They Will Have to Kill Us First: Malian Music in Exile

“If you take music away, Mali is dead.” These words set the tone for a nearly two hour-long documentary on the West African country that’s been plagued by political unrest and violence since Islamic jihadists took control of the north in 2012. The film follows the stories of those directly affected by the jihadists’ severe ban on all music (“Satan’s music”, as they put it), including Songhoy Blues and musicians such as Fadimata “Disco” Walet Oumar and Moussa Sidi. Thousands have been displaced by the situation in Mali and some have sought refuge in its capital of Bamako. Instruments were burned and the country’s most talented musicians were forced into hiding. Others have chosen to stay put, because after all, Mali is their home. They protest with music instead of guns, and seek refuge in each other instead of another place entirely.

Something as extreme as a ban on all music would be unfathomable in the United States, and seeing it enacted in Mali through this documentary is still a jarring experience. The filmmakers do an excellent job of stepping back and letting the story speak for itself – it feels as if you’re right there with the Malian citizens being interviewed as they talk about their love for performing and the ridiculousness of the sharia law being implemented in their country. The movie builds toward a concert in Timbuktu comprised of local musicians, the first public one since the music ban. The location is kept secret until the last minute for security reasons, but everyone who is able to is invited to attend. The performance is a testament to Mali’s perseverance, strength, and patience. By banding together and waiting for the perfect moment to celebrate music once again, these artists were able to make a powerful statement.

It’s no doubt that Mali is facing severe social, political, and economic issues. They Will Have to Kill Us First is an eye-opening look at the situation in West Africa, and though it’s a story of conquering your obstacles, it’s also a painful reminder that the power of music is seen as dangerous in many parts of the world. The citizens of Mali will seemingly stop at nothing to win their freedom back, and with it will come the ability to play their instruments out in the open once again. Music is just as important to them as it is to the rest of the world, and just as necessary. Ultimately, this movie shows that laws that oppress and restrict the people of a nation will always be wiped out – it’s only a question of when.

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