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Carnet de stage

Celine Dion, Mali and Black identity

Christopher Vaughn, 11 mai 2010

I find myself walking down the dusty red path of Djoumanzana ; a “suburb” if you will, of Mali’s capital city, Bamako. It’s nighttime and the only light available is that of the occasional passing motorcycle and the glare from between dark bodies huddled around the television set outside of the local corner store : villagers gawking over the dubbed Latin-American soap operas.

I continue down towards my residence, tired from the long day of working at Radio Kayira’s rooftop garden. Across from my place I see a set of brothers in their early twenties chilling on woven chairs in quiet conversation. I’ve seen them before and they wave me over to come and sit with them. I oblige. I look at each of them and although it’s dark ; I see their eyes beeding with interest and it’s funny because each one of them reminds me a friend back home, whether it be in appearance or demeanour. After having some tea and good conversation, a great Malian social ritual called “le Grain,” there is a moment of silence ; and then it happened. One of the brothers, cool as ever, dressed in jeans and a sports jersey, idly plays with his cellphone, presses a button, and smiles at me. Then from the cellphone I hear her voice. Celine Dion. Celine Dion. His smile is huge now, he lifts his arm up and points to the sky simultaneously with her silky high notes. He nods at me, as though he expects me to know the words, as though Celine Dion is at the top of my ipod playlist, as though I have a larger-than-life poster of her in my apartment back home in Montreal.

« Comment sont les concerts de Céline Dion ? »

« Hum… je ne suis jamais allé. »

Ackward moment of silence.

« Yo, Céline Dion est la meilleure. » (Never had I heard the term
YO and Celine in the same sentence… I was speechless.)

« Hum… oui, elle est la meilleure. »

What else was I supposed to do but agree with him ? He was so convinced and his boys seemed to nod in agreement. Now, those who know me know I have a very diverse taste in music ; hip hop, jazz, reggae, rock… the list goes on. And, we know that the Black presence in all music genres cannot be denied ; like Mos Def says… “I am (we are) Rock and Roll” as well as all types of music. But I have never EVER EVER seen a group of black brothers chilling together in NDG, Brooklyn, or anywhere else in North America, pump Celine Dion from
their speakers. Even if we do have a secret fetish for mainstream top 40s, we wouldn’t dare blast “My Heart Will Go On” in the presence of our peers. Author Bell Hooks says “We Too Cool” for all of that. We have a standard to maintain. We have an image to keep. We gotta represent. Hold it down, keep it real (add your own stereotypical African American sentence here) etc. We’re Black Goddammit !

So as I sat there shocked, and as they continued to listened to even more Celine Dion, I wondered to myself…these brothers here, they are Malians, born and raised and will most likely die on black turf : Afrika. No one can deny them of their blackness, they do not have to prove anything ; don’t have to live up to a black code. They love what they love and don’t care who sees them love it. Now, can we, the Blacks of the Diaspora learn to do the same thing ? If not, and this is deeper than liking Celine Dion… how come ?

True, here in this concrete jungle, we are the minorities (truly the majority but I’ll leave that for another article), and being a minority, especially in a group that has been so cruelly treated, we yearn for the nationality that I believe many Afrikans born and raised in Afrika have. No matter how much we try to deny it, no matter how natty our dreads are, or how many pro-black books we have collecting dust on our TV stands, we live and are integrally part of a white/European culture, where our true identity as a people is pretty much lost in history books and outshined by the newest song and bamboozling dance on BET. (Sidenote : “Do the Stanky Leg” ? “She look like Halle Berry” ? These rappers are making Nelly look like Rakim… but I digress…)

I would like to recount two events that happened to me during my stay here in Mali. First experience ; being kicked out of a mosque. I should say here that I have the utmost respect for Islam and its followers and admire their discipline, and this is in no way an attack on Islamic culture or faith. However, like many religions, there is at times ample space for confusion and miscommunication. I, and my white male collegues decided to go pay our respects to Bamako’s main mosque. We entered the sanctuary, where we were greeted by many and even encouraged by some to go into the mosque. I, as do my friends, all have a profound respect for different cultures and made sure to follow all the guidelines as best we could (removal of shoes, washing of hands and feet). My Caucasian counterparts walked in first without a problem. I walked in after a few minutes. It
seemed that my presence offended a leader and he came up to me asking quite rudely what was I doing there.

Before I could even try to answer he said something in Bambara and then continued in French stating that I must leave promptly. I respected his authority, and took my shoes and proceed towards the door. What stirred me about this whole situation was that no one from the mosque bothered my white friends until they figured out that they were with me. It seemed as though my black card not only got revoked but worked against me… amongst fellow black card holders at
that.

In another instance, I got stopped and hassled by the police. A typical occurrence in Montreal perhaps, but being stopped by a bunch of cops that look just like you, and for no reason but to impose their authority really puts one’s notion of black brotherhood in perspective. Clearly, these men were in a fraternity that I was not (nor wanted to be) a part of. As my white friends pleaded and explained the situation to the police, who clearly couldn’t care less, I stood there with a smirk on my face, part awe, part disgust, and realized… that I am proud to be Black. On the other hand, this does not mean I share, or feel that I must share, the views, beliefs, likings and opinions of all Blacks.

So that’s it really. A plea to all my brothers and sisters in Montreal and across the Diaspora ; enjoy the freedoms we have and be yourself. “Live, love and be creative” is the cornerstone of grounding ourselves as a people. If you feel the need to drive down Sainte-Catherine’s, pumping “Barenaked Ladies Greatest Hits”, by all means turn up the subwoofers and do it. If you have a craving for those beef jerkey sticks wrapped in tight plastic that I see little white kids gobble up… Hey, you work hard for your money and you shouldn’t feel ashamed to pick one up just because there is a rastaman behind you in the check-out line. Be you… because there is a whole continent of black brothers and sisters being themselves across the Atlantic.

Shout out to my girl Cel-Dizzy doing big things….