Inna Modja: The Artist and the Activist

October 17, 2023
Inna is a multi-talented artist. She has made a mark not only in the world of music, but also as a powerful advocate for women's rights and climate change.

Season 4 | Episode 1

In this episode, Makhtar Diop is joined by multi-talented artist and activist Inna Modja for a captivating discussion on music, advocacy, and the role of creativity in shaping a better world. Inna shares her dedication to raising awareness about gender-based violence and female genital mutilation. They also delve into the transformative power of art, technology, and storytelling in addressing climate change, and how the creative industry can reshape its model to make a positive impact on society.

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Makhtar Diop: Welcome to Creative development with IFC. I am Makhtar Diop the Managing Director of International Finance Corporation, IFC. Today I have the honor of welcoming Inna Modja to my podcast. Inna is a multi-talented artist living in France, originally from Mali. She is a dedicated activist and great artist. She has made a mark not only in the world of music, but also as a powerful advocate for women's rights and climate change. Inna is also a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). In this role, she partners with the likes of Baaba Maal to promote conservation and tackle issues like land degradation, diversification, and drought. Inna is also the CEO of Code Green, an organization that uses innovative technology, gaming, and art to advance the Sustainable Development Goals. 

Inna, it is a pleasure to see you today in our podcast. 

Inna Modja: My pleasure.

Makhtar: It is quite interesting, because you have a kind of similar profile as one of the great artists in Africa Mamane, who is a comedian. You are both children of diplomats, which has exposed you to a very rich culture throughout your life. So tell us a little bit about how being a child of a diplomat, moving from one place to another hearing different sounds, different music, different culture, different smells, shaped a little bit what you are today. 

Inna: I'm a part of a family of seven siblings. I'm number six. So, I was one of the youngest. And my parents also raised three of my cousin's - three girls. So we were, in the house, 10 Girls and two boys. It was quite interesting. It was a vibrant house full of love and full of education, because for both my parents education was the most important thing because they had to fight to get that education. And so for us to have easy access to schools, etc, was something that they told us that we should never take for granted, that we should really focus on.

Traveling, you know, it's always opening your mind and opening up to other cultures. I grew up between Mali and Ghana. And with my family, we visited a lot of different countries in Africa. And also at a very young age, I started to come to Europe, just culturally very interesting. But I grew up like any other normal Malian girl. Bamako has really forged my path - on the culture side of it, on the music side, on the photography side - something that I really relate to my core, even today.

Makhtar: It's quite exciting because musically you've been influenced by some legends like Salif Keita, Oumou Sangare, Amadou Bagayoko. But you have been able to find your own voice and been able to sing in French, you sing in English, which is quite a bit of a departure from the earlier generation of legends that Malian music has  produced. So, tell us a little bit how did you get to that?

Inna: So, I actually started very early. I started at 14 years old. I already knew that I wanted to be a musician. So, I wanted to learn. Nobody in my family comes from an artist background so I had to learn with other people. And so, I met Salif Keita very young, and he was my first mentor and he introduced me to musicians like Habib Koite. So I was opening shows for him in Bamako and I also met with the first band in which Salif Keita was, which is the Rail Band in Bamako. So, I spent time with them when they were rehearsing and learning about music, because I didn't attend a music school. I've learned everything with elders, I would say. And Mariam Bagayoko - her family and my grandmother's family were neighbors. And so I grew up knowing her and her husband Amadou. And Oumou Sangare a little bit later when I was older. They really created a kind of family. And I started singing in Bambara in Mali. Growing up, both my parents exposed me to a lot of music. So my mom was a big fan of Miriam Makeba, and she was playing South African music in our house and also all the traditional Malian music. And my dad was a big fan of the soul and blues of the 60s so I was raised with a very eclectic… And because I have a lot of brothers and sisters, we had teenagers who were listening to pop and rock music. We had my older brother who was listening to hip hop in the beginning. I was very young, so I was just absorbing everything. And so when I became a musician, I had to find my own voice; learn from the amazing musicians that we talked about - like Mariam Doumbia, Amadou Bagayoko, Salif Keita, Oumou Sangare - but then find who I was because I'm from another generation. And so that's how hip-hop came into my music, supporting the traditional blues that I was trying to share. And it's not easy when you have such legends before you, and you're trying to just be yourself, and learning from them, instead of just copying exactly what they were doing, trying to find your own path and be on your own journey. And they all are so supportive of me since then, and I was lucky to collaborate with many of them on albums or on stage. I'm a big nerd. I love to learn about things. So my musical journey has been just that.

