BAMAKO, MALI - Mali this year struggled with an Islamist insurgency, a worldwide pandemic, and an August military coup, all of which left most cultural events in the West African nation in shambles.

But Mali’s annual International Festival of Slam and Humor, FISH, was merely delayed until November, after a post-coup curfew was lifted.

Twenty-three-year-old Malian Aïcha Diarra first learned of competitive, performance poetry - Slam Poetry - when her high school held a contest.

She has been a slam poet ever since and competes at FISH every year.  She performed on stage for the first time in nearly a year at this year’s festival, which she said brought her great joy.

Diarra sees her art as a form of activism to highlight the struggles of Malian women and girls. 

Sitting on a graffiti-covered rooftop in Bamako, she says many of the topics in her poems are considered too bold in conservative Mali.

But, she says, some people congratulate her for daring to talk about taboo subjects such as circumcision of young girls.

Cultural crossroads

Slam Poetry is a relatively new music scene in Mali, a country with deep musical traditions that is seen as a cultural crossroads in Africa. 

Slam Poetry first appeared in Mali in 2006, years after it gained popularity in the United States, and FISH started in 2014.

The annual festival is run by Malian group Agoratoire, founded by one of Mali’s first slam poets, Aziz Koné. The theme for this year’s festival is Peace and Social Cohesion.

Just days before the festival, France, the region’s former colonial power, launched airstrikes in central Mali that killed more than 50 jihadists.

Mali has been struggling against an Islamist insurgency spreading in the Sahel region along with thousands of U.N. and French troops.

Anger over the ongoing conflict fueled mass protests that led the military in August to oust President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.

Despite the unrest, the festival – and Mali’s slam poets – have seen their support base grow, including among musicians.

Poets as musicians

Djelimady Cissoko is an executive member of the Malian Federation of Artists.  He teaches the kora – a West African stringed instrument – to students at the National Arts Institute.

Cissoko says the slam poets are considered full-fledged musicians.

Undeterred by the region’s ongoing conflict and unrest at home, Mali’s slam poets are passionate about their art and a better future for their country.