Back-to-Africa movement: interview with an African-American in Burkina Faso

On June 24th, 2020 I conducted an interview with an African-American citizen who decided to relocate his family and business from the U.S to live permanently in Burkina Faso.

Because this is not a common thing, I wanted to understand the real reasons of his choice and to analyse it in the scheme of leadership applied to social movements. The following is the transcription of our discussions.

Achilles: Can you introduce yourself?

JT the Bigga Figga ( JTBF): My name is JT the Bigga Figga. My born american name is Josef Tom, but the name that was given to me by the Honorable Minister Louis Barkhan is Josef Mohamed. I am an american Rap artist, a filmmaker, manager, executive producer, editor, book writer. I do many things.

Achilles: Where are you from?

JTBF: The country that I come from is the United States of America. I was born in San Francisco, California, on the West Coast.

Achilles: Where are you originally from?

JTBF: I am originally from America. I have never been to another country but in Africa. I came as a visitor and then I am trying to get my paperwork done to become a citizen but I live here now.

Achilles: Why did you decide to move to Burkina Faso?

JTBF: My first trip to Africa was Lagos, Nigeria. My second trip was in Morocco. My third trip was to Kaya, Burkina Faso, Abidjan and San Pedro in Ivory Coast. I was invited by the BO Foundation, by a man named Boukary, who saw me in America and the work that I knew how to do. Then he invited me to come visit Burkina Faso. If I liked the country, I will be willing to come here and help lift the many artists and talented people here, to live their dreams like I did for american artists. In America, I helped many artists and so many people. I am a master at building something from scratch.

Achilles: Are you happy to live here?

JTBF: Yes, I am very proud and happy.

Achilles: How do you compare Burkina Faso to your home country?

JTBF: The comparison that stands out the most is the love. The people from Burkina Faso are genuine, they share real and good love with each other, In America, we are black people living together but there is a lot of bitterness. Besides, we are taught to hate ourselves.

Achilles: Do you have projects coming up?

JTBF: The first project that I am working on is very important and is a rap album called “Burkina Faso with Power”. It’s a collaboration of burkina Faso musicians, including rappers, singers and myself because I am a producer and a performer. I wanted to create a project that can show the talents. People have different talents, some are in traditional music, dance hall, hip hop, Rnb or Rasta flavor. And I am using my name as the light, to attract people’s look in the United states and all over the world. People will say, hey, here is JT, he is working with these guys.

We are finalising the first project, it is a 24 songs album that will be completed over the next few days. The album is the first project of something that can really help because there are many companies that are looking at Burkina Faso, like they are looking at countries like Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire. And they have big dreams already for Burkina Faso. I know some of them and I am confident that this can bring millions of dollars here in Burkina, to the artists, to the talents.

Achilles: Can you tell us about your previous projects in the United States?

JTBF: I started my musical career in 1992. This was many years ago. I was one of the first youngest CEOs and producers. So I was the CEO, The business man, and I am the musician and the rap artist. And besides, I was my own promoter. So, many people were surprised about the fact that I was a young kid. I was 18 back then but I had my own business. I had no money, but I had the music equipment and I could record songs. So, instead of signing contracts with big companies, I started my career with manufacturing companies to manufacture cassette Tapes. We manufactured 500 cassette Tapes and on the very next day, came up the compact disk. That is how my money grew up because I was able to record my first 2 albums and from the promotion of the two albums, many people wanted to hear the next album that was coming up. I was 19 years old when I made that album. I made about $100,000. For a 19 yo kid, that is a lot of money. Then, I did not want to have a job, I did not want to go to college, all I wanted to do was music and become a producer, find new talents through my neighbourhood, and my city.

I helped Master P before he even became Master P. What we did was to use many albums on the inside of the cassette tapes. That was not normal in the industry because the general rule was to put one album at a time and for the whole year. I said that I was going to do it differently and put out many albums. And that is how it started for me in my career. I worked with Snoop Dogg, Juvenile, I discovered the rapper named The Game, before Dr Dre. I discovered him first and then people noticed that I knew how to find talents. So, I became a new talent Scout. I can find the next guy before they go big. That was very important for record companies because they did not want to waste money on somebody who was not going to become a great singer. I also discovered and worked with rappers like, Milgo, Young Thug and Kevin Gate. These guys became very big. I discovered Zaytoven, I discovered and taught him. Now he is one of the biggest producers in america. That are some of my accomplishments and actually what has caught the attention of Boukary of the BO Foundation. Then, I qualify myself as an entrepreneur that knows how to make things happen from nothing.

Achilles: Do you think that coming here in Burkina Faso is going to foster the relationships between BF and the United States?

