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Malian-French Singer Inna Modja Is on a Mission to Spread Hope

To see more from Inna, check out @innamodjaofficiel on Instagram. For more music stories, head to @music.

For Inna Modja (@innamodjaofficiel ), music and art are more than just a career or hobby — they’re her calling to bring a moment, however brief, of happiness and hope into the world. With that in mind, the 31-year-old singer and her friend Marco Conti Sikic, a photographer and director, started the street art project #wingsforfreedom, in which they paint angelic bird wings on walls and photograph people standing in front of them as if they’re ready to fly.

“The idea was, for a few minutes, let them dream,” Inna — pronounced “ee-nah” — says of the photos, which were taken throughout Africa, and in Paris right after the terrorist attacks in November. “In those areas of the world, hope is the most important thing. You need hope to have the strength to keep on going.” Soon, they’ll take the project on the road to Brazil, as well as Calais, France, where they’re teaching art and music to orphaned refugees from the Middle East.

Inna is so selfless about her charity work that when Instagram @music first calls her at her home in Paris, she asks if it’s OK to call back in five minutes, then profusely apologizes for the slight delay. The reason for the hold up? She had to work on a speech for the United Nations’ International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation. It’s a personal cause to Inna, having been a victim of the horrific practice as a child at the hands of an older family member. The event marked her second time at the UN, after she performed there last year with Juanes and Cody Simpson, and came the day before her first proper concert in the United States at New York’s Standard Hotel.

Musically, Inna’s style is the perfect fit for such a global event. Growing up in the northern Saharan part of Mali, she heard the country’s traditional music, as well as ‘60s soul, Metallica, Boyz II Men, Barbra Streisand and many more. “Blues music takes its root in Malian music. That’s why I love American music, because it has a lot alignment with our traditional music.” On her third album, 2015’s Motel Bamako, which was inspired by her trips around the world, she raps in the Malian language of Bambara over a blend of soul, electronic and R&B music.

“I define myself as a desert girl. We are nomads. For me, traveling is a lot in my culture.” Recently, she spent time in Mexico, seeing Mayan ruins and learning about the country’s relationship with mezcal and tequila in Zihuatanejo. As a photographer, she likes to capture the local flavors and architecture, as opposed to just the tourist sites. “It helps me see the world on a bigger scale, so what I’m talking about in my music gets richer because I get to meet another culture, another street.”

Tragically, being a northern desert girl is virtually impossible back in Mali. She still visits the country, but not in the area where she was raised. For the past several years, Islamic terrorists have held that part of the country and banned all forms of entertainment, from singing to soccer.

“Especially as a female musician, talking about the crisis in Mali and doing a song called ‘Tombouctou’ about what’s going on there, it’s really difficult. There are some parts in the country where I wouldn’t go because my life would be in danger. For them, I shouldn’t be doing music, I shouldn’t be not wearing a veil. But I’m a musician. I have to spread the message.“

––Dan Reilly for Instagram @music

The story of Ernie Gehr’s Carnival of Shadows began in a Paris toy shop in 1974, when he discovered paper strips illustrated with silhouetted figure drawings, taken from early-20th-century shadowgraph toys. Gehr used those illustrations as the source material for several video works currently on view in the MoMA Film galleries. Read a Q&A with Gehr on our blog.


[Installation view of Ernie Gehr: Carnival of Shadows, The Museum of Modern Art, November 21, 2015-April 30, 2016. © 2015 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo: Thomas Griesel]