January 2001 | View images | Archive
reportage The honorary revolutionaries
The music of Senegal is celebrated in the West thanks to performers like Baba Maal. Less well known are the Senegalese rappers, born out abject poverty and deprivation, now a political and educational force in their country. Dieter Telemans photographed this cultural phenomenon. Text by Catherine Vuylsteke

You may never have heard about them, but there are at least ten thousand of them, the rappers of Senegal. They call themselves 'revolutionaries': indeed, at the last presidential elections in March 2000, they caused a political upheaval. But if you think that these trendy dropouts hold Western opinions or cherish Europeans, you are in for a nasty surprise.

A bastard of Dakar, that is how the district of Pikine is known. Two million people live there with little or no infrastructure to speak of. This illegitimate child was born in the sixties in the dunes beyond the capital of Senegal. In the sand, literally, and still no asphalt in the year 2001. It is in this unreal place that dreams are conceived. Among the mosques, in the overcrowded courtyards of polygamous families, and in the dusty alleys, thousands of youngsters try their luck at rap culture. The country has spawned more than three thousand hip-hop groups, and a good many of them consider Pikine as home base.

Yeah yo, ces quartiers déshérités, oubliés, marginalisés,
des gens qui meurent de faim ici.
Yeah Yo, le rap est là, il est omniprésent dans notre environnement
Yeah Yo, car on le prend, car c'est la tribune idéale
qui nous permet de se communiquer diversement ce qui se passe
dans ces quartiers oubliés, marginalisés.

Yeah yo, these deprived, forgotten, marginalized quarters,
people are dying here of hunger.
Yeah yo, but rap is there, it's everywhere in our community,
'cause it's ours,
'cause it's the only way we have to tell each other what's going on
in these forgotten, marginalized quarters.

The competition is deadly, though, and most dreams turn into bitter illusions. Senegalese artists such as Baba Maal decided a few years back to do something about their talented but unknown countrymen and took some of the groups, for example Positive Black Soul, on their tours to France. Positive Black Soul is now the richest, best known, and most glamorous rap group in Senegal, the kind of group that needs bodyguards for protection against wild girls. Some other bands succeeded such as the Daara-J and Pee Froiss groups, but not many.

'We're not like the Americans, whose texts are just insults and abuse,' many rappers assure me. 'It's not a question of money, weapons, sports cars, or beautiful women either. Senegalese rap, it's the street speaking. We are journalists, reporters of everyday life.' Others consider themselves teachers or educators of the masses who did not receive any schooling. The question is: who were their own teachers? Yes, they can read and write, but they barely finished grade school. Few are interested in secondary school training. The school uniforms are expensive, not to mention the writing materials, school bags, and copybooks. Besides, what's the use of all the boring stuff they're trying to teach you there?

La suite c'est la faillite, la fuite
La crise économique
Qui règne dans le pays

Next comes bankruptcy, flight
The economic crisis
That pervades the country

Forget the jobs. You need cash to get a job, or an uncle high up the administrative ladder. If you don't have either, what can you do? Hardly anything. You're on your own, man. Open a little business, but where can you find the necessary starting capital? In Europe, of course. We go to Europe, not to stay there - are you crazy? - but to collect enough money to realize old dreams when we get back home.

Les gens ont marchandé leur dignité pour faire honneur à l'argent
Celui qui l'a, se veut un roi
Aujourd'hui l'argent vaut mieux que la dignité des gens
Les hommes, tous, presque tous
tous ont perdu la culture de l'honn'teté
Dignité et honn'teté ne se donnent pas, elles se cultivent,
maintenant elles sont perdues, perdues contre l'argent

People have traded their dignity for money
He who's got cash is king
Today money is better than human dignity
No respect for dignity anymore, anywhere
You can't sell dignity and honesty, you preserve them,
Now they're gone, sold for cash

What's important is to depict reality. That's what rappers are for. A particular kind of reality, though: almost all groups rap about the 'galère' or ordeal. 'We own nothing apart from the clothes on our body.' 'We get no chances, no future.' Another one claims that Europeans have no way of knowing what it means to be born in an underdeveloped society. 'Poverty, lots of problems, and hardly any opportunities.' People ask each other 'How're you doing?' The answer: 'I'm OK, the Senegalese way.' God knows that this does not mean much.

Pourquoi le déchirement de l'Afrique?
Pourquoi est-elle tout sauf une et unie?
Mais que se passe-t-il?
Toutes ces guerres qui éclatent
Le sang coule
Et l'homme nègre pleure
Ses larmes brûlent
Il faut éteindre ce feu

Why all the conflicts and division in Africa?
Why is Africa not one and united?
What's going on?
All those wars
Blood is flowing
And the black man is crying
Burning tears
We must extinguish that fire

Lamentation after lamentation. No jobs, low salaries, corrupt officials. What is the cause or origin of all this? The rappers' explanations are unanimous. First Europe emptied this continent of its capable young men and women. Then there promptly followed a brutal colonisation. Now there is neo-colonialism. All the big companies in this country are run by white people. And why is it that African dictators can maintain their regimes for so long without worrying? Because they're protected by Europe and the US: as long as they support the West's vital interests, they receive all the weapons necessary to combat the opposition and are not bothered with human rights. Black misery, white blame.

