On the day of her first New York show, Malian singer Inna Modja speaks about the journey which has brought her here – from Bamako – via Paris – to Manhattan.
From performing with Salif Keïta to her new album Motel Bamako, she takes us across both geographic and musical borders.
I grew up in Bamako. My city is so rich, culturally, and residents are so open-minded. We listen to music from all over the world. We are so progressive when it comes to fashion, always checking for new trends, truly reflecting the new ‘métissage’. I am Malian, but I am also African. Whether I am in Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal, or Togo, I feel at home in all these African countries, because we have so much in common. Bamako fully reflects that open-mindedness.
I was surrounded by Malian griot culture, but I had to leave that tradition behind to find my own creative space. I started out making Malian music, working under Salif Keïta, and he helped me so much by treating me like a trainee. Then, I started focusing on what young Malians were interested in, which was hip hop. But this hip hop was all about Bambara rhymes.
This was the late nineties, and everyone in Bamako was discovering what the American rappers were doing; the key was to adapt American styles to Malian realities. That is why I had to step away from traditional Mali music, and find my own lane, before I got back into it. It is a bit of a paradox, actually.
Now, I am in a position where I can collaborate with Oumou Sangaré, but the rule is that she respects my universe, and I respect hers.
I started out crafting folk songs, telling African stories, and then I started making pop music, because I wanted to prove to myself that I could venture outside of the world I was in. I wanted to become a bit more mainstream, trying not be boxed in. And interestingly, I came back to this traditional Mali music on my third album, Motel Bamako, and I am really happy about that, because my fans discovered me through pop, and followed my evolution back to Mali music. As a result of that conscious decision I made, no one ever compares me with Mali singers like Oumou Sangaré. Now, I am in a position where I can collaborate with Oumou Sangaré, but the rule is that she respects my universe, and I respect hers. And for me that’s a big thing, because she is our diva, she is our Madonna.
I came to Paris as a student. I studied foreign languages and literature at university, and I also studied business. But I was writing, on the side. I enjoyed writing lyrics for other artists, because I’d met several singers who weren’t into writing their own material. And this writing gave me a confidence boost, in the way that I was now able to tell stories.
When I released that first album, people started saying that I was French-Malian, when I reality I am Malian.
When I felt that I was ready, I went straight for it and recorded my first album Everyday Is a New World. I was always making music, and the literature classes helped me to think through what I wanted to do, and I started to build a network, gaining respect as a lyricist and composer.
When I released that first album, people started saying that I was French-Malian, when I reality I am Malian. I have never been a French citizen. If they want to deport me, or take away my carte de séjour tomorrow, the French authorities can do that. I figure the French-Malian thing started when people made assumptions based on my way of dressing, on my visual identity. Because people were not used to my style, and because of all the clichés around French and African identities, they thought they knew what I was about. Eventually, they had to check their definitions of world music at the door. It is still an expectation that a Malian singer should dress like Oumou Sangaré. But the Bamako girls from my generation don’t dress like Oumou Sangaré. We take our cues from many different cultures. And we make these styles ours. With the Motel Bamako album, I flipped the script again, knowing that people would be surprised.
A song like Tombouctou is my way of expressing feelings, of saying ‘enough is enough’.
I think I might fill out the forms and become a French citizen one day, because I want to be able to vote in France, even though I split my time between Bamako and Paris. My recording contract and my record label are in Paris; I pay my taxes in France, so I feel like I should have a say on French political matters. Especially now, when it has become clear that it’s not always safe for us foreigners in France.
I talk about issues related to terrorism, and wearing veils on my album. A song like Tombouctou is my way of expressing feelings, of saying ‘enough is enough’. Tombouctou is a real city, with real people who live there. When you see 10, 11, 12-year-old girls forced into marriage, when you see that their parents have no means of resistance because of the pressure that terrorists put on everyone, as an artist you have to talk about it. These are such difficult issues to deal with.
I have to work hard, and impose a new image that represents a new Africa.
My mother is from Guinea, but my father is from the north of Mali, where terrorism is embedded in everyday life. So now, we can’t even go north to visit our family. My father cannot go back home. A peaceful country like Mali, we’ve been going through this for three years, when initially everyone thought this terrorism thing would be over within a year. As an artist, I have to express that these wars are not our wars, that these wars are the result of bigger geopolitical issues that are not our African issues.
New York is the city of infinite possibilities. It’s the city of high energy, the city where you can find anything you are looking for. The music scene in New York is very open and many people are able to find their place in the city. The new generation of Malian artists, many of them were inspired by American codes, by hip hop. But we can take hip hop to a different place, precisely because we are not American.
Electro is also becoming a new universal music, and when you pay attention to African rhythms, you see that many of them are similar to electro beats. I see no limit to what I can accomplish in New York. I think it’s one of the places to be, for what I am trying to do now.
When you look at the South African electro scene, when you look at Shangaan, you realise that it’s really new, and really interesting. Now, I have to prove that it’s not just about traditional African music. I have to work hard, and impose a new image that represents a new Africa. When you look at the music that my friend Baloji is making, it’s really new. It’s African; it’s Congolese; but it’s also universal.
It might take a while for us to break down these stereotypes around African music. I may not be the one who changes perceptions, maybe it will be the young girl who is just coming up now, but I know it will happen. I know someone is about to open those doors, and break down those walls.
Find Inna Modja @Innamodja