fact that on the ground access to internet is the most expensive of the world, for political leaders do not allow the public any broadband access. This imaginary hub presented at an exclusive forum in one of N’Djamena’s high class buildings is only accessible for the big car-owners, the educated avant-garde. The organization is a collaboration between the State, business, the mobile phone companies, ICT-NGOs, etc. Through media exposure the forum is highly visible for the international world, but hidden behind high fences for the ordinary Chadian public. In there, you may find the young of Africa participating, however: a minority, whose lives are full of this bubble in which they might even sincerely believe, even though the practice back in their homes and neighbourhoods is one of very expensive internet, no electricity, and phone connectivity that often derails. How long can regimes conjure such empty future promises to their people without any consequence? I wonder…

The people behind the gate at the Forum.

The people behind the gate at the Forum.

Accessing new ideas through Facebook
The people outside the fence are not completely disconnected. Their access to internet is limited to the adopted version of Facebook in their cheap Tecno phones. Nevertheless, it allows them accessing new ideas that are somehow digested and re-digested into new knowledge; leading to their own interpretations of what is happening behind the fences where the ICT hub of Africa is presented. How long can regimes and internationals keep to such bubbles, without facing the rage of the young? Life has changed for the youth by accessing Facebook, but it is far from the SITIC promise, because political decision prevents further access to such developments. Do politicians fear the youth? This reminds me of the remark of one of my Chadian colleagues who said: ‘La peur a changé du camp’, which means that actually the regime is now fearing the population who, by accessing more information, are becoming increasingly conscious of their situation of inequality, and seem to throw off their yoke of ‘la peur’. It leads them into different directions of their own development, their self-realisation.
Croquemort, the slammeur of Chad, with whom I was travelling through N’Djamena and the South, was invited into the hub but decided not to participate. He rather would not be part of this illusion.

Empty music versus political music
Some of those youth have the talent to make music. The music scene is rising in Chad, not in the least because of the use of new technology. Hip hop clips are created to accompany the music. It is again basically for those who have money or who are able to ‘create’ money. Theirs is a hope for a future with more luxurious elements, with money and bling-bling. They tend to develop ‘empty’ music. Political music, so they say, or music with a message, does not pay, at least not by those who go with the flow of the regime. So they make empty music to please, and with it they will get the consent of the regime, and more than this: they become the ally of this regime and receive goods and money, to be able to become part of the inside, to get within the fence.
But what about those musicians who try differently and develop a ‘voice’ in their music? Can they escape the longing for the luxury the others do gain, but whose bling-bling has been realized in compromises? Not making compromises can mean one’s (musical) end; being famous helps to be protected against the whims of regimes; so politics and music is only for the brave and the outstanding.

Preston's studio.

Slam artist Croquemort in Preston’s studio.

Preston’s studio
Preston, in his early 30s and a producer of music in his self-built studio, embraces both the political kind and the empty kind of music. The latter, after all, pays and is also what – part of – the youth wish for. And indeed, what is against it after all? A creative thinker and a visionary, Preston helps me to understand the music scene and the thinking of the young men and women who are into political music. For him, music is a way to develop the youth, but it is also a way for the youth to contribute to positive social change. Music informs and helps to develop society. Those who make political music form a band of resistance that shares mockeries about the regime and criticizes inequality. Preston has an incredible trust in the capabilities of the Chadian youth, hence his urge to develop the Chadian music scene. For now, this scene is dependent on Cameroonian technicians and musicians, a dependency that is difficult to manage for autonomous Preston.
Preston’s studio is one of the most tangible technology hubs of Chad. With dearly earned money, Preston has built a studio that almost reaches international standards. He has bought four digital cameras to be able to film a concert professionally. He works with the best artists and has employed a Cameroonian who is technician for the production of CDs and clips. They make interesting clips, sophisticated, with style.
Preston has clear motivations to create this studio: he wants to give a space to the youth to express themselves and to contribute to the development of this country in their own way. Artists will always send out a message, and by doing so they help to change. But let’s not forget that for many of these young artists, it is bling-bling , success and money that attracts most.

Slam artist Croquemort surrounded by the youth of Torrock village.

Croquemort surrounded by the youth of Torrock village.

