The 90s: the dance era
Hip-hop appeared in west Africa as early as 1985 with the late Yves Zogbo Junior, who passed away in 2014, Stezo and M.A.M from Ivory Coast. Hip-hop dance was the first element to appear in Togo, before Graff, MCing, DJing and beatboxing.
In 1990, Bizzar MC and Wy-Kiki introduced breakdance to Lomé. It became popular in local clubs and even a school of breakdance was established. Eric MC, inspired by his experience in Ivory Coast, created a dance group.
Despite radio broadcasts and rap sessions at the beach, the Togolese people still ignored the existence of this new musical trend.
The first real break happened in 1992 when MC Solaar was in concert at the Palais des Congrès de Lomé. Force One Posse, the first official Togolese rap group, performed the opening act with MC Creator, Eric MC, Wy-Kiki, Bad Boy, Sino and Ali-Jezz. The crew later released Dagma Vanesa, an album that went unnoticed because of a lack of finances. Other rap groups emerged after the concert, including World Reality.
In Togo, political instability oppressed artists’ freedom of expression. In 1963, three years after independence, President Sylvanus Olympio was assassinated and the government was overthrown. In 1967, Gnassingbé Eyadema took over in a coup. In 1992, the dictator adopted an unpopular constitution. The opposition went on a general strike. The military fired live ammunition in the streets of Lomé. Many had to take refuge in neighboring countries such as Ghana.
This crisis affected the hip-hop movement, whose members were forced into exile. A dark period that Yao Bobby, who was 17 years old at the time, tells in his song ‘Refugee’ ensued. The song, from Yao Bobby’s first album, Stories of a continent, was released in 2011 by RFI and the label Nomadic Wax.
In 1994, a relative calm returned to Togo. The first private radio station, Channel Star sounds+ went live. The show "Boom star Sound System" allowed rappers to express themselves every Saturday from 6pm to 7pm. This freestyle open line on the radio allowed hip hop, artists and groups, to emerge. Eric MC a.k.a The Black nigga; Wy-Kiki, John Tezgo, Ali Jeez and MC Gamma joined MC Creator in Force One Posse. Daddy Florent formed the Baobab Posse; Kezar MC formed Banal Alliance. Radio hosts like Alain Blaise from Tropik FM, Germain Pouli from Radio Galaxie and D’ul from Canal FM, promoted hip-hop at the time.
In October 1996, a national hip-hop competition was launched and sponsored by the President of the Republic. Welsn’ne and Yack More released an album following the competition. Negro released Tegbi Tegbi (avarice) while World reality released Luttons par nos idées.
These two merged in the same year to form Djanta Kan, one of the most outstanding Togolese rap groups. Yao Bobby (then known as Bobby), Daflag, Ametek and Agama Flo gathered a crew of DJs, dancers, writers and radio presenters.
They also began incorporating traditional rhythms into rap, using traditional instruments from their region. Djanta Kan proudly showed their cultural identity by rapping in Ewe and French. They also worked on compilations with Angélique Kidjo and Youssou N'Dour.
By the end of the 90s, there was an increasing number of recording studios in Togo. Many old generation rappers, trained in sound engineering, brought professionalism to the art. Saturday 05 July 2003 is a cornerstone. Hoperow records, the first 100% Togolese rap label, was formed, welcoming a pool of artists namely Djanta Kan, Eric MC, Ali Jezz, Small Poppy, Weddy, Ball 2 Rimes and SIH.
The 2000s saw the emergence of engaged rap, a movement that Elom 20ce called "arctivists", referring to the commitment of artists such as Miriam Makeba, Franklin Boukaka, Fela Kuti, Bob Marley and Nina Simone. Djanta Kan was the face of the movement. The group performed two sold-out concerts at the Centre Culturel Français de Lomé, with Eric MC, Ali Jezz, Small Poppy, Weddy, Phonetic, Orcyno, Djodjo bad, Landry and Alister G.
In 2002, Bales 2 Rimes was formed with Skandal, Kabral, Insurgé, The Beast, Havoc and Horus who claimed social and political commitment and chanted: "The freedom cry echoes". This period witnessed many new rap formations and two major cultural events: the Afrikarap Festival and the annual Togo hip hop music awards.
In 2009, Yao Bobby toured several countries in Africa and Europe with the AURA rap collective: Artists United for African Rap. The collective included Didier Awadi and Xuman from Senegal, Smockey and Smarty from Burkina Faso, Priss-K from Ivory Coast and Moussa de Degg Force 3 from Guinea-Conakry. This initiative brought exposure to Togolese rap and was noticed by Radio France International.
In 2011, the album Histoires d'un continent, edited by RFI,was released. Yao also conducted educational activities and art workshops for children through a structure called Art de Rue.
Other Togolese rappers namely Eric MC, Oro Below and Ali Jezz have since settled abroad. Eric MC ran in the last presidential elections. Papou released videos broadcasted on Trace TV. Many of his songs released on the local market were influenced by music from Nigeria and Ivory Coast. Other rap artists have taken a more political stand. Yao Bobby worked on a project with the Franco-Cameroonian rapper Edgar Sekloka from Milk Coffee Sugar. 1+1 (2) and Elom 20ce represented genuine pan-African rap.
In 2014, Elom 20ce collaborated with other African artists, namely Joey le Soldat from Burkina Faso, on ‘Revolution’, a song from the album Burkin Ba (Tentacule Records), Blitz the Ambassador from Ghana and Sir Okoss from Gabon. He carried out campaigns to raise awareness for pan-Africanism and citizenship under think tanks called Arctivism and Cinereflex. His last album, Indigo, is a unique, educational and poetic concept that includes numerous pan-African collaborations.
The future of Hip-Hop in Togo
There are no more hip-hop festivals in Togo, following the ascension of Faure Gnassingbé, who took over the presidency after the death of his father Eyadema Gnassingbe in 2005. Local radios rarely broadcast political songs. Dance music is preferred to clear people’s minds. Hosts of private radio stations have less freedom and artists often have to pay for their songs to be played on TV or radio. According to Elom 20ce: “There have been some improvements in the past few years but Togo lacks political leaders to serve the interests of the people. There is still a long way to go …"
(1) The interview with Yao Bobby was conducted by the author in Paris in 2011 and the interview with Elom 20ce was conducted by mail in 2016.
(2) Passeport pour le Togo Yao Bobby and Edgar Sekloka 1+1 in concert in Paris at the Bellevilloise, 18 March 2016
Documentary Sources: Yao Bobby and Sandra Poisson, RFI, Africultures, Mondomix, Jeune Afrique. Special thanks to Yao Bobby, Sandra Poisson, Elom 20ce, Christophe Nicolaidis from RFI
In 2007, a project called Doto Silence! initiated by Jeremiah Lenoir, captured images of the urban microcosm of hip-hop culture in Lomé. Http://dotosilence.microscopik.com/index.php
Note: A mini-documentary and song compilation dedicated to Togolese Soul music from the 70s and 80s, were initiated by DJ Julien Lebrun, Liz Gomis and Hot Casa Records. http://www.kisskissbankbank.com/togo-soul-70