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Rap artists spearhead change in Senegal

Voices growing louder in run-up to 2007 elections
/ Source: Reuters

Faada Freddy has a message for Senegal’s leaders: If they don’t keep their promises they can expect a tightly rhymed tongue-lashing from his fellow rappers.

The threat is more intimidating than it sounds.

Shunning their American counterparts’ obsessions with gangsters, guns and girls, Senegalese rappers are among the country’s loudest activists for social justice.

Already the vanguard of West Africa’s explosive hip-hop scene, their voices are only going to grow louder in the run-up to elections in 2007, when President Abdoulaye Wade is widely expected to seek re-election. He may need their help.

“It’s not over,” Faada Freddy told Reuters at his studio in the capital Dakar, a city perched on the Atlantic shoreline.

“When the rappers see that Abdoulaye Wade’s party isn’t doing its political job in the way we want, the rappers 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, and don’t forget that we’re still here,”’ he said.

Expounding on the power of hip-hop, Faada Freddy, singer with Senegal’s most successful rap group Daara J, remembers how rappers went on their own campaign trail encouraging young people to vote in the 2000 elections.

In their own eyes at least, the artists take at least some of the credit for ending four decades of rule by former president Abdou Diouf’s Socialist Party and installing Wade’s Senegalese Democratic Party in its place.

But this does not mean the president can relax.

With 70 percent of the population of 10 million under 30, and a relatively high degree of free speech compared to many African countries, Senegalese rap artists potentially wield the kind of influence that many politicians would envy.

“For years we have fought for truth and justice, and have built up our reputation. Now we have what they need: integrity, and you cannot buy that,” says Xuman, of the group PeeFroiss.

He said that political parties offered large sums to the more famous rap bands to play at their rallies during the 2000 elections, but bands refused despite their need for money.

Music with a messageLocally produced rap has been growing in Senegal since the early 1990s to become one of the country’s top-selling styles of music, winning listeners in a country obsessed by Youssou N’Dour, a world-famous artist who sings rather than raps and who has collaborated with stars such as Peter Gabriel and Sting.

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Rap has made inroads into a country renowned as one of the centers of West Africa’s vibrant music scene, where the Mbalax style of dance music derived from traditional beats and popularized by N’Dour is a favorite genre.

In the early ’90s, bands like Daara J and Positive Black Soul recorded hip-hop albums in Wolof, the most widely spoken African language in the former French colony, where many unemployed youth take to rap with dreams of hitting the big time.

Quickly becoming the voice of a generation eager for jobs and education but frustrated by corruption, inefficiency and a lack of opportunities, they built up a loyal following.

Unlike American equivalents, Senegalese rappers rarely glorify violence or the ruthless pursuit of money, tackling issues from poverty, religion and sexuality to politics.

“Each time the people go to the ballot boxes, it’s because they’re hoping for a true change. But sadly I always hear the same cry,” says the opening line of Didier Awadi’s song “Le Cri du Peuple” (The Cry of the People).

Despite wearing the latest in designer clothing -- his own label -- and peppering his songs with raunchy lyrics, 26-year-old rapper Nix broadcasts calls for a better society.

“Every time there’s an event, a concert for a humanitarian cause, the fight against AIDS, cancer, malaria, it’s rap artists who are there getting a message across to young people,” he said.

The original Senegalese rapper, Awadi, forged a path for local rap with Positive Black Soul and is now well known internationally and almost worshiped in his own country, but rap’s growing popularity has deep roots.

None of Senegal’s African languages were originally written down, and although French is now the nation’s written medium, only 40 percent of people can read and write.

In the days before radio, oral historians would use poetry, rhyme and metaphor to comment on social issues.

Feared by the powerful, these “spokespersons,” whose presence in west Africa has been recorded as far back as the 14th century, could wreck the reputations of influential people.

Despite its heritage, rap was not universally loved. In the early days, respected elders assumed it would imitate American rap with all its connotations of sex, drugs and shootings.

But when some rap artists began to refer to religion in their music, even using Koranic verses, they caught the interest of an older generation in the mainly Muslim country.

“The elders now know that rap music has the potential to be like a step to the front for this upcoming generation. Young people find the answers for this critical time and that’s why everyone is focused on the rap movement,” said Faada Freddy.

Much like the speakers who wove their criticisms of the powerful into rhymes in past centuries, Awadi takes a tough tone and has won respect among both young and old.

In his song “Le Patrimonie” -- or “heritage” -- he talks about the plundering of the continent by its own leaders: “cheap unpleasant robbers wanting to steal our last beads of sweat.”

It’s not just criticism -- he also offers a positive message: “If evolution is needed then a revolution of manners, mentality, morals and behavior is needed.” If not, he warns “the weapons will speak.”