Malick Sidibé’s photographs enable my friend Diafode and I to revisit the youth culture of the 1960’s and our teenage years in Bamako. They show exactly how the young people in Bamako had embraced rock and roll as a liberation movement, adopted the consumer habits of an international youth culture, and developed a rebellious attitude toward all forms of established authority. The black and white photographs reflect how far the youth in Bamako had gone in their imitation of the world-view and dress style of popular music stars, and how Malick Sidibé’s photographic art was in conversation with the design of popular magazines, album covers, and movie posters of the time. To say that Bamako’s youth is on the same page as the youth in London and Paris in the 1960’s and 1970’s is also to acknowledge malick Sidibé’s role in shaping and expanding that culture.
To the youth in Bamako, Malick Sidibé was the James Brown of photography: the godfather whose clichés described the total energy of the time. Inasmuch as today there is a desire to go back to the music and film of the 1960’s and 1970’s in order to give a meaning to that culture, we can also go back to Malick Sidibé’s photographs to gain access to the style, vibrancy, and ethos of those times in Africa.
So implicated are Malick Sidibé’s photographs in the culture of the 1960’s that when we look at them, our youth comes back to life. They are the gateway to everything that was fasionable then; everything that constituted our modernism. They are a document through which one can see the passage of time in Bamako as marked by dress style (from B-boys to hippies, music appreciation (from Latin beat to James Brown), movies (from Westerns to Easy Rider), hair style (from Patrice Lumumba and Marlon Brando to the Afro), and dance moves (from the Twist to the Camel Walk).
In Sidibé’s photographs, one can see the turbulence of youth and the generational conflict that characterized the 1960’s. The desires of youth are inscribed in most of the photos as a determined break with tradition and as a transformation of the meaning of the decolonization movements of the1960’s into a rock and roll revolution. It is clear from Sidibé’s photographs that what the youth in Bamako wanted most in those days was James Brown and the freedom and existential subjectivity that linked independence to the universal youth movement of the 1960’s. The photographs show that, in attempting to be like James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones, they were also revealing their impatience with the political teachings of the nationalist state and the spirit of decolonization.
There is a problem related to a change in power relations in Bamako that needs to be addressed when discussing Sidibé’s photography. It would seem that his photos of young Bamakois are in contradiction not only with colonial-era studio photography, but also with the patterns of life that one would expect in a decolonized state. According to the famous theses on culture developed by Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon, it is not only impossible to create a national culture under colonialism, but it is also equally evident that artifacts like these photos are signs of neo-colonialism and Western imperialism. Writing about African independence in the 1960’s, Césaire Stated that whereas the colonial era was characterized by the “reification” of the African, the transition to independence would give rise to a revival of his creative energies, and a recovery of his authentic ways of being that had been forbidden by the colonizer. Independence would awaken in the individual the African personality that had for so long been suppressed. For Césaire, “after the `moment’ of pre-colonial Africa, a moment of `immediate truth,’ and the colonial `moment,’ a moment of the shattered African consciousness, independence inaugurates a third dialectical `moment,’ which must correspond with a reconciliation of the mind with its own consciousness and the reconquest of a plenitude” (“La pensée politique de Sékou Touré, Présence Africaine 29 [December 1959-January 1960], 67).
For theoretical purposes, it is important to retain Césaire’s use of the terms “moment,” “immediate truth, ” “own consciousness,” and “plenitude.” All of them refer to independence as an authentic state of being, a state of genuine creative and natural harmony between the precolonial past and the present. In contrast, the colonial and neocolonial state was characterized by assimilarion, alienation, and depersonalization of the African. Authors like Césaire expected the continent to create a new man with an African style in politics and culture. Lumumba, Sékou Touré, and Kwame Nkrumah were the prototypes of the ideal post-independence image, and they were all fiercely nationalist, authentic, and anti-imperialist. That the images of the youth in Sidibé’s photographs did not seem to reflect the Africa these leaders were attempting to shape has been interpreted as an indication of how alienated the youth were, as a sign that the youth were not in continuity with the political history of the nation. The photos cold be said therefore to reveal the presence of neo-colonialism among the youth.
