A whirlwind tour of the Senagalese captial's music scene laid the groundwork for my comparative dissertation.
By Catherine Appert
Bourba and Bouks (right, center) are rappers in the Sengalese group Sen Kumpe, managed by Lamine Ndao (left).
In July 2008, I arrived in Dakar, the capital city of Senegal, to conduct pilot dissertation fieldwork with hip hop artists. While this was my second trip to Dakar, it would be my first real exploration of the city's hip hop scene. Hip hop speaks in complex ways to the experiences of urban youth in postcolonial Senegal, though its roots are in postindustrial New York and the music and socio-political struggles of African Americans.
Not long after the initial explosion of hip hop culture in the Bronx in the 1970s, Senegalese youth in Dakar began to experiment with rapping in English. In the late 1980s, Dakar MCs (rappers) made the made the pivotal shift to rapping in Wolof, the dominant indigenous language of Senegal, a change largely effected by the preeminent local hip hop duo Positive Black Soul. Now, Dakar's hip hop culture creatively blends indigenous musical and cultural elements with U.S. hip hop to create a music that is distinctly Senegalese but that remains in conscious dialogue with the African diaspora. This thriving scene, arguably one of the most vibrant in West Africa, includes over 3,000 hip hop groups, whose political messages build on a complex history of racial disenfranchisement in colonial and postcolonial Africa as well as in the United States.
Over just a few weeks, following an intinerary laid out for me by Bourba, a rapper I had met through a friend in the States, I traveled all over Dakar to speak with rappers, producers, and music fans in homes, recording studios, concert venues, and radio stations. I conducted interviews and went to performances, in an exhausting but intensely rewarding effort to get to know the city's hip hop scene.
Dakar's Medina neighborhood, proudly described as a ghetto by the MCs who live there, was the unofficial hub of my research. Despite an astronomical unemployment rate and pervasive poverty in the neighborhood, the MCs' families opened their homes to me in a true expression of famed Senegalese hospitality. The time spent with these artists and their families gave me insight into the role of hip hop culture within the everyday lives of these young men and women. Without much possibility of employment and within support systems of cohabitating extended families, these young people devote what would otherwise be empty days to the passionate pursual of hip hop success. Hip hop fuels dreams of financial security while at the same time providing youth with an outlet for self-expression, political activism, and transnational musical dialoguing.
What emerged from the local music I heard and the twenty-some-odd interviews I conducted was a self-conscious practice of musical and lyrical intertextuality. Through hip hop cultural production, MCs situate themselves in a transnational community of hip hop culture while reaffirming local values and addressing local concerns. Drawing on hip hop's generic proclivity towards intertextuality--seen not only in rappers' lyrical signifyin but also in the practice of sampling existing music--Senegalese artists combine traditional musical elements with hip hop as it exists in the United States, creating musically intertextual tracks that speak both to urban Senegalese life and to an awareness of and connectivity with the communities of the African diaspora. At the same time, they claim indigenous traditions and social figures, most notably the griot or bardic tradition, as historical precursors of hip hop. In this way, they strategically indigenize hip hop music as something that is all the more powerful for having been theirs to begin with.
This brief but productive time in Dakar laid the groundwork for my dissertation which, based on a comparative study of Senegalese hip hop in Dakar and the United States, will explore musical and discursive processes of indigenization and the socio-cultural significance these hold for immigrant artists in the United States.