Inna Modja has forged a path all of her own, combining an array of art forms with a hands-on approach to activism. The Malian singer spoke with Leo Nasskau about the power of storytelling, web3 philanthropy, and why she believes the space will continue to flourish. Clovis McEvoy tells the story.
“I'm an artist, a storyteller, and an activist,” says Inna Modja, but, in truth, that’s an oversimplification. The Malian native is a powerhouse of creative energy; finding outlets in music, photography, acting, modelling, activism, and philanthropy.
It’s a dizzying résumé, but Inna’s story has a simple beginning: a love of music, and the happy coincidence of living on the same street as one of Mali’s most famous musicians, Salif Keita. “Nobody in my family is a musician,” says Inna. “So, I wanted to find people who could teach me.” Aged 14, she walked down the street to knock on Salif’s door, introduce herself, and ask to learn. “I knew that he was mentoring some other young people,” she recalls, “and he took me under his wing.”
Inna honed her craft in the years that followed – finding influences from traditional Malian music, desert blues, hip-hop, jazz and R&B, and of course, rock — “I was a rock-head!” she laughs. Moving to France to pursue her music career as a teenager, Inna completed her university studies and soon after signed to Warner Music Group. “I wanted to find a sound that was mine,” she recalls. “Being a young African woman in a modern world, I wanted to know what that would sound like.” Singing in French, English, and her native Bambara, Inna’s albums are a kaleidoscope of different musical styles and instruments; each release is an evolution of sound and content, but always inflected with her own distinctive sensibilities.
Alongside her musical versatility, Inna’s creative pursuits have grown increasingly diverse as her work in photography and film has drawn attention. If there is one unifying theme that runs through all of Inna’s projects, it is a belief in the power of narrative. “It's storytelling with my music, with my photography, with my films. It's storytelling, always,” she says. “I like to bring people into a story, to share something that I'm passionate about or that I truly believe in. I think that is what gives meaning to everything that I do.”
“I didn't want to be a UN ambassador who would just use their voice.”
— Inna Modja
Indeed, her most ambitious project to date is outside the arts almost completely: her 2019 documentary film, The Great Green Wall. Produced by renowned Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles, the project saw Inna travelling across the breadth of Africa: from Senegal in the west to Djibouti in the east. Throughout the documentary, the line of her journey is guided by a living wall of freshly planted trees, a green wall tracing an 8000km path through many of the communities most at risk from climate change. Sharing and exchanging music as she travels, the film’s narrative highlights the rich cultural traditions and human stories that lie in jeopardy.
“With that documentary, we wanted to create a movement that is global,” Inna says. “We are firm believers that art with advocacy, activism, and philanthropy is really something that can create powerful movements.” In the years since its release, the project has been a catalyst for action, raising over $19 billion through the UN to “construct the largest living structure on the planet” and restore dilapidating landscapes across the Sahel.
Real impact is key for Inna, and she is perfectly willing to do the groundwork to make it happen. “Impact has to be attached to action,” she says. “I didn't want to be a UN ambassador who would just use their voice. I wanted to actively be part of the project – to go in the field and meet people, understand what they're going through, try to find solutions, and work with them.”
That solution-oriented mindset is what led Inna and her husband, Marco Conti Sikic, also an artist, to begin exploring web3 in early 2020. Locked down at home with a three-month-old baby, the couple initially became interested in the rapidly-developing NFT art scene before identifying the technology’s potential to offer transformative new avenues for activism and philanthropy.
“For fundraising, it is incredible,” Inna says. “It's faster and more efficient because as you raise funds and awareness, you create a strong community.” Not only does web3 facilitate community building, but Inna sees organisational structures like DAOs offering increased financial transparency, accountability, and a radical rebalancing between individual agency and collective action. “I love when people’s voices are heard, and in this space, when you hold a token your voice is heard. You are part of a community, part of this bigger entity, but also, as an individual, you count.”
Since that initial interest, Inna has become involved in some of the most exciting projects in web3 – she’s a founder at NFT Factory Paris, she serves on the council at Rug Radio, web3’s leading decentralised media organisation, and co-founded Code Green, a web3-powered climate activism initiative, alongside her husband in 2021. Pushing for environmentally-conscious improvements in web3 and intent on harnessing blockchain to advance the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, Code Green has released NFT collections, metaverse games, and forged vital connections with other activists building in the space.
“Art with advocacy, activism, and philanthropy is really something that can create powerful movements.”
— Inna Modja
One such connection is World of Women, a web3 community that celebrates female artists and where Inna, an early member, is Head of Philanthropy. “Both my husband and I are feminists,” Inna says. “We wanted to support World of Women because we felt it was a project that opened the door for values like inclusivity, diversity, and the LGBTQIA+ community to come into the space.”
World of Women has grown into one of the most impactful projects in web3. “We want to create a bridge between digital communities and communities in real life, fighting for things that are really important,” Inna explains. “At Code Green, and also at World of Women, it's not just about donating funds – we are here for them, we work with them; it's a partnership.”
Exciting as the journey has been to date, Inna is adamant that this is just the beginning. “I think we've scratched a very small percentage of what can be done in web3,” she says. Speculating on what is yet to come, it is the new uses of the technology, the new tools, and the communities that grow around them, that Inna finds most exciting – and it is that excitement that gives her a sense of certainty about web3’s future, despite broader turbulence.
“We've scratched a very small percentage of what can be done in web3.”
— Inna Modja
“We're in a bear market, there's no denying that – but we're all finding solutions, we're all building,” she says. “It has been a few months now, so the people who are still here are in this for something other than just the floor prices. We are here for something much bigger. After we have survived this, and we will, I think that we will be stronger, and will really believe in our capacity to have an impact.”
It’s an inspiring conviction – that, despite the failures that we’ve seen in the centralised financial aspect of web3, the sector remains a space for people to create; to organise; to build. As Inna puts it: “in this space, we're getting our power back. This is a chance for everyone who has an activist heart to do something.”
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