Daara J: It's a hip-hop revolution

For the Senegalese band Daara J, African rap is the voice of freedom
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"You know, the Senegalese man is very curious," says Fada Fredy, the singer in the Senegalese hip-hop group Daara J. "He fancies imitating other cultures."

Daara J are in London to promote their third album, Boomerang, and perform their debut UK show at London's Cargo club. But for now Fredy and the rapper Ndongo D are sitting in the restaurant of a Hyde Park hotel looking tired after arriving from Paris at 7am. They are friendly and alert, even though it's Ramadan and they must observe a complete fast until sunset.

The seeds of Daara J were sown in the early Nineties, when accountancy students Fredy and Ndongo met the ragamuffin DJ Aladji Man at Dakar's premier freestyle club, Metropolis. "Ndongo and I had started a group called the Lion Clan, but after we met Aladji we felt that the combination of all our styles could bring something new to the hip-hop scene in Senegal," Fredy explains. The group's name refers to the Daara - a traditional school where children learn the Koran and "how to become men". "The J means to sow something," Fredy continues. "So in a philosophical way, Daara J means 'the school of life'."

The philosophical and socially conscious aspect of the band is in keeping with the ethos of Senegalese hip-hop. Unlike the American version, which was born in the ghetto, Senegal's hip-hop scene has many artists, such as Positive Black Soul and Pee Frois, from middle-class families. (Fredy's father was a teacher and Ndongo's uncle was an accountant.) "It was very difficult for us to get involved in music, because in Senegal if you don't belong to a griot family [a special musician caste], it's hard for the family to accept your decision. We are meant to follow our studies and not look anywhere else." The band also had to overcome their parents' perception of rap as being couched in the language of gangstas, and its relationship to gun-related crime. "We had to convince them that you could be a rapper and still abide by your roots. For us it has always been very important to get our inspirations from African music and the African lifestyle."

Boomerang is a playful mix of hip-hop, ragga, R&B and Cuban music, and its slick production and infectious melodies, sung in Wolof, French and English, have won the hearts of such world music luminaries as Charlie Gillett and Andy Kershaw. "For some people, American hip-hop is the only true rap music. We feel we are giving people a chance to discover the origins of rap music such as Tassu, which has been performed for centuries. Africa is the true ancestor of rap. That's why we talk about 'Boomerang' on the album. We're saying that rap was born in Africa, and had to travel on the slave ships to grow in the plantations of America before coming back to Africa."

Daara J's lyrics on the track "Exodus" speak of political and economic struggle, but also of young people fleeing Senegal for a better life in the West. Fredy explains that the socialist government that held sway for more than 30 years heavily suppressed rap music. "Hip hop has always played the role of anti-power or anti-establishment over here," he points out. "In the last election, rap music was one of the ways in which the Democratic Party got their manifesto across to the youth." So, is the situation better now? "The late regime messed up so many things, it will take a long time," replies Ndongo. "But people are suffering and don't want to be fooled any more. They are hungry for truth."

In Dakar alone, there are more than 6,000 hip-hop groups, and Daara J are hoping that their international appeal will help generate interest in what they consider to be a hugely talented new generation of Senegalese artists. "We can't just fold our arms and be content with our success. That's why we're trying to set up a label whose role will be to help the young to develop their careers." Fredy believes that, one day, African rap will challenge the global dominance of its American cousins. "For the moment we lack the recording facilities, but hopefully we will make enough money to be able to build new studios and show that African hip-hop is so hot and so deep that even the Americans will look to us for inspiration."

'Boomerang' is out now on Wrasse