Indeed, in Mali, the socialist government created a militia in the mid- 1960’s to monitor the behavior of the people in conformity with the teachings of socialism. This militia was aimed not only at abolishing traditional chiefs and other tribal customs, but also at correcting the youth’s habitus. In Bamako, curfews were set and youth caught wearing mini-skirts, tight skirts, bell-bottom pants, and Afro hairdos were sent to reeducation camps. Their heads were shaved and they were forced to wear traditional clothes. The situation did not get any better for the youth after the military takeover in 1968. Even though the former regime was castigated for taking people’s freedom away, for being worse than the colonizer in its destruction of African traditions, and for being against free enterprise, the soldiers who replaced the militia continued to patrol the streets of Bamako in search of rebellious and alienated youth. It was clear, therefore, that to both the independence leaders and the military regime in Bamako, the youth in Sidibé’s photographs were not obeying the teachings of independence, nationalism, and tradition. They were mimicking the culture of the colonizer, which shut the door to authentic self-actualization.
Looking at Sidibé’s photographs today, it is possible to see what was not visible then on account of the rhetorical teachings of revolution. It is indeed clear to me that the youth’s refiguration of the independence movement, their appropriation of the political history of decolonization, and their representation of their freedom were all misrecognized by their elders. According to Bourdieu, one can obey the past without representing it, (Lecture on Edouard Manet, College de France, 2000). In assessing the youth’s continutity with and transformation of the political history of independence in Bamako, it is therefore critical to look at the degree to which the youth had internalized and incarnated the lessons of the revolution. The youth had quickly internalized African culture, collapsed the walls of binary opposition between colonizer and colonized, and made connections beyond national frontiers with the black diaspora and international youth movements. That the theory of decolonization could not recognize this at the time as anything but mimicry and assimilation is an indication of its failure to grasp the full complexity of the energies unleashed by independence.
Looking back at the period between the mid-1960’s and the early 1970’s in Bamako, it is clear that the single most important factor, after independence, that introduced change into youth’s habitus was their exposure to diaspora aesthetics through rock and roll and the Black Power movement. And in this respect, it is also clear from the
visual evidence in Sidibé’s photographs that James Brown was one of the most important references that combined the ethos of black pride with the energy of rock and roll. As independence changed power relations in Bamako, the reception fo diaspora aesthetics through popular culture opened the floodgate of youth’s energby and creativity. The youth cold see themselves more easily in James Brown or in a glossy photograph of a defiant Muhammad Ali, than in any other motif of independence at that time.
To understand the impact of James Brown’s music on the youth in Bamako, and what is here called pagan modernism, it is important, first, to make a detour to one of the pre-Atlantic-slavery cultures, which seems to have survived in James Brown’s own performance. I refer here to the Dogon of Mali. According to Marcel Griaule, in his classic book Dieu d’eau (Fayard, 1966), Dogon cosmology revolved around men and women’s desire to be perfect like the Nommo. The Nommo were twin offspring of Amma, the Almighty god. Unlike their older brother, the incestuous jackal, who was ill-conceived through a union between Amma and the Earth, the Nommo were perfect in everything they did. They each had male and female organs, and would therefore reproduce without the other’s help. That is why the Dogon refer to the Nommo both as singular and plural; every Nommo is identical to the other, but also depends on the other like the left hand depends on the right. It is through their function in identity and binarism that the dogon believe the Nommor to be part god and part human, part fluid and part solid, part water and part snake.
The symbol of Nommo-variable and unlimited in Dogon cosmology and iconography-is also the vehicle for language. For the Dogon, the Nommo revealed the secret of language to men in three stages, each corresponding to a specific work and form of prayer. The first language, which is also the most abstract, came with the transformatin of baobab barks into fibers with which to clothe the nakedness of the earth. Even today, the Dogon dress their masks and statues with these multicolored fibers that contain the most ancient language of Nommo, which is understood by very few people. The second language was revealed through the techniques of weaving, and it was clearer, less sacred, and available to m ore people, Finally, the third language came with the invention of drums. It was a modern and democratic language understood by all. For the Dogon, mastery of these languages brought men closer to the purity and perfection of Nommo and placed them in control of their environment.
Through imitation of the Nommo’s language, men could therefore partake of a divine essence and, like the eight ancestors of the Dogon, become Nommo themselves. If Nommo were in the drums that they had made to teach men language, then men, by beating drums, were speaking the language of Nommo, and they themselves were Nommo at that moment. As Ogotemmeli, Griaule’s interlocutor in the book, puts it, men were “learning the new speech, complete and clear, of modern times” (Dieu deau, 74).
