“You cannot bring about change if artists are not on your side”.
I did not get what Smockey (co-founder of Balai Citoyen) was trying to tell me until the Ambassador of Conscience Award 2016 event in Dakar, Senegal. Created in 2003 by Amnesty International, the highest honour prize of the organisation is awarded annually to individuals and groups who speak out for justice. Africa was honoured this year: the event was organised in West Africa for the first time, and the award was shared between African activists relentlessly fighting for change and respect of human rights.
The award winners of 2016 are Balai Citoyen from Burkina Faso, Lutte pour le Changement or LUCHA from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Y En A Marre from Senegal, and the talented and internationally renowned Beninese singer Angelique Kidjo. The fact that Amnesty International celebrates Africa is all the more important as 2016 is the Year of Human Rights for the African Union.
Though not focusing solely on artists, the Ambassador of Conscience award has been given to many artists such as the Irish music rockband U2 (2005), Peter Gabriel (2008), Joan Baez and Ai Weiwei (2015). This year was marked by art as well. Balai Citoyen, who played a great part in overthrowning the dictator Blaise Compaoré in Burkina Faso in 2014, was founded by two musicians, Sams’K Le Jah and Smockey. The latter performed one of his songs as a message to “the remaining dictators in Africa”.
Y En A Marre actively militated for the end of power cuts in Dakar, against the amendment of the Constitution by former Senegalese president Abdoulaye Wade in 2012 and, recently in 2016, against the amendment of the same Constitution by current President Macky Sall. It was created by the rap group Keur Gui and the journalist Fadel Barro. I hardly need to present the Beninese singer Angelique Kidjo and her work for women and girls’ rights in her country and around the world.
Artists are high-profile people in society, especially singers and rappers. They are role models for the youth and they bring us to the attention of the world. Their voices are heard every time everywhere by everybody. This award repositions the role of our artists who should not only use their craft to entertain us but also to raise awareness and lead us if the need arises. As the Senegalese activist Fatou Diome said in her speech, “An artist is not one who knows, but one who wonders: what is a human being and what are the conditions for his dignity?”
LUCHA from DRC actively fights the dictatorial regime of president Kabila. The action group was not represented by any musician at the event. Though Micheline Mwendike did not perform like the other award winners, her speech resonated louder. Here is an excerpt:
“We are desperately talking to the youth of our country, of Africa: let us stand up and determine our future. Let us use the energy of youth, the advantage of our numbers and the formidable power of nonviolence to conquer our denied rights, our liberties, and our confiscated freedom. As Thomas Sankara said, a people cannot be freed, a people frees itself. To those who are still hesitating in the face of injustice, indifference and resignation are acts of complicity that strengthen and perpetuate tyranny”.
Micheline went to the stage barefoot to receive the award. “When we mourn in my country, we do it barefoot.” She was mourning for the members of LUCHA imprisoned for their peaceful and nonviolent action against president Kabila’s regime.
The common characteristic between LUCHA, Y En A Marre and Balai Citoyen is their action against oppressive governments. They risk their lives to free their fellow citizens because, as Smockey said on stage, “Losing their lives for the others to live is not a fatality”. They did not limit their actions to their own countries. Members of Y En A Marre went to DRC in 2015 for a peaceful and nonviolent demonstration with LUCHA. They have been beaten by police forces and arrested together.
Young people of the continent are defining the future. Africa is still grim in many ways, but as the General Secretary of Amnesty International, Salil Shetty, said in his opening speech: “today we are not here to lament what governments are doing, but to celebrate the fact that when citizens act together, these governments listen.” To Fadel Barro, “African youth is becoming more and more radical in the face of darkness”.
This award shared by three activist groups and a renowned female activist from Africa consecrates the action of the engaged citizens across the continent. It acknowledges their fight, celebrates their victories and encourages those who have not yet reached their goals. The event ended with a song that is today a hymn to liberty: Redemption Song by Bob Marley. The award winners as well as other Senegalese activist artists such as Youssou N’dour or Didier Awadi combined their voices to tell people the fight is not over.
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