Senegal: Musicians at the forefront of protests



Musicians at the forefront of protests

In the lead up to Senegal’s controversial presidential elections on 25 March 2012, musicians are at the forefront of a campaign to stop president Abdoulaye Wade from running for a third term. While outspoken and engaged musicians have suffered threats, attacks and arrests, an increasing number of songs addressing the political situation are being written and shared amongst a growing number of citizens engaged with the political situation, reports Freemuse’s West Africa correspondent

By Rose Skelton, Freemuse


Rapper Keyti

“Invest in the youth. Employ them. Give them their pride and dignity back,” flows Keyti, a Senegalese rapper on his startlingly raw video clip ‘Poetry in the Street’.

“Otherwise this country is going to hell… leading a nation is not a show, a game, or a simple task. This country has major questions that require immediate answers. We need leaders who understand the experience of poverty, and a population that takes the initiative.”

Keyti’s acapella rap clip – a stark message to Senegal’s would-be leaders – is filmed on a busy roundabout in the heart of the Senegalese capital, where just a couple of weeks ago hundreds of protestors dodged tear gas canisters and threw rocks back at police masked in full riot gear. In a wave of unrest never before seen in Senegal, citizens took to the streets to protest the president’s attempt to run for a third term in power, even though the constitution sets a two-term limit. The country’s constitutional court, a legal body of members appointed by the president, in January validated his attempt to run.

Violent protests
What the court’s decision unleashed was a wave of protests that became increasingly violent as young people, disappointed by the way their country was being run after the promises Wade had made when he took over power in the year 2000, took to the streets to demand Wade not take part in the elections. Wade had once promised he would not run for a third term, a fact now immortalised in rapper Didier Awadi’s humourous song ‘Ma Waxoon Waxeet’, or, ‘I said it, now I take it back’. As many as nine people were killed during the protests leading up to the first round of February’s presidential elections.

But it is musicians who are at the forefront of the protests to demand Wade to respect his word, and they are consequently the ones who are often the first to be attacked. On February 16th members of the Y’en a Marre (We’re fed up) movement, a citizen’s group of rappers and journalists, were arrested for attempting to stage a sit-in at a public square. The interior ministry had previously banned the protest. Around 15 members of a group that was marching to Place de l’Obelisque in Dakar’s residential Colobane neighbourhood were intercepted by a group of around 50 policemen, says one of the group’s members, rapper Simon:

“We were arrested and charged with organising and participating in a prohibited protest.” The court has since postponed the verdict date because of the elections. In Simon’s opinion, there is no charge: “They were just trying to harass us. It’s intimidation,” he says.

Death threats and arrests
Members of Y’en a Marre have received death threats by telephone, and Didier Awadi says he’s been visited by the inland revenue asking for inflated tax payments which he puts down to his music which is critical of the regime.

But it’s not just rappers who are suffering from being at the forefront of the fight against the candidature of Abdoulaye Wade, human rights figures have also been attacked. Alioune Tine, the president of human rights group Raddho, was arrested on 27 January 2012 and held without charge for three days. According to his colleague Oumar Diallo, he was held in a cell containing 40 people and did not receive the medicine he needed.

But despite the threat of being an outspoken musician or human rights defender in Senegal, musicians are still writing engaged music about the political and social situation. As well as ‘Ma Waxoon Waxeet’, Didier Awadi also wrote the song ‘Maam Boye’, in which he says ‘Grandfather, go and rest, you are tired. Soldiers and bricklayers retire, and so should you.’

Young rapper Professeur wrote ‘High Time’ two years ago but decided to bring it out just before the elections. The song tells the story of a king and his entourage who are sitting around a platter of food, eating until they are full, then throwing the rest away. The message is that state resources aren’t just for one or two people, but for millions. The artist was careful to use metaphors to tell the story, rather than naming any particular people.

