Democracy in Dakar
Details: 69 mins, United States, English
Synopsis: Rappers, DJs, journalists, professors and people on the street discuss politics in Dakar, Senegal, before, during, and after the controversial 2007 presidential election. The documentary aims to bridge the gap between hip-hop activism, video journalism and documentary film.
A cultural examination of the politics of hip-hop.
AFRICAN FILM FESTIVAL AUSTRALIA: Chuck D, the concussive creative voice behind Public Enemy (the American hip-hop group that virtually remade the genre at the end of the 1980s), once said that rap was the CNN of the black community, and his words – and work – come to life in this intriguing but dated documentary about music and politics in the west African nation of Senegal. Originally conceived and broadcast as a series of documentary shorts online, African Underground: Democracy in Dakar is about how popular culture can inform even as it radically evolves, whether in terms of geographic presence or social role.
Sixty percent of Africa’s vast, little understood population is under the age of 18, and as they come of age hip-hop is increasingly the music that defines their lives. It’s a long way from New York’s housing projects in the mid 1970s to Senegal’s capital of Dakar 30 years later, and if you think that rap music has changed considerably in America over that time, the transplanted sound is something else. In developing nations hip-hop has stayed the music of the impoverished, offering a means of articulating distress and soothing grievances. In nations such as Nigeria, hip-hop has mutated into strangely dissonant shapes, and while the sound is sweeter in Senegal the contrasts are obvious.
In its combined form, this documentary (co-directed, written and photographed by Ben Herson, Magee McIlvaine and Christopher Moore) explains the particulars of Senegal’s hip-hop scene and how it relates to the country’s political ructions. The former fares better than the latter, revealing a creative milieu where American affectations such as gangsta rap have slowly been replaced by politicised content (Public Enemy’s epochal “Fight the Power” is cited repeatedly as a turning point for local acts). “My kids will be well-educated, my marriage will be exemplary,” rap the women of Ferafina Mousso, and many of these acts are devout Muslims who see the music as serving their religious beliefs.
The filmmakers offer up a cross-section of acts, many filmed in short bursts of a capella recitals. Most of the lyrics are in Wolof (there’s a smattering of French and English), and the formal translations don’t always convey the force of what’s being rapped (hip-hop is a medium that thrives on patois and idiom), and there’s a sameness of tempo and rhythm that haunts hip-hop scenes until idiosyncratic producers take hold in the studio and achieve critical mass. The many voices interviewed offer a cross-section of the 3,000 hip-hop groups in Senegal, but they speak as one in describing their elation at the Presidential elections of 2000 that turfed out the long-time Socialist party rules and installed opposition figure Abdoulaye Wade, and the subsequent anger at his failure to tackle the nation’s problems and his repression of opposition voices.
Senegal is essentially a democracy – there’s never been a military coup since gaining independence in 1960 – but advances are few and far between, and under Wade quality of life deteriorated and many young people died trying to flee to Europe via Spain. The fulcrum for this fervent opposition is the 2007 Presidential election, but it’s odd to build up an event five years old, especially when the results and tepid response are anti-climactic. It doesn’t help that Wade controversially stood again earlier this year, a development the movie doesn’t come close to covering.
African Underground: Democracy in Dakar fares better as a cultural rather than a political document, and the paucity of visual stimulus – handheld digital footage of rappers repeatedly interspersed with shots of ruins of political posters on walls – is reflected in the lack of examination into the contrasts and failings uncovered by Wade’s 2007 victory. The style’s growth is fascinating, but why didn’t the passion of the music make it near the ballot box?
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