The West African Rap Revolution Network

“I am a poet first, a talker second.” Hamidou protests. He wants to sing for me, but I have to persuade him to let me interview him before he does. I explain that I want to get to know him a bit, to tell the world about where his ideas, and the words for his songs come from. “They come from life.” He smiles as he says it. I have the feeling that unless I persist, I will not get him to sit and speak to me. He and his n’goni player Fouseni Diarra, are setting up their instruments in a studio so that I can hear some of their songs. We are at an art and music performance space in the city frequented by students and local musicians. Hamidou bought me here when I asked if I could record him performing a slam poet.

He wants to sing. So I decide to let him do so.

Later we sit in the cafe over cups of coffee. There is a music festival being held the following weekend, and the cafe is being converted to a performance area. A group of student volunteers are moving furniture, carrying loud speakers, hanging decorations, checking power wiring and arranging lights for the show. It is quite noisy but Hamidou is a regular and knows the owners and manages to find us a quieter corner to sit. “I never made it through college.” He had to drop out. He tells me it was because he missed his family who live in a small village some 50 km north of Ouagadougou. I suspect that the reasons were more economic–as peasant farmers, they may have asked him to return to help with the house. Lacking a graduation certificate, but qualified as a high-school tutor, he gives local school children lessons in arithmetic and physics to make a living. After a few years, he leaves for the Ivory Coast to find music.

“Alpha Blondy, Positive Black Soul (PBS)–it is the music that opens my eyes.” The rappers are first on his list of important political influences. “I was listening to these rappers, and started to see the world around me in a new way, and notice things that I had not noticed before.” Later would come the books–Senghor, Cesairé and other Negritude writers. I think back to Fanon and his critique of the Negritude movement in his work Black Skin/White Masks when he said that the [African] “…after the great white error is now living in the great black mirage” [Fanon, 1969, 27]. I say nothing. This is not the time nor the place to debate this. “We were not allowed to read Sankara, or Nkrumah or Lumumba in college, but we studied about the slave trade and about colonialism.” He breaks into a huge smile, “But you can’t teach those things without us eventually coming to Sankara, Nkrumah or Lumumba and others.” The modern history of Africa, and national independence could not be taught without revealing the emancipatory and revolutionary ideals that informed these struggles.

The market outside the art centre is busy this time of the afternoon. Buses, motor-scooters, and bicycle vendors cram the small street. Men and women are scrambling to get onto local buses at the corner, as men shout out their prices and quality of there wares from inside the dozens of small shops that line both sides of the streets. Dozens of men and women sit along the sidewalk, selling fresh fruits and vegetables from blankets laid out on the pavement. I am constantly amazed at how the pedestrians manage to navigate their way across these street stalls without once damaging the goods–people seem to have developed a sense of the pavement, and manoeuvre around the food and merchandise laid out on the pavement with expert skill. I constantly fear stepping onto someone’s blanket, crushing a cucumber or soiling a clean t-shirt for sale! As Hamidou and I walk through the street, I find myself struggling to keep up with the conversation, distracted as I am navigating my war around this mercantile maze. 

“The world of musicians here is a small, close-knit one, so it was inevitable that we would meet.” People seem to know Hamidou and he interrupts his conversations frequently to greet someone. “Smockey and Sam’sa–ostensibly the founders of Le Balai Citoyen, were obviously big influences. I was drawn to them, to collaborate with them.”

Thomas Sankara face is emblazoned across t-shirts on sale in the kiosks. With the upcoming elections, more and more vendors are featuring posters, clothing and other merchandise decorated with Sankara’s image. “We understood the importance of taking our music to the people from the YEM.” Hamidou was one of a number of people I had spoken to who had mentioned the YEM–the Y’en a Marre movement out of Senegal. Kambou Olloo Mathias of Le Balai Citoyen had mentioned it me when we had met earlier and I had had to go out and learn more about them.

Central to the defeat of President Wade (in 2012) was the audacious mobilisation of youth in Dakar, critically incited by rappers and moving to the rhythm of hip hop through Senegal’s urban landscape. Through activating their networks in virtual, audio, and urban space, rappers catapulted themselves to the centre of the political stage in not only the wave of protest leading up to the elections, but through inspiring a deeper public reflection on citizenship and democratic practice. The youth group, Y’en a Marre (YEM) (French for “Enough is Enough” or “We’re Fed Up”), in particular, emerged at the forefront of youth contestation and mobilisation, crystallising the grievances of young people in the form of an action-oriented, decentralised network rooted in Dakar but operating across the country. [Fredricks, 2013]

The Y’en a Marre’s saw themselves as a regional movement, and their tactics and strategies relevant to political struggles across West Africa.

YEM has made an impact on political life not just in Senegal but in the wider region: Côte d’Ivoire, Togo, where the Etiamé movement — Y’en a Marre in the Fon language — has taken root, the Sofas de la République in Mali, Y’en a Marre Comme Ça in Gabon, Touche Pas Ma Nationalité (hands off my nationality) in Mauritania. In Burkina Faso, Le Balai Citoyen (the citizens’ broom) swept away President Blaise Compaoré in October 2014. [Denis, 2015]

In March 2015, a group of YEM and Burkinabé activists were arrested and deported from the Democratic Republic of Congo. As the BBC reported;

The three Senegalese activists were part of Y’en a marre (We’ve had enough), which organised protests to stop then-Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade from extending his 12-year term in 2012 in defiance of the constitution. The Burkinabe was part of Citoyen Balaye (Citizen Broom) which helped mobilise people who overthrew Burkina Faso’s long-serving ruler Blaise Compaoré last year.

Hamidou was not just part of a local movement, but a trans-national one. It was also an inter-generational one. As I listen to him speak–his baritone voice, his easy manner, his unassuming confidence, I hear the coming together of a complex web of ideas, influences and imaginations. From the example and ideals of  self-sufficiency and independence that came from Thomas Sankara, the critical dissent and challenge to state power that emerged from the writings of Norbert Zongo, the self-regard and desire for self-respect as an African that was articulated by the likes of Senghor and Cesairé, and the will to change that came from seeing others like YEM, and the ‘Arab Spring’ movements on the continent. These whirlwinds, these powerful cross-currents of hope, and imagination simmering within one soul, and pouring out as music.