"People don't want to listen to music that reminds them of their problems, they deal with their problems all day. When they listen to music, they just want to have fun!"
This is something I've been told over and over, especially in Togo. I think that's true at clubs or drinking spots, made for people to enjoy and dance, where you hear 99% harmless, danceable music. But I see lots and lots of teenagers and young people listening to music on their phones, and I don't see them busting out azonto or cool catché moves, so evidently the music they are listening to is not just meant to make them dance.
So what is it? What are the Togolese injecting in their ears, and how does it come about? To best answer these questions, I had some fascinating discussions with Elom Vince, a remarkably well-informed and active rapper from Lomé, Togo.
Given that Togo doesn't get much space anywhere online, most of us are due for a quick update: Togo is a small country, one in which leadership is a family affair: the current president, Faure Eyadéma, is the son of former president Gnassingbé Eyadéma, who was in power from 1967 until his death in 2005. In other words, despite what official statutes may say, Togo is essentially a monarchy, or to keep things broad, an oligarchy. From the top down, what family you are from, and which people you know, is all that matters.
Now transpose this into music. To record an album, shoot a music video, or promote either, you need capital. Forget free online tools, internet penetration in Togo is minimal, and if you want to make it, you will have to pay off radio DJs and TV hosts. And forget shrinking production costs: an old PC, an old mic and an old sound card are still worth months and months of an average salary in Lomé. So you need investors, and that's where your personal connections come into play.
Investors in Togolese music are like investors in anything, anywhere in the world: they are looking for the highest possible return. So in terms of music, they are looking for the most mainstream sound possible, which carries different names in Togo, but I should at least mention the current craze for cool catché, not so much a musical style as it is a type of dance. Cool Katché beats really sound like coupé décalé, except they are made in Togo. The biggest name is pop duo Toofan, who cram the Palais des Congrès to the brim - an investor's dream!
Conscious hip hop? Not quite as sellable. But the difficulties faced by socially- and politically-engaged MCs stretch far beyond the low marketability of their music; as it turns out, most connections which can offer any kind of serious money or influence have ramifications which stretch all the way to the top, into the inner circles of government. What happens if you are not in favour of the government, or more generally, if you want to phrase opinions about realities faced by the country, which are not always acknowledged by the government? Short answer: you can probably wave goodbye to your funding.
Thankfully, Togo is not an entirely monolithic and isolated country, and there are still porous circuits within music. There are also ties to France - it's not all evil neocolonialism - which allow support for projects such as Elom Vince's powerful new 15-track album, Analgézik. Analgésique is the French scientific name for pain killers, a metaphor which plays throughout the entire album.
Download the free 3-track EP
Elom's words are not geared towards Togo's government directly, the same way his lyrics, rapped in French, are not aimed at the Togolese specifically, but at the broadest audience possible. "In hip hop, the message is first, so unless I want to speak to Ewe people only, I will not rap in Ewe," Elom tells me. He adds: "the same way Nkrumah was not talking to Ghanaians, he was talking to all Africans." Not a benign reference!
Elom laments the fact that great African thinkers are not even taught in school. As he starts to describe schoolbooks in Togo, I realize the deepest symptoms of Françafrique, or neo-colonialism, are not necessarily the more dubious political manoeuvres involving Western powers, but rather the endless remnants of colonial ideology in everyday life. Like defining Togo's history from a European perspective. Like not mentioning Thomas Sankara's ideas and life struggle.
Since school won't educate the kids, hip hop will. That's the way Elom sees it. In the days of Nkrumah or Senghor, books were the tool of choice, but today, to reach the youth, it's hip hop verses, "this is how you reach as many people as possible." Very reminiscent of Public Enemy and the idea of giving a voice to the voiceless, speaking truths which are otherwise kept in the dark, Elom feels Africans need to be both enlightened and shaken up. In particular, he feels governments have no real vision, no will to accomplish big things. "I feel Africa is sleeping. We create new dances all the time, but beyond dances, what about helicopters?"
Here's where it stings though: in a country where much of the power and money is concentrated within a few hands close to government circles, who might want to support an artist who speaks openly against poor governance? In Togo the censorship is not so much imposed by the government, as it is self-inflicted by the media. Elom has never dealt with the government directly, but clearly his music is being excluded from a number of outlets, radios and live music venues, based on the content of his songs.
So, he is asked over and over, why don't you rap about love, or God? As you've probably gathered already, that might not fit the character on hand. Elom is an advocate of musique engagée, committed, opinionated music. And as he puts it: "I think other genres talk about other stuff, like love, much better. I don't see why people would choose hip hop to talk about love."
Even if Elom did try to blend into the Togolese music mould, prospects are dim. "Very few Togolese artists make a living from their art. I spend time with musicians who've been in the circuit for years, and they all complain about what they make and how music is perceived and managed in general." Then he adds, "For a rapper, it's even more complicated. I hang out with a lot of rappers, most of them have a job on the side. Rap feeds the mind, but not yet the body."
It gets worse. "It's even more difficult for militant rappers, because of the political situation in the country. The media self-censors itself to avoid problems: Elom realizes that doing militant rap can shock or bother some people, close down some doors, so it does not surprise him that he is often not invited for big shows or projects. "I know influential people in the Togolese music industry, promoters, radio station directors, who tell me they respect and enjoy what I do. But they don't call me when they're putting together a project."
Elom doesn't complain about it, "I've realized we can manage without them. It's not easy, but other ways are possible." In particular, Elom tells me that instead of relying on government or cultural institutions' money, he believes artists have to start by sticking together. This may seem obvious, but in my experience, it is incredibly rare. By doing so, he and other Lomé rappers founded Asrafo Records (Facebook page). Asrafo means warrior: "Organized like legionnaires, we will build great structures like pyramids." Specifically, Elom tells me: "We organize our own shows, we produce our albums ourselves. We don't sell thousands of copies, but it'll come, were in it for the long term."
To best communicate his deep messages, Elom relies on metaphors. "I play with words, with proverbs, to get my point across". For instance, recently Elom organized a show at the Centre Culturel Français in Lomé, called The Horse's Circumcision. The message was quite political, but hidden behind the provocative title. The title is in fact taken from an Ewe proverb, which literally says that "what circumcises the horse is inside its belly." The proverb has a double meaning: what is in your belly means what is the result of your experience, and circumcision being a purifying practice in Togo, the proverb means that experience is your best advice. But it also means: what kills us is within us. What the name of the show really meant was that the system carries the germs of its own destruction.
Elom's album is stuffed with similar metaphors, some songs being particularly hostile to politicians: Autopsie d'une Nation (autopsy of a nation) for instance hits the entire political sphere. The song is sung mostly in French, but if you stick to the immediate French meaning, you will miss the point. "A Togolese who speaks Ewe or Mina, who speaks French and who follows Togolese politics can capture everything. A French person will only get the superficial meaning."
So instead Elom sticks to his mission, he continues to educate himself about the past and the present of African and its politics. "I take time to read ECOWAS and African Union decisions, I feel they are important to share, so I talk about them." And for most of us who don't take the time to read these reports, he instills his knowledge into his rhymes. So do yourself a favour, stay informed in style: cop Analgézik!