Senegal: Rappers’ quest for change



Rappers’ quest for change

During the last seven years, there has been a frightening rise in the number of censorship attempts on musicians, outspoken activists and journalists in Senegal. In the 2007 elections in Senegal, music played a vital part of political campaigning, reports Freemuse’s West Africa correspondent

By Rose Skelton, Freemuse


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In the early hours of Monday morning, the rusting white buses usually used for transporting workers around Senegal’s Atlantic city peninsular, make turns around the town centre, the rapid-fire mbalax pop music blaring from the roof-mounted speakers.
Just a few hours before, voting booths had closed across the country, and young people loyal to Senegal’s president Abdoulaye Wade had heard the unofficial news that the eighty-year old incumbent had won the 2007 elections.
The youth celebrated to the sound of the government’s official campaign music, by pop music duo Pape and Cheikh. This song has blared along the campaign trail since the beginning of February when Wade’s re-election campaign started.
In this country where music is the life force of the people, where it is news, opinion and pleasure all wrapped up into one, it is also a vital part of political campaigning, and this has a long history in Senegal.

    Daara J – with Faada Freddy at the right. (Promotion photo)

Late at night, in one of Dakar’s hidden-away recording studios, Faada Freddy of the world-famous Senegalese rap group Daara J (‘School of Life’) tells the legendary tale of the 2000 residential elections, when President Wade pushed out the Socialist party who had ruled the country for 40 years.
“During the last elections, the rappers themselves went on the campaign trail, just like the Presidential candidates,” says Freddy, throwing his dreadlocks out of his face with a flick of his head.
“The rappers were saying with their music, ‘OK, you want things to change? There are some things you can do. If you don’t vote, no one else will do it for you: you have to take your destiny in your hands’.” That musical discourse, says Freddy, helped a lot of people realise for the first time that they were able to take part in the political destiny of their country.
The country’s rappers – who bear no resemblance to their gun-loving American counterparts – were speaking a language that young people could understand. The result was monumental: after 40 years of iron Socialist rule, the country had a new leader. A sense of hope was breathed into its people and rap music lived its moment of glory.
West Africa, the land of griots or oral historians who used to accompany kings both singing their praises and issuing warnings against incorrect behaviour, has a long history of using music as a political weapon.
“Hip-hoppers, I call them modern griots,” says Freddy, talking about the important role of counter-power that rappers hold against politicians in the small country of 12 million.
“And when the rappers see that Wade’s party aren’t doing their political job correctly, they’re gonna whip him again, give him a slap in the face and say: ‘We’re here with our tongues to correct you when you’re not acting right.’”

Scroll forward seven years and the picture looks very different. Senegal has undergone seven years of economic growth and is hailed as a bastion of calm in a troubled region. However, almost half the population is unemployed and the country’s rappers – the voice of the youth – say that the government has become heavy handed.
“In 2000,” says Xuman, the reggae-rap singer from hip-hop group Pee Froiss, “I knew that rappers were ready to fight. Now I can’t feel it anymore.”
This sense of despondency has come to affect almost every high profile rapper in the country, and with Presidential elections just days behind them, not many feel there is cause to celebrate.
“People are very confused,” says Xuman. He released his new album just two weeks before Sunday’s polls, in the hope that he would be able to open people’s eyes on the current government’s wrong-doings and at the same time encourage people to use their most valuable weapons, their voting cards.
“The difference between this political regime and the last is that people can beat you if you insult Wade. You’ll never get your video on the TV or radio, because the TV is for Wade. So rappers are singing about it but they’re afraid. Even if they can’t kill you, they’re going to do it to your family.”
Xuman is talking about the censorship that many rappers say they have suffered under Wade’s government. It started, says hard-hitting rapper Didier Awadi, in the first weeks of Wade’s election in 2000, when government ministers came to visit those rappers they thought loyal to the regime, asking them to sing propaganda music to garner youth support.
“I told them, ‘No! I was not fighting for you, I was fighting for the people. My position is still the same. If you don’t do your job correctly, I will be the first to criticise you, to point it out.”

    Xuman raps at the launch of his new album, days before the 2007 Presidential elections

During the last seven years, there has been a frightening rise in the number of censorship attempts on musicians, outspoken activists and journalists in Senegal. Local radio stations were closed down and foreign reporters expelled for apparently “biased” reporting on the rebellion in the south, and religious fanatics close to the president carried out attacks on journalists who criticised the cosy relationship between the country’s religious elite and the government.
Musicians have come under the same fire. Backdated tax bills, physical attacks and threats to people and property have driven the famously tight rap community apart. As Xuman says, rappers used to be ready to fight. Now, things are falling apart.
The government denies such charges. Momodou Kassé is from the Ministry of Information.
“In a country like Senegal, rap music reveals lots of things. The fact that the youth have the liberty to say what they think, to speak out-loud, and to pass on the message across the radio proves that it’s a democratic country. If there wasn’t this liberty of expression, I am convinced that rap music would not be developed in Senegal today,” he says. 
Rappers like Xuman and Awadi say they feel alone. The rap community is afraid, and has become weak. The marked lack of politically-motivated rap music during the run-up to the presidential elections in 2007 shows just how much the community has cracked in the past seven years.

At the high-rise office of Dakar’s Ocean FM radio station, Xuman sits at the desk from where he broadcasts his afternoon radio show. The seven-foot tall rapper is excited because he has in his hand the latest release by the rap collective, ‘Micro Mbedd,’ or ‘Microphone of the Streets’.
The song, featuring 17 rappers, isn’t for sale, and took just days to produce. It’s an underground musical newspaper report on the current crisis to hit Senegal, illegal immigration, aimed at informing people of the realities and encouraging educated debate.
The government, says Xuman, has failed to do anything about the crisis which in 2006 claimed 6,000 lives and saw more than 30,000 young Africans, most of them Senegalese, take to the seas in rickety fishing boats in the hope of reaching Spain, and employment. So rappers have organised themselves into an informal collective to do the government’s job for them.
“In these last years,” says Xuman, as the song plays across the airwaves, “We see that the young generation don’t want to talk anymore about politics. They just think about how to get out of Senegal, which means things are worse than before.”
This rap collective, however, is a sign that things in the musical community are coming back together. It’s something that Didier Awadi, deeply affected by the immigration crisis, also feels.
“I feel that rappers are conscious now of the despair, because they saw the situation of these boys trying to escape by boat to go to Europe,” he says.
“We all know that these guys (politicians) are not serious and it’s our historical responsibility to be engaged in the real fight against them. Because we cannot accept a regression of democracy in this country, we can not accept it.”
Xuman also feels that after a period of silence and division in the rap community, things are coming back together.
“The thing is simple. Rap music is fight music, and we know that we’re kind of like soldiers. Maybe it’s a dream that we think we can change the world, but I know that some people listen to what I say, and I believe that rap can change the way they’re living.”

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

“The lack of politically motivated rap music during the run-up to the presidential elections in 2007 shows just how much the community has cracked…”

Photo: Sandro Winkler /




Daara J poster

Where to buy your music in Dakar: Sandaga Market.
Photo: Rose Skelton

‘Car Rapide’
– bus in Dakar
Photo: Rose Skelton

Didier Awadi: “We feel alone”

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