Makhtar: Fantastic. You know, for those who are listening Inna mentioned the Rail Band. The Rail Band is a mythical band in West Africa, which has really been the birthplace of a lot of music. Great musician such as Cheick Seck, Salif Keita, the most famous of the group. But all this group was at the center of the rebirth of West African music. If you have a chance, listen and just read about this band. You will learn a lot about the history of West African music.

So, let's talk about your documentary, ‘The Great Green Wall’. It happens that in my career, my professional career I was involved in the initial steps of this great Great Green Wall. So, I was very impressed to see how you were talking about it in this documentary.

Inna: The Great Green Wall was just a project that I fell in love with. I was contacted in 2017. I was on tour in India, and I received an email from a friend. He asked me if I knew about the Great Green Wall project, if I've ever heard about it. And if I was open to collaborating in telling the story of the initiative. And I had heard about it, but really vaguely. So he told me about what the UNCCD and the African Union were doing. And so I immediately said yes, because to me, it's such an ambitious project. Coming from the Sahel, I wanted to do something, not just for the regions, but to tell the stories. Because I think when the story is told by somebody else.. I grew up in the Sahel. And as a woman, I wanted to show what the Sahel is going through; the beauties and the challenges and also the hope and resilience of the people that I met along the Great Green Wall, I wanted to share their stories. So I started traveling in 2017, in rural areas in different countries, to spend time with the communities and understand. Because me, as an ambassador, I don't want to only be a voice, I want to be on the ground with people and really understand what they are living. We decided to do this documentary film. And for me, it was traveling along the Sahel, but it was an opportunity to give a platform to all these inspiring people, share their stories and for people to connect with them. Because without people, any project is just an agricultural or restoration project. But this is so ambitious.  And so my mantra for when I started filming this was ‘we must dare to invent the future’. This is what the Great Green Wall is about. We're inventing something that doesn't quite exist yet. And at a level, which is huge, its 8000 kilometers of green planted from Senegal to Djibouti, restoring 100 million hectares of land. When you think about that, to me, the first thing is, where are the people? What do they have to say about this? How are they going to contribute? Because that's what would make a successful project. Just traveling there, I fell in love with where I come from and meeting people in the rural regions. I'm still working on this project. And I think until it's done, I will still be attached to the Great Green Wall.

Makhtar: And this is great, because I've been there at the inception of the project. Actually, it was at the beginning planting trees. The idea was to just stop desertification. And it has become much more than planting trees. Economic activities around protecting the environment, using the environment as a way of living. So it became much bigger than what initially we thought. So, one day we chat about it when we have more time. But you did something quite interesting, which is to be a curator of a virtual exhibition. Tell us a little bit about this project.

Inna: To me, I'm fascinated by technology, I have always wanted to link technology and sustainability and also land restoration. So in 2021, I created an organization which is on the blockchain. It's a web-three organization and the idea for us was really to harness the power that is in creativity and connect it with the different issues that we deeply care about in our organization. So to me, it's gender, climate and social justice. So that's what we did. We connected artists, we did digital exhibitions. But we also sold a lot of art to raise funds for women who have organizations along the Great Green Wall, to bring them funding. We also use it for campaigns to educate about what is happening around desertification, drought, climate change, the different issues that we're really passionate about, and bring people together who are not specifically like-minded, who might not know about it.

