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Last Updated: Friday, 16 February 2007, 08:17 GMT
Senegal rappers fight for freedom
By Rose Skelton
BBC News, Dakar

Xuman
Xuman remembers the role rappers played in the last elections
With the dusty skyline of Senegal's capital, Dakar, hazy in the distance, dreadlocked DJ and rapper Xuman stands outside the rooftop recording studio where the finishing touches are being put to his new album.

"I wanted to make sure the album was released just before the elections," says the seven-foot tall, chart-topping rap artist.

"I'm hoping it will help people to see politicians with different eyes."

DJ Xuman's new album, charged with political lyrics that criticise the current government, also aims to encourage the country's youth to use their most valuable political weapon - the voting card - in next weekend's presidential elections.

Senegal has been hailed as a bastion of democracy in a region where neighbouring countries have been besieged by civil war, ethnic struggles and religious conflict.

It is proud of its record of freedom of speech, and rap artists - the griots, or oral historians, of the modern age - have often taken advantage of this freedom, producing music imbibed with politically conscious lyrics in order to motivate the youth.

Hopes dashed

As the technicians lay the high-energy sabar drum beats over his rapid-fire lyrics, Xuman remembers what happened during the last presidential elections.

DJ Awadi
With this new power if you're not with them, you're against them
DJ Awadi

"In the year 2000, there were maybe 5,000 rappers and half of them were rapping: 'This system must go.'

"They were telling people: if you really want things to change, make a change. Go and vote - there is no other way."

And after 40 years of socialist rule, the current President Abdoulaye Wade's Senegalese Democratic Party was voted in.

For Senegalese rappers, this was their finest hour and a sense of hope filled the country's youth.

But after seven years, young people now put more hope into migrating to Europe via Spain's Canary Islands.

Tens of thousands of Senegalese have risked the dangerous boat journeys to escape unemployment and poverty.

And in recent years, say critics, freedom of speech is becoming an increasingly rare commodity in Senegal.

Radio stations have been shut down for supposedly biased reporting, and most recently, an opposition march in Dakar was banned by the government and dispersed with tear gas.

Backdated tax

Rappers, too, complain that the authorities are trying to manipulate the famously critical rap movement for their political gain.

If there wasn't this freedom of expression, I am convinced that rap would not be developed in this country
Momodou Kasse
Information ministry adviser

Didier Awadi is Senegal's most celebrated rapper, with a successful international career.

He remembers being approached by ministers of the new government soon after the last elections, in the hope that he would infuse his music with positive political messages to help the new regime gain popular support.

"I refused and told them: 'My position is still the same. If you don't do your job correctly, I will be the first to criticise you, to point it out,'" he says.

The consequences of such a refusal can be disastrous.

Rappers say they have been served with backdated tax bills, and find it difficult to get their songs on the radio or television.

Determined

This has discouraged rappers from taking up the political campaign trail, as they did in 2000, and is ultimately, say some, leading to a weakening of the rap movement.

A boat carrying suspected illegal immigrants arrives in the Spanish Canary Islands
Many disillusioned Senegalese attempt to migrate

This political bullying, says Awadi, also threatens the country's democratic record.

"With this new power," he complains, "if you're not with them, you're against them. They are here because democracy worked and because there was freedom of speech.

"Senegal is used to this kind of thing, we need to talk, we need to express ourselves. But don't put us in jail because we don't like you."

The government denies that they restrict free speech.

Momodou Kasse, a technical adviser to the information ministry, says that there are no such restrictions on rap artists' freedom of expression.

"The fact that the youth have the liberty to say what they think, to speak out loud, and to pass on these messages across the radio, proves that Senegal is a democratic country," he says.

"If there wasn't this freedom of expression, I am convinced that rap would not be developed in this country."

As the polls loom, Senegal's politically motivated rappers are unsure how the rest of the movement's artists will react to political events.

But Awadi says he is determined.

"We all know that these politicians are not serious. It's our historical responsibility to be engaged in the real fight against them because we cannot accept a regression of democracy in this country.

"We cannot accept it."


SEE ALSO
Country profile: Senegal
18 Jan 07 |  Country profiles

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