African Underground: Youth and Hip-Hop in African Politics
Benny Herson, Founder and Director, Nomadic Wax Production Company;
Magee McIlvaine, Co-Founder and Director, Sol Productions;
Moussa Sall, Senegalese Hip-Hop artist;
Baay Bia, Senegalese Hip-Hop artist;
Abdoulaye Aw, Founder and Manager of Propagand'Arts;
Marc Sommers, Research Fellow, African Studies Center, Boston University and Associate Research Professor of Humanitarian Studies, Institute of Human Security, The Fletcher School, Tufts University
Howard Wolpe, Director, Africa Program and Leadership Project, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
American hip-hop has been criticized for its aggressive lyrics, misogynist expression, and anti-authoritarian stance. However, hip-hop as an expression of social consciousness and political empowerment among youth is gaining traction in the United States and Africa. This was the subject of a documentary film screening, "African Underground: Democracy in Dakar," co-sponsored by the Wilson Center's Africa Program and Leadership Project on July 11, 2007. The question of whether hip-hop is best understood only as a form of self expression or also as a vehicle for engaging young people in serious political dialogue was raised by Ben Herson, founder and director of Nomadic Wax Production Company, and a co-producer of the film.
Hip-Hop in Africa
American hip-hop artist Tupac Shakur has had perhaps the greatest influence in west and central Africa, noted Marc Sommers, a Research Fellow at the African Studies Center of Boston University and Associate Research Professor at the Fletcher School at Tufts University. Tupac's lyrics captured the plight of the African American underclass in U.S. culture and politics, and his portrayal of the alienation of the youth culture resonated with many African youth. Demographically, Africa is the youngest continent in the world. Ironically, however, youth who constitute the majority in most African cities feel and act as if they were a marginalized minority, Sommers observed. The resulting frustration among youth has been artfully channeled into rap music and hip-hop music, which often seeks to counter the emasculation of young men that results from unemployment and poverty. Consequently, hip-hop has traditionally resonated more with young men than young women and has produced fewer female artists. However, as hip-hop diversifies, more women are using hip-hop to draw attention to other issues such as gender-based violence.
Young rappers in Senegal, who successfully assisted in the election of Abdoulaye Wade in the 2000 presidential elections, provide an excellent example of how young people can creatively use music to influence politics. However, in contrast, Sierra Leone's own thriving hip-hop scene has undergone several transformations—most notably, Sommers noted, during the war when rap music was exploited by rebel leaders to inspire child soldiers to become killers. Hip-hop was used as a tool of terror warfare to the extent that child soldiers wore Tupac t-shirts as a uniform. In the post-war period, Tupac's music has remained popular, however, with more upbeat songs such as "Keep Your Head Up" getting the most play time.
Hip-Hop as a Political Tool
Resistance to exploitation has remained a key theme in much of the hip-hop music in Africa. Abdoulaye Aw, founder and manager of Propagand'Arts, noted young peoples' frustration with the ongoing poverty, lack of education, limited health care, and corruption in many African nations. He explained that hip-hop music, particularly the internationalization of the hip-hop movement in Africa, has helped to raise awareness of the issues and to encourage young people to hold politicians accountable to their promises.
It is the need for accountability in Abdoulaye Wade's presidency in Senegal that Baay Bia, a Senegalese hip-hop artist, emphasized in his comments, noting that young people are using their music to educate others with the intention of influencing politics. The educational role of hip-hop in Senegal is derived in part from the Griot culture in which West African traveling poets and musicians impart oral traditions through their music. Bia explained that Senegalese rappers "are messengers, and we are Muslim too. So we try to clean our message to give our people a good message to teach them something positive." The Qur'an's own rhythmic and poetic qualities serve to inspire many Senegalese rap artists to communicate their message through rhyme at an early age, Herson added.
When asked whether hip-hop artists would consider creating their own political platform on the issues they debate in their music, the discussants indicated that the rappers take seriously their roles as observers and critiques of the government and would risk losing their audiences if they were seen to collaborate with politicians. In Senegal, Herson pointed out, the most prominent rappers are already serving as a lobby group through their demonstrated influence over a large segment of the population. However, as the documentary revealed, Senegalese hip-hop artists were not able to influence the outcomes of the 2007 election and to oust President Wade, with whom they had become disenchanted. Consequently, Senegalese hip-hop artists must now reevaluate their role, not simply as musicians, but as citizens in a democratic society who have a responsibility to keep the government accountable to the public.
The Impact of Globalization on African Hip-Hop
Discussants noted that the Internet and cable TV have significantly increased the degree of interaction between hip-hop artists in different parts of the world. While the Islamic influence on Senegalese hip-hop to some extent counters the more negative elements of American rap, African hip-hop artists have to strive harder to maintain their integrity, unique identity, and purpose as the effects of globalization increase. Rather than discarding their own style as a result of increased exposure to other artists, rappers in Senegal are carefully selecting, editing, and determining which characteristics, approaches, and styles are most appropriate for them in their unique cultural context. For example, Sommers noted, many African artists relate to Tupac's pride and fearlessness, but reject the violence and sexuality expressed in his lyrics. Moussa Sall, a Senegalese hip-hop artist, explained that even the violence in Tupac's music conveyed an instructive message that was interpreted by Sall as "I'm a thug. This is what thugs do. This is what thugs live, but at the end, you're going to die. I don't want you to live this life, but I'm going to do it so you don't have to." Sall argued that it was up to those living in the ghetto, to whom Tupac was directing his music, to interpret his message.