In Senegal, Hip Hop Is About Social Change
By Kai Beasley
Black College Wire
Many Americans view commercial hip hop as little more than a venue for scantily clad women and shallow lyrics about drugs, fast cars and fast cash. But on the West African stage, hip hop is proving to be a political weapon, capable of inciting rebellion and change.
"We don't talk about the girls and the bling bling," says Abdoulaye Aw, the founder of Propagand'Arts, a firm that introduces African artists to the American hip hop industry. "We use our music to educate the people and talk about the real issues."
The artists say that their desire to educate is what sets Senegalese hip hop apart from its American counterpart. The musicians have a preference for substance over entertainment value.
"We are more focused on giving people information," says Moussa Sall, a Senegalese rap artist who now lives in Washington D.C. "[In America] it's all about clubbing and just doing party songs, but we are focused on the message."
The message is that the country has not been doing so well under the current leadership of President Abdoulaye Wade, and that Senegal is in desperate need of a change.
"The hip hop movement is educating the people on the fact that we need to take this guy out!" says Aw. "The guy we put in power doesn't really care about the people. He is there for his family and for himself. He is not really ruling the country right now."
Abdulaye Wade is only the third president of Senegal. First elected in 2000, he won re-election in March of 2007, much to the dismay of many members of the hip-hop community.
Despite the ratification of a new constitution in 2001, and economic reforms that have resulted in a 5percent increase in GDP every year, the country is still highly dependent on outside donor support, and Wade has not been able to fight the high unemployment that ravages the country.
According to a 2001 estimate in the CIA World Fact Book, Senegal had an unemployment rate of 48 percent, with 40 percent being urban youth. A 2004 profile by the Institute for Security Studies, places the unemployment rate in Senegal's urban sector at 23 percent. And 54 percent of the country's population lives below the poverty line.
Many citizens choose to flee Senegal and immigrate to Europe or America in search of more job opportunities.
"It's hard down there in [Senegal]," says Moussa Sall. "We don't have many opportunities. They are pushing us to leave our country and go somewhere else."
For the Senegalese, rhyming on the microphone over a hot beat is the only way to push back.
"It's increasingly obvious that [hip hop] is an important political tool there," says Magee McIlvaine, the co-director and co-producer of the independent documentary film, "Africa Underground: Democracy in Dakar." McIlvane adds, "In Senegalese mainstream hip hop, the people appreciate positivity and political consciousness."
The film, which won honors at the Bronx film festival and the Vibe Magazine Urban World Film Festival, documents the period up to and just after the recent 2007 election. It was that election that the hip hop community hoped would bring about change.
"When we got there for the 2007 elections, there was a lot of tension," McIlvaine says. "We decided to go in and film the elections from the rapper's perspective."
2007 wasn't the first time that rap would have had an effect on the outcome of a political election.
Ben Herson, the founder and director of Nomadic Wax, a record label that seeks to bring more west African hip hop to the American market, says that in 2000, rap music was a key factor in motivating the regime change. As a result, current president Abdoulye Wade took the place of former president Abdou Diouf.
"In 2000, it's like hip hop really changed the power." Says Sall. "We were telling the people what they need to know about politics."
Senegalese artists were first inspired by the politically conscious American hip-hop of the 1980's.
"The first real hip hop artist that inspired them to do anything was Chuck D., with 'Fight the Power'," McIlvaine says. "It had a political consciousness that really appealed to the way Senegalese people were living."
The art form may have taken such a strong hold in Senegal because in some form, it existed in Africa before it was discovered in America.
"Senegal has a lot of cultural and musical traditions that are very similar to hip hop," Herson says. "The traditions go back 5000 years. They just evolved and continued. But more importantly, it's a medium that is a separate social space that the youth can latch onto and convey their own struggles."
In fact, youth makes up a large part the Senegalese populace. 70% of the population is under 30 years of age. The average age is only 18.7 years, compared to the U.S., where the average age is 36.6 years.
"It just comes naturally as a way to reach the young people," Moussa Sall says. "In Senegal, we listen to more hip hop than any other music.
Since gaining its independence from France in 1960, Senegal has been one of the few African countries that has not had a coupe d'etat. But so far, the Senegalese democracy has been unable to produce a leader that can solve the country's problems.
Under the increased threat of political upheaval, the current regime has kept a tight grip on the rights given to its people by the new constitution.
"I know that some people were exiled," Aw says. "I know a few people died as well. The climate is not like it used to be, a lot of people are wondering what's going to happen."
According to Aw, the government uses violence, exile, and the threat of tax increases to deter young Senegalese artists from speaking out against the regime.
But in the eyes of many that are involved with the Senegalese hip-hop industry, the need to speak out against corruption in government has never been stronger.
"Hip-hop is a form of Fighting," Aw says. "It came from the ghetto and it gave young African Americas a way to raise their voice. It's the same in Africa."
The next step is to bring their fight to the world stage.
"It's time for Senegalese hip hop to extend itself," Sall explains. "We need to focus on it, and push it more for people to really listen to what we have to say."
"I think Senegalese hip hop is going to become more popular," Abdoulye says, "We are going to get more and more artists holding the government accountable."