Hip-Hop in New Orleans and Senegal

Photo by Emily Grimes
Photo by Emily Grimes

Due to historical and cultural connections, hip-hop music in New Orleans, Louisiana and Dakar, Senegal, serve the similar functions of community empowerment, pride in identity, and political resistance in the face of oppression and marginalization, which on both sides of the Atlantic, has been carried out by the same force of European colonialism and the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.

Hip-hop did not originate in New Orleans, but rather, in the South Bronx in the 1970s, just shortly after the civil rights movement ended in 1965. Hip-hop reflected urban identities and cultures, and was “a way for marginalized young people in the United States in the early to mid-1970s to transform their circumstances in urban areas where governmental policies such as redlining and planned shrinkage were limiting their options and gang violence, in the wake of this systemic neglect and oppression, was diminishing their numbers,” (Banks, 240).
Similarly, Senegalese hip-hop was born out of the need to establish an urban identity and advocate for community, when mainstream American and French rap started to be adapted and, “rap music in the gritty suburbs of Dakar took on a more localized identity replete with primarily Wolof lyrics about local issues” (Niang 175; Open Society Foundation, 2014). The adaptation of mainstream, commercial hip hop into a more locally oriented movement occurred in during a period of internal migration to the coastal city of Dakar. As space in the city became limited and expensive, poor people were forced to settle in suburbs around the city, such as Pikine and Guédiawaye, establishing their existence as peripheral and impoverished from the beginning. Housing, education, healthcare, and poverty continued to pose problems for the increasing population of Senegalese living in the suburbs and Structural Adjustment Programs implemented by the IMF that curbed public spending exacerbated these issues further. It is under these circumstances that hip-hop started to grow in the suburbs, “as a platform for young people to be politically engaged and socially active” (Gueye 2013; 22).

On opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean, hip-hop developed as a platform for marginalized youth to express their identity and advocate for their communities, but what accounts for such a parallel in function and form of hip-hop? As celebrated African- American author, Toni Morrison has said, “what unifies hip-hop throughout the world is its emergence from ‘the “others” within the empire’… who ring profound changes in the nation’s discourse” (Perry, 291). Enslaved, oppressed, and discriminated against in the United States and other parts of the world, African American populations have arguably maintained and allowed for the evolution of certain cultural traditions, including musical traditions.

New Orleans is known for it’s unique music and culture, but what many people don’t realize is that most of that distinct New Orleans culture that attracts so many tourists comes from strong influence that African culture had in Louisiana, where, “by the end of the African slave trade to the colony in the early 1730s, Africans made up over half of the total population of the colony’s largest settlement and capital, New Orleans.” Specifically, the region of Senegambia accounted for roughly one-half of all the African captives brought to French Louisiana between 1719 and 1731” (Caron, 98). Why would a large slave population have such an effect on the overall culture of a city? As Gwendolyn Midlo Hall points out in her book, Africans in Colonial Louisiana: The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the Century, “French Louisiana was not a stable society controlled by a culturally and socially cohesive white elite ruling a dominated, immobilized, fractionalized, and culturally obliterated slave population”. The unique nature of the African population in comparison to the white Europeans in Louisiana, contributed to “an unusually cohesive and heavily Africanized culture in lower Louisiana: clearly, the most Africanized slave culture in the United States” (Hall, 161). The retention of African culture in New Orleans, included musical cultures, and many historians connect the birth of hip hop to the evolution of blues and jazz, both genres origins being traced back to New Orleans. In connection to the jazz tradition, “William Jelani Cobb identifies hip-hop as the “folklore of the twenty-first century” wherein MCs’ narratives extend the blues tradition of story-telling such that hip-hop is now “so central to the development of the post-civil-rights generation of black people that it’s nearly impossible to separate the music from our politics, economic realities, gains, and collective shortcomings” (674).

Although it is difficult to make direct connections between aspects of African culture and hip-hop, the orality of the rapping element of hip-hop is often connected to the practice of West African griots. West African griots served as “oral historians, praise-singers, musicians, genealogists, and storytellers. Best known as hereditary artisans of the spoken word…” (Tang, 79). The griot is “seen as a thing of the past, from which the modern griot has evolved over time, after crossing the Atlantic to the New World” (Tang, 81). It is common for American rappers to refer to themselves as “modern griots” and to connect themselves with aspects of African culture, as Afrika Bambaataa did when he said, “Although it [rap] has been in the Bronx, it goes back to Africa because it had chanting style of rappin’ (Tang, 81).

