On National Liberation, Culture, and Hip Hop: A Reading of Elom 20ce’s Pan-African Videos



Examining two songs and their videos by Togolese rapper, Elom 20ce, Inem Richardson describes the importance of the cultural dimension in the anti-colonial struggles as described by Frantz Fanon and Amílcar Cabral, as well as in Pan-African futures.

Richardson Funambulist 1
Stills from Elom 20ce’s video Dead Man Walking (2015). In it, George Jackson, Samora Machel, Che Guevara, Sylvanus Olympio, Patrice Lumumba, Walter Rodney, Amílcar Cabral, Martin Luther King Jr., Thomas Sankara, Malcolm X, and Fred Hampton are depicted as martyrs of the revolution.

As African countries waged struggles for independence in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, anti-colonial leaders who participated in these struggles theorized the concept of national identity in relation to the states that they sought to create or liberate. One of the most important elements of national identity that these revolutionaries sought to define was the idea of the new national culture and its relationship to the liberation of the countries seeking self-governance. Among the thinkers that participated in the struggles during this time, Frantz Fanon and Amílcar Cabral stand out as two revolutionaries that defined national culture and national liberation as these concepts emerged on the African continent.

They called for the creation of a national culture that would be based on the national liberation struggles waged in the rapidly decolonizing world. While both constructed important visions of the future liberation of African peoples, they differed in their understandings of the past in relation to the future. In his 1959 paper, “On National Culture,” Frantz Fanon called for the creation of a new humanism; one that would draw from the current liberation struggles in order to inform the future. He marked the origin of the new national culture more strictly with the advent of the national liberation struggle. In his 1970 speech “National Liberation and Culture,” Amílcar Cabral called for a return to the source, a reentry into a history that has been stolen, and a harmonization of the positive cultural aspects of all those who fought in the struggle for liberation. While they differed in the significance they assigned to the period before the national liberation struggle, both Fanon and Cabral agreed that the liberation struggle ultimately marked the birth of the new national culture.

In his 1959 paper, “On National Culture,” Frantz Fanon called for the creation of a new humanism; one that would draw from the current liberation struggles in order to inform the future.

The importance of the national liberation struggle in the formation of national or pan-national culture has been proven by the continued relevance of this historic moment on identity, art, and youth culture across the African continent. This can be seen through the emergence of African hip hop culture and political rap from various parts of the Continent which frequently makes reference to late 20th century liberation struggles. West Africa has been no exception with rappers such as Didier Awadi from Senegal who raps about various African liberation struggles and leaders to various artists from Guinea Bissau and Cabo Verde such as KuArt K. Almeida and Pomba Preto who rap extensively about Amílcar Cabral and the liberation struggle. Rappers and rap music have also been used to organize and mobilize West African youth in popular political movements such as in the case of Senegal’s Y’en a Marre and Burkina Faso’s Le Balai Citoyen (co-founded by rapper Smockey and reggae artist Sams’k le Jah), two groups which drew connections between historical liberation struggles and movements and present day organizing. One of the most pertinent examples of the influence of 20th century liberation struggles on contemporary West African political rap music is found in the works of Elom 20ce, a Togolese rapper, designer, filmmaker and founder of Asrafo records who refers to himself as an arctivist (a portmanteau combining the artist and activist). The similarities and differences in Cabral and Fanon’s definitions and understandings of national cultural and national liberation can be explored in Elom 20ce’s songs, Dead Man Walking and Voodoo Sakpata from his 2015 album Indigo.

