Movie of the Week: “Democracy in Dakar” (2009)

Apparently, Senegal is number 3 in the world for rap and hip hop. I’m pretty sure I know who number 1 is, though I’m sketchy on who number 2 is. I hope it’s not Germany.

Senegal, after 40 years of suffering under an inefficient and corrupt socialist government, moved to a market based capitalist democracy in the year 2001. Aging Abdoulaye Wade was elected by popular vote in 2001, much to the excitement of the Senegalese. Part of what made his ascendancy possible, was the broad support he received from local hip hop and rap artists. Wade ran on a populist platform promising expanded power, water, schools and jobs.

Wade has yet to provide any of those. In fact, the economy of Senegal has only become worse. Wade is increasingly autocratic, the government is filled with corruption and an increasing population is straining already scarce resrouces. Worse yet, those who speak out against decaying conditions are threatened, arrested and sometimes beaten by government supporters. Ironically, the very people that put Wade into power are the ones suffering most under his increasingly despotic regime.

Young Senegalese are fleeing Senegal in droves, often embarking on makeshift fishing boats bound for Spain or France. There, low wage jobs await in agriculture, manufacturing or the service industry. A single Senegalese living overseas can support his immediate and extended family for a lifetime. The trip is dangerous, and many die along the way.

In fact, many of the interviews with the members of the Senegalese music scene are expats. Some of the major players are actually living in Washington, DC, and some in Europe. Others live in hiding in their own country, the victims of violent threats to themselves and their families.

The directors of “Democracy in Dakar” follow more than one hundred members of the Dakar hip hop scene. It is perhaps the most comprehensive portrait of a developing country urban music scene that I’ve ever seen. The credit for the depth and lucidity of the interviews goes as much to the directors as to the Senegal itself. All of the artists take their craft as seriously as they do their politics and are more than aware of their importance both as artists and as a political voice for the people of Senegal.

Plus, the music is just fantastic. It reminds me of the early Jamaican reggae and ska scenes, though without the excessive commodificiation that eventually killed it. I normally dislike hip hop. In fact, I find the American hip hop scene to be an insipid, materialistic and plastic version of what it began as, divorced from the politics of marginalization and slave to the mighty dollar and corporate exploitation. I admit this characterization is most likely not fair; I probably need an education on US hip hop. However, If I am to take “Democracy in Dakar” as representative of the Senegalese hip hop scene, then I am officially a fan.

About Pete Larson

Researcher at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. Lecturer in the University of Michigan School of Public Health and at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. I do epidemiology, public health, GIS, health disparities and environmental justice. I also do music and weird stuff.

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