Ami Yerewolo reflects on her hard-won rap career, new album AY and why she insists on creating support spaces for young female rappers in Mali and beyond.
"No one is a prophet in his or her own land!" This is an accurate way to describe Ami Yerewolo's career to a tee. The Malian rapper's music has not always been popular in her home country, where female rappers are generally frowned upon. Instead, it has taken off abroad. Yerewolo's upbeat sound mixes traditional Malian elements with fast drums, contemporary beats and significant lyrics that compel listeners to reflect on life — all of which makes her songs carry a universal appeal. Her new album, AY (titled after the rapper's initials) has just been released by the label Othentiq.
Yerewolo shares her frank thoughts below...
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
When and how did you make your debut as a rapper?
I released my first single in 2009 while still in school, and my first album in 2014. It was self-funded. Rap music in Mali is belittled, and producers don't want to waste their time creating music for female rappers. I went everywhere, spoke to many people but none of them were interested. So, I saved money to produce my own album.
Back in the day, how was the rap scene for women in Mali?
Growing up, a few female rappers would appear every now and then. They would release a couple of singles and then disappear completely. When I first started, there were around 10 of us, but all of them eventually abandoned music. I contacted some to understand their reasons and they told me how much they had to fight to reach the top, but were always put on the backburner. They were discriminated against. Malian society thinks that female rappers don't really know what they want, so we are denigrated.
"Malian society thinks that female rappers don't really know what they want."
At first I thought that it was due to our dress sense, but even the word "rapper" is a problem in Malian society. What I talked about in my music, 80% of the male rappers didn't bother with that kind of content. Despite that, I was the most insulted and least booked artist in the country. People's indifference towards my music is sometimes hard, especially when they act like I don't exist.
I've always wanted to showcase who I am and what I have gone through, so the rappers that come after me can learn what it was like. Rap music helped me express my feelings and have fun with music and lyrics. Unlike other genres, there were less restrictions and no codes. To be a singer in Mali, you have to come from a social caste called griots. My family doesn't come from that group and yet with rap music, I had the freedom to talk about the issues affecting me and some of the things people have done to me.
Photo courtesy of the artist.
What inspired you to make your third album, AY?
The album's main themes appear in the first song, "Je gère" ("I Can Handle It"). Ever since I was a child, people have told me what to do and how to do it. I wanted to put a stop to that and inform them that I can handle anything that comes my way. When I was struggling, there was no one around to help me. Now that I've found my way, I can manage.
Meeting my producer Blick Bassy and the need to talk about my experiences was also another inspiration. He sent me some music he had produced and I chose the song titles and themes. I had complete freedom, I recorded myself rapping in Mali and he mastered everything in France. We shot the two music videos for "Je gère" and "Ibamba" in Bamako. The tenth song on the album "Doussou Souma" is my favorite. It's about my relationship with God, what I've learned and what is essential for me.
"Why not create spaces for young female rappers who want to kick-start their careers but don't have the support?"
Tell us more about the Le Mali a Des Rappeuses festival that you created?
I was inspired after attending a Senegalese festival in 2017 where I saw female rappers supporting each other, looking for funding together and openly talking about their struggles with Senegalese society and culture. I came back to Mali and thought: Why not do that here? I was the one with the longest lasting career in the scene. Why not create spaces for young female rappers who want to kick-start their careers but don't have the support?
I realized I had a responsibility and told myself: "You gave up so much in your life to change people's minds, stay brave." I truly don't want the other girls to go through the same things I did. The idea was to meet them in every region in Mali. We organized rap workshops and even transformed my own flat to host some events because no other venues wanted to do it.
Ami Yerewolo -Je Gère ( Clip video) youtu.be
What is the process behind your songwriting?
Life is always the first thing that inspires me. My own life hasn't been easy and I learned how to get what I wanted by going for it. I have made so many mistakes and learned a lot. I'm still young and have much more to learn. I live in a somewhat unjust society where people think they know everything, including the truth. I left my family early to live my life as an artist. In Mali, as a woman, you're supposed to only leave home when you get married and I didn't. As a child, you're told what to do and how to do it and when you start living by yourself, it allows you to put some distance. My music is about my community, my culture and myself — pretty much everything that is important to me.
How do you blend rap as a musical genre with Malian culture and Bambara language?
Rap music is a universal genre. It shapes itself into the identity and culture of the artist. I was born and raised in Mali. I am not trying to rap like an American artist, because that culture is foreign to me. I'm Malian and I make Malian rap.
Ironically enough, I don't listen to much rap music. I like artists like Salif Keita, Oumou Sangaré, Fela Kuti, Miriam Makeba, Angelique Kidjo and Mory Kanté. Their sound has nothing to do with rap, but their lyrics are strong and their music inspiring.