Lungu Lungu: Votes, Rhymes and Discontent in Senegal

March 21, 2012

How would you feel if your-85 year-old president modified the constitution in order to seek out a third term? Well in Senegal, the people are furious, and their dissent is fueling a wave of pungent, pugnacious hip-hop anthems, led by towering figures in Dakar's rap world, MCs like Fou Malade and Thiat from the group Keur Gui, or "Gun Man" Xuman, a Senegalese hip-hop pioneer from the group Pee Froiss, part of the first generation of mid-'90s Senegalese rap.

Like many at the forefront of Dakar's rap game, Xuman is using his name and voice to speak out the Senegalese people's discontent with their unreliable government. Abdoulaye Wade’s entourage has been notoriously accumulating wealth under the president's two terms, in particular prime real estate along Dakar's oceanfront corniche neighborhood. Meanwhile, unregulated food prices keep soaring, and power outages are becoming a part of daily routine.

Download: Xuman, "Li Lumu Doon"

The Senegalese have had enough, and hip-hop is stepping in to amplify their restlessness. In a country where well over half the population is under the age of 18, hip-hop is a strong weapon of mass communication. So strong it has in fact already been used to provoke change: In 1999, rappers contributed to the end of four decades of stagnant single-party government. That movement is what brought Wade into power. Some consider that the rappers, like the Senegalese people, were duped by the old man. Others feel the rappers instilled a sense of civic duty and responsibility which will outlive any government.

And they may be right. 12 years and two terms later, Wade is a candidate for his own succession, and the rappers are once again stirring up the public opinion. The Y'en a Marre ("We've had enough," or more to the point, "Enough!") collective has been the most prominent. Demonstrations they organized last June almost brought the government down, causing some of its members to ask for France's military support.

Since then, key Y'en a Marre members have been receiving menacing letters, some of them even spending time in jail, and the government is still after their recordings. But much like urban guerillas, the collective keep their plans secret and always stay close to their popular base. The group's headquarters in the popular Parcelles Assainies suburb of Dakar is hard to spot, and their low profile and under-the-radar operations contrast with presidential bling. This is a stance many Senegalese relate to—some say the movement has contributed to signing up more than 357,000 voters.

"We showed that we have real power in the street, and that we can influence public opinion to support or discredit a regime" Xuman tells me. His latest song, "Li Lumu Doon" ("What is This"), proves his point, with lyrics like, The country is flooded in the dark and insecurity/ the people cry, perplexed, without money and tired sick/ You spend your time traveling, unable to keep quiet, agitated/ While your minister's inability throws the country into precariousness.

Without always getting much politicized airplay, songs travel from one bluetooth device to the next, often crossing Senegal's borders. Today more than ever, Senegal's hip-hop scene has international ties, in particular with France, and increasingly New York. Thanks to these links, Y'en a Marre's message has spread to the French press, and to some extent, other Western publications. Considering that there hasn't been that much bloodshed, usually the necessary threshold when reporting about Africa, this is a rare feat.

As the movement spreads, Senegal is preparing for the second round of presidential elections. Late last February, Wade did not obtain a large enough majority to win the elections, necessitating a second round. The date for this second election keeps sliding, but the rappers are preparing the country for it. And now you too can spread their message.

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Lungu Lungu
Lungu Lungu: Votes, Rhymes and Discontent in Senegal