Togolese hip hop
YaoBobby, believing in Africa
Histoires d'un continent
Histoires d'un continent, the first solo album by YaoBobby tells stories of the continent close to his heart, Africa. The Togolese rapper has produced an album in his image, comprising 12 tracks that blend the limpid sound of kora with a determined flow. Despite the revolutionary tone of his lyrics, our meeting in Lomé revealed a calm rapper committed to the cause.
It only took a few phone calls to fix the rendezvous. “We can meet in front of the post office in Kodjoviakopé, which is my neighbourhood, it’s where I grew up…” When YaoBobby pitched up, he was accompanied by his brother and two friends, including King Lion, a member of the rapper collective Djanta Kan, which they created in 1996. We walked for ten minutes then found ourselves in front of a small drinks kiosk, Lyne Cool Place. “This is my local. When we were teenagers, we used to spend a lot of time down here, listening to music, talking, composing…” When YaoBobby sat down, his friends sat down too, and naturally stayed for the whole interview.
He may just have released a solo album, but YaoBobby still has trouble using the first person singular. It’s clearly difficult for him to discuss his rap without mentioning Djanta Kan, the first Togolese rap group and driving force of the local hip hop scene. “We discovered hip hop in the early 1990s. We started off rapping together and we still do. We’ve just organised the 3nd Cité K Show hip hop festival, which we fully produced and financed. Even though we have our own solo projects, Djanta Kan is still active.”
Despite that, Histoires d'un continent is a very personal album that resembles its author. It features themes close to his heart, like corruption, bad governance and social inequality. “My role as an artist is to speak out against the things that appal me and say what I think. Artists are the voice of the voiceless, and in a country like Togo it’s even more important not to be afraid of saying things.”
On the track Camp de réfugiés, for the first time YaoBobby lays bare a painful episode from his teenage years closely linked to Togolese politics, i.e. his forced exile to Ghana in 1992.
The price of exile
It was a troubled year for Togo that had seen demonstrations, a general strike and violent repression from Gnassingbé Eyadéma’s regime. In the working-class, and so reputedly turbulent, Kodjoviakopé neighbourhood, young people were beaten up and hunted down even in their schools. “Soldiers would go into the recreation ground and shoot into the air. We lived in continual terror, the regime viewed all young people as a threat.”
So YaoBobby’s parents sent him away for his own protection. His father gave him a bit of money and accompanied him to the Ghanaian border close to Lomé. After slipping a bribe to the border guards, YaoBobby found himself alone in a foreign country at the tender age of 13. “You know, in Africa, childhood doesn’t last long. You quickly learn how to get by and be independent.”
He spent 3 months in the Satimadja refugee camp, then managed to save enough money selling condiments in the market to take a bus to Accra, where his sister lived with her husband and children. After another 3 months in Accra, he at last returned to Lomé. His six months of solitary exile left a permanent mark on his life.
“After living through that, I didn’t want to go back to school, I thought it was useless and I’d lost all hope. I stopped in the 2nd year of secondary school, and that’s my only regret today and the reason why I often mention school in my songs. It’s so that young people don’t make the same mistake as I did. But many Togolese aren’t in a position to send their children to school and that’s really holding back our development. We need to spend more money on education, and make school free. It should be the priority sector.”
Almost half of the Togolese population is under 18. YaoBobby unhesitatingly believes that the young will ensure a better future for his country. Having been disappointed by politicians, he thinks that change can only come from the people, and ultimately the street. Revolution, then, like the album’s 5th track? “Yes, it’s the only solution! Fixed elections, corruption, violence, we’re all fed up, but no one does anything. That’s what I’m saying in the song J’accuse: we’re all responsible for the situation in Togo, and more broadly in Africa. If we’re going to live in a winning Africa tomorrow, we need to take things in hand and get moving to change things.”
His friends giggle, slightly uncomfortable, “You’re going a bit far…” Since he started promoting the album in Togo, YaoBobby has frequently been warned for his highly critical remarks about the Togolese government. “It just goes to show that today nothing’s really changed, there is still no freedom of expression. But I always find a way of saying what I have to say, and I intend to continue!”
In taking his Histoires d'un continent beyond the borders of Africa, YaoBobby is continuing his fight and making the voice of Togo heard. All of which is his way of blowing the wind of change into the youth of Africa.
YaoBobby Histoires d'un continent (Les Changeurs/Talent Edition RFI) 2011
Translation by : Anne-Marie Harper