S1E2: Baaba Maal: A Voice for Change

December 20, 2021
IFC Managing Director Makhtar Diop talks with world-renowned Senegalese musician Baaba Maal about how music can help raise awareness of a changing climate, give voice to the issues that matter to people, and bring people together to make change happen.

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IFC Managing Director Makhtar Diop talks with world-renowned Senegalese musician Baaba Maal about how music can help raise awareness of a changing climate, give voice to the issues that matter to people, and bring people together to make change happen. He also discusses his efforts to combat desertification in the Sahel and to raise awareness for gender equality.

Highlights from Episode 2


Baaba Maal (BM): In 1978, when I was traveling in West Africa, we started to see that the land was starting to get dry. The rivers started to lose the water that we used to see when we was young. The landscape that used to be beautiful, with a lot of trees, a lot of diversity of animals, of birds that I sing in my songs. And sometimes young people ask me, we don't know that name of a bird or that name of a river because they were not there. We start to say, something is happening. We have to think about how to restore that. We have to make people to be more concerned and take action and to plant trees. This is why I wrote the song “Lekki,” which means “Trees.”

Makhtar Diop (MD): Hi and welcome to our podcast, Creative Development with IFC. I’m your host, Makhtar Diop. Today, I’m honored to have a great African artist, the Senegalese musician, Baaba Maal. Baaba Maal is well known in the world of music but also he was featuring in the music of the blockbuster [movie], “Black Panther.” And we're talking about how his music is connected to his work in development and protecting the environment. Baaba Maal is not only an incredible musician, but also a powerful climate activist.

BM: Wherever you are, whoever you are, please at least plant one tree, and we can little by little restore the land.

MD: Baaba, since I know you, I do not say how long it's been, you've always been socially oriented in your songs, linking well before everybody did environment, drought, the life of herders, of farmers in the Sahel to whatever you have done. So tell me, Baaba, how all this came to you.

BM: I was concerned about what's happening in the Sahel, because I am myself born at the north of Senegal. I saw the impact of climate change and desertification in the life of the people in this part of Africa, Mauritania, and Senegal, especially. And I asked myself, "What can I do?" Because I knew that with my voice, I can inform people about the situation first and use also the fact that culturally, people are very close to me. I can go to see them, to sit down with them, and to know exactly what their problems [are]. And what they are expecting first of all from the government, and then every single person who can be involved to help them change the situation and to understand it's not a fatality. People can fix it.

BM: So, first of all I did some rallies in Mauritania, for example, with Oxfam International, and we met a lot of associations of women, who explained to us that they are already organized. They live near the River Senegal, so they have the land, they have the water. The only thing which is missing is the support and understanding, is the money, for example, to initiate many projects and face the impact of climate change and the impact of desertification. So that was my first experience to be with people and to really know about this problem. And then I get involved with the United Nations department who fight against desertification, UNCCD (United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification). And I say, I'm going to lend my voice. I'm going also be with them and to go to see people and see what we can do, because when we talk about desertification, it's not just planting trees to restore the lands and things. It is also to support people who leave and go away because of the impact; to help them stay at home, to have development projects. And that gives me an idea. I put on a foundation, which is called NANN-K. It's based on my personal, the Fulani language, which means agriculture, fishing, livestocking, but through culture and access to technology. And it was really, really acclaimed by people. It was like people was waiting for a solution like that, and they all came to the project, and this is how I'm inside of it.

MD: But Baaba, you have done something quite unique. And for everybody who knows you, you're someone very quiet, very humble, and very discreet. You're not someone who likes to be in the limelight. And you did some things that a lot of people outside the US don’t know, instead of staying in Dakar, the capital city, you decided to build your main residence in your own town, in Podor, in the north of Senegal. Tell us what makes you make that decision? There's a difference of a lot of artists who are more in large cities.

BM: When I decided to call my band, Daande Lenol, which means the voice of the people, most of these people we're talking about, they came to me a long time ago. And they say, since you're the voice of the people, we need your band to play concerts. And we did in Dakar. We get a lot of money to support some of these associations of development, to build the classrooms, to make some health centers local, to some bank of cereals for people to use. And also some small villages when we go there and we use generators to play for the people, just support them. We have been doing that for more than three decades. And I noticed that it did help to change the life of people. Little by little we understood that we can't run away from this engagement, from this hope that people have to what the band can bring, to bring people through the culture to be together. But at the same time to teach to people that we can be together and try to resolve our problems. Even with a little concert or a little something that people put on together, you can ... resolve the problems of a village or community or a neighborhood. And that's my engagement. And the band did it so well. They support me by doing this.

BM: And also when I travel in these places in Senegal, it's not just the north of Senegal, but everywhere in Senegal, the band play to support these development initiatives. We see that people have a lot of respect for the music, of course, because we took the music from Senegal and spread it all over the world. But at the same time, we bring back the music to support the initiative of people. And understood that you can't separate culture and development, and it’s work of the best way to help people to move from the bad situations they have to something that make great in their life.

MD: Baaba, the idea of voice of the people has been a long time with you, and I can witness it. You came with that name for the future band that you were creating, but at that time it was not yet a formal band. Talk a little bit about those years when you were thinking about the concept of voice of the people and linking to climate change and so forth.

BM: One of the things is that I wanted this culture, this music, this legacy that I have, I got from the old generations, because they're really deep in African tradition and things. And I wanted to share that with the rest of the world, but first in Dakar, the capital of Senegal, to discover the music of the north of Senegal, and then the rest of the world.

I'm born a traveler. I want to travel and to show the world that this music is great, and maybe this music is connected to what we ever did hear from North America or the Caribbean or Jamaica, for example, and to see where is the connection between what I know from the tradition and that. That was the first thing. And then I understood that it gives me the chance to have a voice. And I said to my voice, "This voice should help me to achieve something with the people,” to help the people to talk about all the issues that matter for them.

