RFI Musique: How did you get the idea for your "African Presidents" project?
Didier Awadi: The whole thing started around four years ago when RFI put out a compilation of famous speeches made by presidents. It was an absolute treasure trove of information! What I’m trying to do with this project is use hip-hop as an entertaining way to get Africans to reappropriate their history. Take a look at school textbooks and you’ll find African presidents are still being deliberately misrepresented. Even though many of them are dead now, their lives and careers still seem to upset those in power today. What we’re trying to do, as musicians and not historians, is rewrite that past. And there’s nothing better than presidents’ speeches when it comes to teaching us a lesson about that history. Having said that, however, I leave it up to audiences to make up their own minds.
Do you think Africans actually know all the presidents in your show?
They’ll certainly have heard their names, but I don’t think they know them in any great depth. What we’re trying to do with this project is give these presidents their rightful place in our Pantheon. History books are chock-a-block with great leaders, but they’re always the ones who toed the line, they don’t represent us. Sankara, a president who was assassinated in 1987, was only in power for four years, but he still continues to inspire us twenty years on. Nkrumah was another African president who had a real dream. He wanted to see a united Africa and tried to create a real African Union back in 1963. Today we’re still haunted by that dream!
How did you go about doing the archive research for this project?
We spent a lot of time talking to historians, intellectuals and politicians, but we also talked to relatives of these great men. I got news reports from the archives of national radio stations and from private collectors and I actually got to meet Mandela and Sékou Touré’s children. It’s been really thrilling doing this research – but you get to the point where you feel it’s never over!
When you started this project did you know the history connected with these presidents yourself? What did you get out of your research on an artistic and a personal level?
I’d say I didn’t know enough about them when I started out. For instance, I always thought Aimé Césaire was just a poet who wrote about "négritude." But when I came to read his work more closely I realised there was a very strong political and even revolutionary element to it. Césaire once said, "Independence is not something that’s given, it’s something that has to be taken, fought for, paid in corpses and blood!" His speech goes a lot further than Senghor’s in that respect. And that’s interesting because I’d never read Césaire in that light before.
It’s like I’m gradually putting together the pieces of the puzzle that is African history. And as I do so I get a clearer picture of my place in this world. I get a better understanding of the inferiority complexes some countries have developed towards the countries that ruled them and the spirit of freedom that evolved in others. The research I’ve carried out over the past four years has given me a lot of food for thought!
Live on stage, you’ll be joined by a host of talented young rappers from South Africa (Skwatta Kamp), Mali (Tata Pound), Burkina Faso (Smokey) and Kenya (Maji Maji). Beyond the obvious idea of bridging the generation gap, does this diversity represent some sort of pan-African ideal?
That’s a fundamental part of what I’m doing. You know, colonisation imposed arbitrary borders between countries that I don’t have to accept. I’m free to live in Senegal or Burkina Faso or Mali, wherever I choose. In his speeches about the pan-African ideal, Nkrumah spelt out his ideas very clearly. A united Africa is, technically speaking, perfectly possible. It’s not a Utopia! An African Union, modelled on the EU, would mean our continent would have a single voice on the world stage and we could impose our own prices!
Why are you staging the world première of your show about Africa’s political history in Paris?
This is actually an ‘avant-première’ because the album’s not coming out until January 2008. After four years’ hard work, we seized the opportunity the Festival d’Ile-de-France offered us to stage the show. Don’t forget, the sixth region of Africa is the diaspora - and Paris is the capital of that! The other thing is we didn’t receive any kind of help or support from African institutions towards this project. They don’t seem to be interested in this kind of work about collective memory at all! But we did get a lot of support from France (the SACEM and the Festival d’Ile de France). So it’s only fair the show should be staged here! I’d obviously like the final version of the show to end up travelling all over Africa, though.
Can you give potential audiences an idea of what they might see on stage Sunday night?
A lot of images, videos, people talking about presidents’ lives, multimedia presentations, rappers, a group - and a black box!
A black box?
Africa is like a plane that’s crashed and we’ve just retrieved the black box containing all the information about the flight. Now we’re about to take off again, but travelling in better conditions and not making the same mistakes that were made in the past.
One of the questions your show poses about these "presidents" is "What remains of their dream?" Do you have an answer to that?
The founding fathers of Africa had great dreams. And the question is "what remains of those dreams now?" I don’t claim to throw up any answers to that question, I’m just trying to start a debate. I’m putting these questions back on the table and reminding everyone they’re not going to go away! OK, we’re not going to change the world or anything. But I’d like to think we can shake things up a bit and give our leaders something to think about. We’re trying to get people to reappropriate their past without glorifying it in any way. As Thomas Sankara once said, "Let’s dare to seize the future!"
Translation : Julie Street