JTBF: Very much!, I am the glue. Many people are watching me right now. They are curious and wondering why I would come here. “There is nothing there”, they keep saying. But it is God’s plan. I did not plan to come here. I never heard of BF, nor met someone from BF, be it a rapper, a producer, or even saw one single movie. If it was not thanks to Boukare who discovered me and knew that I would love to see Africa. That was the first thought. The second thought was, that I would love to make money, come live here and be able to make money. But when I came here, I found that I must use my own money to help. So I did a water well that provides water to the people of a village. I wanted people to know that I care about the African people. They are my people. What I want people to know from me coming here in Burkina Faso is not what they can give to me but rather, how God can use me to help lift youth and then He will reward me. I don’t want any rewards from the people. I get a lot of blessings from them and this is what I need. It is not about the money, it is about the souls. For instance, Amscool who is right here has been making music for 10 years but he has not been making any progress. He is very good, but if no one sees him, how could they know?

Achilles: What is Development for you and do you think Burkina Faso has the opportunity to develop itself?

JTBF: Not only do I think Burkina Faso has a chance for development, but I think that it is being developed quietly. The resources that are here up on the surface are beyond the resources that are in the ground here. The real ressource are the Burkinabe people themselves and what is in their minds and their hearts. That is what God gave me, the ability to extract that ressource, so they can see their real value, sitting on the table so that they no longer have the concept of asking from outside. But if we create one rap artist, just one, the money that will come out of this can help start developing the 25% of this country.

Rap music makes millions and billions of dollars. The person that becomes popular is now a product and a brand for the country. That is what I am doing here, to help develop many resources through the people by showing their music, their films, to the rest of the world. I am known for starting millions of dollars movements. That is the first way that I see that could bring in a lot of money to the country, without asking anyone. God put the talent, but we must work the talent. That is mandatory. So, the first thing we must do to develop this country is to see the value in us. That is why I brought my family here, my wife and my children who even go to school here. That way, I am part of the struggle. However, I am very confident in what Allah is doing through me. So many people will be here and looking at the mirror, they will become confident and we will work to develop this country instead of waiting for it to be developed.

Achilles: What do you think of the recent #BlackLivesMatters movement in the united states, following the murder of George Floyd?

JTBF: My point of view is that you are only hearing about George Floyd but there have been over 5000 George Floyds that never made it to the TV. They will not promote it to scare many people from coming to the United States. You do not know how evil America has treated us. The treatment of our women is so degrading and demoralizing that all of us should leave there immediately. Our bodies are used as guinea pigs to test vaccination in america. They give us food so that we can have GMO, they give us water that is contained with oestrogen and many things that will create problems in the community and make us violent with each other. They use poverty against us to have access to us and maintain control over us and the community. They create a lifestyle of materialism that makes us think that having the new shoes, the new coat or the new car, makes you better than everyone else in your population. They create a lifestyle of very wealthy artists, singers, basketball players, to make you not want to become a doctor, a lawyer, a CEO but you just want to become a product of the corporation. They pour money over you and then they will separate you from your population. To those of us who are struggling and want to do better to provide for our family and help our community, the moment you get money, you begin to think that you are american and not african.

The pain is the same as the men here with wife and kids, who are struggling everyday, who don’t have money and work very hard, but the level of a better life is still so far away. What I am confident of is that God helps people who help themselves. But most importantly, you must believe in God that is in higher power. You have to work hard before you can ask him to give you what you need. So, I have been able to make a better life for my family for over 30 years because of a man named Minister Louis Farkhan and his teacher, before him, the Honorable El Hadj Mohammed who said, “Black men, you must do for yourself or suffer the consequences of waiting your enemy to provide for you.”

The competence that I have relies on the words of the honorable Minister Louis Farkhan to me, personally and to all of black america. I have benefitted from his words by acting on it. In 1992 when I started my career, it was the competence to record my own music in my house. And instead of waiting to have a big contract I have pressed in 500 cassette tapes and I have sold it myself. And that was the moment I realized the potential that I could make something to sell, make something that will help the people with what they want and what is good for them, and at the same time make money for my family and provide for them.

That is how I learnt that I will never be hungry. And many people here in Burkina Faso do it every day. I hear people screaming “I love this”, “Someone made this” “I want this”, “Somebody here made this with his hands”. But if they knew that many people in America want this right now, they want this design, that is made with the hands. That is what I am here for, to help promote the products. Shea butter, they want a truck load of it. They want thousands of pounds. But in America it costs a lot of money, it is $12 to $15 for one pound. But here I can buy 1pound for $1. But if someone can get it over there he can get a million of dollars right on the spot. We must increase the export of products to America before America goes broke and BF goes rich. That is what I see. That is the way God made it for these people so their dreams of a better life can become a reality. That is why I love Thomas Sankara. He is such a good man, but they killed him to make sure that the people from Burkina Faso renounce their dreams. But I am here to make sure what he wanted becomes a reality. He said, “let’s do that because that is what is going to help our people”. That is why I came here while it is still small, so people can see me working hard and whatever God does for me, it is going to be for the people of Burkina Faso. It is never going to be for my wife or my kids. We forget about what we have, but to see many people make it, that is my dream.

