Senegal’s rappers continue to ‘cry from the heart’

For a more just society. American musicians were once integral to political activism.

The 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom is recognised as a seminal moment in American history and a triumph for nonviolent resistance. Harry Belafonte, then a 36-year-old superstar of music, television and film, was at the forefront, serving as a confidant to Martin Luther King and helping to bankroll the Black Freedom Movement. Today few American artists seem willing to take such an active role in political struggles.

But across the Atlantic musicians in many African countries are in the vanguard of popular struggles, not only providing a symbolic soundtrack but marching on the frontlines and leading social movements.

Take Nigeria, where Seun Kuti carries on the legacy of his father Fela by confronting the country’s venal political elite. In Burkina Faso rappers helped overthrow Blaise Compaore.

In Africa’s newest country, South Sudan, a new collective of musicians and artists, Ana Taban, has emerged as some of the few critics of the country’s kleptocratic rulers. And in Tanzania, the legendary father of Swahili hip hop and opposition member of parliament sits in jail, Sugu, accused of insulting the country’s increasingly autocratic president, John Magufuli.

One of the most notable examples of artists in the Belafonte mould is the musical collective Keur Gui in Dakar, Senegal. Already among the most popular within Senegal’s lively hip hop scene, their profile grew exponentially in 2011 during the massive protests against President Abdoulaye Wade’s attempt to steal a third presidential term.

Activism on a truck

In 2011 Keur Gui’s lead rappers Thiat and Kilifeu joined other musicians and journalists to form the Y'en a Marre (Fed Up) movement to mobilise youth against Wade. During their campaign, Keur Gi recorded songs that became the cri de coeur (cry from the heart) of the broader movement.

Along with other musician-activists, the group toured the country in a flatbed truck with a built-in soundsystem playing in small towns and rural villages bringing their message to distant communities. This was essential in a country where the average age is just over 18 and 70% live in rural areas.

Thiat was arrested and detained following a rally in Dakar’s Obélisque Square for allegedly calling the President a “liar” and saying that the then 85-year-old was too old to govern. Y'en a Marre’s actions were crucial in ensuring Wade’s defeat and his replacement by Macky Sall.

Rather than rest on their laurels, Keur Gui, especially the charismatic Thiat, have continued their activism. In Senegal where politicians have historically sought to legitimatise their governments by co-opting popular musicians, Keur Gui was offered a share of the spoils of the new regime. They refused, insisting that their vision was never simply to change elected leaders.

Rather, their movement Y'en a Marre pushes for a vision of democratic transformation beyond the ballot box.

Inspired by legendary pan-Africanists like Amilcar Cabral, Thiat, who wears a simple woollen hat reminiscent of the one made famous by Cabral, has worked to organise and support other artist-led social movements in Africa including Balai Citoyen in Burkina Faso.

In 2014, the group released a follow up album featuring the single Diogoufi (“Nothing has changed”).