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Senegal's hip-hop revolution

In 2000, Senegalese President Abdou Diouf was cast in the country's first democratic election. The peaceful revolution was well aided by the country's many thousands of rappers.


Join the Thiaroye district in Dakar. Here, well outside the city's ideological and economic center, live around four of the capital's six million inhabitants. The district grew as streams of farmers poured in from the villages in search of work in the 1960s and 70s, and here it is far between the cars, discos and shops. But this impoverished neighborhood is the center of the Senegalese hip-hop revolution, which helped tear President Abdou Diouf from power in 2000.

- Our generation was ripe for a political change, because the president never did anything for us who lived in the ghetto. Senegal is a fairly free and democratic society, where most people have access to education. But when it comes to getting a job, you pretty much have to go through friends and relatives. We and other rappers brought the nascent dissatisfaction to an audience, explains the rapper with the apt name Eyewitness.


Eyewitness forms the hip-hop group Wagëblë together with the rapper Waterflow and the DJs Geblik and Icare. Wagëble is wolof for "from the ghetto", and the group springs from the district of Thiaroye. So does rapper Omzo, who in 2000 participated in the compilation Politicians (a hip-hop new word that connects "politician" and "dog" in French).

His song begins with a comedian reading a speech by incoming President Abdoulaye Wade: "Abdou Diouf has fled. Now we have given the rappers the freedom of speech, and they want to protect it. I am a politician, no 'politichien' ".

The quote shows how hip hop has in a surprisingly short time become a cultural force it is impossible for Senegal's politicians to steer clear of, but a form of music that has gained a national status that may be reminiscent of reggae's political power in Jamaica.

- Today, hip-hop artists are something politicians have to deal with in everyday life, and this has led to the youngest generation finally being heard in the political debate. The special thing now is that hip hop reaches everyone, including the elderly, because they know we are telling the truth, explains Waterflow, who estimates that today there are around 6000 rappers in Senegal – over half of them in Dakar.

Not bad, especially when we consider that American and French hip hop first hit West Africa in the late 1980s. Senegalese with relatives in the United States or France received music in the mail, and artists such as Public Enemy, KRS-One, Onyx and French-Senegalese MC Solaar in particular became important role models.

The middle class

In the early years of Senegalese hip-hop, the middle-class children were frolicking because they were the only ones who could afford to buy records, and even record and release music. Pioneers such as Positive Black Soul and Pee Froiss are emerging from the middle class, but as popularity has increased and recording has become cheaper, hungry rappers and producers have poured in from the worn-out neighborhoods of Thiaroye.

- American gangsta rap has also become popular in Senegal. Not many people understand the lyrics, but it is not difficult to understand the videos, with their expensive cars, large jewelry, expensive clothes and pretty ladies. But so far there are not many who try to imitate, because we know that what we see on TV is just a five minute long dream. The audience knows they will never get it this way, so then they prefer to hear local artists talk about how we feel here in Senegal, Waterflow explains.

Here we also come across a peculiar Senegalese double standard in the view of women, partying and materialism in American hip-hop videos. Senegal is a Muslim state, and the links between religion, politics and business are many and close ("The hand that gives is the hand that rules" is the name of the Omzo song mentioned earlier in the article). When critics look at American hip-hop, it is only considered a sign of how morally dilapidated American society is. No one criticizes Senegalese artists who do the same in pop music mbalax. There, stars like Youssou N'Dour escape with lightly dressed ladies and horny lyrics in their videos.

- Before hip hop came to Senegal, it was not accepted to use music as a political protest, and as such, the lyrics of pop stars like Youssou N'Dour are closer to a gangster rapper like 50 Cent than political rappers like Chuck D and KRS-One. You have to remember that Senegal is not a Muslim country on a par with Iran or Saudi Arabia. We do not practice sharia law, and interpret the Qur'an less strictly. I can easily go to the mosque dressed like this, says Waterflow, pointing to his red bubble jacket, wide hip-hop trousers, knitted hat and gold chains.

African roots

Wagëblë always gets wondering glances and questions about how they as Africans can embrace the American hip-hop culture so wholeheartedly. Where are the African costumes, the djembe drums and the dancers? This condescending attitude affects several musicians from the third world in the face of the West, where "world music" is seen as something authentic and real; musicians who are in touch with their roots. Several hip-hop groups are therefore tempted to put on the African costumes and connect the hip-hop rhythms with more traditional music.

- We rap about our everyday life in wolof, French and English, but prefer to use music that is inspired by American hip hop. In the same way as Norwegian rappers do. We look to the United States, but at the same time it is easy to forget that hip hop is an African American culture. The most famous rappers have African roots, and I have no problem seeing the ties that are drawn back to the old West African narrators, the griots. I think that's why hip hop in Senegal has hit in all age segments in such a short time. The elderly also recognize themselves in the form of expression, Eyewitness believes.

We can add here that for over a thousand years Senegal has had traditions with a kind of rhythm-based poetry, numbers, which may be reminiscent of rapping. But hip hop in 2005 is more than anything else glocal culture. A large number of strong artists local affiliation, bound together by one globally networks with the same artistic framework.

Wagëblë is a star example. This week the group has been in Oslo for the Friday concert at the Oslo World Music Festival, where they play with X Plastaz from Tanzania and Norwegian-Norwegian girl rapper STL. At the same time, they release the album Senegal on the Norwegian record company Two Thou Productions, produced in its entirety by Rumblin from Lillestrøm. Guest vocalists: Ras Steven from Norway and Kenya, Asta Busingye Lydersen from Uganda and Norway and Kleen Cut from Lillestrøm. Did we mention that DJ Icare in Wagëblë is from Switzerland? And that the group's most important market is France? Maybe we should call it "world music"?

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