‘Funeral for Justice’: Music against colonialism and corruption

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Bennett Purser and Zeke Reed

Mdou Moctar (center) appears with his band. Their latest album, “Funeral for Justice,” focuses on French colonialism in Niger. Credit: Ebru Yildiz.

Mdou Moctar cuts to the chase in his music, speaking to the violence in his homeland of Niger. His seventh album, Funeral for Justice, is about the legacy of French colonialism in the West African country, and the power vacuum and political turmoil that followed. Moctar and his bass player Mikey Coltun talk to KCRW about the new record. 

Moctar got his musical start as a boy, teaching himself how to play the guitar from an instrument he built out of wood and old bicycle brake wires. He pulled inspiration from local musicians, including Abdallah Oumbadougou who is from the Nigerien town of Agadez.

Initially, his Islamic family didn’t support his desire to be a musician and wouldn’t explain why. Later, he understood that they considered him too young for that type of pursuit and thought he should focus on school. They were trying to protect him from the bad behavior associated with the rock and roll lifestyle, Moctar says.

From these humble beginnings, Moctar has emerged on the world stage and performed at Coachella this past April.  While his parents don’t closely follow Moctar’s musical career, they see the impact of his success. With the money he’s made from music, Moctar has built water wells and covered other people’s medical bills. 

His latest album’s titular track is directed at African leaders, questioning their reliance on France and America — two countries he says have the power to help Niger but chose not to, even as the threat of terrorism grows. “Some people come in with the motorcycle and kill all the village. … [The Americans and French] never say nothing.” 

Moctar points to France’s military influence in Niger and ongoing uranium mining there, which he describes as terrible for his home country. 

“The money we use is coming from France, but you can’t use it in France. But the Euro, you can use it everywhere. But even if you have 1 million [West African CFA francs] in France, you can buy nothing. It’s like you don’t have nothing [sic] in your pocket.”

He adds, “We have a lot of uranium, but actually, in 2024, a lot of buildings have no electricity. They never care about us. … They just keep taking the uranium and going to France. Look at Paris, how bright she is. We have nothing. And then we are not allowed to sell the uranium to some countries.” 

Moctar sings about the former colonial power in “Oh France,” the penultimate song on Funeral for Justice. He describes the country’s actions in Africa as veiled in cruelty. 

Audiences don’t always understand the political messaging behind Moctar’s music, Coltun points out. 

“You get people who are aware, and then you get people who come up to us after the show and they're like, ‘Okay, you guys are from Nigeria.’ And it's like, ‘No. They're from Niger.’ ‘Oh, what is Niger?’ And then we have a conversation.”

He continues, “But I think through the power of the music and the intensity that we perform with, you sense that there is a message there. And our hope is that people get the record, and that they look inside — and there's lyric translations — and they can dive deeper.”

Moctar’s musical style is known as desert blues and blends traditional Tuareg sounds with rock influences. According to Coltun, who produces and plays bass on Moctar’s tracks, this genre is very popular in Niger, including as wedding music.

“If you go to Niger, and you go to Agadez, you'll hear bands that sound like the equivalent of a punk band or a rock band in the U.S. It's high energy and it's distorted. It's blown out. Similarly, you have desert rock like bands like Queens of the Stone Age, and that reflects the environment,” Coltun explains. “You listen to Tuareg music, desert blues, and you can feel the desert, feel the wind, feel the camels bouncing. The Tuareg groove is mimicking the camels bouncing up and down.”