Daara J Family. Photo: Antoine Tempé

Daara J Family released the song ‘Politricks’ just before the first round of elections, not to support one or other political party (as some rappers and pop singers have done), but to highlight for voters how easy it is to get caught up in politicians’ games.

“The way forwards has to be far from politics,” says Ndongo D, the group’s quick-fire rapper. “It is to mobilize the people, to encourage them to vote, to understand how the elections work. We have to find a way to explain it to people and the state has to understand that people have the right to protest without the police turning guns on them.”

Music, say the pair, who in 2009 went on an anti-corruption tour of the country to explain to people through their music how corruption can effect ordinary citizens, should stand back from politics. “It has to be a citizen’s approach.”

Rap for a New Type of Senegalese
Didier Awadi, who was active in the rap movement of 2000 which brought Abdoulaye Wade into power, says that the role of musicians is still the same, even if the fight is now slightly different. “Our role is to bring a consciousness to the people, so that they don’t vote for people who pay them but for people who have a political platform. We have to be the watch-keepers of democracy.”

Thiat, rapper with Keur Gui Crew and a founding member of Y’en a Marre who was arrested during protests last year, says that even though they have failed in their mission to get Wade to not stand in elections, their fight continues and goes beyond the elections in attempting to change not just the way politicians act, but also citizens. He gives the example of a bus which is going on a long journey picking up passengers along the way. Some of the passengers have bought tickets to certain destinations, and for the political opposition, their destination was the elections.

“But we will continue,” says Thiat, at home in his apartment in an outlying suburb of Dakar. “What we want to do is conserve the power, and when I say that I mean that the people are the power. Those who aspire to be president now are obliged to go and play politics and we are obliged to stay citizens. Our music will never serve a political party, music is there for everyone. It is against the politicians who are bad, against those citizens who are no good either, and for those who aspire to be good, who aspire to be a New Type of Senegalese. It’s for those people that we make our rap.”

Harassment is non-official
While many have criticised Wade’s regime in recent years with regards to freedom of speech abuses, Senegalese musicians still have the ability to write critical music, even if they find it hard to get their songs airplay.

Simon of the Y’en a Marre movement says that “compared with other countries in the region, our state of freedom of expression is not so bad, they let us speak out. But,” he says, “justice is corrupted. You can write engaged songs and they won’t arrest you and torture you like they might in other countries in the region but if you write about certain groups of people, you will receive death threats. Things are becoming worse and worse with this regime but we still have some sense of freedom of speech.”

Rapper Keyti believes that today in Senegal there is a paradox in that musicians are able to say more but are at the same time more vulnerable to harassment:

“For 15 years, we’ve seen musicians making their voices more and more heard about politics or social issues, contributing with ideas – sometimes also actions – or criticising certain governmental policies or behaviour. However, what is also noticeable is that the harassment they undergo is not officially carried out most of the time but done in a way it can not be related to politicians, religious authorities, the government or whoever they are criticizing.”

Keyti and many other engaged artists feel that music’s relationship with politics has changed because of the nature of the people who are now in power. Politicians, both pro and anti-government, often take advantage of musicians’ state of financial hardship to garner their support, essential for bringing in the youth vote. This can politicize the music and lead to divides within a movement which should, in theory, be united. Despite this threat, music in Senegal remains a crucial bridge between citizens and politicians.

“I definitely believe in the crucial role of music and musicians in politics and in building a democratic society,” says Keyti, “because they help bring a different perspective. Musicians are traditionally closer to the people and their opinions often less subjective than those of politicians. If that contribution is heard and taken into account, it can be a link between the politicians and the people.”

As the second round of elections approaches, in which Wade faces one other challenger in a run-off, even more music is expected from the music-based citizens’ struggle against Wade’s increasingly autocratic rule.


The first round of the presidential election was held on the 26 February 2012, and the second round run-off will be on 25 March 2012.

Rose Skelton is a freelance journalist based in Senegal, focusing on music, culture and politics in the West African region.

The views in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Freemuse.

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