17 August 2007

Senegal: The Politics of Hip Hop in Dakar

Photo: ThinkAfricaPress
Senegalese singer Carlou D
column

Washington, DC — After hip hop came to Africa in the 1980s and went from being a fad to an African youth movement, communities emerged in a number of countries to dominate the continent's hip hop scene. Among the leaders of this movement are Senegalese artists, who are not only among the best and most political in Africa, but also the most respected in francophone Africa.

The first generation of African youth to make a collective impact on the fabric of politics and society in modern Africa comprised the visionaries who brought its nations to independence. Some took a revolutionary direction and as a result some African states have legacies of radicalism and political action. Senegal was not one of those states. But now, through the art form of hip hop, the youth in Senegal are rising up as some of the most socially provocative artists in Africa.

Senegal's hip hop scene is distinctive and its artists extremely talented. The country has a history of strong musical traditions, including tassou, which is similar to rapping. Senegalese rap artists today often blend local sounds and, realizing they will have more of an impact rapping in a local language, they rap either entirely in Wolof or a in blend of French and Wolof. Examples of such artists are Daara J, Pee Froiss, and Positive Black Soul (whose music was featured in season one of the American HBO television show, The Wire).

Becaye Dial, who grew up in the Senegalese hip hop scene and is friends with several artists, recalls the early days as a time when they were into the hip hop dance, or new jack, scene. In fact, he says, Positive Black Soul actually started out as dancers and turned into a rap group.

Abdoulaye Aw, founder and manager of Propagand'Arts, still remembers the first hip hop films to arrive in Senegal. He says they were the platforms through which many youth were first introduced to genre and the culture. With the rise of cable TV and the return of Senegalese living abroad carrying the latest hip magazines and music, early American rap artists like LL Cool J and Salt-n-Pepa inspired young people.

Hip hop empowers and transforms people's lives, according to Abdoulaye Aw, probably explaining why Senegalese youth have really embraced it. This, and the country's own strong culture, have merged to form a uniquely political hip hop community. Both Aw and Becaye Dial say that there are those who rap about materialistic things, but this is often done simply to get radio airtime.

The documentary film Democracy in Dakar is a revealing portrayal of just how important Senegalese rappers have proven to be in the political process in Dakar. Where sex and parties are all too common as topics in much of Africa's rap music, this is not the case in Senegal. Abdoulaye Aw reckons that about 85 percent of the hip hop music in Senegal is politically and socially relevant.

While mainstream artists address important social and political issues, Dial says it is the underground rap artists in Senegal that go the furthest. Some have even addressed the taboo subject of the country's marabouts (a form of spiritual leader), and the power and political influence they hold in the country. Such artists have, however, often struggled to be heard because promoters fear promoting their music on the grounds that it is too politically outspoken. Nevertheless, the direction hip hop has taken might partly be attributed to religion which has a huge influence on Senegalese culture. For example, Aw points out that the culture frowns upon boasting about material possessions.

While women all over the world have a difficult time in male-dominated fields, Senegal's hip hop scene differs from those of countries such as South Africa and Kenya, in that here are very few female artists. Not a single solo female rap artist has released an album, although many are into the country's mbalax music scene.

Aw points out that most female artists are part of rap groups, and are often the only female in the group. While musicians such as Vivian N'Dour have successfully worked with rap artists, the only female rap artists to have made an impact on the Senegalese rap scene are ALIF, the country's first all-female rap group. ALIF, or Attaque Liberatoire de l'Infanterie Feministe, hit the scene in 1997 and the group addresses all sorts of social issues through their music. Their 2004 debut CD, 'Dakamerap' has been well received in Senegal and Europe.

Hip hop in Senegal today includes the mbalax rap element, the mainstream artists, the underground artists, and an increasing shift towards rap/reggae. Major artists include Awadi of Positive Black Soul, Daara J, Da Brains, and WA BMG 44. Overall, it is a growing, shifting scene, where artists are inserting the agenda of the youth into Senegalese politics, making their own beats and rapping in a language and style that reflect the distinctiveness of Senegalese culture.

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