"IF YOU BAN people's music in Mali or in the whole world... it's like cutting people's oxygen off. Because music is like oxygen for human beings," says musician Khaira Arby in They Will Have to Kill Us First. Extremists took control of Northern Mali in 2012, imposing sharia law and strictly prohibiting all forms of music. Since playing music was punishable by death, most musicians moved south to refugee camps in the West African country's capital city, Bamako. They Will Have to Kill Us First centers on the exiled musicians who strive to return to their homeland and bring music back to their people.
Johanna Schwartz's documentary reveals Malians' sanguine resistance against oppression—for them, music is not optional. It's a critical mode of communication and a signifier of a thriving community. These musicians take their role as arbiters of heritage seriously, and they see it as their duty to return music to Mali. Arby bravely decides to hold a concert in Timbuktu with Fadimata "Disco" Walet Oumar—a risk that she's aware could be met with extremist backlash—but she wants to set an example for younger generations with her joyful, peaceful protest.
The film also follows a young band, Songhoy Blues, who started playing together in Bamako after the violence in Timbuktu forced them to flee south. Last year they released their debut album, Music in Exile, after their incredible guitar-driven desert-punk caught the attention of Damon Albarn's (of Blur and Gorillaz) Africa Express project. Songhoy Blues has been explosively successful in America and Europe, bringing well-deserved attention to the resilient talents of musicians in Mali. (They'll play the Doug Fir on Monday, April 4.)
They Will Have to Kill Us First sends a clear message from Mali's musicians to their oppressors—you can turn cities into ghost towns, take away radio stations, and destroy instruments, but we'll never stop making music.