Saturday, 12 November 2011 00:28

Reflections On Rap In Senegal

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American rap artists have gained new audiences through the advent of media campaigns in Sub-Saharan African countries, increased immigration, and internet access.  As Africa’s population nears one billion persons, of which the majority are youth, it becomes an attractive target for market-creation as well as a possible source of artists.    In this paper I will attempt to give a brief history of American hiphop as well as  briefly compare and contrast African, specifically Senegalese, and African American artistes.

West African countries have two, new invisible colonizers, a musical art form completely indigenous to America, the under current of  hiphop,  colloquially known as gangsta rap, and the insatiable force of American media.  On the surface, it could be seen as a mere transmission of culture but the historical implications and deeper cultural, political, and social trends portend a much more auspicious offspring.  American gangsta rap may be the impetus and the vehicle for the next African revolution.  It may also be the next attempt at binding Black youth worldwide as the first 21st century Pan-African collaboration.

To some extent, all Senegalese recorded music may not  be readily available in the United States, and, for that matter, all available types of rap music from the United States may  not   be readily available in Senegal.  The trickle of available American rap music that finds a new home in Africa is not representative of the various forms of rap music which are inclusive of a vast array or approaches, themes and styles:  From the frivolous (DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince/Will Smith) to musical (Black-Eyed Peas), from poetic (Common) to militant (KRS-ONE), from boastful (Jay-Z) to introspection,  bordering on becoming self-absorbed (Kanye West), and finally “gangsta” (gangster) rap, the form which garners the most legislative and parental attention.  This form depends heavily on violence (Ice-T, Ice Cube, etc.) as its central and sometimes only theme.  Further, the categories of violent American rap music also have a range in types of violence.

American hiphop/rap forms also have geographical subdivisions.  For example, New Orleans rappers typically speak of neighborhood violence and retaliation in their wards and parishes.  Atlanta rappers have similar themes of violence but differ from New Orleans rappers in terms of location, lyrical style .New Orleans vocal accents are redolent with remnants of  a French and Haitian linguistic presence.  Although New Orleans is  culturally rich, due to the African presence as well as an additional infusion of Kongo culture during the Haitian Revolution, it has a decidedly rural feel with very little attempts towards sophistication.  New Orleans is tragically mystic and beautiful.  By contrast, Atlanta’s musical offerings are decidedly urban with a dedicated adherence to elements common in the American south such as Blues or “roots” music.  Atlanta and New Orleans comprise the majority of what is commonly referred to as the “Dirty South.”

The most widely recognized geographical subdivision,  and the undisputed point of genesis of rap is, without dispute, New York City.  There are arguments as to the exact borough, but the most intellectual argument as to front-runners for geographical placement of this artistic phenomenon are Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens.  The first rappers, however, were poets and performance artists; many were college students, professors, teachers, members of East Coast Black intelligentsia.  Their performances were mainly concerned with socio-economic conditions of Black and Latin American minorities.  In regards to Latin Americans, the main contributors to this new genre were Puerto Ricans and no other Latin spoken word artist had greater impact than Miguel Pinero (December 19, 1946 to June 18, 1988).  Pinero was a multi-talented artist, nominated for theater as well as television awards.

African American artist Gil Scott- Heron epitomized the rapper/poet sobriquet.  His most famous poems: “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” “White Man Got a God Complex,” and “Whitey’s On the Moon.”  Scott –Heron  is separate from the contemporary hiphop culture for a number of reasons.  He is not the product of a ghetto environment, although he did live in the Jim Crow south.  He attended Lincoln University and received a Master of Arts in creative writing from John Hopkins University.  Unlike many, if not most present-day rap artists, Scot t -Heron was also an accomplished musician and his first literary success was not in the poetry and spoken word genre but as a novelist. The Vulture, his first novel, was first published in 1970.

