As Africa’s middle class starts to emerge, propelled by growth and urbanisation, many diaspora Africans are choosing to return to the continent.
Many of these returnees, known as ‘repats’, are highly educated and skilled, and while they choose to take a chance on new opportunities back ‘home’, the process of adjusting to mentalities and business practices can be brutal.
Each Friday, for six weeks, I will share the story of a young, female, West African ‘repat’. Whether these women are operating on the not-for-profit side, or serving artists, or launching creative businesses, or venturing into public service, or just opting for non-traditional corporate careers, the momentum is real, leading to the future construction of open nations in the continent.
This week I speak to Fatou Sow who is based in Mali.
As a Peul woman, Fatou Sow has always been comfortable with the nomadic lifestyle. Her father was a Malian diplomat, traveling extensively with his family when he was an executive at the World Health Organisation. They lived in several countries in Africa and Europe, but most of Fatou’s teenage years were spent in boarding school in France. At 17, she moved to the US, ultimately attending university in New York.
At university, she knew that she wanted to work in the music industry, so she started going to gigs, hanging out at after-parties, looking to be introduced to people who were connected to the industry. She met Patrick Moxey one evening at a party. He was known as an ambitious young music entrepreneur who ran both a management company called Empire and the record label Payday, specialised in underground hip hop with respected rappers like Jeru the Damaja and the band Group Home.
‘I knew that I had the ability, as a young African woman, to sustain a music management company that would cater to international artists.’
Moxey hired her, and her first job consisted in assisting him in all aspects of music management. Then, she worked with the hip-hop band Cypress Hill, which had gone mainstream with hits like Insane in the Brain. She started sensing that the late 1990s and early 2000s were about to become the golden years of hip hop, so she went straight for a record company career, securing jobs at Universal, then Warner, before landing at EMI, where she got to promote emerging artists like Joss Stone. Admittedly, all she wanted was to build strong relationships with the artists she most respected.
In 2004, she realised that it was time to create her own management company. Slingshots Music was her attempt to make her mark in the music industry. ‘I realised how few of us were able to evolve in the top strata of the industry,’ she remembers. ‘I felt the need to utilise my experience, the network and access I had gained in the US, but it had to be done from my own premises. I knew that I had the ability, as a young African woman, to sustain a music management company that would cater to international artists.’
She signed up a Nigerian German singer-songwriter named Ayo. Ayo had a multi-album deal with the French label Polydor, a subsidiary of Universal Music, so in 2006 Fatou made the decision to move from New York to Paris. In reality, Paris was just a base. Mostly, she was traveling the world with Ayo, who by then was selling millions of records and touring on all the continents. After Ayo’s career took off, Fatou signed up a French singer-producer called Yodelice, who also became successful. Although Fatou’s beat was artist management, she was gradually becoming interested in concert production.
‘I came to understand that Mali has such a rich musical culture that is not being exported as well as it should.’
In 2010, she was asked to organise the Concert for Peace, Tolerance and Understanding, in Dakar. That event, which was funded by the US Department of Defense, the US Department of State, and the Senegalese government, made her realise that there was so much work to be done in musical production in Africa. She was into the very idea of the concert, she said during an interview at the bar of Bamako’s Hotel Salam, because it was conceived as an exchange programme between Senegalese artists and American artists, promoting a positive image of Islam as a peaceful religion that could bridge cultures.
The experience in Senegal brought her closer to her own country. ‘I came to understand that Mali has such a rich musical culture that is not being exported as well as it should. It felt natural that I should bring my know-how, the experience I’d gained around the world over a twenty-year period to Mali, to create a viable music production platform here.’ So she moved to Bamako in 2011.
The move was also partly related to that fact that she and Ayo had recently parted ways. The breakup, which she calls a ‘divorce’ between an artist and her manager, gave her an opening to pursue event production full time. But the following year, there was a coup d’état in Mali. Before she even got a chance to settle in Bamako, she moved to Barcelona and started working with a young singer called Marushka.
‘When you try to do things well, it’s not perceived as trying to be more rigorous, it’s perceived as being “bossy”.’
As soon as the political situation in Mali stabilised, she moved back to Bamako, but it took her a while to adapt. ‘It’s ironic that a Malian such as myself should still have to fight to be accepted in her own country. As a repat, I am not perceived as a Malian. I am perceived as a foreigner. The obstacles came very quickly, when people saw that I was a woman in her early forties, operating in a decision-making position. Being “the boss” doesn’t go down so well here. When you try to do things well, it’s not perceived as trying to be more rigorous, it’s perceived as being “bossy”.’
The ‘obstacles’, she says, are mostly related to the lack of human resources and skills-sets, because people haven’t been trained in the basic aspects of the music industry. ‘Whether it’s legal maters or marketing, there just isn’t any proper infrastructure around the music industry in Mali. So you’re basically having to train people and solve problems as you go. You find some people who are very dynamic, and if you’re lucky they can help you in the right way.’
In January 2016, she organised the first edition of the Bamako acoustic music festival with the great kora artist Toumani Diabaté and a third business partner, bringing to her new hometown international musicians like Damon Albarn, who was able to perform on the same stage as Mali’s best known singers. ‘As soon as I started planning the festival, I knew that I had very little support. Most of the sponsors pulled out, because of the threats liked to the recent jihadi attacks, but I was able to pull it off with three people who, somehow, managed to absorb some of the essentials of the process.’
Even though she is now a resident of Bamako, switching between Bambara, French, and English every few seconds, she wants to keep a base in Barcelona, a city she fell in love with. While she thinks of new ways to approach the second edition of the Bamako acoustic festival, she is weighing her options.
She wants to create a training programme for people who want to work in the music industry, whether on the technical, marketing or management side. Deep down, she feels that there is a tremendous need for that kind of training. Given that Africans don’t always see culture as a tool for economic empowerment, or have a hard time imagining the global potential, the goal over the next few years, she says, might be ‘to work with artists and creatives to export African culture to the world.’