The United States of Africa (trailer above) is a new film documenting African hip-hop pioneer Didier Awadi as he records African Presidents, an album spotlighting revolutionary African leaders like Thomas Sankara, Patrice Lumumba and Kwame Nkrumah who led the battle in Africa’s struggle for self-determination. The United States of Africa will premiere on InDemand TV on May 15th.
Didier Awadi shot to fame in Senegal in the early 90s after forming the influential hip-hop group Positive Black Soul. The group carved out a distinctly unique African sound, using traditional Senegalese instruments while rapping in the local Wolof language (in addition to French and English.) The United States of Africa follows Awadi as he travels around the world collaborating with conscious hip-hop artists. Awadi’s collaborators include M-1 of Dead Prez (United States,) Zuluboy (South Africa) and Smockey (Burkina Faso.)
Okayafrica’s Kyle Long spoke with the film’s director, Yanick Létourneau from his office in Montreal.
OKA: How did this project come about?
Yanick Létourneau: I’m interested in hip-hop and so far all my films have dealt with hip-hop. I wanted to do a film on hip-hop from an African perspective. This film is the evolution of a long process. I had the opportunity to go to Burkina Faso in 1993. My mother had been there working with an NGO. I wasn’t really interested in Africa before I went, but when I got there I started seeing things differently. I started learning about leaders like Thomas Sankara and I discovered Didier Awadi’s hip-hop group Positive Black Soul. I enjoyed the music and it inspired me.
In 2004 I went back to Burkina Faso to present a film I made called Urban Chronicles, which is about a hip-hop artist in Quebec. Coincidentally the screening occurred at the same time as the Waga Hip-Hop Festival. I was lucky, as it was two seconds away from my hotel and I spent my entire week at the festival. I was blown away by Awadi’s performance at the festival. It was powerful and what Awadi had to say really struck a chord in me. I wanted to document that. It was so far away from anything I’d seen about Africa from a white North American perspective. There was an important discourse in music taking place in this so-called underdeveloped third world country and it was inspiring.
OKA: Originally you set out to make a documentary strictly about African hip-hop. How did this turn into a film about African politics?
YL: I was inspired by the history. I wanted to talk about these people who stood up from the first day of colonization to today. People like Patrice Lumumba, Thomas Sankara and Kwame Nkrumah who fought for independence, not only on a national level but on a continental level. I was always told that Africa was poor, that Africa was miserable and the people there were savages. I had all these very cliched, stereotypical visions of what Africans in Africa were. I wanted to share some of the things I discovered for myself with a larger audience.
For me this film is the embodiment of 18 years of reflection, questioning and discovery of the African continent. Of course I couldn’t cover everything, but my goal was to give the audience a thirst to learn more. So I hope you will go and research Thomas Sankara or Frantz Fanon and find out what the United States of Africa is.
*Production still: Smockey at Thomas Sankara’s grave site.
OKA: What was the link for you between Awadi and leaders like Sankara and Nkrumah?
YL: Awadi is a storyteller. He’s telling a story that a lot of non-Africans and Africans don’t know about. We need to hear this story to get rid of that colonial mind-frame that makes us see Africa as backwards, less developed or inferior. We need to get rid of all these eugenic, colonial ideas that are still embedded unconsciously in our mainstream culture. We need to hear these other points of view and that’s what Awadi gives as an artist.
His voice is essential because you don’t hear that type of discourse in politics and most of the time you don’t hear it on TV or radio. You hear it through artists or philosophers. But philosophers don’t attract a large audience, artists do. People like Tiken Jah Fakoly who is better known in the reggae world or Smockey who is probably the best known artist from Burkina Faso. They have this power to reach a lot of people and they reach people because they speak truth to power. They talk about real things. They give us keys to understanding the condition that people are in. They understand the structural mechanisms that keep people in poverty. There are structural and geopolitical reasons why people are poor in a country that is rich with resources like the Congo. It’s not normal that the Congolese don’t benefit from their own resources while foreign companies, with the help of the corrupt local elite profit from it. Awadi talks about these things and we need to hear thatt now more than ever.
*Production still: Awadi and Smockey take a break.
OKA: Was it difficult weaving the two stories together – balancing the music with the politics?
YL: It was difficult at first. But It became apparent while we were shooting the film that by working with Awadi as the main character it enabled us to tell the story blending history with the music. We didn’t need to justify hip-hop or talk about it directly, because hip-hop was there – Awadi is hip-hop. I don’t need to say “hip-hop is good, it’s not only about bling bling.” No, it’s already there. It’s in your face and it speaks for itself.
Documenting the making of this album is an alibi to meet people who are doing important work on a cultural level, but with political ramifications. Through them we discover the freedom fighters who struggled for an independent Africa. It’s not a musical documentary. It’s not a concert film. I’m not glorifying Awadi as an artist. I’m working with him as someone with ideas and a point of view.
*Production still: Awadi and Smockey in the studio, 2008.
OKA: How much can an artist like Awadi or yourself do to create political change?
YL: As an artist there is a limit to what you can do. At some point you need to be out in the streets. You need to jump the fence and fight to change things. It’s one thing to sing about revolution and throw your fist in the air. But real change doesn’t come from going to a concert, it comes from getting out in the streets to protest.