In Togo—a sliver of a country nestled on the West Coast of Africa—a culture of self-censorship permeates society. Ending up on the government's blacklist can be so devastating that most people distance themselves from anything that could be considered out of line with the state's official stance. Adding to the paranoia, undercover agents frequently attend university classes to monitor what information students are learning. Music and media in Togo do not veer too far astray from what the government wants to hear, or what people assume the government will tolerate. It's hard to determine where actual censorship stops and where self-censorship begins.
In this climate, Togolese rapper Elom 20ce is an anomaly. Standing at the forefront of the country's conscious hip-hop movement, Elom was an early member of the local rap groups Mouvement Universitaire du Rap (or MUR, which also means "wall" in French) and Faculté du Rap (F2R, Rap Faculty) in the mid 2000s, and considers himself an arctivist—a portmanteau reflecting his dual identity as an artist and activist.
In 2010, Elom released his first EP, Légitime Défense, followed by the Braquage à l'Africaine Vol. 1 compilation in 2011, and Les Etats-Unis d'Afrique in 2012. That same year, he released his first album, Analgézik, which is French for "painkiller." Since then, Elom has performed in West African countries like Benin, Burkina, and Ghana, in addition to Germany and France. His next release, an album called Indigo, comes out next month on his own label, Asrafo Records.
With "Voodoo Sakpata," a track off that album, Elom signs off his directorial debut with a video that serves as a perfect introduction to his world: a fury of tradition and modernity, post-colonial malaise and rich roots, French lyrics and African references, all on top of a boom bap beat. "I'm inspired by urban culture as much as tradition," he told THUMP. "I love hip hop, but my main reference is African art: kente cloth, sculptures, stilts… I'm fascinated by masks."
The video shows a Dogon Kanaga mask from Mali, which is used during funerals to protect the soul of the deceased. It connects the sky and the earth, the creator and the people, and as such, reflects Elom's lyrics about looking into Africa's cultural heritage to find answers and solutions to today's problems. "Orality plays a big role in African culture," he says. "Life lessons and morals are taught mainly through metaphors, songs and proverbs. Those who carry on this tradition are the griots, the jelis, the Kpaligans."
Elom raps in French rather than his native Mina tongue to reach a wider audience across the continent and the world. In this video, he incorporates imagery deep-rooted in African art and culture to support his message and broaden his reach. "The couple fighting in the video represents the lack of understanding between nations," he explains. "In this chaos, the children of the earth are lost in their quest for humanity. The naked child at the end of the video represents this idea of being ourselves, being human beings, which may be the best way to face our problems."
"The song comes from a simple observation: there's so much trouble in Africa," he continues. "I'm using a proverb that says that everything you eat has to come out at some point." Elom applies this universal image to immigration, environmental issues, racism, wars across the continent, and of course, African presidents who continue to muzzle their people.
"My message is pan-African," he concludes. "My music is intended for everybody, but it is geared towards Africans, and towards Africa's executioners—those who pull the strings in the West and those who execute orders in Africa."