For marginalized communities hip hop it is the preferred medium for protest music – more immediate and relatable to young people than folk. It’s hard to think of a more marginalized place than Northern Mali. Their recent history is one of conflict, with religious extremists seizing control in 2012, only being forced out 12 months later by a French led military intervention. Gao is in Mali’s North East, where you can go no further without leaving the asphalt behind. Whilst it’s not without its struggles, with a suicide bomber killing 50 in January, over the last decade it has become a hotbed of some of the most distinctive hip-hop you will ever hear.
The music is remarkable, a unique localized take on Western hip-hop, with syrupy autotuned vocals, gentle cheesy synth pop loops, and electronic percussion. It was discovered by Sahel Sounds boss Chris Kirkley at an MP3 market in Bamako in a folder marked ‘Gao Rap,’ and he has spent the last few years sourcing and licensing the material with assistance of one of Gao’s biggest rappers diezz d. Gao Rap: Hip Hop From Northern Mali is an astounding collection, demonstrating music’s unique ability to evolve across genres and geographic boundaries and in the process becoming something totally unique and fascinating. It’s raw, lackadaisical and endlessly creative, one of the most surprising collections of music you will hear in a while.
Sahel Sounds have already released an album from the smooth R&B influenced Pheno S, who’s production on ‘Hey Koy’ marries handlcaps with cheesy 80’s synth, yet the repetitive raps are remarkably catchy. All the artists here embrace the artificiality of their music. The production is raw and yet light, a world away from the swagger and bravado of US hip hop. With laidback stuttering beats that sound like they come from a toy keyboard and synthetic 80’s preset sounds it’s a production that you feel it’s accessible to everyone. Baba Konate Feat Filly features breathless female vocals (I’m assuming) before the may rapping breezes in. There’s a certain laidbck sweetness to this tune, whilst vocally the opening Ragga Dance by Faso Cool is the more complex in terms of a tongue twisting flow.
Without knowing what they’re saying, you’re pretty much losing most of the point of hip hop, or you would normally. But the fascination here is that the feel and approach are just so alien to everything we’ve ever thought that we know about hip hop that it’s impossible not to be entranced.