Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Y’en A Marre and Rap Revolution in Senegal

'kola (Bukola Jejeloye) is a freelance design, ideas and innovation "barnist" with previous extensive international development, policy and legal experiences in Africa and the Balkans. He loves everything about his continent - the history, people, villages, music, food, art and even the bad roads (though would he like to work on improving this part). He is not fond of dictators, long-term presidents and pet peeves. All text and photos are by him.

On February 26th, the much anticipated elections in the West African country of Senegal took place. While official results are being waited upon, speculations are high that there will be a March run-off election between the incumbent 85-year-old president, Abdoulaye Wade and Macky Sall, his former prime minister and protege (they had a falling out due to Sall wanting accountability from Wade’s son, Karim, over some governmental expenditure). World famous Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour attempted to get on the ballot but his candidacy was invalidated by the country’s Constitutional Court.

A recent Senegalese young voter

Listening for results in Dakar
Like several previously untarnished African democracies before it, including Kenya and Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal was used to being touted as a fine example of a functioning democracy in a region where electoral chaos, civil wars and coups are the norm. However, following a string of missteps, to put it lightly, by the Government of President Wade, including a $27 million monumental statue overlooking the capital which the president claims 35% ownership based on intellectual property (don’t ask, won’t tell), a new presidential plane, tinkering with the country’s Constitution in order for the president to run for a third term, and a spate of unusual power failures that led to deaths of citizens, the country found itself in the grips of protests and riots last summer that extended into recent weeks before the election where six or more people were killed.

Reportedly leading these protests, sans the riots, are M23, a composition of civil society groups, ordinary citizens and opposition parties that arose from an uprising on June 23, 2011 protesting against a constitutional makeover by President Wade, and Y’en A Marre (French slang for "fed up"), a group of citizens including youths and artistes fronting for the frustrations of society at large. M23 does not come as a surprise to many people but the leadership and strong voice of Y’en A Marre has been something of an anomaly in this traditional and mostly conservative country. Y’en A Marre has been described by the population and popular media with a range of terms from “a group of rappers” to “a bunch of street thugs” to “young men seeking change”.

So who really are they? According to its website, Y’en A Marre is “a citizens' initiative started at the outset by committed Senegalese artists (rappers) and journalists.” It was indeed founded by a small group of rappers including Thiat (Cheikh Oumar Cyrille Touré) and Kilifeu (both of the famed hip-hop band "Keur Gui of Kaolack" (see our October coverage of them here), Fou Malade (Malal Talla), Djily “Baghdad” Aidara and Simon Bisbi Clan (Simon Mohamed Kouka). All these rappers are quite well known in Senegal and their hip hop albums do quite well in sales. The founders of the group also included two journalists: Fadel Barro and Aliou Sane. According to Simon, when I caught up with him at the polling station where he was voting, Y’en A Marre, though started by the rappers and journalists goes beyond this niche. It is a group for the people voicing the past frustrations of the people, speaking to the current situation of the people in seeking fair elections (which they hope will lead to Wade’s departure) and arousing the aspirations of the people after the elections for a New Type of Senegal (NTS). Many on the streets of Dakar are not surprised that rappers would help found a new political movement in the country as they have the ears of the street through their music which their fans adore.

 Fadel Barro and Simon (right), Y’en A Marre founders, at polling station to vote and monitor

While Y’En A Marre has proven itself a force to be reckoned with especially in the resistance to Mr. Wade’s efforts to stay longer in office despite constitutional provisions to the contrary, its founders insist that the movement remains officially unaligned with any party or candidate and keep demanding change for the better for the country regardless of who is in power. According to Keyti (Cheikh Sène), a veteran hip hop artist in Dakar and a supporter of Y’en Marre, “Y’en A Marre has grown beyond just the rappers and their fans ... its message and goals have resonated with people on the streets, including those who do not listen to rap or hip hop”. He is right on the money regarding that. I could not help but notice the diversity in the age, gender and social status of people that kept coming to speak with Simon and Fadel at the polling station. Most to encourage them to continue what they are doing for the sake of the country.

Then there is the music, the revolutionary hip-hop music underpinning the movement. It is only natural that Y’en A Marre would tap into its internal resources to make its voice heard. It also helps that Y’en A Marre’s founders have street credibility as they have been rapping revolutionary songs before they formed the group. But just to highlight its message markedly, the group also released a compilation at the end of last year, self-titled “Y’en A Marre”. The single “Faux! Pas Forcé” from the compilation has become the group’s anthem in its protests and on the lips of many desiring change in Senegal. Rap has come to make its mark in the politics of Senegal and I doubt it will be leaving anytime soon no matter how annoying it might be in the side of the establishment. Fela Kuti would be smiling in his grave now ... “Music is [indeed] the weapon”.

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