John MacDougall / AFP / Getty Images

The soundtrack to Burkina Faso's revolution

The rapper Smockey is credited for stirring protests against Blaise Compaoré, but some say his role has been exaggerated

OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso — Soldiers from Burkina Faso’s elite presidential guard moved swiftly through this city last September, training automatic weapons on unarmed civilians, forcing radio and television stations to suspend programming, and burning the motorbikes of journalists. At least one photographer was beaten so badly he lost consciousness.

Amid the chaos, a group of soldiers also pursued a less conventional target: the recording studio of Serge Bambara, a rapper and activist better known by his stage name, Smockey. At around noon on Sept. 17, witnesses say, the soldiers pulled up to the studio in a three-vehicle convoy. Told no one was inside, one of the men fired two anti-tank rockets at the building. The studio caught fire, and nearly all of Smockey’s production equipment was destroyed or stolen.

The soldiers, allies of Burkina Faso’s longtime president Blaise Compaoré, were attempting to overthrow the interim government that took power following his 2014 ouster. Smockey had been one of the most visible faces of the uprising. In 2013, he helped found Balai Citoyen, or Citizen Broom, a movement of artists and musicians that called on youth to rise up against a bid by Compaoré to change the constitution and extend his rule. The songs Smockey wrote and recorded during this period provided a soundtrack to the president’s political demise.

Within a week, the soldiers’ coup attempt fell apart and the transitional government was restored. In November, voters elected Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, a former prime minister, as president in the freest, most democratic elections in Burkina Faso’s history. Thee soldiers’ assault on Smockey’s studio meanwhile underscored the role he’d played in Burkina Faso’s political upheaval and reignited a debate about his influence. Now, Smockey and other Balai Citoyen members are trying to push a dialogue about democratic governance in other countries — including Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Republic of the Congo — where leaders have faced criticism for trying to circumvent term limits.

The damaged entrance of rapper and activist Smockey's recording studio, which according to neighbours was attacked by members of the presidential guard, is seen in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, Sept. 17, 2015.
Joe Penney / Corbis

A burly man with a graying goatee and a mellow voice that turns staccato when he raps, Smockey, 44, has long operated at the intersection of art and politics. He filled his studio with posters of Malcolm X and Thomas Sankara, the beloved revolutionary leader who served as Burkina Faso’s president for four years before he was toppled in a bloody coup that brought Compaoré to power. Over the next 27 years, as Compaoré slowly refashioned himself as a reliable Western ally and regional peacemaker, Smockey emerged as a vocal critic. When he was honored at the 2010 Kora Awards for African musicians, in Ouagadougou, Smockey pointedly dedicated his award for best hip-hop artist to Sankara’s memory. Compaoré was in the audience.

Smockey founded Balai Citoyen alongside Sams’K Le Jah, a reggae artist who, like Smockey, had already established himself as a Compaoré opponent. In the song “Ce président là,” released in 2011, Sams’K Le Jah declared, “This president, he must go and he will go.” Young people, in particular, responded to the message, flocking to the artists’ concerts all over the country. “They both began this work a long time ago, singing and raising people’s consciousness,” said Clement Biouma, a martial arts instructor and music fan in Ouagadougou.

At first, Balai Citoyen adopted the ambitious, but rather vague, mission of “sweeping” away problems — namely corruption, impunity and a disregard for human rights. (The group’s logo was a clenched fist emerging from a forearm made of strands of a broom.) But by 2014, when Compaoré made clear his intention to stay in office despite a constitutional term limit, the group began to mobilize. It started a campaign called Hands Off My Constitution and, when the president scheduled a parliamentary vote to alter the constitution, called for mass demonstrations.

In the days before the vote, hundreds of thousands of people braved tear gas and live rounds to flood Ouagadougou’s streets. As the protests began, Smockey held a concert at which he rapped: “We shut down schools and take out signs and banners/Everywhere in the city there is excitement in the air.” A few days later, masses of people overwhelmed the security forces, ransacked the parliament building and prevented the vote from taking place. After Compaoré resigned, Smockey and Sams’K Le Jah appeared before adoring crowds alongside Lt. Col. Yacouba Isaac Zida, who would serve as prime minister during the political transition.