Afrika Bambaataa, also known as ‘Bam, was the first rapper to create a distinct, other self. His real name is Kevin Donovan. He is a direct descendant of the Black Power Movement.  His topics were mainly socio-economic conditions of African Americans, lack of political regard for Blacks by White power structure, and intra-racial violence, the so-called Black on Black crime, but they were addressed from a grassroots, urban point of view.  In contrast, Gil Scott-Heron was the son of Jamaican immigrants and had an additional cultural schema in which to draw his theories and opinions.  Although he spent his adolescence in rural Tennessee, he began his life in New York as a teen-ager.  Bambaataa, the son of West Indian immigrants, was a product of New York public schools in the Bronx.  His work is the voice of the unschooled but far from ignorant, unadulterated, ghetto environment.  Bambaataa, after a visit to Africa, changed his given name and began the process of creating a socially responsible group called the Zulu Nation.  From this larger group came a stage show that consisted of break-dancers and rappers.  Bam lead the Zulu Nation and SoulSonic Force through the 1980’s and early 1990’s until rap became a mainstream concoction and product calculated in units rather than songs.  In 1990, Bam was selected by Life magazine as one of “The Twenty Most Influential Americans” for his work against apartheid.  Of all the things there are to regard with wonder or even mild curiosity, there is a certain fascination (for me) with the way  American culture acts on its own, autonomously and without physical presence, in the rest of the world.  When I was pursuing a graduate degree in contemporary European history, I received an intense education in the ways in which a physical presence could manifest positive or negative changes in societies, cultures, people, and traditions.  A physical presence can be a military occupation or a human-rights intervention and it is also exhibited in a wave of missionaries, musicians, or merchants.  The definition of a non-physical or intangible presence must always be made, as a rule, post fact; you do not know when it arrived but you know that it has arrived.  This new form is intangible and has been made possible via technological advancements.

One of the resultant indications of Africa’s consumption of American media is the growth of hiphop music and culture in countries such as Senegal, Kenya, Nigeria and Ghana.  This process has taken place without an even exchange of products or performers from Africa to America. As with most other instances there appears to be a single direction of the route.

What has this to do with rappers in Senegal?  Rappers in Senegal may not, in their work, give homage to the earliest roots of rap. However, they do seem to convey the politicized revolutionary spirit of the earliest American rap artists.  The fact that they display stylistic elements, which, on prima facie examination, may lead a non-African consumer to assumptions of gangsta rap imitation, does not mar their work.  Using hand gestures known as ‘gang signs’, the word “nigger”, and wearing low-slung pants may perhaps only be evidence of an adherence and observation of a transnational youth “same-ing.”  Because their national history includes a dialogue on colonialism and economic oppression as opposed to the African American dialogue on slavery and race, they easily use words, names, and slang which, to an American, are forms of racial pejoratives.  Sky Coon and DJ Darky might be horrified to know that their “street names” are actually very serious racial slurs.  It is not an activity of co-option, rather, the words are used as their meanings are seen within African cultures.  In simple language, African hiphop artists sometimes re-purpose American words,  and  usage of these names is not a reference to anything African American or American.  It is simply a form of protest against Western, that is, French, colonial and/or European Union international subjugation.

It is not immediately apparent if the names are a form of protest or if they are simply chosen for impact rather than meaning. Most Senegalese rappers choose English in American form, even when they are not fluent speakers of American English.    At the least, a Senegalese rapper will add on the very American “MC (emcee)” or “DJ (disc jockey).”  Where titles or names are concerned, a plausible contextual cross can be made by contrasting a hypothetical African American man who takes the singular “Abdul” as a new Arabic name.  Without knowledge of the nuances of Arabic he cannot possibly know that this name literally means “servant” and is a variation of the Arabic word abd (slave) and is also perceived as pejorative without the addition of a second name which would tell to whom he is a servant i.e. Abdullah, meaning servant of God.  However, for our imaginary individual who becomes “Abdul” the name is taken not for its literal meaning but as an act of self-determination and perhaps defiance to a dominant religion and language.  In the final analysis, Senegalese rappers’ use of hiphop/spoken word music is not a component of an impersonal international corporation, with corporation- approved lyrics, with artistes firmly ensconced in the exercise and under the yoke of obtaining “bling.” It is just a single route of many routes chosen by African artists to express dissatisfaction with cultural norms, oppression via French neo- colonization, and the daily struggle for political voice and economic survival.

In listening to hours of Senegalese rappers, the one recognizable English word is “niggah.”  Senegalese rappers employ a mélange of languages and the most reliable consistency is Wolof, French, and American English.  It is nearly impossible to decipher the double entendre of their French without knowing the cultural context of its usage.

In American hip hop, the poets and socially conscious rappers rarely garner the attention paid to gangsta rappers.  If one is to become a gangsta rapper one must sell drugs, get shot, and go to jail.  It is an absolute requirement.  This industry gives the world the impression that all African American men are guests of some penal institution.  Factually, there are 20 million African American males in this country and of that number 800,000 are incarcerated and an additional quarter of a million are on probation or parole.  Those numbers are dismal but they do not represent an entire group.  Gangsta rap gives the non-American listener, and the American listeners as well, that criminality is a necessary rite of passage.  In the confines of America this often leads to adolescents committing crimes or acting out.  In Muslim Senegal, the musical mantras of African American rappers have the potential of inciting much more than street conflicts.

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