Dead Man Walking ///

From the first moments of Dead Man Walking, viewers are made aware of the importance of Elom 20ce’s consideration of temporality, specifically his thoughts on the past in relation to the present in the context of the struggle for African liberation. The title of the song, Dead Man Walking, already suggests much about Elom 20ce’s conception of time. The song implies a resurrection of the past. While the past is usually considered to be inaccessible, as if closed off by a locked door that separates it from the present, Dead Man Walking evokes the notion of impermanent death and resurrection suggesting that something that existed in the past or a past life may be able to walk in the present. It implies a cyclical understanding of time rather than a linear one. This interpretation of time is confirmed early on in the video as a cosmic narrator declares “tout est cyclique” (“everything is cyclical”). However, the cyclical notion of time here does not suggest a perpetual and unending repetition that cannot be interrupted. Rather, Dead Man Walking represents a particular stage of African history, later revealed to be marked by (neo-)colonialism and white supremacy, as an ongoing yet impermanent process.

The music video is set in Rufisque, a coastal town right outside of Dakar, Senegal, in the year 2061. The cyclical nature of time is demonstrated through various means throughout the video, the most salient being the visual representations of those Elom 20ce identifies as martyrs who died for the liberation of Africa or the African diaspora.These are the dead men walking and Elom emphasizes that they not only died but were brutally murdered. The first lines he raps are, “Je viens à vous, ombilical cordon au cou, mes tripes dans mes paumes et un diamant dans la pomme d’Adam,” (“I’m coming to you, umbilical cord around the neck, my guts in the palm of my hands and a diamond in the Adam’s apple”) making it clear that Elom has no desire to diminish or erase the graphic violence that took these men’s lives. In other lines such as, “Je traîne mon cadavre sur la place publique comme le corps d’Ouandié Ernest, Sylvanus Olympio et le reste” (“I’m dragging my corpse on the public place, like Ouandié Ernest’s body, Sylvanus Olympio and the others”), he provides some details regarding the deaths of specific figures he names. He then goes on to explain the importance of these men, saying, “Martyrs qui ont versé leur sang pour arroser la graine d’une Afrique forte et puissante…” (“Martyrs who shed their blood to water the seed of a strong and powerful Africa…”). This explains the significance of these men and why Elom distinguishes them from other men who have been murdered for other reasons. Not every deceased gets to occupy the position of the dead man walking; only ancestors that have proven a certain dedication to African liberation and who have suffered for it earn the title.

Several elements of the song and the music video are rooted in pre-colonial cultural practices and beliefs. Even the fundamental conception of the dead man walking is conveyed through African masqueraders throughout the video, a reference to the belief that ancestors who have passed on can possess the bodies of the living during the
masquerade ceremony. In the song, Elom 20ce references pre-colonial African conceptions of death, namely, mummies, and syncretic diasporic interpretations of resurrection in the form of zombies. All these factors indicate that Elom 20ce likely maintains an understanding of the past in relation to liberation in a way that aligns with that of Amílcar Cabral. Cabral believed that national culture was born out of the liberation struggle and that, during the struggle, the positive aspects of all the cultures that fought for liberation fused to create the new national culture. He never negates the role that pre-colonial culture might play in the formation of the new liberated nation. This same philosophy can be found in the message of Dead Man Walking. However, much like Fanon, Elom 20ce places the strongest emphasis on the liberation struggle and the memory of colonialism and anti-colonialism as the driving force in the creation of culture and liberation.

Voodoo Sakpata ///                                                         

Elom 20ce’s song Voodoo Sakpata takes his visual and lyrical representation of indigenous cosmologies even further than many of the other songs on this album. The name of the song Voodoo Sakpata causes listeners to anticipate the representations of the West African religious practices that Elom 20ce interweaves throughout the song and video. Voodoo refers to the indigenous spiritual practices of Togo and Benin, also known as vodun, as well as the diasporic syncretic iterations of these practices such as Haitian vodou and Louisiana voodoo. Sakpata refers to the Dahomean deity in charge of smallpox, sickness, and mental illness. Thus, even before one listens to the song, there is already an explicit importance directed towards beliefs that originate from a time prior to the colonial period or during the advent of the exploitation of Africa. The heavy emphasis on West African traditions and cosmology does not prevent Elom 20ce from also maintaining a strong focus on contemporary problems facing African peoples or the violent history of colonialism and neo-colonialism that wreaked havoc across the continent and diaspora. Evidently, the purpose of this song is not to celebrate African culture or African achievements in a way that is detached from the current conditions of those among the most exploited of African peoples. The song begins by referencing danger, drug addiction, and alcoholism which in some circumstances may be symptoms of colonial oppression. However, even this first verse of the song offers a glimmer of hope through the suggestion of resistance to colonial oppression.

