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Hip-hop and electoral politics: Democracy in Dakar

Apologies for lighter than usual blogging the past couple of weeks. I’ve been wrestling with recurring eye problems, and since the TED conference I’ve had to cut back on reading as my left eye is partly occluded. (For those following the details – I had surgery on my right eye last year. This is the same problem that led to surgery, just the other eye. Hoping to put surgery off on this eye for a couple more years, but another month like this and I may have to change those plans.)

My eye doctor’s advice during episodes like this is to read less, sleep more and watch lots of TV. That last bit of advice isn’t quite as crazy as it sounds – focusing on a television across a room keeps your eyes still, and stillness helps the blood that’s occluding my vision settle. And so that’s how I found myself watching DVDs at 3pm on a work day, not my usual modus operandus.

Fortunately, my friends at Nomadic Wax just sent me their brilliant new documentary, Democracy in Dakar. I’m a huge admirer of the compilations of African hiphop the label’s been putting out – African Underground: Hip-Hop Senegal has been in heavy rotation on my iPod since it came out – but I had no idea how talented these guys were as filmmakers.

Democracy in Dakar is mindblowingly good. It’s not just a portrait of a country’s vibrant music scene – it’s the complicated story of how hiphop emerged as a political force in Senegal, and how that force has been both empowered and thwarted in recent elections.

Ben Herson, the founder of Nomadic Wax and the director of the film, tells the complex story of the emergence of Senegalese hiphop and its political weight almost entirely through interviews, carefully edited into a tight narrative. He – through the voices of dozens of legendary Senegalese MCs – make the case that Senegal adopted some of the most political strains of American hiphop, translating Public Enemy lyrics into French and Wolof and building rhymes around political topics from early on. Some of the more unfortunate aspects of hiphop culture – misogyny and celebration of gangsta culture – have largely failed to take root in Senegalese soil, in part due to a strong set of Islamic values shared by most Dakar rappers.

Listening to the crews featured in the documentary is a bit like a trip back in time for me, when positive, conscious hiphop seemed like it might be able to go toe to toe with odes to thug life. Watching an MC like Didier Awadi of Positive Black Soul toss off a freestyle rap about the limitations of the International Criminal Court is like waking up in an alternate reality where Dead Pres and Slum Village outsell Diddy and Kanye. It’s not clear whether all the MCs in the country are as deeply political as the ones Herson features in the film, but it’s very, very clear that there’s a thriving music scene in Dakar where the politics are as important as the beats.

This scene became deeply important in local politics in 2000 when Aboulaye Wade challenged Abdou Diouf, who ruled Senegal for twenty years in a socialist government that provided few benefits to the average citizen. Wade was a long-time opposition leader, who’d been jailed by Diouf years earlier, and many young Senegalese – including most of the hiphop scene – put their hopes in the old dissident. A great deal of music in 1999 and 2000 focused on urging the youth to vote, and to celebrating the possibility that Senegal could change and move forward.

Democracy in Dakar is set seven years later, in the days leading up to the 2007 presidential elections. Seven years of Wade’s rule hasn’t done much for Senegal’s economy, at least in the eyes of the local rappers. Their rhymes talk about frustrated young men who board pirogues and try to set sail for the Canary Islands or the French coast, often drowning in the process. Herson shows us pro-Wade graffiti that’s been crossed out, and electoral posters with the President’s face painted out.

But Wade won re-election in 2007 without even the need for a run-off. (Many African democracies have two-round elections: if no candidate has a majority in the first round, the top two run off in the second round.) While there’s widespread frustration with Wade, at least from the MCs we see, none of the 14 opposition figures emerge as a clear leader, and Wade was able to win what most observers believe was a free and fair election.

While international observers may have signed off on the election, the MCs interviewed in the film see something more sinister going on. They’ve all been recruited to perform at pro-Wade concerts, and those who’ve refused find that they have trouble getting played on the radio, or that they’ve been threatened with arrest. Some have left the country, either out of fear or for economic reasons. And those who remain are offering rhymes that are the diametric opposite of those seven years earlier – they dismiss all politicians as corrupt and ineffectual and wonder who’ll emerge to lead the country forward.

(It’s interesting for me to see parallels and differences between Senegal and Ghana, two of the more stable countries in West Africa. In both, politics continues to be dominated by politicians who were active in the struggle against colonialism. Most of these folks are pretty old, and they need to win votes in countries that are very, very young, with large portions of the population under 25 years old. But Ghana’s much more politically open, with freer media institutions and a wider space for debate… but a much less political music scene. Perhaps there’s a negative correlation between political freedom and the quality of local hiphop?)

The question left unanswered at the end of Democracy in Dakar is whether these brilliant MCs can emerge as a political force, or whether they’re going to end up marginalized and frustrated. That’s not the filmmaker’s fault – that’s a question Senegal is still answering. In the meantime, Herson and crew have turned their focus north, documenting hiphop and politics in the banlieus of Paris in “Democracy in Paris“. I’m hoping a future piece might focus on the relationship between hiphop and politics in Tanzania, where my friends tell me you’d never dream of mounting a political campaign without an MC on your campaign team.

Beautiful, provocative stuff, and something very much worth watching – if you’re half as interested in this field as I am, you owe it to yourself to pick up a copy.