Islamic extremists have banned music in Mali, but its world famous musicians wont give up without a fight. They Will Have To Kill Us First tells the story of Malis musicians, as they fight for their right to sing. With a specially commissioned soundtrack from some of Malis most exciting artists, the film features musicians: Khaira Arby, Fadimata Disco Walet Oumar, Malian superstar Amkoullel, Moussa Sidi and introducing Songhoy Blues. Music is the beating heart of Malian culture, but when Islamic jihadists took control of northern Mali in 2012, they enforced one of the harshest interpretations of sharia law in history: They banned all forms of music. Radio stations were destroyed, instruments burned and Malis musicians faced torture, even death. Overnight, Malians revered musicians were forced into hiding or exile where most remain, even now. But rather than lay down their instruments, the musicians are fighting back, standing up for their cultural heritage and identity. Throughout their struggle, they have used music as their weapon against ongoing violence that has left Mali ravaged. They Will Have to Kill Us First sees musicians on the run, tells the story of the uprising of Touareg separatists, reveals rare footage of the jihadists, captures life at refugee camps where money and hope are scarce, charts perilous journeys home to war-ravaged cities, and follows our characters as they set up and perform at the first public concert in Timbuktu since the music ban.

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Critic Reviews (6)

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Critic Score Distribution
Highest score:
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Average score:
  1. Positive: 5 Out of 6
  1. Mixed: 1 Out of 6
  1. Negative: 0 Out of 6
Critical Consensus: Good.

New York Times

14 Mar 2017
Filmed partly in refugee camps and on the war-ravaged streets of Timbuktu and Gao, Johanna Schwartz’s miraculously hopeful documentary, “They Will Have to Kill Us First: Malian Music in Exile,” delivers a vibrant testimony of resilience under o ...

A.V. Club

14 Mar 2017
A stirring yet overstuffed documentary on musicians in exile, They Will Have To Kill Us First opens with a rundown of what happened in northern Mali in 2012—and refreshingly, it’s delivered in the form of a propulsive rap. That year, the National ...

The Hollywood Reporter

14 Mar 2017
One consequence of the complicated turmoil that erupted in Mali in 2012 was that, in the northern cities of Gao and Timbuktu, Islamist extremists forbade the broadcasting of music. In a country globally renowned for its musical traditions (represente ...

The Irish Times

14 Mar 2017
Johanna Schwartz’s music documentary opens with an explanatory text and French-language rap. These say that since 1963 the nomadic people of the Sahara, the Touaregs, have been fighting for an independent state in northern Mali. Following the death ...

Right Now

14 Mar 2017
It’s hard to imagine a world without music. A world where melodies are forbidden, radios are silenced, and instruments are hidden away or destroyed. For most of us, music is such an intrinsic part of our existence that the possibility of it no long ...

14 Mar 2017
What happens when music is outlawed? That’s not the plot to a new young-adult novel but what really happened in the nation of Mali a few years ago. Islamic jihadists seized control over the northern parts of the country and promptly banned all musi ...

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Release Date(s):

August 4, 2015 (Sound + Vision Film Society Lincoln Center, USA)
October 13, 2015 (London Film Festival, UK)
October 23, 2015 (UK)
January 24, 2016 (TV premiere, Finland)
January 29, 2016 (Göteborg International Film Festival, Sweden)
March 4, 2016 (USA)
May 17, 2016 (Docs Against Gravity Film Festival, Poland)

Executive Producer:

Andre Singer


Karelle Walker


Andy Morgan


Andrea Carnevali, Guy Creasey

Production Management:

Devan Vimal


Alan Sallabank, Sue Malpass, Phitz Hearne


Carmen Montanez Callan

Original Score:

Nick Zinner

Production Company:

Mojo Musique, Spring Films, Together Films


Together Films (UK) (theatrical), BBC Worldwide Americas (USA) (all media), BBC Worldwide (World-wide) (all media), Yleisradio (YLE) (2016) (Finland) (TV)


French, Songhay, English, Bambara, Tamashek


105 minutes


£400,000 (estimated)

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