“Des riches en danger, pauvres en péril ! Système hégémonique ! Comprends pourquoi ma plume s’exprime comme des Kalachnikovs, les Krakatau, les tornades, les Molotov. Regarde ce que la drogue a fait de nous ? On ne se marie plus. Les frères épousent les bouteilles, la Sativa, les seringues.” (“Rich people in danger! Poor people in peril! Hegemonic system! Understand why my quill expresses itself like Kalashnikovs, Krakatau, tornados, Molotovs. Look at what the drug did to us? We don’t marry anymore. Brothers marry bottles, sativa, and syringes.”)

These lines imply that Elom 20ce has no desire to be a passive witness to the downfall of his people. He is writing for a purpose and his words are his weapon. By referring to his writing instrument as “ma plume” (“my quill”), he blurs the lines between the past, present and future. This gives the impression that he is referring to himself in the present as he composes the song Voodoo Sakpata, while simultaneously referring to an historical incarnation of himself that might live during a time when people write with quills. He draws a direct line from the historical invention of the plume to more modern weapons such as Kalachnikovs, Krakataus, and Molotov cocktails. Within the vodun tradition there is a belief in the impermanence of death and the continuation of one’s life force which can transcend time periods.

Lomé, Ouaga, Conakry, Accra, nos proses abolissent les frontières tracées en Allemagne...” (“Lomé, Ouaga, Conakry, Accra, our prose abolishes the borders drawn in Germany…”)

Elom 20ce pronounces his Pan-African politics most clearly with the line, “Lomé, Ouaga, Conakry, Accra, nos proses abolissent les frontières tracées en Allemagne...” (“Lomé, Ouaga, Conakry, Accra, our prose abolishes the borders drawn in Germany…”). Elom 20ce names four cities in West Africa and then indicates that his words and those of others like him eliminate borders that were created in Germany. This is in reference to the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, during which representatives from Western European countries met together in Berlin, Germany, to divide Africa into colonies they would rule over. The borders created during the Berlin Conference continue to be the borders used to demarcate the boundaries of most African states. Elom 20ce describes why he selected these particular cities to reference, stating:

“Lomé because it is my hometown. The other cities, because I am linked to other engaged artists there, working towards enhancing the conscious [sic] of their people. Besides, Ouaga because of Sankara and his heritage, Conakry because of Amílcar Cabral, Sékou Touré and their heirs, Accra because of Kwame Nkrumah and his legacy.” (interview by Benjamin Lebrave, Africa Is a Country, 2016).                               

The struggle to eliminate the colonial borders imposed on Africa and to create a totally unified African federal state is a fundamental part of building Pan-Africanism. The Pan-Africanists that Elom 20ce references in this line Kwame Nkrumah, Amílcar Cabral, and Ahmed Sékou Touré subscribed to the definition of Pan-Africanism which emerged from the Fifth Pan-African Congress in 1945 — Pan-Africanism as an objective which aims for the total liberation and unification of Africa under scientific socialism. The torch was passed to Thomas Sankara a couple decades later who would also work towards this objective. The nation that is constructed in Elom 20ce’s musical contribution to national culture is Africa as a whole or the United States of Africa, as the federal African state is sometimes referred to.

Richardson Funambulist 2
Stills from the video Voodoo Sakpata (2015). One can recognize the books Africa Unite ! Une histoire du panafricanisme by Amzat Boukari-Yabara (2017), Traditional Religion in West Africa by E. A. Ade Adegbola (1983), and Africa Writes Back by James Currey (2008).

