Senegal’s rappers pride themselves on having helped change their world six years ago by urging people to vote in elections that ended four decades of rule by one party. It was rap’s coming of age in the country.
But today, some of those same artists feel the price they now pay for criticizing the very authorities they helped bring to power is rising. And this as elections loom in 2007.
“For me, things are getting worse,” Didier Awadi, one of the country’s top-selling rappers, said in his roof-top studio in Dakar, the seaside capital of the former French colony.
“For this new power, if you’re not with them, you’re against them,” he said.
Senegalese hip-hop has long broached taboo topics, and modern Senegal has on the whole enjoyed freedom of speech that is rare in a region torn by conflict and despotic rule.
Rap artists, many of whom are household names, follow in the footsteps of bards-turned-social commentators, known as griots, who for centuries used song to praise or criticize West Africa’s leaders.
In 2000, rappers encouraged young people to go out and vote in the presidential election.
The Socialist Party, which had ruled for 40 years since independence from France, lost power to the Democratic Party headed by current President Abdoulaye Wade, who is expected to seek re-election for a second and final term next February.
“It was a time to test our power ... to say, yeah, it’s rap that’s got the power, it’s rap that has an influence in Senegal,” Bamba Diop, another rapper, said.
But today, that confidence is tempered by fear, driving some artists to tone down their socially-conscious lyrics for fear of sparking conflict with politicians or other figures of authority in the mainly Muslim country.
The expulsion in 2003 of a French journalist accused of ”biased” coverage in the rebellion-hit South, and the beating this May of a reporter who questioned the political influence of a well-known marabout, or Muslim leader, are among incidents that have left many musicians concerned for their own safety.
Diop knows all too well what criticizing the wrong people can mean. He says he was subjected to months of harassment and death threats in 2000 by disciples of a marabout he criticized in one of his songs.
“In that five months, I saw my life going down, and in that five months I saw that hip-hop had a big, big power,” the 27-year-old singer said, his voice cracking with emotion.
He gave up writing overtly political and religious lyrics and fled to England, only returning home last year.
Awadi says rappers are both courted and feared because of their influence among the country’s youth.
When the new government took office in 2000, ministers asked him for support, he says, much as leaders traditionally paid griots to travel with them, singing their praises.
But he refused, telling them if they didn’t do their jobs properly, he would be the first to criticize them.
No Democratic Party officials were available to comment.
“They come to us because we have credibility and they need this credibility to ease their situation. We’re not here for that,” Awadi said.
Crouched on his living-room floor surrounded by CDs and cassettes, Xuman, one of Senegal’s most popular disc jockeys and rappers, gestures passionately to the television set behind him.
“A lot of people, they don’t listen to the news, they listen to hip-hop, because hip-hop tells them exactly what’s happening in the street,” said Xuman, 32, a member of the internationally successful hip-hop crew Pee Froiss.
In contrast to 2000 when he and Awadi led the rap movement, Xuman is despondent about the situation today.
“In 2000, I knew that rappers were ready to fight,” he said. “But now I can’t feel it anymore. The situation is confused.”
Like Awadi, Xuman says he has been approached by government ministers asking for help to win over the younger generation.
Despite financial incentives, he too said he refused.
“I’m not going to sell my soul to ... these politicians.”
Fearing the back-dated tax bills which some artists say are sent to rappers who refuse to sing the government’s tune, Xuman says he has had to become more subtle.
“I’m trying to be more intelligent when I’m writing. I say what I want to say without saying a name, I let people understand, I use some symbols, some metaphors.”
The last six years, he says, have seen the movement weaken, but Awadi sees signs of a rebirth.
With thousands of Senegalese migrants risking their lives to get to Europe and with rumors flying among young people that the February polls may be postponed, socially-aware rap is coming back, he says.
“They’re conscious now of the despair, they’re conscious that there’s a real problem,” he said.
“We all know that these guys [politicians] are not serious and it’s our historical responsibility to be engaged in the real fight against them. Because we cannot accept a regression of democracy in this country, we cannot accept it.”