When we return to James Brown in the 1960’s and consider his impact on the youth of post-independence Africa, we realize his Nommo-like quality: the desire to elevate men and women to perfection. James Brown is a Nommo-known as “shaman” elsewhere in the world-part god and part human, who teaches the world, through his music and dance, the complete and clear language of modern times, and who makes Bamako’s youth coincide with the Dogon desire for perfection. Just like the Nommo was one with the drum-the beating of which taught men the language of modernity-James Brown was one with his band, though his was never complete without his red cape and his invitation to the masses to become part of his groove. People often say that James Brown, the hardest-working man in show business, does not say much in his songs, that he is notorious for limiting himself to a few words like, “I feel all right,” “You’ve got it, let’s go,” “Baby, baby, baby.” In fact, James Brown, like the Nommo, uses his voice and vital power to imitate the language of his instruments-the trumpet and drums-to make his audiences understand better the appropriate discourse of our modern condition. James Brown’s mimicry of the sound of his instruments-letting them speak through him as if he were one with them-communicated more clearly with his audiences the meaning of 1960’s social movements than any other language at the time. By subordinating human language to the language of the drums, or the language of Nommo, James Brown was partaking in the universalization of diaspora aesthetics, the freedom movements, and the discourse of black pride.
So imagine James Brown in Live at the Apollo when, in a song called “There Was a Time,” he invokes Nommo in these words: “But you can bet/ you haven’t seen nothing yet/ until you see me do the James Brown!” in this instance is to speak a different langugage with one’s body, to improvise a new dance different from the ones mentioned before, like the Jerk, the Mashed Potato, the Camel Walk, and the boogaloo. It is to dance with Nommo’s feet, and to leave on the dance floor the verb of Nommo, i.e., the compelte and clear new speech of modern times. Finally, it is to perform one’s own dance of Nommo, without an intermediary, and to become one with Nommo and James Brown.
In Bamako, in those days, James Brown’s music had an intoxicating power to make you stand up, forget your religion and your education, and perform a dance move beyond your ordinary capacities. As you move your legs and arms up and down in a scissors-step, or slide from one end of the dance floor to another, or imitate the blacksmith’s dance with an ax, your steps are being visited by the original dancers of pre-Atlantic-slavery African peoples. The Nommo have given you back all your articulations so that you can predict the future through the divination dance of the ancestors.
For ogotemmeli, to dance is to pay homage to the ancestors and to use the dance floor as a divination table that contains the secret of the new world system. Clearly, therefore, what James Brown was preparing the world for at the Apollo was the brand new body language of the Sixties: a new habitus that would take its resources from the civil rights movement, black pride, and independence. The catalogue of dances that James Brown cites, from the Camel Walk to the Mashed Potato, is composed of dances that the Nommo taught men and women so they could clearly understand the language of civil rights, independence, and freedom.
In Bamako too, young men and women, upon hearing James Brown, performed dances that were imitations of the way Nommo swam in the river, the way the chameleon crawled and changed colors. The sun-dance of the Great Dogon mask, the thunder dance of the Kanaga mask, and the undulating movement of the snake were included too. In this way, the Bamakois took charge of their new situation, showed how the system worked, and predicted the future. Just as the Mashed Potato or the Camel Walk were coded dances that told different stories of emancipation, the dances the youth performed in Bamako were also expressions of independence and connection with the diaspora.
By capturing movement-an action caught in time and space, which here I call narrative-in his portraits, Sidibé also enables each character to tell his own story. This act is political, insofar as it allows the youth in Bamako to seize upon their own individuality, away from tradition and the high modernism of the independence leaders. By looking like the modern black image, deracinated from nation and tribe, the youth in Bamako were also showing their belonging to Pan-Africanism and the African diaspora. Therefore, to say that Sidibé’s photographs reveal Bamako’s youth as alienated is to address their politics, which were more aligned with th
e diaspora and the universal youth movement.
Finally, as I now look at Sidibé’s album with my friend Diafode, I think of the pervasive influence of Hip Hop in Africa and the rest of the world. The young people participating in the movement today in Bamako are the ages of Diafode’s and my children. What Sidibé’s photographs achieve is to teach us to be more tolerant of today’s youth, to understand that their action is not devoid of politics, and to see in them the triumph of the diaspora.