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Rough Guide

The Rough Guide To Urban Mali



Released 11 September 2020

Music has long been central to Mali's identity, and this Rough Guide provides a unique snapshot of today’s burgeoning urban scene, from classic rap and hip-hop to RnB, afro trap and electronic music.


It was at the end of the 1990s that the first Malian rap groups appeared on the scene. Influenced by American and French hip-hop artists as well as the rise of electronic music, rap fast became a musical medium by which the youth could voice their dissatisfaction with the political classes. It was also around this time that the arrival of the compact disc in Mali meant that bootlegged CDs began to supercede the cassette which had long been the main means of listening to music up until then.

Fast forward 20 years and the Malian music scene has witnessed a drastic sea change being no longer completely dominated by the music of the griots with their balafons and koras. Initially there were only a few hip-hop artists who could fill a stadium and compete with the well-established musical royalty such as Oumou Sangaré or Salif Keïta, however in a country where nearly 65% of the population is under 25 years old, the hip-hop scene soon gathered momentum.

When the coup d'état broke out in March 2012, soon followed by a terrorist invasion of the north half of the country, politicians accused the hip hop artists of having encouraged this coup with their overtly political lyrics of revolt and anger. Some of them were even subject to police pressure or arrested for their lyrics which spoke out against the ruling classes.

In recent years, the rise of the small home studio has meant that recording has become accessible to all. Unlike the first wave of pioneers, the new generation of urban artists are less politically motivated and typically their lyrics deal with what it is to be young in Mali and how they enjoy life despite the difficulties. With their hedonist lyrics about such things as nightclubbing with their girlfriends, they are no-longer seen as a threat to the establishment but instead risk being targeted by religious fundamentalists.

Gone are the days when artist recordings were made for CD and cassette which in-turn were sold in the local market. Like many countries, piracy has almost killed the music market in Mali and todays new sounds are typically listened to and shared on phones. It’s thanks to the home studio that young artists can record a song whenever they want and promote it on social networks. This new means of self-promotion allows artists to develop their reputation and is largely responsible for the huge success of hip-hop concerts and festivals in Mali.

Music has long been central to Mali's identity, and today’s urban Mali scene encompasses many different styles including classic rap, hip-hop, RnB, afro trap and electronic music etc. This selection of urban Malian music is an authentic snapshot of what’s going on now. As you would expect, most of the featured artists are very young, around the age of 20. Some are still in school, like Soul-B Gang who has just graduated from high school with a bachelor’s degree and is about to go to university. Others have left school and started working, like Alka Pô, who, when he does not devote himself to his music is a tailor of traditional clothes.  Sadly, some of these young artists are unemployed.   

Most of these artists rap in Bambara, the most common and understood language in Mali. There are also some Songhaï artists (from the North Region, between Timbuktu and Gao), such as Zinoko or Yogo Star, who had to relocate south to live in Bamako during the northern security crisis in 2012 when music was banned by jihadists. Both sing in Songhaï, their mother tongue. Another artist of Songhaï origin (but who nevertheless chose to express himself in Bambara) presented in this collection is the young Abasko Touré, ‘rocked’ by traditional music of the region of Timbuktu since his childhood, since he is none other than the eldest son of the famous Malian bluesman Samba Touré.