Rap revolution: Voices of dissent in Senegal

A hip-hop protest movement has hit the streets in response to stagnation and broken government promises

Dakar

It was an idea born in the darkness of one of Dakar's epic blackouts, the kind measured in days rather than hours. With no electricity to record their music, the conversation among some of Senegal's new generation of rappers turned to politics and the broken promise of development that everyone in this stable but economically stagnant West African nation had grown up with.

An answer of sorts was always more likely to come from Senegal's vibrant music scene – where acts like Youssou N'Dour and Didier Awadi have earned international acclaim – than its ossified politics.

A new breed of hip hop artists with names like Kilifeu, Fou Malade ("Crazy Sick Guy") and Thiat ("Junior"), whose lyrics address the corruption, poverty and inequality that Senegalese live with every day, were nudged by a local journalist to do something about the malaise.

"They were writing about it, we were rapping about it, so it got time for us to do something about it," said Djily, one of the first artists to get involved.

Hip hop had always had a political flavour in Senegal, but the time had come, he said, to take that activism out of the studio and on to the street. The movement needed a name, so it was labelled with the mood of the musicians: "Y'En a Marre", which is translated as either "fed up" or "enough is enough".

The former French colony is poor but peaceful with an economy built on groundnuts rather than crude oil and a proud history of stability devoid of the coups and civil wars which have blighted much of the rest of West Africa. But a country defined by what it didn't have – wars or coups – rather than what it did have has found it harder to satisfy the aspirations of a young and growing population.

"You look from the outside and you see Senegal is a peaceful place," said Djily. "You have these laidback Senegalese who think that Christ or some prophet is going to come and solve our problems." The rappers realised what was needed was a "new type Senegalese". These "NTS" would be ready, he said, to do something about "the inequality, the people being exploited and the leaders stealing money from the pockets of the poor".

What began as a pressure group speaking out over the electricity shortages then staged its own highly effective voter registration drive. In the capital's burgeoning slums like Grand Dakar, volunteers set up units under the Y'En a Marre banner to make sure the activist gospel was being spread.

"This is the beginning of something," said Didier Awadi, whose brand of socially-aware rap made him one of Senegal's most successful music exports and who now sees himself as an elder statesman of hip hop. "Senegal is an old democracy and Y'En a Marre are doing a nice job to stop this regime from breaking it."

President Abdoulaye Wade, who has looked almost complacent in his control of an uninspired opposition, suddenly looks out of place leading a country where the average age is just 19. In office for 12 years, he has reneged on the two-term limit he wrote into the constitution and will run again in elections scheduled for this Sunday. The rappers have emerged as one of his biggest obstacles. They have managed to bring some of the tumult of the Arab Spring to the southern side of the Sahara, scoring a notable victory over the octogenarian president who backed away from more changes to the constitution that would have practically guaranteed him a third term.

The news that the constitutional court – stuffed with men appointed by the president – had rejected appeals by the opposition to block Mr Wade's candidacy was met with fury. A wave of protests followed, ranging from peaceful sit-ins to running street battles with riot police which have so far left five people dead. The rappers' response was a compilation album titled "You can't force it" with songs including Free the People. A video to go with the song, which has hundreds of thousands of hits on YouTube, shows crowds of young Dakarois pouring out of shacks and crumbling tenements to join the rappers and form a line, crossing their arms to make an X to say no to Mr Wade.

That gesture is being repeated every day in street protests. The president has responded to the rap revolutionaries by banning all rallies and sending out water cannon and riot police armed with rubber bullets and tear gas.

In their determination not to allow a Tahrir Square in Dakar, authorities have flooded the streets around the city's Place de L'Independence with security forces. But in what is fast becoming a daily ritual, lines of protesters – sometimes a few dozen, sometimes hundreds – appear from the sidestreets and form the X with their arms, chanting "Nadem", which means "leave" in Senegal's dominant language, Wolof.

Gathered on the corner across from the central police station in Senegal's seaside capital, the rap rebels look much like any other hip hop crew: outsized clothes, loud colours and hooded tops, a little less bling and a few more dreads. On Saturday the vigil was being kept for two of the group's leading artists, Kilifeu and Simon, arrested at a peaceful demonstration last week and released only after authorities had used up all of the 48 hours they are allowed before they must charge or release them.

The hip hop collective has ruled out fielding its own candidates in the elections, vowing not to become "ministers or mayors". They won't even endorse any of the dozen men running for the presidency.

Fou Malade, who raps with a crew called the Armoured Battalion, has come out as one of the loudest voices denouncing the politicians as "robbers of cash" and "liars".

"Wade doesn't want the Senegalese to know the truth about politics. We're going to tell everything," he says, quoting the title of his most popular song. "We are ready to give our lives to defend the constitution. We are ready to die to get Senegal's democracy to grow up."

Unpopular favourite: President Wade

President Abdoulaye Wade's bombshell that he was not going to honour his promise not to stand for a third term was dismissed by the premier with an old saying from his native Wolof language: "I've said it and now I am unsaying it".

With that decision, a leader whose popularity had sunk amid big-budget vanity projects like the £22m African Renaissance Monument and private jet purchases, found himself facing popular unrest. The 85-year-old remains the favourite to win Sunday's elections because of the paucity of opposition, but his determination to hold on has shaken Senegal.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
US comedian Bill Mahr
people
Voices
Winston Churchill, then prime minister, outside No 10 in June 1943
voicesA C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Sport
football
News
Rob Lowe
peopleRob Lowe hits out at Obama's snub of Benjamin Netanyahu
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
Davies (let) says: 'Everybody thought we were having an affair. It was never true!'
people'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
News
Staff assemble outside the old City Road offices in London
mediaThe stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century at Britain's youngest paper
Life and Style
The Oliver twins, Philip and Andrew, at work creating the 'Dizzy' arcade-adventure games in 1988
techDocumentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Arts and Entertainment
Krall says: 'My hero player-singer is Elton John I used to listen to him as a child, every single record
music
News
Friends for life … some professionals think loneliness is more worrying than obesity
scienceSocial contact is good for our sense of wellbeing - but it's a myth that loneliness kills, say researchers
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
News
i100
Environment
Number so freshwater mussels in Cumbria have plummeted from up to three million in the 20th century to 500,000
environment
Life and Style
Models – and musicians – on the catwalk in Dior Homme for the men’s 2015/16 fashion show in Paris
fashionAt this season's Paris shows, various labels played with the city boys' favourite
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant - Solar Energy - OTE £50,000

£15000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fantastic opportunities are ava...

Recruitment Genius: Compute Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Compute Engineer is required to join a globa...

Ashdown Group: PHP Web Developer / Website Coordinator (PHP, JavaScript)

£25000 - £28000 per annum + 25 days holidays & pension: Ashdown Group: PHP Web...

Recruitment Genius: Estates Projects & Resources Manager

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Based in London, Manchester, Br...

Day In a Page

Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

Diana Krall interview

The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

Pinstriped for action

A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

Michael Calvin's Last Word

How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us