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As a model and fledgling pop star, Inna Modja kept her personal story to herself. But as her profile grew, so did her passion to speak out. By Jane Cornwell.

Malian singer Inna Modja on the activism in her music

Malian-French singer Inna Modja.
Credit: MARCO CONTI SIKIC

Inna “Modja” Bocoum was four when her great-aunt took her to be cut. She was back in Mali for a visit: her family was living in neighbouring Ghana at the time, and Modja, which means “cheeky girl” in Fulani, her mother’s tongue, was being babysat. She has a memory of the ritual: of her confusion, mainly, and shock. She stops herself remembering the pain.

“You can’t live if you think about that sort of pain, because it’s in your flesh,” says the singer, actress and model, 32, sitting in a cafe in the Bastille area of Paris, wearing jeans, a puffer jacket and a T-shirt that says Bamako Connection. 

“There is no anaesthetic; just pain, grief, shame and more pain. For what?” Her almond eyes flash: “To control women, make them just bodies for producing kids. You are not allowed to experience pleasure. You are not allowed freedom. You are not allowed to decide for yourself.”

Modja did. “I was 19, living independently in France and on my way to becoming a woman. When I discovered how different I was, and what female genital mutilation really meant, it made me question my whole identity. I thought, ‘Who am I? What am I? This is not right! This is not fair!’ 

“Then I started to read everything I could about FGM. Educating myself was a way of coping with my anger. Of forgiving the person who kidnapped me from behind my parents’ backs, so I could move on with my life. I met doctors, lawyers, activists, got involved with survivor groups. I had reconstructive surgery to repair the damage done to my body.”

For a long time, Modja kept her activism and artistic career separate. Fans of the breezy, apolitical folk-pop she showcased on her 2009 debut, Everyday Is a New World, had little idea of her fierce commitment to fighting injustice and championing women’s rights. Her follow-up album, 2011’s Love Revolution, was similarly sunny, a hook-laden confection of tunes such as “I Am Smiling” and “La Fille Du Lido”. It saw her named “Révélation of the Year” at that year’s Victoires de la Musique awards, France’s equivalent of the ARIA Awards.

But scratch the singalong surface of the summer hit “French Cancan (Monsieur Sainte Nitouche)”, along with that of its buoyant, candy-coloured video, and you found a subversive in the making. Here was an African immigrant appropriating the clichés of her adopted country in an era marked by rising racism and xenophobia, and giving the French Right a cheeky kick up the butt in the process. It hinted at more radical things to come.

“It is hard being an immigrant here, but I had the European dream,” says Modja, who relocated to Paris at the age of 17 to study languages, literature and business at two institutions. “I felt I could not do what I wanted to do in Mali since my family are not griots [the traditional caste of storytellers and musicians], and as a young woman I wasn’t being taken seriously. So I thought, ‘Okay, I’ll travel the world, build my personality, become somebody.’ ” A smile. “Oh boy, it was difficult.”

She pauses, shakes her head. “That first winter I was living in a tiny room with no heat and a shared bathroom, and commuting to university in Lille, two hours away. Not that I’m complaining. I’m lucky that I have a lot of energy, and it gave me even more determination to succeed.”

Modja was waiting outside a cinema when a model scout approached her. A photo shoot later and she had signed to Elite Model Management. She spent the next few years on the catwalks of New York and Washington. Modja says she didn’t enjoy modelling, all the competition and superficiality and pressure to be thin, but it was a financial means to an end. Back in Paris she became the face of a hair-care line and, because she was good at it, wrote catchy pop tunes for singer friends on major labels.

When Modja started doing live acoustic gigs in France, word spread. She recorded her debut herself then released it through Warner Music France; time and again she’s had to stress that she is African, not French. “People would say, ‘Oh, but you’re not doing world music?’ Which for me goes with this old cliché of Africa as a place of suffering and starvation. Sure, playing music is natural in Mali. But my generation are millennials; we are creative, artistic, plugged in. And Bamako is super modern, like any capital city.”

Having determined to build a platform by stealth, the overnight success of “French Cancan” blindsided her. “At first I just wanted to entertain and not go too deep into my story. It is not easy telling the world about something so personal, and if I came in with no audience, no one would have paid attention anyway.” 

But after soldout shows, glossy magazine shoots, crowded in-store signings and a year’s stint on a television comedy sketch show – “I like to laugh; it helps me do what I do” – Modja deemed her constitution sufficiently strong and her fan base large and loyal enough to listen – really listen – to what she had to say. Then she set about recording Motel Bamako, an album that mixes soul and blues with electro and traditional beats and has her singing and rapping in French, English and Bambara on issues affecting Africa and the African diaspora.

The song “Water” is a lament for a scarce resource. “Boat People”, a duet with famed Malian diva Oumou Sangaré, one of Modja’s mentors, remembers the refugees who drowned when their boats capsized off the coast of Italy. “Tombouctu”, a prayer for peace in Mali, rails against the violence that was unleashed on northern Mali by militant groups in 2012, leading to jihadist occupation and eventual French military intervention.

“We heard stories of women being raped, young girls being forced into marriage with the terrorists, women being beaten in the marketplace because they didn’t cover their heads … In times of war women and girls always are the first targets,” Modja says. “But culture and music are more powerful than this violent ideology they are still trying to force, which has nothing to do with the peace-loving form of Islam that has been in Mali for thousands of years.”

