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Bringing the Streets to Politics: Hip-Hop Promotes Openness in Senegal

Crowd watches men rap
Y’en a marre members perform at a community concert in Dakar. The group has been instrumental in raising youth awareness on issues of corruption and mismanagement, particularly in the lead-up to the 2012 presidential elections. © Finbarr O’Reilly/Reuters

After floods swept through the suburbs of Dakar in 2006, a popular local rapper recruited youth to organize a fundraising concert for the newly homeless. The cohort morphed into Africulturban, a youth development organization using music, media, and educational programs to help engage some of Dakar’s most “at risk” young people—those living in poverty, lacking access to education, and often more susceptible to criminal activity. Hip-hop reaches these people and opens them to new experiences.

In March 2014, Africulturban launched YUMA (Youth Urban Media Academy). The initiative offers formerly incarcerated youths filmmaking and photography classes, among others. The YUMA project helps young men surmount the stigma that follows former prisoners. It gives them an opportunity to tell their stories, and ultimately help reshape the narrative around young persons and urban life in Senegal. And it does this confidence-building work through a channel they can relate to: hip-hop.  

Before hip-hop’s arrival, Senegalese culture had a long history of rhythmically arranging words to song—a tradition known as tassu—that helped educate the then mostly illiterate masses. Mbalakh, the Senegalese national dance that fuses western rock music with jazz and soul, also held a prominent cornerstone as a musical genre sung in praise of successful businessmen and politicians. It is often referred to as “the Senegalese opium,” as it allowed people to forget their problems. Rap, by contrast, has sought to be a more radical and legitimate means of facing reality, and calling for change.

This boldness reflects how Senegalese youth have adopted hip-hop culture. When hip-hop culture first made its way from the United States and France to Senegal in the late 1980s, it quickly attracted young Senegalese for its anti-establishment ethos and its Western sensibility. At the time Senegalese youth could be seen wearing Western clothes–acid-wash jeans, t-shirts, open jackets, and shoulder pads—but the distinctive hip hop style of dress with its baseball caps, neon jackets, and gold chains were not yet commonplace.

Soon, though, rap music in the gritty suburbs of Dakar took on a more localized identity replete with primarily Wolof lyrics about local issues. The art scene in the suburb communities of Pikine and Guediawaye had primarily focused around entertainment—live theatre, group dancing, and mbalakh. Hip-hop’s arrival spoke to youth and provided a much-needed space for political and social expression to denounce patrimonialism and encourage more social justice and better governance.

Today there are several examples of prominent Senegalese hip-hop artists like Awadi, Duggy Tee, Matador, Thiat, Khalifa, Keyti, Xuman, and Fou Malade, who have made names for themselves as politically engaged artists. The prominent Y’en a Marre (“I’ve had enough”) group, who were instrumental in keeping the former president from seeking constitutionally illegal re-elections in 2012, were made up mainly of hip-hop artists.

This brought disconnected youth into political life while democratizing the artistic scene and providing a platform for anyone to criticize Senegalese political, social, cultural, and even religious affairs. Regardless of ethnicity, social class, or caste, a rap artist can be—and often is—from any segment of Senegalese society. It is generally inexpensive—as no instruments are required—and demands relatively low musical skills or access to start.

Traditionally, Senegal’s various ethnic groups have specifically allocated roles and responsibilities as it relates to the established social order. Everything from cooking and dancing to singing and farming to educating and running businesses is often predetermined by one’s ethnicity. But rapping is open to everyone.

Another key democratizing aspect of rap is in its content matter—there are hardly any taboo issues. Just about any topic can be broached in its lyrics, even the ones local Senegalese media tend to shy away from. Though rappers may still treat them with some degree of subtlety, it is not unusual to hear songs about corruption within the government or even among its leading religious figures (the latter whom play a monumental role in Senegalese society).

Of course, liberation runs into walls. In a country of 12 million where an estimated 300,000 call themselves “rappers,” censorship and cultural mores hold sway. Senegal is a 95-percent Muslim country where traditional practices, including carefully defined gender roles, marital expectations, and the like, are well-entrenched. While many young Senegalese feel free to rap, and are fuelled by an initial desire “to be famous” or to simply “speak out” against their governments or what they feel is ailing in their society, few actually make it so far as to reach the masses.

This makes rap a vehicle for civic awareness, if not a rocket for policy change. As Amadou Fall Ba, 33, one of the founding members of Africulturban and a former rapper himself explains, “The force of hip-hop is about forming something from nothing.”

Africulturban is a grantee of the Open Society Foundations.

Correction (January 18, 2015): This post originally misspelled the name of the Senegalese hip-hop artist Awadi.

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