It was like a mission for me. I said, "Yeah, I'm not going away. The music that come from these people, I need to take action with these people to help them to find the solutions." I agree that one song or one person can share the thing, but you can be at least a starting point for people to say, "We have to take action."

MD: This is powerful. This is very powerful what you just said. And it happens that because of our history, we have a lot of things that we have done or shared. As you know, my family is coming from St. Louis. And you studied in St. Louis yourself. You've seen the impact of climate change in two dimensions. You saw the impact of drought on climate change, and you saw the coastal erosion impact. When you go back to St. Louis and you see how the coast has been destroyed by the sea rise, and you travel 300 kilometers later and you see the drought, you see the two impacts. How do you reconcile all these? And how do you want to explain to people in the rest of the world that we are affected in Africa by many dimensions of climate change?

BM: I think, first of all, we have to talk to our own people, to say to them that we all have to take action. Even sometimes we complain and say, "We're not responsible totally for climate change in Africa," but we see the impact of what the ocean is doing to the coast of Senegal, a beautiful coast. Hundreds of kilometers of coast, beautiful coasts, and now it seems to be going away because of the ocean, the impact of climate change on the coast of Senegal. But also we need for the rest of the world to know that we're organizing ourselves in this continent. We are really organizing ourselves to face the impact of climate change, but we need the support also of the outside world. And that support should not be just coming from our government, it should be coming also from the places where people want to take action and to resolve the international impact of climate change. We call it, “Africa is the future.” I say, Africa is the present. It is now. People need to help or to go with Africa to try to resolve the problem of the impact of climate change.

MD: Something that I always heard from you the time you were, I would not say what we were doing, but when we were in Paris and I was associated with your musical journey, you always talk about self-reliance and let's solve our problems ourselves. Let's not always try to rely on people. And at the same time, it's quite interesting to see that you're walking on two legs.

You're living in Podor, you talk about really solving our problem as Africans, take responsibility for what you're doing. But there's nobody who has been so open to the rest of the world. You're certainly one of the African musicians who has the most collaborations with any artist in the world, being in the UK, the Celtic music. You have been in many projects and you did some electro [Pulaar] music. You did everything. You are very much rooted in reggae music. And for me it is what I see as the present and the future of Africa. But tell us more about this being deeply rooted in what you are, and the fact that you cannot live without working with the rest of the world.

BM: It's crucial to understand that we're all living on the same planet, and music can really be an example. People that, we are all concerned about what's happening everywhere on this planet, we are all connected. If you want to make a better future, we have to be together. Of course, everyone comes from a place and has to, in his journey of life or his cultural journey, has to carry on with his cultural heritage, but at the same time open himself to the others.

This is why I think also it did help me to raise up my voice and to talk about Africa much louder. Sometimes if we talk between ourselves, that's going to be within ourselves. But I always say that Africa always has friends all over the world. And these friends are ready to see if we show everyone there to be together, to do great things, not even just to come to help, because people can be involved because they love Africa. They love the culture. They love the food. They love the weather. For many reasons, people love Africa. For example, I say Mumford and Sons, who is a very big group in London, they came to the festival Blues of the River that I organized in Podor, which is a cultural music festival. But at the same time, we talk about education in the day. We talk about irrigation. We talk about agriculture. We talk about how to maintain young women at the school. We talk about all the things that matter to us. So, when they came down there, they came back with the full band to play there. And they said they want to be involved more and more about what's happening in Africa. And this all comes because I was collaborating with them and it helped them to know much better the music of Africa, but also to know the reality of Africans.

MD: Maybe people know you internationally for your work on the environment, but they don't know also what you have done to support the gender dimension. But it's something that from the early stage of your career, I've always been seeing you working with women’s associations to close the gender gap, and you've been a very strong [advocate] of gender equality. People who don't know that side of you, do you want to tell them something about it?

BM: I was approached long time ago by UNIFEM and that was the time ... That time all the people was thinking that they are revolutionary and they want to change the world. And they asked me to write a song. I said to them, "Just give me some ideas of what you are waiting for for the world to support women." And they said, "Access to credit in the banks, education, to be trained in some things that can help us to be much more competitive." And I wrote the song.

But I can tell you, Makhtar, that is an engagement for me, because when I travel in Africa, I can see that there's two energy that we really have to push them to be at the front line, when it comes to economy, to politics, to culture. And the two groups of people is first of all, the women. Because wherever you go, especially in west Africa, the women are always together. They have the ability to have the association, to have a program in their association. And it's very well organized. We don't have that. Men don't have that like women have. And I see this is really important. We need people to be together to be focused on what they want, how they're going to do it, and how they do it. This is an energy that we need to push.

And the other group of people is the young people who, even facing poverty or sometimes very bad situations in their life, they never drop their hands. They always try to see solutions. But coming to women, I said to myself, "In every single album that I do, there will be a song that goes to women." So when I did “Traveler,” for example, I did the song for women, which is “Tindo Quando.” It's just when I was saying, "This time of the life, I think that this is the time for women and young people, and they should take the flag of development and hold it really, really high. And we will see the result.

MD: Baaba, it's just fantastic. For me, it brings a lot of memories, these conversations that we're having today. And a lot of memories, because this is something that you were saying a long time ago. It's not something that is fashionable…I am a witness of conversations that we had around those issues and this long time engagement that you sustain and over years over decades, and have this brilliant and fantastic career. Baaba Maal, thank you for taking the time for this.

BM: Thank you, Makhtar.

MD: Thank you for listening. Creative Development with IFC is produced by Aida Holly-Nambi and Maeve Frances for IFC. If you enjoyed this episode, please share it with your networks and tell a friend.