Hip-hop gets serious

Sister Fa turned to music to protest at injustices towards women in her home country of Senegal. She explains to Matilda Egere-Cooper why she was born to be a rebel
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The Independent Culture

Sister Fa remembers the time she returned home late from one of her early hip-hop shows in Senegal. She was living with her uncle, who, like many men in her culture, took a dim view of her chosen career path. "They called me the worst woman in the house who wouldn't do anything and would go outside and dress like a man," she frowns. "It was quite hard.

In Senegal, the woman's place is in the kitchen, to stay at home, to cook food, to wash clothes. Promoters don't take female rappers seriously because they don't want to invest in their careers. They say that after they're married they'll have children and just stay at home. Then the families - they always complain."

This whiff of sexism only helped to motivate the 27-year-old, who embodies the effortless sass of B-girl with revolutionary ambitions - and she admits that her decision to join hip-hop's mannish culture was a radical one. "I was born a rebel because there's so much injustice in my country," says the budding star, born Fatou Mandiang Diatta, and who now lives in Germany.

"I wanted to talk about the conditions of the women in Senegal - they work a lot and they suffer, just to give something to their children to eat. But no one was really interested in talking about these things. For me, hip-hop was the music I could use to complain and bring out all of this energy I had inside and to talk about all of these injustices so people can be aware of what's happening in this country. It was only hip-hop that I could use to educate and to talk about all of these problems."

The music on her debut Sarabah: Tales from the Flipside of Paradise is concerned with the Senegalese social experience,"I talk about the hard stuff I see everyday - no electricity, problems with the government". However, her music videos show she clearly loves a bit of hip-hop cliche - from the head bandannas (a nod to the US West Coast) to the oversized T-shirts which were all the rage in the 90s. And when she raps, the attractive star rocks a mean poker-face to rival Ice Cube's infamous mug.

However, it fits, especially when you consider she's tackling the weighty topics of female genital mutilation and arranged marriages in an album which embraces hip-hop's grass roots, but eschews the traditional trend of sampling and rhythmic verbosity for the occasional acoustic folk-singing.

But she fully expresses her love for the genre on the song "Hip-Hop Yaw La Fal", where her raw flow is coupled with traditional, native melodies. The title was inspired by a folk tale about a paradise where unhappy people go to hide. "I wanted to go to Sarabah after my mum died in 2001," she admits. "That was quite hard. I talk about her on the songs "Milyamba" and "Sarabah". Maybe Sarabah could be a refuge for all of these people who lose hope."

She's a lot less solemn off record, and overly apologetic about her English. But it's merely masked by a heavy accent, a reminder that most of her album is offered in Senegalese dialects and French. For a project being re-released for an international market to raise awareness, this could arguably be a major faux pas.

"People don't understand a lot of what I'm talking about in my songs," she agrees. "But the language barrier is not a big problem. When I was starting to write, it was for the people from my country. They talk the language I'm talking. The problem in Senegal is that we don't speak English at all."

Born in Dakar, Fa grew up in a middle-class household, which included her uncle, his two wives, and their many children. "There were at least 17 people living in the same house," she smiles. "Three or four of us would share the same room. But I liked my life in Senegal - whenever there was a problem, there was always someone who can help you. There were a lot of children around, so you would not get that much attention. But it helped you to become macho."

Hip-hop came to Senegal in 1982 and, as it soon became a movement for political expression amongst the youth, it caught the attention of Fa. "It was music that could reach young people who have something to say but don't have an opportunity to say it," she says. "For me, hip-hop is a bridge between the poor population and the world."

By the age of 18, she had decided to become a rapper and produced a demo, before being invited to perform at the Senegalese Hip-Hop Awards. In 2002, she became the subject of a documentary about the hip-hop scene in Senegal, and, in 2005, she released Sarabah and was named the best newcomer at the fifth Hip-Hop Awards ceremony that happened there.

A year later, she moved to Berlin to live with her husband, an Austrian ethnologist and documentary film-maker. However, she says, it was difficult crossing over to the German hip-hop scene. "I couldn't reach the same public as in Senegal. The kind of hip-hop I'm doing, they automatically put me in the World Music category because it's not like American hip-hop which uses strong beats and talks about money."

Had she ever considered Americanising her sound to fit in, as has been the option for many African hip-hop artists? "I think if you want a long career, you need to have your own style," she says, admitting she now plays with a live band rather than a DJ. "I like to show more African stuff in my music."

Last January, she organised a free tour in Senegal called Education Sans Mutilation, to raise awareness of female genital mutilation, supported by the Goethe Institute in Dakar.

While she's resigned to the fact that African female rappers are few and far between, she's happy that attitudes are changing. "Now the women have more of a place in society and people's minds have changed about hip-hop. They have started to see the positive stuff it is doing,"

'Sarabah: Tales from the Flipside of Paradise' is on Piranha Germany