The world is watching Niger — its rappers want the world to listen

July’s military coup in Niger was fuelled by a history of Western exploitation. The country’s hip-hop artists have been unpacking it for years.

September 19, 2023
The world is watching Niger — its rappers want the world to listen Getty Images

On the evening of July 26, Nigerien Army spokesman Colonel Major Amadou Adramane appeared on national TV flanked by nine solemn-looking soldiers in fatigues. Niger’s democratically elected President Mohamed Bazoum had, Adramane said, been ousted and detained: “The defense and security forces... have decided to put an end to the regime you are familiar with.”

With that statement, the West African country’s future was thrown into confusion. Supporters of the coup have hailed it as the end of a regime beholden to colonial interests, while its critics view it as a dangerous attack on democracy. Amidst the ultimatums, sanctions, and threats of military intervention, however, the West’s conversation about the coup too often treats the Nigerien people like bit-players in their own struggle. No one cares more about Niger’s future than Nigeriens, and you can hear it in the music from within the country’s hip-hop communities — bursting with national pride, civic concern, and advocacy for the rights and freedoms of Niger’s 25 million inhabitants.

Niger has a long history of military coups: when Bazoum was elected in 2021, it was the country’s first democratic transfer of power since its independence from France in 1960. Bazoum’s presidency reinforced alliances with the West, particularly France, who (along with the United States) sees the land-locked country as a critical frontier for anti-terror initiatives in the region. Niger’s recent military deals and close ties with its former colonizer stoked allegations that President Mohamed Bazoum was a puppet for French interests — a claim that was used to legitimize the new junta.

That is not to say that the coup is a win for African democracy and self-determination. Allies of President Bazoum, including U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, have insisted from the start that the since-weakened Russian mercenary force Wagner could take advantage of the chaos and capitalize on the pro-Russia sentiment that runs through some political circles. Additionally, Niger’s allies in the West and in ECOWAS (the Economic Community of West African States) have cut aid and instituted sanctions that have already had a significant impact on Nigerien citizens.

The headlines might be fresh, but culturally this moment has much deeper roots. Nigeriens have been grappling with their place in this political chess for decades. It’s all there in the music.


Hip-hop’s historical role as an outlet for the disenfranchised has made it an enduring presence within Niger. Here, groups like Kaidan Gaskiya use their music to disrupt the status quo. Formed by rappers Phéno and Kastro and singer Safiath, Kaidan Gaskiya — which translates to “ruled by truth” in Hausa — locked hip-hop into the center of Nigerien popular music.

“The hip-hop scene in Niger really started in our era,” Phéno tells me over the phone, placing the group’s formation sometime in the late ‘90s. “At the time, our fight primarily was for the Nigerien youth to become a conscious generation.” With lyrics addressing issues such as youth unemployment, corruption, and social injustice, Kaidan Gaskiya primed the local hip-hop scene to flourish.

Artists like Mamaki Boys are carrying on the political rap tradition pioneered by Phéno. “The philosophy behind [our music] is to give a voice to the voiceless,” Mamaki Boys’ Aziz Tony tells me. It’s a message he hopes will resonate “beyond Nigerien borders.”

After forming the group in 2002, Aziz Tony, Salif André, and the late Bachou Issouf began merging local folk music with energetic underground hip-hop into a style they dubbed tradi-moderne. While many of their contemporaries like Barakina, MDM Crew, Muda F, and Elsa embrace popular Afrobeats and trap influences, Mamaki Boys are keen to develop a Nigerien hip-hop sound entirely distinct from foreign influences.

“Recently, the umbrella term of Afrobeats is super big in Niger and in popular music, you hear most people making this music that sounds a little more homogenous,” Sahel Sounds’ Christopher Kirkley, whose record label backs several artists in the region including Mamaki Boys, explains. “In earlier 2000s rap you had really distinct sounds. Mamaki Boys has been making a path for hip-hop very much steeped in traditional Nigerien culture. [They’re] creating a modern sound that’s outside the popular Afrobeats umbrella.”


