Art Melody, the Burkina Faso-based gruff-voiced emcee who also completes the high-octane duo Waga3000, came to my attention through the group’s 2012 song entitled “Dal fo yikin bao”, which translates to “remain strong and feisty”. Their furious spit-fire flow, reminiscent of what had attracted me to Senegalese emcees, invited me into their world. Then a bit over a month ago, I received a copy of Art Melody’s Wogdog Blues, his third since his breakthrough debut in 2009. He was taken off of Ouaga’s taxi ranks, where he used to work and would kick the odd rhyme every now and then, into Europe, the continent that once landed him in prison attempting to reach it.
“I left Burkina Faso in 1998,” he shot back in an e-mail conversation. His intention was to go to Côte d’Ivoire, perhaps even settle there. Two years down the line, and after he had already written his first raps, Art Melody had a change of heart. “I left Côte d’Ivoire for Mali, then Gambia, Senegal, Mauritania…”, he says of the journey which saw him end up in an Algerian prison for weeks. He was shuttered! He admits to being bitter because of the experience. He does, however, have what he refers to as “inspiring memories”.
Art Melody returned to Burkina Faso with a strong resolve. “I made the decision to fully concentrate on rap, and now I can come to France in the ‘right’ way,” he says of his life at this point in time.
“Wogdog Blues” is a sonic trip, a design process made manifest before the listener’s audio nexus, an expertly-crafted minimalist artwork which should be hung on the Internet’s walls, exhibited for technophobes and cell-phone freaks across the continent to experience. At its core, the album has producer Redrum holding it together. Art Melody narrates how their meeting came about:
“It wasn’t easy since he was in France and I was in Burkina Faso. Everything happened via email. That said, I don’t think the ‘easy projects’ are as much appreciated as the complicated ones – when one always gets to make something good. We’re as much a family as we are a team.”
I am yet to hear the first album, “Giling Duni Kanga”, but “Wogdog Blues” (a metaphor for “Dreaming up a Ouaga Blues with Hip-Hop that’s been influenced for a long time by ancestral music” according to the rapper) is, sonically, more mature than “Zound Zandè”, his 2011 release. Waga 3000’s self-titled project emerged in April 2012. But how did he and Joey le Soldat meet?
“Waga 3000 was born when Joey and I met each other during a radio show, some four years ago, in Ouagadougou.” Both emcees understood their power as a collective. “Waga 2000 is the name of Ouagadougou’s rich quarter, while all other poor neighbourhoods around it – to us – are named Waga 3000,” he offers, shedding light on the origins of the name.
Burkina Faso, land of the upright people, Sankara’s land. Alas, just as Sankara’s ideals led to his ultimate betrayal, so has the government continued to fail its citizens. Art Melody recalls: “I was born here and I live here among my people – often without any education or nutritions…that’s the kind of place I come from.” Sadly, Burkina Faso is not solitary in its social predicaments; he could be in Lesotho, Kenya, Ghana, or Madagascar, and the statement would hold.
Erstwhile Black Uhuru vocalist Michael Rose once crooned about the whole world being Africa, about how it has been ‘divided into continent states’; about the soul-stripped concrete jungles that we increasingly find ourselves having to navigate – cities without pity. “It’s the same flesh and bone,” adds Rose, as if to ensure that his point is drilled into our consciousness. If Black Uhuru’s observation was accurate, then why are we still so segregated? Why is Melody’s fan base stronger overseas than at home? Is it always necessary to be around for as long as Awadi or Smockey have for him to move within the continent? Anyway, I digress.
Art Melody grew up on the fodder of late-eighties and early-to-mid nineties rap music. He lists among his influences the likes of Public Enemy, Nas, and IAM. His flow, however, has hints of an old RZA. He is unrelenting, fuelled by the rage sparked by his people’s travails.
His given name is Mamadou Konkobo. He grew up in a rough environment with parents who were peasants, “a few terminals away from Bobo Dioulasso” he recalls. This is where Burkina Faso’s economic capital is located. Despite the challenges his family faced, he managed to go to school. Like many thinkers across the African continent and abroad, Art Melody is aware of Thomas Sankara. But he has a deeper connection to his story, and shares his memories of the people’s president:
“I hold good memories of Sankara. He was murdered one day while I was leaving for school.” Melody was still a wee lad then, yet recalls the day vividly. He tells of the impact of Sankara’s philosophies: “they marked me big time. His discourse, his Pan-African actions, his ideology inspire me a lot and influence my music heavily. It’s by living as Africans that we will become free and independent.”
Art Melody name-checks the likes of Ben Sharpa and Spoek Mathambo, and still counts IAM in his list of influences. He also possesses an immense awareness of his culture outside of rap, embracing and engaging with it expertly in his songs. When he’s not spitting strident raps harkening back to the raw, 90s-era sound of rap music, he’s paying homage to a style of singing his mother passed onto him. “Yes, my flow’s ancestral; I owe it to my mother, a singer of rituals, so I was initiated, and that’s that,” he says.
Success, that elusive thread which tickles our fancy as human beings. Ambition. Art Melody has paid for his ambitious exploits in the past, but his situation is different now: “I discovered the world ‘en route’. I worked with some really great musicians in France. I live, I produce, I have a family that is proud, which is reassuring, but I have not reached my objectives yet. Time and again it feels good and new to them, to see what they have in Europe. To live in Europe is part of my project – the problem is not to leave Africa but to build it.” He argues that every person “should be free everywhere and should live anywhere they want to.” This, he proposes, will possibly foster freer minds and spirits among African youths. But would he consider relocating to Europe? “If my work demands me to live in Europe and to help my country, I would.”
Redrum’s production is hard to pin down. He samples in the Hip-Hop tradition, favouring sparse samples and big drums to achieve a bare-bones song structure which fits the artist’s voice. Says Art Melody: “I have the sound a beat maker needs. Over time one gets closer and closer to ancestral sounds while keeping it Hip-Hop, but also adding blues and even jazz – while still staying real to Hip-Hop.”
Back in Ouaga, the voiceless and downtrodden continue to live without access to basic health and education. “Portrait de Art Melody”, a film by Nicolas Guibert, is just about the realest portrayal of a rapper’s life I’ve ever seen:
I tell him this and ask him about what his intentions were during that period, and his reply – that he did it to “have fun” – reveals vestiges of a rapper who does not necessarily take himself too seriously. He does continue, though, by saying that it was also to be discovered by someone, anyone. And he was. Now his fortunes have turned around for the better, and he is able to provide better for his family. (For another video portrait, by Droit Libre TV, see here.)
Concluding our exchange, I ask him about the state of rap music globally. Does he deem it important for artists to be honest in their exchange with the listeners of their music?
“I think we should reflect the image of where we come from in our music, not to pretend as if all is well in Burkina Faso while the people are struggling. Today’s young people want music that makes them dance, and drink but not to think. Young people need education, and a real integration – not false promises; and that is the mission of today’s artists. The fans are our mirrors.”
“Wogdog Blues” is out on Tentacule Records. Listen to the record over at Akwaaba Music. Art Melody has two gigs coming up in France this week (11 April in Beauvais – L’Ouvre Boîte + Gael Faye, and on the 12th in Paris at La Péniche Antipode). He will be back in France in June this year.