HipHop Culture in West Africa – A Political Force to be Reckoned With
The situation in the Casamance and Senegal at large, Islam and women/gay rights, Rap music and politics were some of the topics of my conversation with Sister Fa, HipHop artist from Senegal. Read it here in English or download a pdf of the original German text.
You wanted to become a rap star as a small girl already. Did this dream, at least in Senegal, become true?
I can’t say that it is reality yet, but I am on the right track. It is true: While I was very young, this was my big dream. I always said to my sisters: When I will be a star, then I will talk like this and walk like this. But you really have to work hard to make it happen.
How is your reputation in Senegal? Are you a prominent person there?
I wouldn’t place myself that high. In the end, I am a rapper, and I had the first solo release by a woman in Senegal in that particular style of music at all. A TV station broadcasted three of my video clips, and I was on television at least once a week. People know me in Senegal, but I am not a big star, at most a poor star.
When did you come in touch with HipHop music for the first time in your life?
In the beginning, there was a huge influence by my cousins and by the music we jointly listened to, and this was most of the time French HipHop. I listened to that stuff a lot while I was young. My older brothers were also into HipHop, and this influenced me as well. There was also West African and Senegalese music. In these days, Positive Black Soul and Daara J were hot. In 2000, I began to write lyrics. Two years later, I started my career.
You are one of the few women in Senegal’s HipHop scene. What were your experiences in that regard?
It was definitely not easy. The first problem was with my family and the neighbours. They really can’t get on with a woman going out every day, coming back late in the night because she is in the studio or in a concert. They will watch you closely and talk bad stuff about you: She is never at home, she is a prostitute, they will say. But after my family understood what I was up to, they gave me peace and supported me.
What about the reactions of your male rapper colleagues?
The men, they don’t take us seriously. The producers and promoters always say: She is not doing this thing for more than five years, because she is going to marry and will get children soon, or the family will not allow her to continue. In the past, these guys didn’t have a huge interest in female musicians, but now things begin to change a bit.
You are coming from the Casamance region in the South of Senegal. There is a conflict going on for years between armed groups and the government. How is the situation today?
Things are not going to get better, it is worse than before. The government tries to intervene, but we know how these things work. They are trying to politicise the whole thing, and they are doing nothing for the development of the Southern region of the country. The insurgency is a perfect excuse for their inaction. The rebels, on the other side, steal from the people and harass them. The people in that region, who are looking for peace in the first place, are the victims of that conflict. The insurgents say that they are fighting for independence, but I don’t believe them.
Is the populace supporting the claim for independence?
No, definitely not. I for myself also can’t understand this demand. Five or six months ago, they showed a feature at TV about rebels cutting off the ears of 15 people. I ask myself: If they are doing things like this – for whom they want to achieve this independence? If they are the bosses, they will probably kill the whole population.
I fear that we see
a lot of trouble in Senegal soon.
You just returned from a visit to Senegal. How is life there?
People are suffering, believe me. You certainly heard about these youngsters who try to reach the Canaries and die during their passage. They do that because there is nothing in Senegal. There is no work, life is very expensive, and so there is no hope. The president is very old, and now he tries to install his son as his successor. I really fear that we see a lot of trouble in Senegal very soon.
In your song ‘Milyamba’, you pay tribute to the women in the countryside who have to work hard there. This is an unusual subject for a HipHop song …
I come from a village in the South and experienced myself the harsh conditions, especially for women. They have to get up very early in the morning and walk many, many miles in order to reach the piece of land where they are working. When they come back home, it is 6 pm, and still they have to hack the wood, get water, cook and do the whole household work. Many of them don’t have even an hour for themselves. In the towns, even the poor women engage a housekeeper. While the government tries to help the poor urban women, it forgets the women in the rural areas. This is why I decided to write this song and to produce the video clip. I wanted to create attention for their continuing miserable situation.
What about the men in the villages?
Ah, come on, forget it. They only sit down the whole day, drink tea and are talking, talking, talking endlessly. They don’t work. It is first of all the women who do that. I am sorry, but this is how it is.
Are the women not complaining about that?
This is the way things are. Who can change it? It is like that for a long, long time. The men simply work much less than the women. I am really not sure if this is about to change soon.
If youths say: We want this or that to change,
then they can do it.
All over West Africa, HipHop has a strong influence on the ideas and imaginations of young people. Why?
HipHop is produced formemost by youngsters. To give you an example: If I write a text, then I always try to reach the young. When I talk about female genital mutilation, which is an important subject for me, it is important to do a song that touches the young people. They are the future. If they say: We want this or that to change, then they can do it.
Has music a direct influence on politics in Senegal?
Definitely, yes. In 2000, when the 40 years of power of the Parti Socialiste du Sénégal came to an end, HipHop contributed a lot. In the years before 2000, young people didn’t go to the elections, but were always complaining. Nine years ago, we released some compilations with the message: Don’t throw stones, but throw your ballot paper in the box, it is your right. We can’t only complain. And then, things really changed, the candidate of the opposition, Abdoulaye Wade, won the elections. It is only sad that he let us down completely.
How important is Islam for the life in Senegal?
You know, religion is the only thing we have there. We don’t have money, but we have god. I can’t imagine life without this kind of religious education. There would be a lot of murders, thefts and aggressions. In the end, we have this strong faith that things will chance for the better one day: Today I am poor, but soon I will be wealthy if I stick to my positive attitude, people are thinking.
How do you see the relationship between Islam and women’s rights? Especially in Arabic countries, they often seem to contradict each other. Is that different in West Africa?
The situation in Senegal definitely differs from those regions you are talking about. I am really sad when I see certain things from these countries. Not long ago, for instance, there was a TV feature about Pakistan, when I remember it correctly. The Taliban were beating a woman fiercely, because she was reputed to have committed adultery. That really shocked me. These people try to impose their own justice. While I am a Muslim woman, I don’t like things like these at all. This is not Islam. These guys act as if they are god.
What do you think about homosexuality which is outlawed by the state and societies in many African countries?
To be honest with you: The time I still lived in Senegal, this was something disgusting to me. I also understand the people in Senegal who dislike it. We don’t grow up with homosexuality. There are quite a number of homosexuals, but they must hide, they don’t appear in public like here in Europe. These days they try to enter public life, but most Senegalese can’t comprehend it. Since I live in Berlin, however, I have many gay and lesbian friends. That’s why it’s normal for me now. It is their life and they can do whatever they want.
What do you like about Berlin, what bothers you?
Berlin is a real international city. There are so many possibilities to do music or other arts. I really like Berlin a lot. The only thing that annoys me are these strange people which you find anywhere – even in Senegal, we have racists. Time and again, I have very ugly encounters with them. The last time, this was in the Rathaus-Arkaden, this shopping mall in Neukölln. I was eating a banana, and a man of 50 years or so said to me: Oh, the banana fits you nicely, meaning that I would be a monkey.
Do you experience things like that on a regular basis?
About once a month something like this happens. But now I came to terms with these situations. I can’t change it, and I live with it.
Retranslation of the interview as it appeared in the German weekly Jungle World (24/09). Piranha Records published Sister Fa’s international debut Sarabah – Tales from the Flipside of Paradise in May 2009. Photo: Michael Mann.