Wearing a black “Hate Hero” T-shirt, a large pair of headphones clamped over his ears, the young singer croons into a microphone at a simple recording studio inside a prison in Burkina Faso, a landlocked country in West Africa.
Known as Johnyto, the 25-year-old is serving two years for being an accomplice to robbery at an overcrowded prison known for its abysmal conditions in Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina’s second city.
Here, he is one of 700 inmates, some of whom are looking on curiously as he works the synthesizer, the mixer and the amplifiers.
“School didn’t work out because I wanted to make music, but well, that didn’t take off... Many things happened before I wound up here,” admits the young singer, whose real name is Jonathan Sougue.
“But one day, I hope to become a real star and forget this life.”
And in March, Johnyto finally got the break he was looking for when he entered an audition run by Burkinabe reggae star Freeman Tapily who was looking for an inmate who could record an album behind bars.
In what could have been dubbed “Prison’s Got Talent” or perhaps “X-Factor Behind Bars”, four people in his jail vied for first place, and Johnyto, with his mix of rap and ballads, won.
Several months later, Tapily’s team came into the prison and set up a basic recording studio where Johnyto spent three days with them recording five songs, shooting a music video and taking a series of publicity shots.
The project is being jointly financed by the Burkinabe Office of Author’s Rights and by African Culture, an organization owned by Tapily which invites well-known Burkinabe singers and musicians to perform at concerts inside prisons for free as a way of helping with the inmates’ rehabilitation.
“These projects are close to my heart,” Tapily told AFP.
He started the initiative in 2010 with a concert performed in front of 1,400 inmates at the MACO central prison in the capital, Ouagadougou.
“Now it’s 2018 and there are roughly 2,000 prisoners. It’s going up!” he said.
But what he really wants to see is the numbers falling -- in a sign that the inmates are completing their sentences, getting out and getting on with normal lives.
“For the number to fall, we have to get on with rehabilitation. With rehabilitation, we will fight crime and repeat offences, that’s our battle. And in terms of rehabilitation, music can do a lot.”
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