White people have become godless. We can show you the beauty and the salvation of Islam. Because of your advanced technology, you think you can do without God. You even tried to destroy Islam in the previous century.

And concerning that son-of-a-bitch writer, Salman Rushdie, he doesn't deserve to live. Even though we didn't read 'The Satanic Verses', we know that certain sins can only be paid off by death. We are in favour of human rights. Next month we'll even be on a national tour sponsored by a group of young lawyers for the promotion of human rights. But the case of that jerk has nothing to do with freedom of speech as you, white people, would like us to believe. Godless people cannot understand this.

Mohammed, le prophète
La paix et le Salut sont en toi

Muhammad, the prophet
Peace and Salvation are within you

One of the young human rights lawyers observes, 'There's still a lot to do here in terms of human rights, but, you see, Islam is such a preponderant factor in this society. It makes any serious social debate about, let's say, family planning almost impossible.' The suggestion that a national average of six children per woman may be a hindrance to development is considered Western nonsense.

A good example of this is provided by the members of the only all-female rap group in the country. Even though they call themselves the 'Women's Infantry Liberation Army', they don't dare sing about the curse of polygamy. More than 50 % of Senegalese women share their husband with other spouses. 'We hate it,' says Maryam 'but it's a religious matter, and thus delicate.' 'What we would do if we ourselves were forced to accept our husband's second wife?' Maryam hesitates. 'I'm afraid we would just do that.' A strange kind of liberation army.

Ousmane is a group manager and knows the whole rap scene inside out. With every passing day, however, and with the accumulation of devoutness and white blame, he gets moodier and moodier. He certainly wonders about the international breakthrough that so many Senegalese rappers are hoping for. 'The rappers,' he insists 'are a courageous lot. If Wade won the presidential elections it is largely thanks to them. The rappers encouraged people to go out and vote en masse, and that is exactly what happened. Just as they generally urge teenagers not to give up, but to take control of their lives, so they also made them aware of their political power. And it doesn't stop there. Listen to the new songs.'

A l'aube de l'an 2000
te réveille Prési, ouvre tes oreilles
comme des abeilles on vient te déranger ton sommeil
Depuis 1981 jusqu'à 1999 rien de neuf, tout est pareil
Jeune, revoie la chose et ose
les partis s'opposent mais y'a que toi
qui prends ta dose
qui revendiques le futur

At the dawn of the year 2000
Wake up, Presi, open your ears
We are like bees to disturb your sleep
Since 1981 till 1999 no change, everything the same
Young people, have a close look and be courageous
The parties are fighting each other
But only you can control your fate
Only you are masters of the future

The politicians quickly took the message. During the election campaign more rap groups were hired than ever before. Some politicians even had their speeches edited by hip-hop idols. 'A question of vulgarizing the message,' laughs Xuman of the very famous Pee Froiss group. 'Those people don't speak the language of the street.'

A philosophy teacher explained That there is more to it than that. Rappers dare to say things that are unacceptable in traditional Senegalese culture. 'Listen, you are not supposed ever to tell persons of higher status - because of age or social position - what you think of them or point out their shortcomings, not even in private. The rappers have broken that taboo: because they do not crave for establishment recognition, they can afford not to mince their words, and that gives them power.'

'That power is sometimes misused,' Xuman laughs, suggesting that 75% of the rappers have no brains and are not willing to blame the Senegalese themselves for their problems. His friend Didier of Positive Black Soul, the country's most famous group, still remembers the fuss created by the number 'The executioner is black'. 'Radio presenters fulminated. In one newspaper we were pilloried. They asked if whites had brainwashed us.' 'Sometimes,' Xuman chuckles 'I wish they did. To help us get rid of some of our nastier streaks, such as the eternal sponging off richer family members - the cause of many bankruptcies. In Africa the extended family comes first. Refusal equals social suicide.'

Xuman believes that Senegalese can learn a lot from Europeans. 'In our community all that glitters is gold: external appearance has become fundamental. We boast about our 'teranga', our hospitality, but it's really not much more than a show of wealth. Yes, we spend fortunes, not on education or health services, but for naming ceremonies for our children. We want our own festivities to be more magnificent and include more guests than those of our neighbours. I sometimes die with shame.'

Teranga - his shame would become mine, just a week later. Not in Senegal, but here in Lille, France, where all the regional idols had been invited for a West African hip-hop weekend. The organisers believed it would be a good thing to include local small fry as a supporting act for Pee Froiss and others.

The local celebrities' performances ranged from bad to mediocre. However, these local Jean-Pierres and Bernards together with their teenager friends didn't think it worthwhile to stay for the main event of the evening, namely, rappers who in their own country manage to attract thousands of wildly enthusiastic fans and who need bodyguards to exit the halls. By the time Xuman and his group appeared on the stage, a little after ten, there must have been about thirty spectators left, spread over a huge hall. A few minutes before, I had watched some girls leaving. 'Africans,' one of them said 'probably not very good. Let's have fun somewhere else.'

Dieter Telemans
is represented
by Panos Pictures
in London. Visit
the website of
Panos Pictures at
or contact the agency
by telephone at

Catherine Vuylsteke
can be contacted at
her newspaper
'De Morgen' (Belgium)
via e-mail at

January 2001 | View images | Archive