And so to do that, we believe in gaming, for example. We launched a game called HEALV3RSE in a metaverse called the Sandbox. And so the HEALV3RSE focuses really on different climate change issues. And so the gamer, through the different steps, gets to understand. Every step of the way, we kind of educate them on the water issues, the oceans, but also the desert. So it's educating through gaming, I think that people get educated, whether they are interested in it or not. And when they are being entertained, I feel like the information gets to them in a different way. It's storytelling. And I'm a storyteller. So with documentary, we do that filming. With gaming, we do that. And now we are creating a new game. But for younger audiences, from one to eight, with an app called Tiny Tap, it will be free education. And we are going to use the same characters that we did in the HEALV3RSE for this education course. For me, it's important to give access to people on issues that we're facing. And so starting at a young age - I have an almost four-year-old - and so I think that it's a good age for them to understand what is happening and play around it, know better. For me to give access to that for free, I think is something always important because education is not always free. And that is one of my biggest mission; to educate people. Because ignorance is a big reason for why some people don't participate in climate action and take action. And so while you educate them, you give them the opportunity to be in the journey of taking action for all of us.

Makhtar: You’re totally right. And I think that this is a very powerful way to reach people and for them to be able to learn by having fun. But you did more than climate change. You've been doing a lot of work on gender, and you've been a very strong voice. You talk about gender-based violence in one of your songs, which became very, very popular. Tell us a little bit about your work on gender-based violence, and female genital mutilation and all these questions that you know a lot about.

Inna: I started being an advocate for women and girls when I was 19, because I had moved from Mali, I came to Europe and I realized that I had gone through female genital mutilation. I knew the story, because my parents always were open about it. Rest their souls, they were against female genital mutilation. And for each member of my family, who was a girl, we were taken by another family member when my parents were not there. So this is something that they have been fighting. And my mom was a big advocate for gender equality and against abuse. And so I grew up in a household where my father was, in his own words, a feminist and stood up for women's rights. And so for me at 19, when I realized that I was very different from the other girls that were around me, and that I had gone through this, I was told by a doctor in France, that there was nothing that was possible to do for me. So I had this… it was frustration, anger, a lot of sadness, and also just hopeless on myself. So I had to channel the energy that I have. I have a lot of energy. So I wanted to use that to prevent it to happen to other girls and women, because I knew the consequences of it. You know, I have five sisters. And so when I started advocating for that, I realized that there were so many different types of abuse, and that female genital mutilation needed to be talked about. There is a lot of shame about it and trying to change traditions as a 19-year-old that is very, it's very difficult. But my parents were fully supporting me. My family has always told me that I could do anything.

Inna: So as a student, I was taking time off to work with organizations and intern and learn how to use my voice. That was 20 years ago, and I haven't stopped. I've been working in Europe for people to understand how it happens everywhere, not just in Africa. I've worked in Africa with different organizations, and now I'm working on a more global stage on gender abuse and how we can all work together. Because this is not something for women, by women, this is something that the whole society has to come together and fight against this. And now I have a daughter, and I want her to live in a different type of society. And when I look at the next generation, I want to keep using my voice until everything is fair. I think it might be a lifelong battle. But it's a commitment that I have.

And it's actually been part of my life. I don't even know who I would be if I stopped being an advocate for women and girls. So you know, when you're 19, you are becoming a woman. And so my womanhood started with that, I felt that I lacked something that was taken away from me, and that I got back through surgery a few years later. So I have been educating people on that. In France we opened a place called La Maison Des Femme with an amazing woman called Ghada Hatem. And now there are 22 projects of La Maison Des Femme all across France, where they, you know, welcome women who are victims of all types of abuse, and also younger children as well. I always try to find ways to do more, and not just use my voice, but be a force for change also on the ground by meeting people, and also creating group talks around it with women who have similar stories, and really trying to do my best to share what my parents have taught me.

Makhtar: Thank you so much for sharing your story. You've been such an impressive voice on FGM. And I feel like you about FGM. I'm lucky also like you, I grew up in a family where both my parents were feminists, were progressive. My father was a strong believer of gender equality. I must say that our continent at the time of independence had an intelligentsia which was very progressive on a lot of social issues. And we should always give them a tribute for what they did.