The last lines of the second verse of Voodoo Sakpata are the most important for understanding how Elom 20ce conceives time in relation to the struggle for liberation. “Étudies ton histoire. Saisis-en les leçons” (“Study your history, grasp its lessons”) is an acknowledgement of the importance of the past. The past is not something that people can afford to disengage with because it holds valuable lessons that must be thoroughly studied. Furthermore, as Elom 20ce says, “Hier Sharpeville, aujourd’hui Marikana” (“Yesterday Sharpeville, today Marikana”), drawing a line between historic and contemporary violence against African people. The Marikana Massacre of 2012 in South Africa is compared to the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre in South Africa. This once again is an acknowledgement of (neo-)colonial violence as an ongoing process rather than a historical moment. These pertinent themes of African cosmology and a need to study and understand African history are represented visually in the music video which depicts masqueraders, traditional religious objects and occasional shots of books about Pan-Africanism and African spirituality.                                                      

The past that [Elom 20CE] emphasizes is not a romantic depiction of pre-colonial history, but rather a study of the history of colonialism and its impact on the African continent and the diaspora.

Overall, this song presents an illustration of colonialism and imperialism on the African continent through an epistemology and cosmology that derives from traditional African spiritual practices. In “On National Culture” Fanon stresses the importance of artistic representations of colonialism and resistance in order to mobilize oppressed people into action. That is what Elom 20ce aims to do with this song. He raps about the present conditions of African peoples, about the history of colonialism, about the reality of neo-colonialism, and about moments of resistance. He makes a clear case for a study of history and an engagement with the past. However, the past that he emphasizes is not a romantic depiction of pre-colonial history, but rather a study of the history of colonialism and its impact on the African continent and the diaspora. As much as Elom 20ce’s message aligns with Fanon, the imagery and overall philosophy of the work affirms Amílcar Cabral’s point in “National Liberation and Culture” as Cabral believes that various positive aspects of pre-colonial cultures play a role in the creation of the new liberated national culture. The imagery and themes of Voodoo Sakpata demonstrate the value of pre-colonial heritage within the context of the struggle for liberation by breaking up verses about oppression and resistance with the words “voodoo sakpata” and by relying heavily on images that represent traditional West African spirituality. Fanon may not see pre-colonial culture as inherently relevant to the liberation struggle, but he does acknowledge that some pre-colonial artistic mediums can develop a newfound usage in the context of the liberation struggle which he describes as follows:

“At another level, oral literature, tales, epics, and popular songs, previously classified and frozen in time, begin to change. The storytellers who recited inert episodes revive them and introduce increasingly fundamental changes. There are attempts to update battles and modernize the types of struggle, the heroes’ names, and the weapons used” (The Wretched of the Earth, 1961).

As Fanon describes, certain pre-colonial traditions resurrect with several modifications that shift their original meanings during the liberation struggle. One could see Elom 20ce’s embrace of pre-colonial spirituality in this way, since the meaning behind the masquerades he depicts have shifted from their original purpose to a now anti-colonial objective. This is where Elom 20ce shifts from a cyclical understanding of time to a more dialectical one in which everything is in constant motion and things do not stay exactly the same.

Furthermore, Cabral believed that national culture was formed through cultural hybridization, and this exists in Elom 20ce’s work through the use of both French and Ewe in the song. Elom 20ce explains this hybridization, saying, “I’m inspired by urban culture as much as tradition. I love hip hop, but my main reference is African art: kente cloth, sculptures, stilts… I’m fascinated by masks.” Therefore, while the song lyrics fall into Fanon’s understanding of national culture, apart from the chorus, the song as a whole aligns more with Cabral’s understanding of national culture. This is because Cabral’s understanding of national culture encompasses Fanon’s belief that national culture is founded upon the liberation struggle; however, Cabral goes further than Fanon by incorporating positive elements of indigenous cultures that existed prior. Finally, because Cabral’s understanding of culture is syncretic and allows for multiple reference points, it lends itself to the forms of syncretism that Elom 20ce evokes to represent his Pan-African politics. ■