The Power of Hip Hop

Here is a really interesting article on two Senegalese rappers who are truly demonstrating the power of hip hop.

DEF JAM will probably never sign them, but Cheikh Oumar Cyrille Touré, from a small town about 100 miles southeast of Dakar, Senegal, and Hamada Ben Amor, a 22-year-old man from a port city 170 miles southeast of Tunis, may be two of the most influential rappers in the history of hip-hop.

Mr. Touré, a k a Thiat (“Junior”), and Mr. Ben Amor, a k a El Général, both wrote protest songs that led to their arrests and generated powerful political movements. “We are drowning in hunger and unemployment,” spits Thiat on “Coup 2 Gueule” (from a phrase meaning “rant”) with the Keurgui Crew. El Général’s song “Head of State” addresses the now-deposed President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali over a plaintive background beat. “A lot of money was pledged for projects and infrastructure/Schools, hospitals, buildings, houses/but the sons of dogs swallowed it in their big bellies.” Later, he rhymes, “I know people have a lot to say in their hearts, but no way to convey it.” The song acted as sluice gates for the release of anger that until then was being expressed clandestinely, if at all.

During the recent wave of revolutions across the Arab world and the protests against illegitimate presidents in African countries like Guinea and Djibouti, rap music has played a critical role in articulating citizen discontent over poverty, rising food prices, blackouts, unemployment, police repression and political corruption. Rap songs in Arabic in particular — the new lingua franca of the hip-hop world — have spread through YouTube, Facebook, mixtapes, ringtones and MP3s from Tunisia to Egypt, Libya and Algeria, helping to disseminate ideas and anthems as the insurrections progressed. El Général, for example, was featured on a mixtape put out by the dissident group Khalas (Enough) in Libya, which also included songs like “Tripoli Is Calling” and “Dirty Colonel.”

Why has rap — an American music that in its early global spread was associated with thuggery and violence — come to be so highly influential in these regions? After all, rappers are not the only musicians involved in politics. Late last week, protests erupted when Youssou N’Dour, a Senegalese singer of mbalax, a fusion of traditional music with Latin, pop and jazz, was barred by a constitutional court from pursuing a run for president. But mbalax singers are typically seen as older entertainers who often support the government in power. In contrast, rappers, according to the Senegalese rapper Keyti, “are closer to the streets and can bring into their music the general feeling of frustration among people.”

Another reason is the oratorical style rap employs: rappers report in a direct manner that cuts through political subterfuge. Rapping can simulate a political speech or address, rhetorical conventions that are generally inaccessible to the marginal youth who form the base of this movement. And in places like Senegal, rap follows in the oral traditions of West African griots, who often used rhyming verse to evaluate their political leaders. “M.C.’s are the modern griot,” Papa Moussa Lo, a k a Waterflow, told me in an interview a few weeks ago. “They are taking over the role of representing the people.”

Although many of these rappers style themselves as revolutionary upstarts, they are most concerned with protecting a constitutional order that they see as being trampled by unscrupulous politicians. On “Coup 2 Gueule,” Thiat accuses President Abdoulaye Wade of election fraud and of siphoning money from Senegal’s Chemical Industries company (I.C.S.) and the African air traffic management organization (Asecna). He raps in Wolof, the dominant language in Senegal, “Old man, your seven-year presidential reign has been expensive/As if it wasn’t enough that you cheated during the last elections/You ruined the I.C.S. and hijacked Asecna’s money.” (It flows better in Wolof.)

Most of these rappers made music prior to the political events that swept their countries. But by speaking boldly and openly about a political reality that was not being otherwise acknowledged, rappers hit a nerve, and their music served as a call to arms for the budding protest movements. In Egypt, the rapper Mohamed el Deeb told me in a recent interview, “shallow pop music and love songs got heavy airplay on the radio, but when the revolution broke out, people woke up and refused to accept shallow music with no substance.”

As the Arab revolutions and African protests are ousting and discrediting establishment politicians, the young populations of these regions are looking to rappers as voices of clarity and leadership. Waterflow raises money at his shows to support his community because, like many of his fans, he believes that “waiting for our political leaders to give us opportunities is a waste of time.” Other Senegalese rappers helped found the movement Y’en a Marre (“We’re Fed Up”), which has crystallized opposition to President Wade and led a campaign to register young voters for the elections next month. Some are even supporting candidates for president. The rapper Keyti does not back the candidacy of Mr. N’Dour, because he thinks he’s trying to run out of self-interest, but acknowledges that it “was much needed to make people realize how politicians have failed.”

Rappers are hoping to inaugurate a different kind of politics. They would sooner make a pilgrimage to the South Bronx than to the Senegalese, Sufi holy city of Touba; they reject the predefined roles available within the political arena. And we shouldn’t forget that despite being thrust into the spotlight at a historic moment, rappers are also artists who want to make their music. As Deeb raps in his song “Masrah Deeb” (Deeb’s Stage) — written in the early days of the Egyptian revolution to remind people why they were taking to the streets — “I’m not a dictator/Deeb’s a doctor in the beat department.”

Sujatha Fernandes is an associate professor of sociology at Queens College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York, and the author of “Close to the Edge: In Search of the Global Hip Hop Generation.”

Via The New York Times

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