The village youth’s hopes
The youth that we meet in the market place in the village Torrock (400 kilometers south of N’Djamena), are really fond of the slammeur (slam artist) Croquemort and they all want to share some words with him. In their eyes I see hope; hope that they can reach out to a future as a musician as well. For now, they are far from the ICT hub, their village is slowly awakening, some youth access (Tecno) Facebook relations – such a contrast with the village market, where the main ICT is bili bili (millet beer) and agriculture the driving motor of the household economy that will also be the plight of most of the youth that now attend school. There will be no jobs for them. The music festival that was held in the village in June this year opened their eyes for music and hence a new dream was born. This dream will turn into an illusion when they return to village life after their schooling, where there will be no e-hub for them.

Living the dream
The artist, is he really living the dream others aspire to? Can he escape from the world of misery by expressing himself? Or is he increasingly conscious of the misery in this world that he gets to know better through the creation of his music and texts, and through the knowledge he gathers on his travels, the people he acquaints with, Facebook and email, etc. More knowledge might in the end not make him live the dream. Instead, it might make his mind endlessly reflecting, not able to stop thinking. But nevertheless, he keeps to his political music, leaving the empty music with bling-bling to others, creating his own illusion of change and possibilities, commenting on and criticizing the e-hub illusions, hence taking risks and hiding his ‘peur’ and hoping for a better future.

‘Life is misery’, Ismael alias ‘Izmo le Rapologue’

DSC_2583Cameroonian music is famous in West and Central Africa. The Makossa rhythm makes one dance so well. Rhythm is like beer, and still the hunger for freedom. Dance makes man feel free. Dance and music hide the illusion of freedom. Music and beer are allowed as long as they are not leading to criticism about the regime. But songs can bite! The recent death of artists tells a different story. We meet George in Douala. He is one of the ‘combatants’, member of the opposition party SDF, critical about the regime, critical about the role of France in Cameroon. ‘They keep the regime going’. He follows the critical music scene and relates the last suspicious deaths of artists: La Pirogue de Banga was imprisoned and died later in the USA where he was given asylum. It is told that he died of the maltreatment of his cancer in prison, or that he was poisoned. And the writer Charles Atena Eyene died a few weeks ago, also under suspicious circumstances, and Prof. Pius Ottou, and Pius Njawe…. Being an artist in Cameroon is not safe.

P1210300Izmo was present at the SLAM festival organized by Croquemort in N’Djamena a few weeks ago. He is an experienced artist, a rapper-slammeur. He is a good friend of Croquemort whose music he adores, and whose vocation he shares. In N’Djamena we spent some late night-hours together in the popular disco in the neighbourhood Moursal. He was drinking his beer, while I was dancing. We exchanged some words and sympathized. He is a giant, 1 meter 98 centimeter, with Rasta hair, and a very charismatic personality. His voice is magic. As he explains: ‘my voice is just there’, no schooling. He holds a BA in Law that did not give him access to a job. Since eight years he is into song-writing and music composing; he is now 30 years old.

Rotary members from Congo
We met again in Yaoundé on 8 April and he invited us to Emergence, a bar with life music. A small band was playing all kinds of songs, both African and other, not per se his nor my taste, but technically well done, which is enough for the techno musician he is. Being there also seemed an anomaly. The visitors to the bar were the relatively, sometimes ugly, rich who Ismael considers with a certain pity. Next to us a group of Rotary-Congo members were enjoying their evening. They were in Yaoundé for a Rotary meeting, spending money on poverty, and coming to these chique bars to dance with the Cameroonian girls they invited. These girls seemed rather non-interested in the fat men from Congo. Izmo does not need their money. He considers them part of the problems his songs are about.

