Politics and Hip Hop Meet in Upcoming Elections

Dar es Salaam — Hip hop has often been used by artists as a form of social commentary against poverty, corruption and inequality. Now, some of these artists are aiming to effect change from the inside and are seeking political office themselves.

Joseph Mbilinyi, known by his fans as Sugu, helped pioneer Swahili rap in Tanzania. He has been an emcee for 20 years and has 10 albums to his name. The hip hop artist is now a candidate in next month’s parliamentary elections.

Haitian hip hop artist Wyclef Jean, who has always been vocal about Haiti’s economic and political problems, made international news this year by announcing his intentions to run for president. Senegalese emcee Xuman, who has been active and vocal on political issues, is a community organizer and aims to seek public office in Senegal’s capital, Dakar.

In Tanzania, in addition to Sugu, artist Nakaaya also ran in the parliamentary elections. Both are members of one of the country’s biggest opposition parties, Chadema. Nakaaya represented Arusha and Sugu represented Mbeya town.

The general elections in Tanzania will be held on October 31 and campaigning has kicked into high gear. While most people predict President Jakaya Kikwete will win re-election, Chadema is giving the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party a strong fight in parliamentary and local elections all over the mainland. Sugu will face off against two-term CCM incumbent Benson Mpesya.

I recently sat down with Sugu at his home in the Sinza section of Dar es Salaam. He had just returned from Mbeya where he had won in the primaries. We discussed hip hop, politics in Tanzania and what he plans to do if elected to Parliament.

Pointing to the growing gap between the rich and the poor, Sugu blamed many of Tanzania’s economic problems on corruption at all levels of government, accusing the country’s politicians of buying lavish homes and expensive cars with government money.

He lamented a sense of hopelessness in Mbeya town, noting its poor infrastructure and increasing crime. He said politicians should be held accountable for failing the people, and proposed development of businesses and industry, such as fishing. He said that fish currently are imported from Zambia while Mbeya could develop its own fishing industry. Development, he said, would require good local leadership and building coalitions.

I asked Sugu about HIV/Aids in Mbeya, which has one of Tanzania’s highest infection rates. Through his music, Sugu has tried to raise awareness about the disease, especially by advocating condom use. When asked about his HIV/Aids strategy should he win a parliamentary seat, Sugu articulated no clear plan, saying only that he aimed to sit with groups in the region to “discuss HIV and other issues.”

I finally asked him if becoming a politician means he is retiring from music. With a laugh, he replied that he would cut back on entertaining but did not rule out doing charity concerts to support projects in Mbeya.

Sugu, if elected, will have to prove that he is different from the politicians he has built a career criticizing. As a parliamentarian, he will have to work from within the system effect change. And as an artist who has spoken out on corruption and other social problems, Sugu will be held to a higher standard by the fans who voted for him.

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