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Music as a Tool for Peacebuilding in Senegal ahead of the 2024 Elections

Dakar, Senegal, Africa, May 25 2022, young fans of a music group at a night concert
Dakar, Senegal, Africa, May 25 2022, young fans of a music group at a night concert

“A lazy government which has no vision / A permanent waste with no solutions.” The song “Diogoufi” by the Senegalese hip-hop duo Keur Gui expresses the frustrations of the people only two years after the protest movement Y’en a marre ([we’re] fed up)—led by hip-hop artists and journalists—helped to secure electoral victory for President Macky Sall against former president Abdoulaye Wade in 2012. “Diogoufi” begins with a speech by the rapper critiquing the lack of change since Sall’s rise to power, as well as the price and availability of electricity, gas, and water. However, these issues—and the role of musicians in critiquing political leaders—are far from a new phenomenon in Senegal or West Africa more broadly. This article will provide an overview on how music has played and continues to play an important role in Senegalese politics.

Musicians, particularly hip-hop artists, have operated as the voice of the people in Senegal by expressing political critiques and participating in peacebuilding. By examining the historical precedents for musicians’ socio-political activism and peacebuilding in Senegal, we can better understand their implications ahead of the 2024 national elections.

Music as Politics              

Music has been used as a political tool in West Africa by providing a framework through which information and ideas can be made popular. During independence in Senegal, for example, there was a shift in musical tastes among the youth from indigenous music to Afro-Cuban music. Although President Leopold Senghor’s government (1960-1981) sponsored numerous musical acts, they were primarily centered on those favored by Senghor, foremost indigenous music and jazz. As a result, Afro-Cuban music was an implicit critique of the government, as it was a rejection of the primarily Francophone cosmopolitanism favored by Senghor. 

Afro-Cuban music contributed to another important shift in Senegalese politically oriented music: the advent of the mbalax genre, whose musicians have been some of the most creative in critiquing Senegalese politics prior to the rise of hip-hop. For example, the mbalax-funk band Super Diamono’s 1988 album Cheikh Anta Diop (named after the Senegalese scholar and leftist politician) contained songs praising radical politicians, such as former Ghanaian president Kwame Nkrumah—whose politics could be seen as being at odds with the more conservative policies of former Senegalese president Abdou Diouf (1981-2000). This tradition of praising radical politicians, who often originated from outside Senegal, continues to be relevant to recent political music, such as in the rapper Didier Awadi’s album, Présidents d’Afrique.

Hip-Hop, Youth Movements, and Peacebuilding

Diouf’s presidency would also see the rise of an informal political movement initiated by hip-hop artists: the Bul faale (“Don’t worry”) movement, which dissented the situation of youths in Senegal caused by political corruption, unemployment, and poverty. The movement’s name originates from a track released by the hip-hop duo Positive Black Soul (PBS), made up of Awadi and Duggy Tee, which criticized the politics of the Senegalese government and praised leaders such as the late radical Burkinabe president, Thomas Sankara. This spontaneous movement built from PBS’ album called for the government to update its priorities, as Diouf’s presidency had been one that was often at odds with the youth. The music which caused this movement can be seen as a peacebuilding effort, as it contributed to non-violent social change through protests and political engagement.

Diouf’s tendency to be at odds with the youth can be seen especially during Senegal’s 1993 presidential elections, a precursor to the Bul faale movement. As the economy deteriorated, food security weakened, and youth unemployment grew rapidly, Diouf’s campaign for the elections focused on his long experience as an administrator of the nation, whereas his opponent Abdoulaye Wade, popular with the youth, ran on the slogan “change has arrived.” Wade’s slogan went along well with the ideas behind Bul faale, as they criticized the poor governance of the Socialist Party (PS), the ruling party since independence. 

The youth involved in the Bul faale movement learned important lessons from the hip-hop music that inspired them, as well as key civic skills for social change around electoral participation and campaigning. Wade’s victory in the 2000 elections, in which the youth involved in Bul faale played an instrumental role, brought hope for change. However, over the following 12 years, Wade’s presidency did not bring enough change: the youth struggled to find employment and food security was still precarious due to soaring prices. 

 By examining the historical precedents for musicians’ socio-political activism and peacebuilding in Senegal, we can better understand their implications ahead of the 2024 national elections.

Y’en a marre

The skills that hip-hop artists and youth activists learned during the Bul faale movement would return in the Y’en a marre movement. By the 2012 presidential elections, hip-hop was a political force in Senegal, as the most popular artists had been politically active for decades. Y’en a marre was formed from a collaboration of hip-hop artists and journalists who were committed to nonviolent protest in the face of Wade’s decision to run for a third term, which infringed upon the Senegalese constitution. Wade, a symbol of change who had won youth support during the 2000 elections, was now seen as forcing his candidacy upon the people. 

The organization called for a “‘new Senegalese model’ which could provide a base for a ‘citizens’ republic,’” and supported a coalition movement that put Macky Sall forward as their candidate. Despite facing heavy repression from the state, particularly the arrest of artists during protests, the movement succeeded in helping secure victory for the opposition. They did this through grassroots organizing and spreading their message of peaceful protest via their music. 

As peacebuilders, the Y’en a marre movement sought to create a network of constructive relationships across ethnicities, religions, and classes to transform the structural conditions which have led to past conflict in Senegal—namely, the tendency of repressive behavior by the president. By organizing peaceful demonstrations in the face of harsh crackdowns, organizing citizens to vote, and spreading their message through music written and performed by popular musicians, the movement has been able to act in a vital role as civil society peacebuilders.

Way Forward

Y’en a marre originated with the desire to improve democratic engagement between the state and the average Senegalese citizen, particularly youths, and prevent a president from infringing upon the constitution. These same desires which drove their creation have now driven them into organizing against Macky Sall’s government. During my fieldwork in Dakar, Senegal during 2019-2023, I spoke with musicians, many of whom were active in the Bul faale and Y’en a marre movements, who discussed the worry that Sall would attempt to run for an unconstitutional third term. Likewise, they highlighted the need for the Senegalese government to improve human security—particularly civil rights, food security, and poverty reduction—in the nation. 

As part of their peacebuilding work in advance of the election—one which, given recent experiences of activism in Senegal, is expected to feature crackdowns by police—Y’en a marre has recently issued a warning to Sall with their new slogan: “Bu Ko Sax Jeem” meaning “Don't Even Try” in Wolof. This messaging will go a long way in educating the public and calling for action against Sall’s government, urging citizens to stay vigilant ahead of the upcoming 2024 election and encouraging them to vote. Likewise, the organization has peacefully protested the government’s attempts to silence opposition politicians, often making public statements to critique the government and educate the public. As in 2000 and 2012, the youth—led by civil society peacebuilders like Y’en a marre—will be a critical component of peaceful protests amid the opposition movement.

James J. Fisher is a PhD Candidate in History at Ohio University. His current research examines the intersection of governance, media, and education in Senegal and The Gambia.

The opinions expressed on this blog are solely those of the authors. They do not reflect the views of the Wilson Center or those of Carnegie Corporation of New York. The Wilson Center’s Africa Program provides a safe space for various perspectives to be shared and discussed on critical issues of importance to both Africa and the United States.

About the Author

James J. Fisher

Researcher, the Generous Listening and Dialogue Center, Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life; Ph.D. Candidate, Ohio University

Africa Program

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