Banal, shocking deaths
The next day we visited Izmo in ‘his quarter’, where he and his friends have a studio. It is here that he creates. These days he has been occupied with composing music for the new CD of Croquemort that will be launched mid-May.
Izmo is born out of wedlock. At the age of seven, he had to accept the death of his father. His father left Izmo three half-brothers from the marriage with his legal wife. These three brothers all left for the USA and it has been years since he heard from them. Izmo admires his mother, who tragically passed away a few years ago. During her working life as a nurse she took care of psychiatric patients. After retirement she turned mad herself, which became her death. She (also a giant, 1,84 meter) ran on the street in Douala, foolish and wild, people attacked her and she was killed by the mob. At that moment Izmo was in town for a concert. He found his mother’s body in the street, still warm. A shocking death of the woman he loved most in his life.
His daughter too died a tragic death in 2011: she needed urgent help in the hospital, but the main roads were closed because the president was passing. A sick child was no reason to let them cross. His daughter died in his arms.
Banal deaths are still common in Cameroon, but these deaths should not be forgotten. Izmo’s songs make us ponder.
These events have informed Izmo’s life, and music that talks critically and emotionally about the present day, the everyday tragic that is so common for citizens in the shadows of the world. His explanations about life and the injustices in his neighborhood, country and the world in general, are inspired by theories that embrace anti-colonial ideas, a form of Marxism, and foremost anger. It can be summarized as a sincere vocation of youth without chances.

DSC_2586Movement of musicians
Ismael wants to reach out to the wider Cameroonian, African and why not global public, preferably to the youth; youth that should be the backbone of uprisings and revolution, of protest. But how does Izmo relate to the other youth, who are oriented on consumption, who long to go to Europe or the US, and imitate the soaps on TV? They come on holiday in Cameroon and show off their bling bling. ‘This can be considered another form of protest; despite all uncertainty they have been successful and survive well materially. Showing bling bling is also a protest against their subordinate condition.’ In fact Izmo and his friends and these bling bling youth send out the same message.
‘Masters of the Game’ is a label of music producer Alain Balibi, alias Faucon. The label is like a movement and unites engaged and radical musicians, like Valsero and Izmo le Rapologue. In contrast to Chadian musicians, these artists do not receive funding from the Centre Culturel Francais, instead they receive threat messages from the Government and some of their songs are forbidden on radio or TV.
Izmo is tired of it. He feels that after twelve years of hard work he is still caged by the Cameroonian state. He has been in contact with several Europeans who were all delighted by his music, but never helped him make a career. His friend states over and over again that his talent is ‘dying’ here…

He deserves a much broader audience.

Chanson: CARINE

Carine n’a que 16 ans et déjà meurtrie dans sa chair;
il parait qu’elle souffre d’un cancer ; chaque jour elle se rend
chez le médecin et reçoit des coups de bistouri dans le sein.

Première couplet:
Pour elle ce n’est plus qu’une histoire de secondes;
le temps se compte c’est une course contre la montre;
elle a perdu l’éclat de son tendre visage comme si on retirait un soleil à un paysage;
une tumeur lui vole sa jeunesse, ronge sa chair;
impossible de lui passer une caresse, son corps est une boule de feu comme dit Kery:
il n’y a que la tristesse que tu peux lire dans ses yeux.

Refrain (2x)

Deuxième couplet:
Ce matin, un brin de sourire dès le réveil, elle a le soutien de toute la famille à son chevet, sa situation n’a pas du tout changé;
déjà habituée au piqure de seringue après le déjeuner, Carine s’inquiète de la fortune qu’elle coute à ses parents, car l’instituteur a renvoyé son jeune frère de l’école hier faute d’argent;
tout se dépense entre les médicaments et les poches de sang. Souvent sa maman se cache pour pleurer, entre le docteur et elle il n’y a plus de secret. On se rapproche du jour J, puisque la petite étoile va s’ éteindre comme la flamme d’une bougie.

Refrain (2x)

Troisième couplet:
Aujourd’hui nous sommes une matinée du 15 Juin, et désormais la petite Carine se compte parmi les victimes du destin;
c’est la consternation après constat et avis du médecin. Dans ce monde il n’ y a que les anges qui laissent leurs plumes, tu as été si vaillante jusqu’à la dernière minute, va puisqu’on est juste des traces du temps si fragile et si frêle telles des feuilles balayées par le vent.

