Democracy, on Mic and on Camera
In the world of mainstream hip-hop in the United States, political engagement usually takes the form of celebrity endorsements or fundraising concerts for noncontroversial causes. The mélange of artists who performed at Barack Obama's inauguration was more a sign of the new president's hipness than one of real political engagement on the part of rappers.
That's why hip-hop in Senegal seems so radical: in that country rap artists take on the multiple roles of educator, activist, muckraker and dissident to such a degree that they are both courted and threatened by the political regime. In the words of one rapper, the influence of hip-hop is such that "60 percent of the population is under 18...and all these under-18 people, they listen to us." Another rapper told me that the intertwining of art and politics can be traced to the country's first postcolonial president, poet and politician Léopold Senghor.
A new documentary by a group of young filmmakers, Democracy in Dakar, explores this legacy in the Senegal of 2007, on the eve of the re-election of Abdoulaye Wade. Wade rode to office on promises of reform and was hailed as the country's messiah in 2000. The film chronicles the aftermath of that election, in which the hip-hop community threw its weight behind Wade, who was perceived as moving in a new direction, away from the party that had ruled Senegal for decades. Seven years later, Wade is up for re-election, and the Senegalese are disillusioned with a regime that has proved corrupt, at times repressive and almost incapable of carrying out its campaign promises.
Interviews and performances in the streets and studios of Dakar showcase a conversation about the self-understanding of a nation. It's about citizenship, as told by the country's unofficial scribes. The only narration provided is the soundtrack of their words. The only background information provided comes in occasional news clips. More than anything, these clips highlight the disparity between the vague and detached statistics that make up so much coverage of Africa--so many Africans died, this many Africans were killed--and the individuals allowed to speak for themselves throughout the film.
This is the mission of Sol Productions, a film company founded by three students fresh out of college: to help underrepresented people air their voices. After graduating from Trinity College in 2006, Magee McIlvaine, Chris Moore and Maureen Masterson tried to find a way to broaden exposure to the international issues they had studied--to expand them beyond an academic audience. The three had plenty of international experience--McIlvaine was raised largely in eastern and southern Africa, and Moore had spent considerable time in Latin America. Their first film, Puedo Hablar? (May I Speak?), grew directly out of Moore's senior thesis on Venezuelan politics. The largely self-taught crew took to the streets of Caracas for an unfiltered Venezuelan viewpoint of Hugo Chávez. The goal, according to McIlvaine, has remained the same in their subsequent films: to tease out the finer threads of stories on international issues that the media too frequently wash over with broad strokes, to "cut through media labels." Following Puedo Hablar? and Democracy in Dakar, the team went to Paris to document the role that immigration played in the French presidential elections of 2007, getting inside immigrant communities that were the topic of much debate but largely denied a voice themselves.
The pitch for Democracy in Dakar came from Ben Herson, who runs an international music-promotion company called Nomadic Wax and who knew McIlvaine from promoting concerts in college. Herson, who had studied drumming and spoke Wolof, Senegal's second language, had contacts in the hip-hop community that allowed unique access to all strata of life in Dakar.
The result is a nuanced and inspiring portrait of an activist community, both in its pre-election euphoria and in the soul-searching that comes after Wade's re-election. The realization that change runs deeper than just elections at once sobers and energizes the young artists who are featured. The most impressive element of the film is the resoluteness of the rappers, who see no option but to keep agitating through their art in hopes of a better Senegal.
And the filmmakers wisely let the artists speak for themselves. A huge part of the film's appeal is the music itself. McIlvaine and Moore have taken the film (which will be available through online retailers like Amazon this summer) on the road to more than 150 colleges and high schools, often accompanied by concerts with diaspora artists. Everywhere, they said, a wide range of audiences have come away with changed perceptions of both African politics and hip-hop as a genre.
"This a unique story, it's a sad story, but it's a beautiful representation of Africa and of Islam, and people come out of it feeling impressed," McIlvaine explained. "It showcases intellectual conversations about what it means to be a citizen, a youth, an artist, an activist.... [The artists] are very educated, which again flips stereotypes. It also challenges stereotypes about hip-hop, because people come in with hip-hop defined for them by Top 40 radio, a hip-hop that's been labeled violent and misogynistic. To see that in Senegal even mainstream hip-hop is so different flips people out."
And indeed, the artists featured in Democracy in Dakar present a model for hip-hop as a force for social change that reverberates across borders. The final message of Democracy in Dakar strikes a chord in our own postelection challenge. "[The film] might center on an election, but it communicates an idea that democracy goes far beyond showing up on election day and casting a vote," said Moore. "We're taking a lesson from these rappers, using our film like their microphones. We want people to come away from it and go out and seek more information--and to know they have these tools too."
"We're like journalists," explained Baay Muusa, a Senegalese rapper featured in the film who recently emigrated to the Washington, DC, area, "We talk about basically anything. When the war in Iraq was beginning, all the rappers were talking about it. If something happens in Israel, we're talking about it. We're always in the role of teaching something." It's not something you see much in American music, but Abdoulaye Aw, a Senegalese music promoter also based in DC, is optimistic that spreading the word about Senegalese hip-hop can have an impact: "Even in Africa, despite the lack of infrastructure for music management, the movie shows that we're using the art to educate and to spread a message of peace and hope. It shows young people fighting for their rights. It's important that the world knows that using music as a social tool is universal."