Achilles: What do you say to the young folks here who want to immigrate to America?

JTBF: First thing, You have to know how to shoot a gun because you are going to need a gun if you are planning on being at this time in america. Because, violence and robbery are two things that are worse in america. American police have a hatred for us black people. But the most dangerous thing is the hatred that another black man who looks just like you, wants to kill you for your shoes or your watch or your backpack. I want to say that as black american, we are full of self hate. I do not mean every black american, but a big percentage of the killing and robbery in america is from someone that looks just like you. So it is important to live and move with caution. You must watch the other blacks around you because they will look calm but will put a gun on you.

I was shot by a machine gun, you can see the scars right here. They shot me, left me drawing in my own blood, took my money and left because I said no, I refused to give my money. From this experience, I learnt that I must always watch around me and pray. Some Days it is quiet and you might feel safe, but this is when you are going to lose your life.

If you are going to America, you must know that. You can die at any time at a college campus. The students kill other students for money. Anybody can google it and find many stories. Now, I am not trying to tell the youth not to go, but I am trying to say that they should be careful.

Many men here will say that because their families are struggling here, they do not care and that they should take the risk. But I say, they will need the whole village to pray for them when they go. Do not just go and think that things will be smooth and that you will succeed, you will need a lot of prayers before you can make it. When I built the water well, the whole village prayed for me. And when I got back to america, they tried to kill me. I came here in February 2017. I got shot in march 28th. The prayers of Burkina Faso saved my life. Because they said “ You are not normal. You came here to help us with no string attached and then you helped us like this. We but only God can pay you back”. And they offered to pray for me. I went back home and I survived the worst attack. I was shot with an AK47. Most people die from just one bullet of this machine gun. I got show by many bullets of which one came by my face. This is to prove that the prayers of the people from Burkina Faso saved my life. This is a true sorry and that is why I am back. I am not going to give my talent to America anymore. I want to prove that God is with me because I am here, alive, I can walk, and I have a new baby. So God blessed me, and I want to bless the people here and work with them to show them that they can also be the best of the best. Not only the people here believe in God, but they also believe in themselves and they are willing to help the country. There should not be corruption among them, destroy the money and not help the village or the community.

When I came here, I said, we have to help the people, the orphans and feed all those that are hungry. We have to help mothers and babies that are struggling while nobody wants to help them. I said that we have to help rap music grow and through this feed everybody here. And many people have been witness to what I said when I first came here.

Achilles: Did you go to college?

JTBF: No, I went to jail, I never got the chance to study. I am self taught. I went to jail at the age of 16. I was in 9th grade, preparing to go for 10th grade when I was put to jail. I never had the chance to finish school. I got the GED degree that is a 5 tests including english, social studies, Math and physical education. At 17 yo I started pursuing my dream of getting into music and at age 18 I started making money. Today I am 46 and I never had a job. With that said, I studied with the Honorable El Hadj Mohamed whom I give a lot of credit. It was not a traditional school but it was called “Nation of Islam”. There, I learnt many things about love, black love, black history, culture, science, spirituality, family, how to have a family; because this is very important. In america, if you don’t have a family you get killed, you go to jail, or you sell drugs. Here in Burkina Faso, the family spirit is very strong. But in America, we don’t have that, the family is broken.

Achilles: Is there any risk for you reporting what is wrong and bad in America?

JTBF: There is no risk for me. I already took AK47 bullets. I am not scared anymore. I have no plans to go back to America anymore even though my mom and my son live there. I could go back but I think I have a lot to do here. I am tired of running from the police all the time. They do not like us.

Achilles: Tell us about the BO Foundation?

JTBF: The organization does a lot of things helping the people here in Burkina Faso. They help orphanages, widows, and young people. They worked in agriculture, environment, diplomacy etc. They are already here working on the ground and I am happy to be a servant of this Foundation.

Achilles: We are thankful to you for giving us the opportunity to meet and discuss with you and we hope that we could keep working together in the future?

JTBF: I also want to thank you very much for coming into my home.

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Achille Sawadogo

Achille Sawadogo

Mandela Washington Fellow, for Young African Leaders — Civic engagement — Development Cooperation, Economist, Project Management skills, Free learner