African Americans in New Orleans, Louisiana and Africans in Dakar, Senegal, both live in societies and cities that have been shaped by colonization and the Transatlantic slave trade. Perhaps due to shared cultural aspects, or simply the paralleled experiences as members of a diaspora, New Orleans and Senegalese hip-hop both function as a form of political resistance and community empowerment for marginalized urban populations. In New Orleans, this has been exemplified by the strong response of the hip-hop community in criticism of the the neglect and racism that African Americans experienced in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2006. In Dakar, Senegal and the impoverished suburbs surrounding the city, prominent hip-hop artists use the powerful and easily accessible oral aspect of hip-hop to educate the population about the realities of Senegalese history and give youth, left behind by an irrelevant colonial education system, confidence and skills to have hope for the future.

In the years after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, hip hop became a tool for African Americans to express and establish their identity after being written off and alienated as refugees in the aftermath of one of the most destructive natural disasters in the United States. Although Hurricane Katrina was treated as an unprecedented disaster in the US, “the experience of massive upheaval and displacement in the face of natural disaster was not new for the African American community” (672). Faced with a heavier burden of “environmental and economic risks of natural disaster as underwritten by discriminatory housing, job distribution, and rescue efforts” and “literally called refugees by most politicians and the mass media in the first week after the hurricane, the displaced population was also figuratively construed as outside the norms of middle-class white citizenship- and indeed, a threat to it” (672). Decades of legal segregation, followed by de facto segregation and discrimination in New Orleans and the rest of the US has led to areas of concentrated poverty where African Americans are at higher environmental and economic risk.

The hip hop community, local as well as national responded to this representation of “anonymous black masses, poor and often dangerous”, where “their apparent vulnerability became framed as a long-term drain on American resources and government spending” (672). In this climate, “post Katrina hip hop became a political strategy, giving voice to “those who are losing their own” is an attempt to lay claim to what Peter Nyers calls the “onto-political status of a speaking being,” by which outsiders or aliens, defined by legal or other forms of social exclusion, may interrupt the dominant political – which is to say speaking – order, “not just to be heard, but to be recognized as a speaking being as such” (672). Bounce music is a form of hip hop that origination in New Orleans in the 1980s and “oriented toward dancing… with a heavy reliance on call-and-response with the audience, and simple lyrics” was transformed by the political climate post Katrina in a “radical politicization of a previously ludic form of music-making” (675-6). This can be exemplified by an excerpt from a song entitled “My FEMA People”, by Mia X, who was a resident of the Seventh Ward: “Ride through my city Beirut. Iraq. Ride through my city I ride and cry all through the city Looking for the culture all through the city We were left for dead for vultures all through the city Its so much bigger than the weather” (676). New Orleans hip hop became an extremely localized form of political resistance to racial injustice and inequalities that had been created and entrenched through years of segregation and discrimination in the aftermath of American slavery.

In Dakar, Senegal on the Western Coast of the African continent, a little more than a decade after independence in 1960, hip-hop made it’s way first to “youths who had access to imported records and film clips”, “soon though, rap music in the gritty suburbs of Dakar took on a more localized identity replete with primarily Wolof lyrics about local issues” (Niang 175; Open Society Foundation, 2014). The adaptation of mainstream, commercial hip hop into a more locally oriented movement occurred in during a period of internal migration to the coastal city of Dakar. As space in the city became limited and expensive, poor people were forced to settle in suburbs around the city, such as Pikine and Guédiawaye, establishing their existence as peripheral and impoverished from the beginning. Housing, education, healthcare, and poverty continued to pose problems for the increasing population of Senegalese living in the suburbs and Structural Adjustment Programs implemented by the IMF that curbed public spending exacerbated these issues further. It is under these circumstances that hip-hop started to grow in the suburbs, “as a platform for young people to be politically engaged and socially active” (Gueye 2013; 22).