“By straddling the traditional and the modern,” Tony says, “we use our sound to convey messages of peace, of social justice from the evils that affect society, and encourage the youth to work and take courage in a better tomorrow.” Like Kaidan Gaskiya, Mamaki Boys articulate the longstanding vexations of Nigerians in songs with urgent, patriotic calls to action. On their 2007 EP Patriote, the track “Komando” encourages other musicians to keep pledging their art in service of local struggles. On “Kagani Kagani,” an energetic, percussion-driven record, the group questions how colonizers still profit from the exploitation of Niger’s natural resources while its people do not. “Many [Nigerien rappers] use their music to send messages of frustration in a country ranked almost last in the world,” Tony explains. “Meanwhile Niger has mining resources, such as uranium, oil, gold, and gasoline, in abundance. But we are still poor because our resources do not benefit us.”

The historical record shows that the West’s relationship with former African colonies has mainly been one of extraction, even when veiled as military support and aid. For instance, Niger is the second biggest supplier of uranium to France. But despite the latter’s energy dependence, Niger still grapples with extreme poverty. Many of the sentiments that are now exploding through the coup have been brewing for years, if not centuries. On July 30, thousands of pro-coup demonstrators took to the streets and stormed the French embassy in the capital Niamey, chanting “Down with France.”

France’s continued involvement in the politics and economics of its former African territories makes French colonial ties to the continent unique. Two of Niger’s neighbors, Burkina Faso and Mali, recently experienced similar coups and ordered French troops to leave — with Mali even removing French as its official language. Kirkley himself has seen a groundswell of support for the Nigerien coup among the creative class: “That’s the message I get from artists. There’s a lot of support especially amongst younger people.”

Still, after being let down so many times, Nigeriens are cautious about being too hopeful. “We just know that Niger needs all its sovereignty, its independence, and to get out from under the influence of neocolonialist politics,” Tony reveals. “We are artists who advocate peace and social cohesion. If a coup destroys this social cohesion we cannot applaud it. If it brings a positive change, so be it.”

For Phéno, change is about much more than who’s currently in power: “It’s not about whether the [military junta] have a progressive vision for our country. We can’t really talk about progress until every Nigerien is convinced of it, until everyone is willing to contribute to a new Niger. Only then can we think of progress as Nigeriens, only then can this progress go beyond words.”

As artists, they’re used to having to fend for themselves. “There really isn't government support for arts and culture,” Kirkley says. In the early 2000s, when local hip-hop was establishing itself, Niger’s grassroots music industry was rapidly growing. However, without proper infrastructure, music hit a roadblock. “The switch to digital media was embraced in West Africa very early on but at the same time, it hasn't been monetized in the same way. As soon as artists stopped being able to sell physical CDs, there was no real industry around selling music.”

From limited YouTube monetization across the continent to streaming subscriptions that are often unaffordable for African audiences, many African artists are being excluded from the digital market. “Just because of the country you live in, you can't participate in the global music economy, you're blocked from being able to do that. That is a huge problem.” Sahel Sounds, which reissued Mamaki Boys’ Patriote in 2021, is working on getting local artists a piece of the pie. “The quality and the fidelity of what people are producing [shows that] there isn’t inequality in ability, just in opportunity,” Kirkley says. “Having more Africa-based distributors would really help artists.”

Phéno agrees: “The major difficulty for artists is in the consumption of the music. Because we have an audience that is very large, but the audience is not ready to buy Nigerien music. You can invest in an album but you’ll hardly make that money back.” Many Nigerien musicians have to independently navigate the sales, distribution, and promotion of their music with very little return. In such an ecosystem, even putting down a deposit for a concert venue can stop the music from getting out there, Phéno explains. “Just like in many areas of our society, the struggles of the [Nigerien music industry] all come down to bad governance.”

“The change we hope for is the establishment of cultural industries which do not exist... in order to have competitive music in the eyes of the world,” Aziz Tony says. Given the instability in Niger and its neighboring countries right now, it’s hard to see that happening anytime soon. The music industry will continue to survive on the efforts and dreams of artists and homegrown studios that have learned not to rely on those in power. With the crisis in Niger developing every day, the country anxiously awaits its chance at self-government and a democratic future. The Nigerien people, and the Nigerien hip-hop scene, will demand just that.


The world is watching Niger — its rappers want the world to listen