Hip-hop is at the forefront of political contestation in Francophone Africa, and has been for decades. Too-often unrecognized in the West, particularly in the Anglophone world, French African rap artists have carved out a place in civil societies across the continent as politicians, pundits, public intellectuals, and rebels, sometimes directly playing essential parts in changing their countries’ leadership for the better. This mixtape is a short, incomplete, but ultimately representative sample of the kinds of hip-hop music that has driven, and is currently driving, social and political change in French-speaking Africa, from Congo-Brazzaville to Senegal and beyond. All of the songs selected share a main theme, that of political consciousness, but they approach this theme in markedly different ways, pointing out that neither Africa’s local leadership nor the international neo-colonial order has fixed the problems facing African societies.
The first important theme to note in this mixtape is that of calling out African governments for corruption and mismanagement. “Faux, Pas Forcé,” the anthem of the immensely influential Senegalese Y’En a Marré protest movement which toppled President Abdoulaye Wade from power, lays this out in the plainest way possible. Translated from the original French and Wolof, the group lambasts Wade for his usage of his position for personal enrichment and patronage, saying “You have our horse, yet you cannot ride / Our money, yet you have no pockets / You and your relatives are hoarding it.” It is well-recognized, both in the academic discipline of African studies and on the ground in countries like Senegal and Congo, that many African leaders use their positions and access to government funds not to improve the conditions of their country’s economy, but to construct patronage networks to ensure political support in subsequent elections. The Congolese group Bisso na Bisso, in their satirical song “Dans la Peau d’Un Chef,” about government corruption, encapsulates this concept in the track’s hook, ‘l‘argent appelle l’argent / le ‘benef’ j’encaisse, je laisse rien dans la caisse,” translated as “money calls money / the ‘benef’ I cash, I leave nothing in the cash register,” referring to the looting of government coffers which successive Congolese regimes have engaged in historically. These hip-hop groups use their platforms to directly challenge corrupt governance.
African rap artists, however, by-and-large also recognize the broader, international, historical and systemic problems which face African states’ attempts to develop and improve their economies. These artists are keenly aware of the history of colonialism, modern resource extraction, and exploitative economic policies put in place by Western and Chinese institutions. In terms of recognizing the European role in the history of European imperialism and economic exploitation of the African continent, balanced against the African leaders’ own responsibilities, Gunman Xuman says it best in the track entitled, “Home is Where Dignity Is,” rapping in French, “for its inability to solve its problems in advance / poor governance, poverty, Africa is guilty / for refusing to find more durable solutions / poorly distributed resources, Europe is responsible.” Politician and Congolese rap artist Lexxus Legal, in his song “Ma Part,” makes a more pointed criticism of Chinese resource extraction, referencing “victims of coltan,” and explicitly declaring that “awakening will not come from the states of Asia.” And Togolese rapper Elom 20ce takes an aggressive stance against Europe’s history on the continent, warning, “no mercy for the traitors, the disciplines of Gobineau, Jules Ferry or Foccart,” referencing historical French racists and colonial administrators.
African history and politics is at the forefront of the collective consciousness of these artists. They are also some of the most influential actors in African civil society and culture; African hip hop artists have brought down dictators, held governments accountable, and spread consciousness of African history, in ways that traditional civil society leaders often struggle to. It is the popularity of hip-hop, and the influence which music has over the popular imagination and culture, which gives these groups and artists their power. In Africa, but also in France, Francophone artists have brought political consciousness to generations of listeners and activists, and mobilized societies to take the issues facing marginalized communities and peoples seriously. This model of civil society mobilization is valuable, and the world should take note of Francophone African hip-hop’s success.
The playlist which this liner note is based on is embedded below.