Music College: The Senegalese hip-hop scene and its worldwide influence

As a first-hand witness, I can say that one of the most vibrant and exciting music scenes on the African continent is undoubtedly the Senegalese hip-hop scene. Senegalese hip-hop, also known as “Rap Galsen”, has been a cultural force in West Africa since the early 1990s and has gained international recognition in recent years.

One of the main reasons why Senegalese hip-hop is so important to African culture is its role in promoting social and political awareness. Senegalese hip-hop artists use their music as a means of raising awareness about important issues affecting their communities, such as poverty, unemployment and political corruption.

For example, Senegalese rapper Didier Awadi, a founding member of Positive Black Soul, and thus the founder of Senegalese hip-hop, is an outspoken advocate of democracy and human rights in Senegal and across the African continent. Awadi still today makes a strong case for pan-African ideals, and his projects such as, for example, ‘ President’s d’Afrique’, ensure that the legacy of statesmen such as Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba, assassinated by the colonial power, remains. In his song “Sunugaal”, Awadi addresses the problem of illegal immigration and the plight of African migrants risking their lives to reach Europe in search of a better life. His most recent album “Quand on refuse on dit non” is another success and an example of his relentless militancy.

Hip-hop in Senegal emerged in the early 1990s, but it was only in the late 1990s that it began to catch on. Senegalese hip-hop is unique because it mixes traditional African rhythms and instruments with modern hip-hop beats and lyrics. The genre’s rise was a reaction to the country’s economic and social problems at the end of Abdoulaye Wade’s presidency, which are well documented. Senegalese youth found hip-hop a medium through which they could express their frustrations and hopes for a better future.

A, perhaps not obvious key figure in Senegalese hip-hop is Youssou N’Dour, a musician and political activist, and former presidential candidate who has been an influential force in African music for more than three decades. N’Dour is known for mixing traditional Senegalese music with modern genres such as hip-hop and R&B. He has collaborated with numerous artists from around the world, including Peter Gabriel, Neneh Cherry and Wyclef Jean. In the mid-1990s, he launched the Dakar-based record label Xippi, trying to make African music less dependent on Western societies. This example was later followed by Positive Black Soul and Daara-J Family, both of which now have successful labels and studios in Dakar. Positive Black Soul from the ‘ Sankara; studio and Daara-J from their own ‘Bois Sacré studio.

One of the pioneers of Senegalese hip-hop is MC Solaar, a French-Senegalese rapper who was born in Dakar and grew up in France. In the countries of the Francophony, MC Solaar has now become a superstar. He gained international recognition in the 1990s for his fusion of hip-hop and jazz and his politically charged lyrics on issues such as racism and immigration. He released his fantastic album “Géo Poétique,” in 2014, which blended traditional Senegalese music with electronic beats and samples. The album was a critical and commercial success in Senegal and beyond, showcasing the versatility and creativity of Senegalese hip-hop artists. MC Solaar also had a hit parade listing with ‘The Good, the Bad’, a recording from the ‘Jazzmatazz’ project, on which he collaborates with the sadly much too soon deceased ‘Guru’. Unfortunately, Francophone music will always remain an underrated child.

Another reason why Senegalese hip-hop is essential to African culture is its ability to promote cultural exchange and mutual understanding. Senegalese hip-hop artists often collaborate with musicians from other African countries, such as Mali, Ghana and Nigeria, to create a unique blend of African rhythms and sounds. For instance, Senegalese rapper Akon has collaborated with numerous African musicians, including Nigerian singer 2Face Idibia and South African artist Kwesta.

Furthermore, Senegalese hip-hop has had a significant influence on American hip-hop music, especially in the early 2000s. American rappers like Jay-Z and Mos Def have cited Senegalese hip-hop as inspiration for their music, and some have even collaborated with Senegalese hip-hop artists. In 2010, for instance, Akon collaborated with American rapper Snoop Dogg on the song “I Wanna Love You,” which became a huge hit in both the United States and Senegal.

In the late 1990s, Senegalese rapper Akon, born in St. Louis, Missouri, who is actually Alioune Thiam, broke through with his debut album “Trouble”. The album, which featured collaborations with American hip-hop heavyweights like Eminem and Snoop Dogg, helped introduce Senegalese hip-hop to a wider audience in the United States. Akon has since been nominated five times for a Grammy, and his debut album went platinum in America, too.

On the other hand, Senegalese hip-hop is also influenced by American hip-hop music. In the early 1990s, Senegalese hip-hop artists like Positive Black Soul and Daara J were inspired by the conscious rap movement in the United States, which emphasised social and political issues. These artists incorporated elements of US hip-hop into their music, such as the use of samples and scratching.

Senegalese hip-hop has also had a significant influence on US hip-hop. Artists like Mos Def and Talib Kweli have been inspired by Senegalese music and culture. Wyclef Jean’s collaboration with N’Dour on Canibus’ song ‘ How Come’ even helped introduce many Americans to Senegalese music. In addition, the aforementioned Senegalese-American rapper Akon has had a huge influence on the American music scene with his blend of hip-hop, R&B and traditional Senegalese music.

But the influence has not been one-sided. American hip-hop has also influenced Senegalese hip-hop. Senegalese rappers like Positive Black Soul have taken inspiration from American hip-hop artists like Public Enemy and Run-DMC. The result is a unique blend of African and American styles that have helped create a new genre of music that is distinctly Senegalese.

One of the most prominent Senegalese hip-hop groups is the aforementioned Positive Black Soul (PBS). The group was founded in the early 1990s by Didier Awadi, and Duggy T and quickly became popular for their socially conscious lyrics addressing issues such as poverty, corruption and education. Their music is a fusion of traditional African rhythms and instruments with modern hip-hop beats and lyrics. PBS has been a major influence on the African hip-hop scene, and its music has been sampled by numerous artists from around the world. PBS’s music is provocative and socially critical and to this day is a force that can move mountains. The name PBS (Positive Black Soul) was a tongue-in-cheek reference to the PDS (Parti Démocratique Senegalaise).

Another prominent Senegalese hip-hop group is Daara J, formed in the late 1990s by Ndongo D and Faada Freddy. The group’s music is a fusion of traditional Senegalese music with modern hip-hop beats and lyrics. They are known for their socially conscious lyrics that address issues such as poverty, corruption and education. Daara J has collaborated with numerous artists from around the world, including German rapper Samy Deluxe and US rapper Talib Kweli. Later, the name was changed to Daara-J Family and with albums like ‘Boomerang’, ‘School of Life’ and ‘Yaamatele’, the band also scored in Europe. Daara-J can regularly be seen at European festivals and venues. Highly recommended, should you ever have the opportunity.

In recent years, Senegalese hip-hop has continued to evolve and experiment with new sounds and styles.  In short, Senegalese hip-hop is a vital cultural force in Africa and has had a significant influence on American hip-hop music. Senegalese hip-hop artists use their music to raise important social and political issues, promote cultural exchange and understanding, and experiment with new sounds and styles. As the Senegalese hip-hop scene continues to develop and grow, it will undoubtedly play a vital role in shaping the future of African music and culture. So keep an ear out for these innovative and dynamic artists, and who knows, maybe one day we will see a Senegalese rapper take home a Grammy.

Photo copyrights:
Copyright: WIPO. Photo: Emmanuel Berrod. CCA 3.0 IGO License.
Faada Freddy of Daara-J Family. Photo: Jan Vranken

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