Inna: I feel like with time when times are uncertain, we tend to go back. Women and girls have less rights, and they are the most vulnerable. So now is really a delicate moment where we have to work even harder to make sure that the rights that were acquired are not lost again. I know about that, because in Mali kind of when things shifted, the northern part of Mali in 2012 became a very scary place for women and girls. It's everywhere around the world, there's not one single country in the world where there is gender equality. So that says a lot when you think about our parents fighting in the 60s for more rights, and we are in 2023 still fighting for some of the same things, some new things. And being an activist for gender equality and against gender abuse, has shown me how difficult and scary it can be because I remember when I was, I was younger, after I had my surgery, for reparation of female genital mutilation, I met with a young woman who was doing the same thing but was doing it behind her family's back and she was 20. And she was scared that if her family discovered that she had gone through reparation surgery, they would mutilate her again in her 20s. So that really, really shook me to my core. And so she was going to rent a hotel room, she had barely money to go, you know, in a safe place. So I welcomed her in my tiny apartment at the time. And then later with cousins, friends I welcomed other women, without being an organization, just me just opening my door. But that came with another set of problems with families being aggressive to me. If you look at my inbox after doing interviews about female genital mutilation, it is very scary. It is with the threats and insults and stuff like that. But it is important to keep in mind that there are more people who want gender equality, then the people who are vocal, they're just more vocal.

Makhtar: Inna know that you're not alone in this fight. And we are all with you. All of us will be happy to join our voice to what you're doing with so much courage. This is just something that is unacceptable.

Now lets talk a little bit more about your artistic life. IFC is trying to push more on creative industry, we are investing now. It is an area which is kind of new to us. But I'm convinced that we need to do more and invest more. Be it in the creative industry in all its forms, be it a movie, be it music and in sports as well. It creates jobs in Africa. There is a ton of creativity there that just needs to find a way on the market. So, what do you see as the main obstacle for the development of the music industry, which is the one that you are focusing on.

Inna: One of the biggest challenges, I think, is that the model is too old, and has to be reshaped because it was based on very big companies discovering or supporting artists, or they wouldn't be seen enough. And with internet, we have other ways. With social media, we have other ways to connect with an audience. And I think that today, when you have internet, it can change your life. And you can connect with people on a global stage. It gives opportunity to people differently than it used to be. So, I think that in the music industry, the model really needs to change. I changed my model a few years ago because I felt that it was not aligned with who I was and what I wanted to do. So, I decided to become an artist and an entrepreneur at the same time.

For me, use your voice. If you have a talent, you have a gift, you have a purpose and a ‘why’ - use it! And believe in yourself. Because art is really needed. It's a vehicle to share messages, it's a vehicle for change. I think that when you use your music, either to bring happiness to people, to make them dance, make them enjoy themselves, or to spread more political or social messages - all of that is received in an emotional way and that touches people differently to let's say to some politicians. The purpose is not the same. And movies as well. I feel like storytelling is something that is really important. And through art, you can tell any type of stories. When you hear that an image is more powerful than words - It's just that, so films - you can tell the stories of something without, you know, all the speeches. People get lost sometimes on all these speeches. A lot of people have lost trust in authority, they have lost trust in leadership. And so, the idea now is to reconnect them with something that they believe in. And that starts with yourself. Anybody can do something, anybody can take action. And every action is important. Because the more you will do it, the more it will grow into something else. And we're all connected, especially when you talk about climate, we're all connected. We've seen with the pandemic, when it started we were all facing the same thing. So, with climate, we are facing the same thing. We need to realize that what happens in Brazil, what happens in the Sahel region, what happens in the Djibouti desert, has an impact on the world. And that when you look at the continent of Africa, it is the country that is contributing less to, you know, all the emissions. And so, what are we going to do together so that our action doesn't impact negatively someone that pushes them to migrate from where they are from, because it's impossible to make a living anymore because of climate change. So for me, it's like the younger generation says: there's no planet B and we have to do this together. It's not about pointing fingers. We have. We're way past all of that. We have to come with solutions. I believe in solution-driven projects. I believe in grassroots projects, I believe in people taking action. If you don't know anything about it there is internet today, you can find a community of people who are interested in the same topics. We have so many different crisis that we need everybody to be hands on. So you don't need to be a full activist but in your day to day life, we can do something.

Makhtar: I know that we can talk for a long time, but unfortunately, it comes to an end. Thank you so very much for joining us. It's a huge pleasure.

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