Five months later, in March 2015, Smockey released a three-disc album recounting his country’s revolution. On Nécessaire Conscience,” written before the revolution, he scolds a population he views, at times, as complacent: “You are not a sheep.” On the final disc, he looks to the future, calling on regular people — “sentinels” — to ensure that the new government follows through on its plans to help everyone, not just the country’s elite.

Smockey and Sams’K Le Jah (real name: Karim Sama) won plaudits from their fellow pro-democracy activists as well as the international press. In an April 2015 profile that was typical of the coverage, Le Monde Diplomatique described their role in the uprising as “essential” and “decisive.” For some observers, that attention was justified. “They came with a different approach from the older generation,” said political analyst Siaka Coulibaly. “The older generation accepted more violations; they made more compromises. The youth were radical.”

But others say that assessment gives Balai Citoyen too much credit. “It’s because Burkinabé had resolved not to let Blaise Compaoré run that a movement like Balai Citoyen was effective, not because Balai Citoyen succeeded in awakening the masses, as we have heard many times,” said Lila Chouli, a scholar of social movements in Burkina Faso. She and other experts also point out that Burkina Faso has a rich history of civil protest, dating to 1966 demonstrations over state budget cuts that prompted the resignation of the country’s first president. And opposition leaders and human rights groups had been denouncing the Compaoré regime for years; protests grew increasingly fierce after the 1998 killing of journalist Norbert Zongo, allegedly by members of the presidential guard.

Smockey’s specific proposals have also stirred controversy. He advocated a large role for the military in the transitional government, saying it was necessary to stabilize the country. But Chrysogone Zougmoré, president of the Burkinabé Movement for Human and People’s Rights, says that call betrayed the spirit of the uprising and aided those who had helped Compaoré cling to power. (Smockey noted to Al Jazeera America that not long into the transition, Balai Citoyen recognized that some military leaders were not committed to “a real democracy,” and the group then called for the presidential guard’s dissolution.)

A man waves the Burkina Faso flag (front) as people protest in the city of Hounde, capital of Tuy Province, in east central Burkina Faso, on Sept. 19, 2015.
Sia Kambou / AFP / Getty Images

Since Compaoré’s exit, Smockey and other Balai Citoyen members have expressed solidarity with people in other African nations whose presidents are reluctant to step down. Along with like-minded groups — notably Senegal’s Y’en a Marre, a collective of rappers and journalists that helped lead a successful campaign against a third term for Abdoulaye Wade in 2012 — Balai Citoyen has tried to shape a discussion about the damage wrought by authoritarian regimes. But those initial efforts have run into some trouble.

Last March, a Balai Citoyen member was detained during mass arrests following a press conference organized by the Congolese pro-democracy youth organization Filimbi. Human Rights Watch said the detentions suggested “a broader crackdown on free expression” in the run-up to a presidential vote currently scheduled for November — the type of crackdown that Compaoré, for all his flaws, generally avoided. The incident suggested the challenges of exporting Balai Citoyen’s approach. “It’s difficult for this work to prosper in a country that is completely authoritarian,” said Augustin Loada, who served as a minister in Burkina Faso’s transitional government.

As Balai Citoyen dips its toes into a broader debate about democratic governance, the group must also adapt to a new political climate at home. On Jan. 15, just two days after President Kaboré’s new cabinet was named, al-Qaeda-linked fighters killed at least 30 people in an assault on a popular Ouagadougou café and hotel frequented by foreigners.

Kaboré must now respond to the security crisis while trying to revive the economy and live up to the population’s expectations for their first new leader in nearly three decades. Should old frustrations re-emerge, Smockey and his allies will have to decide whether it’s better to stress patience or take to the streets to express their displeasure, potentially risking further instability. Put another way, the question they face is this: At what point is it acceptable to work alongside an imperfect system, and what would collaboration look like?

For now, Smockey seems content to wait and see. But he also stresses the need for Balai Citoyen members to remain vigilant. “It falls to civil society to keep watch and prepare the way for real change,” he said. “We have at least five years for that.”

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