How are young creative entrepreneurs in a metropolis like Abidjan going to make a mark on their generation? For the time being we see a limited range of blogs, webmagazines, photo projects and start-ups that cater for a small young elite and get the majority of their web traffic from overseas. However noble, there are very few people in this city who have heard of Ayana magazine, Akendewa, #kpatpatoya or any other worthy Ivorian initiative. I think there are strong lessons to be learnt from a sector often overlooked by people in this milieu, but that is almost without doubt the most influential and vibrant thing happening in Ivorian urban youth culture: coupe decale.
For those who aren’t sure what I’m talking about, check out the latest video from the current master of the art, DJ Arafat. This has mass appeal, not only here, but throughout the francophone world, particularly in Africa. It’s an expression of Ivorian youth culture that has given Abidjan an influence far beyond its physical borders. Here are a few lessons to learn:
1. It’s made the most of new technology – these are young kids messing about on their computers, with little formal musical training, but who with software are able to create these hyped-up beats. Videos are made cheaply in digital and new tracks shared on websites like Abidjanshow.com and ivoirmixdj.com
2. And yet, it addresses an audience that is fundamentally off-line, outside social web networks and away from computers. It’s not been afraid to use old school technology: television, music in bar/maquis/clubs, radio and physical performance. What comes from a computer, doesn’t stay in the computer world – it appears on the old-school entertainment shows on Ivorian tv that have been running for decades. Television remains probably the most influential mass market media in Ivory Coast. Where there are websites like ivoirmixdj, they are heavily promoted offline, principally through mentions in the music tracks. The website ivoirmixdj is known to a massive number of Ivorians, many of whom haven’t touched a computer keyboard.
3. It makes money, even in a very challenging environment. Coupe decale has a wide youth appeal, but is enjoyed by an audience who often have little money to spend. And yet, the biggest artists can dress well, have great cars and can charge big fees for concerts. How come? There is a far degree of showmanship, in appearing richer than they are, especially lower down the food chain, but it’s undeniable that good money is being made. People with web projects who complain about the negative effects of not being able to get a Paypal account in Ivory Coast or cybercriminality should examine the music sector. Almost as soon as you make a track, the mp3 is copied and widely distributed and you get nothing. The musical rights office, Burida, hardly functions (despite having a healthy income). The high-quality videos needed for the major music channels cost a lot of money but don’t provide much direct income in return.
And yet in a few days time, DJ Arafat will perform at Abidjan’s biggest music venue, the Palais de la Culture, and ticket prices start at $20 in a country that’s just getting over a post-election conflict. Coupe Decale has managed to appeal to a mass market while also not excluding an elite youth who can afford to attend such concerts and in a sense are subsidising other people’s enjoyment of coupe decale. The poorer youth want music they enjoy, and the richer elite youth want something that’s authentically Ivorian even in a world where they have access to the best international music.
So what in summary are the lessons from coupe decale for other Ivorian start-up projects?
i) think of a way to touch the mass market without alienating the elite, who can then use their money to pay for better access to a widely-appreciated product.
ii) find a way to connect with and serve people off-line even if it’s harder than using RSS, Twitter and Facebook, and even if what you do originates on a computer.
iii) work on something that make sense here before exporting, so that you have a base-community. Richer people in Abidjan and the diaspora want something that is authentically a product from home.
iv) be active in marketing, even to the point of giving the impression of success and wealth that isn’t really there. Use the media in all its forms to promote.