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.