Refrain (3x)

Translation of CARINE

Carine is only 16 years old and already dying in her body
She is ailing with cancer, every day she goes to
the doctor and receives ‘shots of scalpel’ in her breast

Verse 1
For her it is not more than a history of a few seconds
Time is short; it is a race against the clock
She lost the brilliance of her tender face, as if the sun was removed from the landscape;
A tumor steals her youthfulness, and eats her flesh
It is impossible to caress her, her body being like a fire ball; as Kery told: there is only sadness that one can read in her eyes

Chorus 2X

Verse 2
This morning starts with a little hope, a little smile since awakening, with the support of the whole family at her bedside; her situation has not changed at all.
Already used to the bites of the vaccination needles, after lunch, Carine is worried about the fortune that her parents spend on her, while the teacher sent her younger brother away from school; Lack of money to pay the fees, because of the high costs for medicine and sacks of blood.
Often her mother hides crying.
Between the doctor and her there is no secret, instead they come closer every day, the little star will extinguish like a candle flame.

Chorus 2X

Verse 3
Today we live in the morning of June 15, when the petite Carine belongs to the victims of destiny;
In the dismay after the conclusion and advice of the doctor, in this world it is only angels who leave their feathers behind. You have been so brave, until the last minute, go…, we are just traces of time, so fragile and brittle like the leaves that dance with the wind.

Chorus 3X

SLAM Scene in N’Djamena

Chad’s nightlife shows a different reality… does it? Is it in the boîte de nuits where the ethnic groups unite? The music imported from elsewhere, full with DJ’s beats, work as a drug for those who dance. Danse is the ‘medicine of the poor’, as an older man and artist said at a conference about ‘la danse in Africa’. He is right: for the youth dancing (and music) is like a medicine. To forget? Or to get energy, to unite and to be? Is it their quest for identity? And what role do the Jokers that we follow on our journey play in this quest?

The search for the Jokers brought us in contact with Croquemort, a famous SLAM artist in N’Djamena, Chad. He is part of the African SLAM scene. We participated in the SLAM festival he organized in N’Djamena: ‘N’djam s’enflamme en slam’. SLAM is a form of expression, musical poetry, poetry on melody. The words sing and flow into a blossoming rhyme that contains the critiques and emotions that are so much part of everyday life. It is a style that comes close to the ordinary person, it phrases experiences that may be horrific and therefore almost comic. There is no dance but there is rhythm, rhythm of words, that become sentences, that become poems composing a story for those who want to listen.

slammer-smallMedicine student
Croquemort’s success is probably mostly due to his open character and ways of connecting to others. He is not a poor young man, rather a middle class medicine student with a destination as a psychiatrist, who loves to make (protest) music. As a baby he already showed his rebellious character, refusing the mother milk from the start. His mother was very sick when he was born in Pala, Mundang country. He shares this start of his life as it explains his ‘being’. That is how ‘it’ started.

Being disciplined
It was not easy for him to become part of the music scene. First there were his parents to convince: his mother accepted it, but his father was ferociously against, until he understood that the music would not stop Croquemort from being a good doctor. He sent his son to a boarding school, to be disciplined. It conversely deepened his consciousness of inequality and the violent realities of social exclusion.

Free expression
The boarding school episode made him more determined to make music that could change and allow him free expression.  First he made modern urban youth music, freestyle and hip hop, until he discovered SLAM. The raw Chadian SLAM poetry became his passion and brought him into contact with Preston, a producer of music, film and clips, who pushed the creation of an album, a few years ago – album making is the basis of the hierarchy in this scene. Subsidized (partly) by the French Institut de la Francophony au Tchad,  Croquemort became the star of N’Djamena and his music the SLAM of the youth. He joined festivals of SLAM Poetry all over Africa and in France. This year his travels are cancelled, he doesn’t like the slow and bad organization of most of the festivals. He will soon travel to Cameroon but that will be for family reasons. Croquemort has a child-son and a Cameroonian wife.

His determination to make himself useful for his people and the quarter he lives in, ‘Chagoua’, is strong. As strong as his partly authoritarian character, that is in such contrast to the timid and modest young man he shows as well.

In Chad SLAM is of recent and people are not yet relating to it that much, but there is a future. SLAM allows the youth to express their frustrations. The former minister of Culture assured us that the Chadian government will let them do (…) as long as they do not become too influential. The Chadian governance structure, a rhizome creeping into every corner of society, will not allow them to become that influential; their open attitude will either be co-opted, or silenced violently.