The black-and-white video for “Tombouctu” was filmed in the Bamako studio of iconic Malian photographer Malick Sidibé, who died last April, and bears his unique aesthetic. Images of Modja with her mother, maternal grandmother and nieces are interspersed with those of women with kerchiefs over their mouths and, in one instance, the word “Freedom” emblazoned across bare breasts.

As well as rapping in Bambara – “We won’t sit down and we won’t shut up,” she spits – Modja imitates the sound of a machinegun to parody, subvert, shock. 

“My voice is my weapon,” she says, her shoulders squaring. “We are still fighting.”

Finding forgiveness

Modja always wanted be a singer. A hyperactive kid, the sixth of seven children born to a diplomat father from northern Mali and a midwife mother from Guinea, she grew up listening to her dad’s vinyl collection of Ray Charles, Nina Simone, Miriam Makeba, her mum’s favourite West African singers, and the competing tastes of her siblings: “Punk, rock, rap, disco, electro. I was in the middle of all this and soaked it all up.”

Back in Bamako after her family’s eight-year stint in Accra, Ghana, she began recording on tape songs that she’d written and covered. She daydreamed about playing them to Salif Keita, the international superstar nicknamed the African Caruso, who happened to be a neighbour. Aged 15, she knocked on his door.

“He said, ‘You want to sing? Sing!’ Afterwards he told me I needed training, and sent me to learn with the Super Rail Band, and I became one of their backing singers. Then I started focusing on what young Malians are into, which is hip-hop with Bambara rhymes.”

Modja avoided reflecting on what happened to her when she was four, and tried to be the perfect student and daughter. She knew her four elder sisters had been circumcised and one sister, who was taken by their paternal grandmother without her parents’ permission, had almost died. The young Inna was supposed to be spared; her mother’s guilt, she says, is still palpable.

“The person who did this to me died a while ago. Today I cannot hate her; she thought she was right,” says Modja, who in December took part in the first US summit to end female genital mutilation, a practice the World Health Organisation has documented in 30 countries beyond Africa and the Middle East to communities in Asia, Australia, Europe, and North and South America. More than 200 million women and girls are affected.

Her co-panellists were former United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon and representatives from organisations including Safe Hands for Girls, a group dedicated to ending female genital mutilation and providing support to survivors. Their combined aim is to eliminate FGM by 2030 – that is, within a generation.

“You cannot just ban a ritual. But we can create alternative rituals, bringing girls together with stories, music and food, telling them about sorority and sisterhood and all the things that will make them stronger, help them face the world.”

Since 2015, Modja has worked with the doctor who performed her reconstructive surgery – “It saved my life; finally I was the same as everyone else with the same opportunities and baggage and fucked-upness ” – and is acting as spokeswoman and group leader for La Maison des Femmes, a free women’s day clinic attached to a hospital in Saint-Denis, Paris, that caters for survivors of female genital mutilation, rape and domestic violence. “The big thing is the fear and the shame. Now, because I have a platform, I can get other survivors to open up, and talking helps me, too. If I can change one life, one viewpoint, then it’s a victory.”

It hasn’t been easy, of course. She’s been trolled online, spat at on the street. 

“It’s just ignorance,” she shrugs. “I’ve realised that women will always have to fight more. They will always be judged. Their path will always be more difficult.” 

In between campaigning and making music, Modja likes to paint, make photographs and read. A favourite author is the late Malian cultural ambassador Amadou Hampâté Bâ, whose famous quote – “In Africa, when an old man dies, it is a library burning” – underscores the importance of documenting African oral traditions. 

“My country is this amazing mix of the old and the new, of colour and vitality, dancing and joy, and I bring this to my concerts. But I need to share, too; the world is not in a good shape right now.”

Working towards a positive future for Mali, for Africa, is vital to Modja, who co-stars in French-Malian director Daouda Coulibaly’s forthcoming feature debut, Wùlu – a gritty thriller focusing on a bus driver turned drug trafficker. “So much terrorism is financed by the drug deals in the north of Mali,” Modja says of this vast, largely lawless region. “Drugs are flown in from Latin America and spread to Europe, Asia, everywhere. No one talks about it.”

Then there is #wingsforfreedom, the social art project Modja has going with her Italian filmmaker boyfriend Marco Conti Sikic, in which they paint sprawling angel’s wings on city walls in Paris, Bamako, Jaipur and Mexico City and then photograph people standing in front of them, as if flying. “It’s about hope,” she says, “and we need hope.” Later this year, she will be working on The Great Green Wall, a UN-backed documentary about the Africa-led project to grow an 8000-kilometre wall of trees and plants across the width of the continent. 

But first, there’s touring to be done. By the time this article appears, Modja will have played gigs in Brazil and New York; next month she makes an exclusive appearance at WOMADelaide. She emails me after our interview: “I’m doing a new project on women’s empowerment around the world and researching traditional dancers in Australia, if you have any ideas.”

Modja insists she’s only just begun. The music that gives her strength takes her forward. 

“Music will always reach more people than dogma,” she says. “Dogma talks at you. And music?” She flashes a grin. “Music talks to you.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 25, 2017 as "Singing out". Subscribe here.

Jane Cornwell
is a London-based journalist, broadcaster and critic and author of The Whirl: Men, Music and Misadventures.

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