Community hip hop centers in the impoverished suburbs of Dakar provide marginalized young people, left behind by the colonial education system, with a safe, social community space where they are able to receive an alternative form of education and learn how to empower themselves and their communities. The leaders of these community hip hop centers, who are prominent Senegalese rappers, explain that the “forms of teaching are Western” and a continuation of colonization” (Talla, personal interview). The public education program used in Senegal is still the French colonial one, with all courses taught in French and lacking in Senegalese and African history. Paco, a staff member at Ghiphop, the community center in the suburb of Guédiawaye, highlighted the importance of learning about African history and teaching young people that “the history of Senegal does not start at the time of colonization” (Gueye, personal interview). Hip hop music in Senegal engages young people in an expression and understanding of their identity that is real and relevant to them, not their colonizer, through community spaces, but also through the music itself. An excerpt from a song called “Senegal” by Books ft, Keyti, can be translated from Wolof to say, “Let us teach our history in the schools again before it’s forgotten. Let’s teach the kids about our culture, our social structure, teach them about circumcision ceremonies and the knowledge that used to be shared. Let’s relearn our practices, our own way of life because a lost society can never make it far…” (Melakh, personal interview).
In these suburbs, many of the young people who are part of the hip hop culture and who frequent community hip hop centers are there because they have dropped out of school. According to one student, he “was taught the history of France, Turkey, etc… I mostly learned about European history”. He added, “it’s not empowering me, it’s not important” (Camara, personal interview). In acknowledging the harmful effects of a colonized education system, it is important to recognize that the goal isn’t to stop learning about European cultures and the rest of the world, but just saying, “let’s try to put ourselves in more (Melakh, personal interview). Hip hop, by engaging young people in their own history and culture, enables them to see themselves outside of the context of the French colonial legacy that implies to them that to be educated is to speak French, and even be French, since students learn about European and French culture in a European method.

The politically charged and revolutionary nature of Senegalese hip hop is exemplified by the group Keur Gui, consisting of two founding members of the political group Y’En a Marre, meaning “enough is enough” that was successfully used hip hop activism and guerilla street poetry to oppose the unconstitutional re-election of Senegalese president Abdoulaye Wade. During an interlude between songs at a concert, the two rappers, Thiat and Kilifeu, spoke in French about the punishment that Guinea received from France when the country chose to be truly independent from their colonizer. The rappers went into specifics about how the French burned books, and took with them medicines, institutions, the systems of electricity and water, and gave money to an important Malinke[1] leader, explaining, “c’est ça, l’origine des problèmes Guinean entre Malinke et Pulaar”[2] (Keur Gui, concert). With many countries on the African continent being known for “l’instabilité du guerre ethnique”[3], hearing an explanation of ethnic conflict, that does not credit this issue as the fault of the African population is empowering, and further reveals how African history and the narrative of African history have been shaped by the hand of the colonizer.

Keur Gui also compares the experience of Senegal, describing Senghor telling France, “Je ne veux pas l’indépendance comme Guinea. Je veux une indépendance avec une dette à payer. Et aujourd’hui, on payer la dette coloniale jusqu’à maintenant”[4] They then engage the audience, asking several times, “Est-ce que vous êtes d’accord avec ça?”[5], met with a unified “No!”, before beginning their next song that includes the line, “Fuck the system” (Keur Gui, concert). Keur Gui used a five minute interlude between songs to give a small history lesson that was not in the narrative of their colonizer, and then engaged the audience and the public, asking for their opinion, encouraging them to oppose the injustice described. Mostly young boys, but some girls as well, were standing and dancing right up against the stage and waving small Senegalese flags. They knew the words to the songs and actively shouted “No!” when asked their opinion on the debt created by their independence.

In former colonial Senegal, where young, poor students drop out of school because their cultural identities are not reflected or respected in the classroom, hip hop is there to empower and educate them through critical lyrical content and grassroots community organizational efforts. In New Orleans, local rappers used hip hop to empower themselves and their communities by speaking out about racial justice and equality. Hip hop’s culture of resistance are utilized by community members on opposite sides of the Atlantic to counter oppression and injustice created by the same force of European colonialism and the Transatlantic slave trade.
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[1] West African ethnic group
[2] “It’s this, the origin of the Guinean problems between Malinke and Pulaar”; Pulaar is another West African ethnic group
[3] “Instability caused by ethnic conflict”
[4] “I don’t want independence like Guinea. I want an independence with a debt to pay. And today, the colonial debt is paid, even right now”
[5] “Are you in agreement with that?

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